The Real Reagan

You often hear conservatives hearken back to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate vessel for all things represented by today’s conservatism.

In case you missed it, there was a great discussion over at TPMCafe last month regarding Will Bunch’s new book on Reagan called “Tear Down This Myth.”

The upshot is this: Ronald Reagan talked to our enemies (the Soviets). He raised taxes several times (Washington Monthly). He started the country’s recent march toward running persistent deficits, even in good times (so much for fiscal conservatism). He expanded government by increasing the number of workers (see the Washington Monthly again).

Honest history can be pretty unforgiving.

Conservatives ain’t “conservative”

This article from the Atlantic does a good job of covering something that’s been on my mind as I try to puzzle through liberalism. The basic idea is that the modern “conservative” movement is not really conservative at all. Instead it is a radical movement, looking to overturn long-held beliefs and policies.

A couple of quick thoughts on this.

First, I’ve written before about how the policies and ideological obsessions of the modern conservative movement drove me in the last couple of years to become more political than I ever had been. I’ve begun to understand that what has motivated me isn’t some reaction to all things traditionally conservative, but a reaction to the dangerous, radical policies of these “conservatives.”

Second, what’s interesting about these modern “conservatives” is that they are essentially utopians. They believe there is some magical world out there, where all markets are free, where all taxes are flat, where all government has been eliminated except for the military, and where all people are Christians. Traditional conservatism has always been leery of utopian dreams. In fact, I think this is the single greatest contribution from the conservative tradition – a suspicion of human nature and human institutions and the ability of people to make the world “perfect”.


On that Christian thing, the conservative movement’s variation of “identity politics” continues to bedevil the Republican candidate.

John McCain at CPAC

I still hate to keep focusing on the conservatives, but as I’ve said before, the material just keeps coming.

John McCain had to brand himself as the true conservative candidate at CPAC today, and boy, did he try. His speech reads like an extended mission statement for the conservative movement.

I only bring this up from the “know your enemy” standpoint. Plus, I’m still not sure what a comparable liberal progressive speech would contain.

Of course, that remains my real hope for this blog. To eventually sort that out for myself, and hopefully the progressive movement.


No post tomorrow. Have a great weekend!

More on the conservatives

I don’t want to get too far removed from the real point of this blog – the progressive movement and what it stands for – but those darn conservatives just keep giving me more to talk about.

It’s been fascinating for me to watch the conservative movement – especially the establishment conservative branch – pitch one tizzy after another over the rotating leaders in its primary races. This is particularly true since this movement has been extraordinarily disciplined for years. All of these temper tantrums have helped me to understand the conservative movement better, which in the long run, is time well spent.

Today’s installment: Boy, conservatives really don’t like John McCain. They distrust him on multiple issues, but now that he’s the front runner for their movement, many conservatives – especially mainstream conservative media outlets – are trying to find ways to get behind him. See here and here and here and here and here and here.

I take away a couple of things from all of this.

One, religion is not mentioned. The conservative movement has used the energy of the religious right to win elections for a couple of decades. But boy-oh-boy, they went all “medieval” on Mike Huckabee when he started to do well. Now, with McCain, they seem prepared to just ignore the whole religious thing altogether. I wonder how that will play out for them, considering he was Mr. “Agents of intolerance” at one time.

Two, it’s all about big money and big business – cut their taxes, support unbridled “free” trade, cut government benefits for average folks. It’s always important to remember that this is what the conservative movement has been mainly about. It’s a bit simplistic, I know, but it strikes me that political coverage of the conservative movement rarely focuses on this essential point. Religious issues have helped to obscure this central fact.

By the way, a little bonus reading, here’s one conservative trying to outline the conservative movement. He emphasizes the idea that many social conservatives want guarantees about what kinds of Supreme Court nominees will be put forward. Money conservatives are just as focused on this, too.

Also, the conservative movement’s current leader, the “Decider”, really hasn’t been treated much better lately. Just look here and here and here. That’s okay. He deserves it.

On progressive liberalism, so far

In two posts yesterday (here and here), I tried to lay out what I thought the conservative movement was all about. I also said progressive liberals needed to watch out because, to my mind, they still don’t have a simple, easy-to-remember, easy-to-repeat message on what they stand for.

I don’t think I’ll reach a conclusion in this post, but here’s a first step. I’ll list what I think the progressive movement supports at this point. I’ll divide it into two groups:

Undoing the excesses of the conservative movement

  • Re-establishing the rule of law and checks and balances on power, both nationally and internationally
  • Re-establishing civil liberties protections
  • Ending the Iraq occupation
  • Encouraging diplomacy over militarism in foreign affairs
  • Turning away from the “war” model of fighting terrorists and extremists to a “police” model
  • Re-establishing the role for government in addressing social needs
  • Re-establishing “reality-based” policy making
  • Ensuring the separation of church and state

Moving toward a better future

  • Delivering on universal health care
  • Promoting equality of economic opportunity for all
  • Promoting equal rights for all
  • Addressing climate change and other environmental threats
  • Developing a sustainable energy policy that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and the regimes that have them
  • Promoting fiscal responsibility and getting rid of pork barrel spending
  • Getting money out of politics through strict campaign finance reform
  • Ensuring fair trade, instead of “free” trade
  • Promoting science and science literacy
  • Addressing media consolidation and other media issues

So where does this get me in making a relatively short, clear, compelling statement on what progressive liberalism stands for? Well, not far, I’m afraid. I have more research and work to do. Look for the results over time. I’ll say three things for now though.

