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Although I can’t think of a single social issue on which the predictably soporific Washington Post-columnist Jennifer Rubin sounds different from Barack Obama, Rubin, who welcomes gay marriage as a sign of the “inexorable course of greater inclusiveness” and favors amnesty for illegals, is now a certified voice for “serious conservatives.” Indeed she writes a column for the Postbearing the ideologically significant title “Right Turn.” Jennifer flaunts her assigned credentials as the purveyor of “the conservative perspective” in her columns and in her appearances on Fox-news, and while railing obsessively against the “xenophobia” of Donald Trump. Not at all surprisingly, she calls on her fellow-“serious conservatives” and “sensible Republicans” to treat this billionaire who is in her crosshairs as a “pariah.” It seems that the very outspoken Trump is dishonoring “serious conservatism.”
Jennifer’s claim to speak for the “Right” is truly outrageous and I can’t think of anything of hers that I’ve read that didn’t give her away as a conventional Jewish liberal. But her denunciations of Trump provide food for thought. Although no one but a fool would imagine that Trump throughout his career has been consistently on the right, none of the Donald’s competitors, as Jack Kerwick has shown on (believe it or not!) townhall, can boast of a consistently right-wing record on immigration, resisting the temptation to kowtow to minorities allied with the Democrats, and opposing the expansion of the welfare state. Trump is far from the only GOP presidential hopeful who has jumped to the right during primary season. To her credit, however, to get back to my main point, Jennifer does make one reflect about the meaning of “conservative” at the present time
As best I can tell, a “conservative” is someone who supports the GOP establishment and talks incessantly about our special relation with Bibi and the inexpressible awfulness of the treaty that the American government has signed with Iran. By this standard I am not a “conservative,” but Jonah Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin fit the job description, and given his opposition to the Iran deal, Senator Chuck Schumer, like Joe Lieberman, is a “conservative” fellow-traveler who is celebrated in the “conservative” press. (Sorry for the scare quotations around the term “conservative”!)
Although I’ve written on this theme many times before, litmus test-conservatism seems topical enough to be expanded on again. It seems to me that we no longer have in our media-driven political conversation anything like a “Right.” By this I mean either a traditional Right that accepts social differences and a traditional order of the family and community, together with the right of historic nations to preserve themselves, or a libertarian Right that seeks to shove a leftist administrative state off our backs. I shall gladly accept either definition of the Right, since both are now identified with inadmissibly reactionary politics. When the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announces that the horde of Muslim migrants coming into his country have no right to be there, he is immediately denounced as a fascist or worse in both the Murdoch press and the regular liberal media. Both sides are equally committed to fluid national borders, the export of their human rights agenda, and the imposition of our changing way of life on the rest of humanity. Both sides in the US, moreover, accept a highly centralized welfare state and the right of public administration to inflict on us “social policy,” particularly in the name of combating prejudice and inequality.
Given this broad area of agreement about what look like historically leftist positions, the question then becomes: “How do we distinguish the two sides in the electoral contests that are necessary to make a regime look democratic?” The media and our two institutionalized parties have provided the answer by creating differences that have no ideological basis but which make the sides appear distinguishable. The parties or sides agglutinate different interest groups, e.g., the arms industry, Christian Zionists, public sector unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and racial minorities, and then promise these constituencies various programs, which can only be implemented by expanding the reach of government even more. Where these parties and the ideological labels attached to them are located reflect mostly the goals of the interest groups that fund them or pay for their media outlets. One limiting condition is that both sides represent a consistently leftist world view and trade mostly in the same leftist slogans. These shared slogans are usually about protecting humankind, being a global country, promoting the crusade for equality against ‘bigotry,” and bringing human rights to the entire solar system.
Yes, there are slight variations between the sides and I noted one this week. Whereas the Democrats favor affirmative action for every minority that votes for their party, the “conservative” black presidential candidate Ben Carson wants “compassionate action” by government on behalf of those rising out of meager circumstances. This was also the position favored by Carson’s fellow-“conservative” Jeb Bush, when he was reaching out to minorities as Governor of Florida. Carson, who seems to be the latest darling of Republican Evangelicals, wants to deal “compassionately” with those who are here illegally. From what I can figure out, his position may be indistinguishable from that of Jeb—and perhaps the latest sound bite of Hillary. But unlike them, Carson expresses his views with a doctor’s bedside manner while talking about his journey of faith.
Not only have the differences between the two sides on social positions become less than minimal. The sides define themselves by bringing up differences that have nothing to do with ideological distinctions, but which are are allowed to define differentness. I have no idea why siding with the Israeli Right and categorically denying that Palestinians were expelled, indeed by the hundreds of thousands, from their homes should be a mark of being on the American Right. Someone may choose to believe what is counterfactual in this matter but why should that be an indispensable criterion for determining who is on the right in the US? Why are “conservatives” supposed to believe that Woodrow Wilson was justified in pushing this country into World War One or that the Central Powers were alone responsible for that disaster? Or why is it “conservative” to wage a moral crusade against President Putin for not recognizing “gay rights” in his country? What on earth does this crusade have to do with any conceivable Right? I’m still puzzling over why the GOP rhetorical staple of providing school vouchers to inner city residents is a “conservative” position? It may be an attempt to woo black votes away from the Democrats but I can’t figure out what is “conservative” about bringing social engineering government administrators more deeply into private and parochial education. The only non-leftist position that I can recognize on this issue would be to push the government as far as possible out of the educational system.
I could multiply these examples ad infinitum to illustrate my argument, that what now distinguishes Right and Left is increasingly arbitrary. Theoretical distinctions have been invented to make the accommodation of interest group fit the need of our two institutionalized, government-financed “democratic” parties. Although there are differences between these sides, the ones that exist do not distinguish Right and Left. They are mostly about who pays off parties in return for favors. But once these interests become attached to different sides, the policies become litmus tests for who is on the Right and who is on the Left. Thus we have the case of Jennifer Rubin, in whom it is impossible to discern the slightest “conservative” substance but who in this wacky political world gets to tell us who is a “serious conservative.”
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right. His latest book is Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers.
The eighth annual meeting of the H.L.Mencken Club will take place Nov. 6th and 7th. To find out more about the conference and to register, click on this link: http://hlmenckenclub.org/2015-conference/