The Liberal Conscience of a Claimed Conservative

 

I originally wrote this on August 20, 2017. Now that Mr. Flake has made another ridiculous political maneuver to try to separate himself from his party, this may again be relevant.

 

In his new book, Conscience of a Conservative, Senator Jeff Flake attempts to take on populism and urges conservatives to return to their principles. Spoiler Alert: he misconstrues both and accomplishes neither. Despite his use of Barry Goldwater’s book title, his tenure as Executive Director of the Goldwater Institute, and his current occupation of Goldwater’s senate seat, his writing betrays a left of center perspective. I do not contest his rugged agrarian background—to which there are many allusions—but his presentation of history is selective, superficial, and stylistically aligned with contemporary liberal orthodoxy. Unlike its namesake, this volume is not a concrete statement of “what is”, but a sophistic rendering of “what is not.”

 

 

Fake News

 

Histories are always written in the present. Sen. Flake’s application of established ideology to the present situation is rather good, but nearly half of his book is a personal repudiation of the Trump presidency. Constant time-shifting leads to anachronistic and otherwise logically flawed analysis. For example, he mentions that technology has facilitated the spread of fictional narratives posturing as news. True. It is a bit of a stretch, however, that said narratives “…wear down our ability to discern truth from falsity and could, with time, hobble our capacity to care.” The means by which repeated exposure to fiction purportedly reduces our interest in fact is not elaborated upon. If anything, the current surge in information consumption seems to have significantly benefited traditional media outlets.

 

His entire third chapter is a tirade against the ascendancy of “bad information”, and the existential threat it poses to our free republic. He concedes that there are Constitutional impediments to the enactment of censorship laws similar to those recently proposed in Germany, but otherwise concludes that something must be done. This is in sharp contrast to Goldwater’s position that extending the reach of the federal government beyond its Constitutionally established limits is the first step towards totalitarianism. Sen. Flake claims that we should defend truth, which is fine, but then suggests that its defense is accomplished by limiting the spread of fiction. This pattern is repeated throughout the book; an adequate outline of the conservative position, followed by a betrayal of conservative principles in its coercive execution.

 

His justification for censorship is that the American people are generally incapable of separating fact from fiction. He attempts to mask his sentiments in conservative garb by alluding to national security concerns and the democratic process, but his paternalistic impulse to “protect” us from “dangerous” ideas is all too clear. In his own words: “Bad information propagated by powerful people spreads like a contagion, infecting vulnerable people in its path.” He contrasts the abundance of “bad” information online, such as Alex Jones’ infowars, with the relative dearth of “good” information, such as broadcasts of CNN, which he apparently considers credible. His concern is misplaced; partisan websites are not trying to replace network news, network news has simply degenerated to the point where its content is indiscernible from that of partisan websites.

 

Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. Except when politicians know better, and benevolently act to protect people from themselves, of course.

 

 

The Grand Delusion

 

There is a popular tendency to separate history into different eras based on revolutionary or world-altering events. There is another tendency, entirely detached from reality, to pretend that the election of Trump is one of those events. According to Sen. Flake: “Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign.” If the principles he is referring to are those espoused in the original Conscience of a Conservative, he must not have been paying attention.

 

No post-WWII Republican executive has yet presided over an administration operating in accordance with conservative principles. The Republican party of the 1960s was largely controlled by liberal plutocrats (Rockefeller) and liberal psychopaths (Nixon). There would not have been a need for Goldwater’s book if principled conservatives were already dominant within the party. Ronald Reagan, spiritual inheritor of the Goldwater faction, finished third at the 1968 RNC. The first Nixon administration set price controls, expanded government regulation, and used its authority to incarcerate perceived enemies.

 

Though Reagan eloquently reiterated conservative principles with fanciful anecdotes and memorable quips, the federal government only increased in size during his tenure. The Gipper also poured more money into the costly “War on Drugs”, supported civil asset forfeiture, and expanded Medicare. He did, at least, manage to lower taxes, unlike his successor, who envisioned a kinder, gentler requisition of wealth. Not to be outdone by his father, Bush the Younger made an art form out of increasing the national debt.

 

Since 1964, no conservative candidate has even won the Republican nomination, so Sen. Flake’s professed shock at the ascendancy of a big-government autocrat to the top of the ticket is somewhat baffling. Who else could have been expected to win?

 

 

The Establishment Strikes Out

 

 

The Democratic Party of today—the confused, out of touch colossus known primarily as a punch line for jokes—is actually not much worse off than the GOP. We Republicans were fortunate to have inherited a democratic primary system, unlike the [so-called] Democratic Party. The latter group employs Commissars Superdelegates; elite party members who share a centrally directed belief about who should be President. We laugh at their cognitive dissonance; the inability of this group of ostensibly educated would-be tyrants to understand why they lose elections. Republicans suffer a similar, though less humiliating variant of this impairment; they do not understand why they win elections.

 

On Republican support for Trump, the sometimes melodramatic Sen. Flake writes: “It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.” The fever he speaks of is populism (the only known remedy is more cowbell). His anachronistic framing of a dichotomy between conservative and populist factions suggests that he misremembers the 2016 primary season. Broad coalitions of the disaffected did not form until Trump was already our candidate. Sen. Flake suggests that conservative voters were the victims of a grand conspiracy. As the dreaded plague spread, formerly rational actors were paralyzed by crippling fear and rendered utterly helpless by promises of easy solutions. Right.

 

Reality is a bit different. Given Trump’s casually abusive (and terribly amusing) treatment of his staff, it is easy to forget that these party insiders were once committed opponents of the presumptive nominee. Much like the Democrats, the Republican establishment completely misread (or blatantly ignored) the desires of the American people. In their palpably finite wisdom, a large group of donors, advisors, and political insiders got together and decided that what people really longed for was a fourth bumbling president from America’s favorite dynasty.

 

When it became clear that low-energy Jeb Bush had no chance of winning, the establishment threw its weight behind Marco Rubio, the preferred puppet of special interest groups. They must have reasoned that Americans were tired of compassionate conservatism, preferring instead an hip, young, mysteriously sweaty corporate shill. After Rubio’s processor overheated, the only establishment candidate remaining was John Kasich, master of charm. At no point did our self-appointed omniscient overlords earnestly assess the political landscape and act accordingly.

 

Conspicuously absent from the book is any mention of Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. No mention that the conservative contenders were deliberately snubbed by the party, just as in 1952, 1968, and 1976. Sen. Flake’s account of the 2016 election fails to acknowledge the only two candidates whose political philosophies even remotely resemble Goldwater’s. Perhaps his endorsement of Little Marco had something to do with it. Sen. Flake urges us to be self-critical, but he ignores his own role in perpetuating the GOP’s detachment from principle.

 

If we are to address the identity crisis within the party, we have to accept that the GOP, as an organization, has never fully embraced conservatism. The party has consistently opted to appeal to the baser instincts of humanity, despite possessing a clear, coherent ideology. The Trump Presidency was thus entirely predictable. Respectable conservatives have made a habit of ignoring the things our politicians say, instead trusting (to some degree) that they will cause less harm than the alternative. When Trump came along, it was only natural that we support him, despite his words.

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