We need messages that are effective at the kitchen table. They need to be simple, truthful, morally satisfying, and accurate, all the while supporting the liberal cause.

The excesses of the conservative movement have plowed a wide path for progressive liberalism to take advantage of, but there remain two nuts to crack: national security and economic policy. Progressives need to prove that they can be strong on national security without being militaristic. They also need to better explain how and why the economy should be managed differently, both in the U.S. and globally.

And last, we need to remember that electoral politics is important, but changing the cultural environment is even more important. I’m not a religious person, but I think that Jim Wallis of the liberal Christian organization Sojourners has a great way of putting it:

“I have this metaphor of politicians with their wet fingers up in the air seeing which way the wind’s blowing. We think that by changing one wet-fingered politician with another you change society. But King and Gandhi and the great leaders knew that you change society by changing the wind. Change the way the wind’s blowing and it’s amazing how many people come along.”

And a final word to conservatives (well, maybe not, but for now anyway…)

As a final word on my two posts yesterday regarding what the conservative movement stands for, I want to reach out to people who consider themselves conservatives in the old-fashioned, mainstream way.

Do not continue to go along with what the conservative movement has become. Do not just follow these people out of loyalty to party, through inertia, or through dedication to a single issue. Please look back over my posts and remember what you are enabling.

I’ve often said I don’t blame people for voting for George W. Bush in 2000. His whole “compassionate conservative” deal sure sounded good. Gore had his own problems at the time. Heck, I was gearing up to vote for John McCain back then. (I wouldn’t vote for him now since he’s sided with the armchair warrior caste in his party and since he sidled up to the religious extremists just to have a shot at being president.)

But by 2004, the writing was on the wall as to where the creeps in the Bush administration were going to take things. Don’t make the same mistake and continue to enable these people that are running your movement, your party, and your country off the rails.

On the conservative movement 2

I got to thinking about my earlier post “On the conservative movement”. In that post, I tried to boil down the main message of the conservative movement. In a vulgar way, I came up with this statement as the core idea:

“We only want enough taxes and government in order to create the most powerful military in the world that can beat the living shit out of anyone who threatens us, our families, or our property. On every other score, leave us the hell alone to believe and do whatever we want.”

But then I realized that my statement only summarizes what the conservative movement was, not what it’s become. Put another way, this is what the conservative establishment or conservative mainstream stands for, but it’s not what some of the most powerful and outspoken elements of the conservative movement believe anymore.

The police state/surveillance state wing

Since 9/11, there’s been this strong element of the conservative movement dedicated to creating a police and surveillance state. These are the folks who are trying to strip away long-accepted civil liberties, normalize torture by the U.S., eliminate checks and balances over the president and spy agencies, call on people to spy on one another, constantly whip up fear, lobby for perpetual war, and undermine our rule of law in the name of security.

The theocrats

Also, there has been a rise of the theocrats or Christian nationalists in the conservative movement. Mike Huckabee spoke for these folks at a campaign stop in Michigan when he said the Constitution should be changed to reflect the Bible. These folks also constantly repeat the false history of this being founded as a Christian nation. They also undermine the pursuit of science and science education. To my mind, they’re little better than the Taliban or other Muslim religious extremists. They simply haven’t crossed the line – yet – of armed militancy. As it stands, they have the U.S. military for that.

The hyper-militarists

I was tempted to say that hyper-militarism is also a new element of the conservative movement, but instead I think it’s more of just a natural extension of where the conservative movement was going, as they constantly stressed their “national security” credentials. Even so, traditionally conservative “realist” foreign policy experts have had trouble getting any traction in recent years as the militarism wing has grown in power. The neocons are clearest example of this group. These folks call for violence (often while avoiding the military themselves) and clamor for perpetual war and the foundation of an American empire.

The imperial presidency types

Lastly, there are the imperial presidency types, who have argued so strongly during the Bush administration for an ever expanding notion of executive authority that does not permit any checks or balances by the co-equal branches of government in Congress or the Judiciary. Among the biggest abuses of this that I see are the presidential signing statements issued by President Bush. These folks want to gather a dangerous amount of power to the presidency and are largely in league with the police and surveillance state types. These folks also certainly don’t care much for the rule of law.

It is these four strains of the conservative movement that have run the country off the rails, destroyed cherished liberties, threaten the world and the future of the country, and have prompted myself – any many traditional conservatives, I should add – to align themselves with the progressive movement.

So, to bring it back to my statement on the conservative movement, but add in what I just discussed, here’s how it would read:

“We only want enough taxes and government in order to create the most powerful military in the world that can beat the living shit out of anyone who threatens us, our families, or our property. On every other score, leave us the fuck alone to believe and do whatever we want, except when it comes to national security and religion. In those cases, we should use government to intrude into people’s lives as much as we want. It’s for their own damn good, you know.”

