Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review of "The Making of the American Conservative Mind (National Review and Its Times)" by Jeffrey Hart

Hart, a National Review editor and contributor, chronicles 50 years of the notable conservative magazine, profiling editors and major writers and recounting the NR's opinion of 10 Presidents, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. He reminds us of a time we have forgotten, if we ever knew it, when liberal thought dominated both Republican and Democrat parties, global communism was active in the United States, and the idea of conservatives having an influence on public policy was something that founder William F. Buckley and his team didn't expect to see in their lifetimes.

The goal was realized in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, Hart gives him 49 of the book's 368 pages and considers him one of the great Presidents of the 20th century, naming FDR and Eisenhower as the other two. The National Review found great fault with Eisenhower, but Hart shows him to be cunning and effective behind the mask of the amiable homespun rube, pointing out that what he didn't do (intervene in Hungary and Suez) was as important as what he did.

The profiles of some of the NR's personalities can be fascinating, consider that of Russell Kirk which especially appealed to me: quoting Kirk,"So far as I know I am the only American who holds the St. Andrews doctor of letters and I am quite sure that I am the only person who has been capped with the cap of John Knox (literally) and hooded with the hood of St. Ignatius of Loyola". Kirk was something of an anachronist, wore a cape and refused to use some technology, and philosophically had sympathy for the Southern Agrarians.

Hart is a conservative and criticizes the Supreme Court moving into areas that should be left to the legislature. He also sees the need for two strong political parties and was glad to see the Democrats recover from their lunge away from the mainstream with George McGovern in 1972. He is bordering on critical of the National Review in recent times, pointing out that they weren't being intellectually honest when criticizing Clinton's tax increase and then arguing that the good economy under Clinton was due to George Bush Sr., whose tax increase they opposed as bad for the economy. "The magazine appeared to be dogmatically against raising taxes whatever the circumstances and whatever the deficit. That is, National Review, on the grounds that lower taxes meant less government, always supported tax cuts. But in the real world, Americans wanted such programs as Medicare and Social Security, and these had to be paid for...was NR losing its independent critical edge?"

His analysis, via Norman Podhoretz, of Clinton's success is hilarious: "If he had not been so great a liar, he would not have been able to get away not only with his own private sins but with the political insults he was administering to some of his core constituencies...And so, through a kind of political and psychological jujitsu, it came to pass that Clinton's worst qualities were what enabled him to accomplish something good."

I highly recommend "The Making of the American Conservative Mind". It has helped me understand the different philosophical groups that make up the Republican Party. It is no betrayal of principal for a faction within the party to attack President Obama as a liberal for following the policies of Dwight Eisenhower; this group saw Eisenhower as a liberal, and he governed as one at a time when the Republican party was controlled by East Coast liberal elites. Buckley didn't vote in the 1956 election because he could not support Eisenhower. But the National Review and Buckley prized intellectualism, clear thinking, and reliance on facts rather than ideology. They also came to see the limits of their conservatism with a society that functions by consensus. Reagan was about as far as it went. And this was not the Reagan who lost the 1976 New Hampshire primary to Ford because he promised to trim 90 billion 1976 dollars (!) from the federal budget and planned to pay for it by cutting off the federal subsidy, allowing states to pay for whatever programs they wanted with their own revenue (meaning New Hampshire would have had an income tax or no schools). This was the Reagan who had learned from that experience that while Americans like the idea of self reliance, they also take certain things in the social environment for granted.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The People Of Wisconsin Have Spoken

And they came out solidly against public sector unions. That this could happen in Wisconsin, one of the early supporters of workers rights, is a sign both of the irrelevance of unions in today's workforce and how incapable we are of dealing with the slightest bit of subtlety in our political discourse.

When we talk about public sector union employees, we're mainly talking about teachers. Just think for a minute about what happens when teaching jobs don't pay as much, have little job security, and lose retirement and health care benefits. Will bright, dedicated high school graduates still want to get a 4 year degree plus a 5th year and probably a masters degree in order to get a teaching job? What will we do for teachers? Will we drop the requirement of a College degree? Of course thinking of a teacher with no degree is ridiculous, but if you don't have a pool of educated applicants what else could you do?

This is the sort of discussion we should have before we vote to break the public unions. Yes, there are problems with unions, they need to get their head out of the sand and make some concessions for the good of the system; but take them away and there is no check on the sort of cutbacks I describe above. Do you really think those things won't happen?

It comes down to this: what kind of a society do we want to live in? Do we want children to grow up with a good education and be able to give something back? We could ask a similar question about many other issues; one of the benefits of paying taxes is being able to live in a beautiful, innovative, vibrant, well-functioning community.