As for me, I disagree with the more conventional conservative message I outlined at the beginning of this post, but I absolutely oppose what the conservative movement has become. The architects of the modern conservative movement have allowed multiple Pandora’s boxes to be opened, and now many traditional conservatives don’t like what they’ve wrought. They can’t be trusted to restore America, though. It’s up to progressives to close the lid on the monsters they’ve unleashed.


You’ll notice in all of this I haven’t mentioned economics yet. I oppose the free market fundamentalism of the conservative movement, as well. But for now, I’ll let it go, largely because I think there’s less agreement in the progressive movement on what a new course of economic policy would look like. I watched a speech by Eric Alterman recently, and he basically punted, as well, when asked about trade issues by a member of the audience. He told a story of how he used to argue in the ‘90s with, I think he said Paul Krugman, about trade issues. Recently, he said the two of them talked again and agreed that it was amazing how all they had to worry about a few years ago were disagreements over economics.

On the conservative movement

As I try to sort out for myself what the progressive movement means, it’s been interesting to watch the conservative movement go through its own gyrations. Here, here, here and here are some examples. Plenty more can be had.

The presidential primaries and caucuses have certainly thrown many conservative leaders and commentators into a tizzy, and they’ve exposed the fissures in the conservative movement that have long been papered over as they clawed their way to power.

All of that said, I think progressive liberals still need to keep in mind the fact that the conservative movement has an easy-to-memorize, easy-to-repeat list of basic values. I heard it again just the other day on NPR when one conservative supporter put it this way:

“Lower taxes, lower government, personal responsibility, the right to make decisions that are best for you and your family.”

I’ve been reading a lot of conservative commentary recently, and here are some others that come up all the time:

  • “Tough” foreign policy (“I’ve never met a problem I couldn’t blow up.”)
  • Ultra-nationalism (“My country, right or wrong!” which reminds me of this great quote.)
  • “Free” trade (“As long as the rules are tipped in my favor, of course…”)
  • Old-time religion (meaning anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-abortion, anti-gays)

Why do I bring this up? Why repeat the conservative talking points?

I’m concerned that, after years in the political wilderness, progressive liberals still don’t have a list like this that they could rattle off. That’s critical because having clarity of purpose is powerful.

I’d say this conservative message could even be boiled down further. Here’s my vulgar suggestion, but I think it gets the sentiment right:

“We only want enough taxes and government in order to create the most powerful military in the world that can beat the living shit out of anyone who threatens us, our families, or our property. On every other score, leave us the hell alone to believe and do whatever we want.”

What’s the progressive liberal retort to that?

Personally I still don’t have one. I’m more than willing to hear some suggestions. Feel free to post a comment.

As for today, I’m trying to console myself that “Know thy enemy” is an important maxim to keep in mind.


As I’ve done my research, it’s been amazing to see what various groups of people this simple message keeps together. Here’s my list:

  • Defense conservatives – military-industrial complex types, neocon-imperialist types
  • Small government conservatives
  • Leave-us-alone conservatives – gun owners, libertarians
  • Social conservatives – Bible-thumpers (anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-gay rights, but it’s interesting how this now includes other biblical messages, like those advocating for the poor)
  • Economic conservatives – anti-tax advocates, pro-wealth and power types, corporate moneycons (as Kevin Drum calls them), free market moneycons

These folks don’t necessarily have a lot in common. But the central message I outlined above keeps them hanging together. That, plus their mutual reinforcement has been a great way to win power, which of course, is the entire point.


I thought of another, mathematical way of looking at the conservative movement:

Military might = right = power
Wealth = right = power
The Bible = right = power

I find all three of these to be repulsive.

The real threat is Populism

As a general rule, I try not to track punditry as it relates to political contests. It strikes me that a lot of what’s said following the results of something like, oh, let’s say the Iowa caucuses, proves to be spectacularly overblown if not just outright false.

I understand why they write and/or broadcast it. I’m a journalist, of course, and I’ve covered elections in the past. Something has to fill all of those column-inches or minutes of air, so you take your best stab at what it all means and lay it out, even though “only time will tell” who’s right in the end.

All of that said, I did read some of the post-Iowa punditry, and it was interesting to find out how much agreement there was on one point: The victories of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee revealed a dark threat in our current politics, and that threat is Populism.

Conservative commentators seem to be especially upset, including George Will and Jonah Goldberg.

I’ve never understood the passion that Populism brings out among its opponents. It seems to be essentially American and democratic – putting policies in place that first look out for the average person, and then look for ways to keep the elite of society happy. But nearly every time something with a Populist bent is brought up, elite commentators get fired up. Politicians, of course, are more subtle about it because they depend upon our votes. But the pundit class has no problem writing screeds against people who at least say they would stick up for the rest of us.

By the way, a writer named David Sirota is an avid defender of Populists and Populist policies. Here’s one article he wrote on the Iowa contest.