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-(Minority Strands Of Conservatism) !=Liberalism

[ 0 ] May 7, 2006 |

A crucial point by Glenn Greenwald, who takes on the persistent annoyance of attempts to define statist conservatism as liberalism (or not-conservatism):

2) Goldberg’s claim that Bush can even remotely be described as a “liberal” is premised on two separate fallacies: (i) that someone who deviates from conservative doctrine or violates conservative principles of government (and therefore is not a conservative) is, by definition, a “liberal”; and, more importantly, (ii) that someone who advocates increased government power or new federal domestic programs is, by definition, a “liberal.” Those two flawed premises lead Goldberg to conclude that because Bush has expanded the scope of government power and created new government programs, he is “liberal.”

A liberal is not merely someone who advocates increased government spending or new government programs, but instead, is someone who does so in order to achieve specific goals and ends. For that reason, to describe a president as “liberal,” it is woefully inadequate to simply demonstrate increased federal spending and increased federal power. One has to know the goals and ends of this expansion.

George Bush has drastically expanded the reach, scope and power of the federal government (something which is un-conservative, at least in theory), but that power has been applied in plainly un-liberal ways, and towards decidedly un-liberal ends. For instance, his administration has run roughshod over federalism and states’ rights principles and has sought to expand the scope of the Commerce Clause in order to increase the scope of federal power at the expense of the states (clearly the opposite of the crux of small-government conservatism), but has done so in order to achieve goals which are the opposite of liberalism.

This is all correct. The overriding fallacy is identifying “conservatism” with “small government,” which elevates what has always been a junior partner in the conservative coalition. Using a powerful state to advance nationalism, coercively (and selectively) enforce reactionary social values, and (especially) to advance business interests has been the rule, not the exception, of actual functioning American conservatism. To call expansions of federal power “non-conservative” is to posit a powerful, consistent “states’ rights” movement that from the Fugitive Slave Act to the Tennessee Valley Authority to Terri Schiavo has never in fact existed. It’s not that there aren’t ways in which George Bush isn’t conservative, but there are multiple forms of conservatism, and Bush fits the ones typical of American conservatism quite well, and he’s certainly no “liberal” of any kind.

One more thing to add is that when pundits like Goldberg try to retroactively read George Bush out of the conservative movement (and to blame his collapsing popularity on his supposed deviations from conservative orthodoxy), they tend to cite things (especially the Medicare drug benefit) from his first term, in which he stayed popular enough to win re-election. In his second term, however, his popularity has cratered–while he has pursued an aggressively conservative agenda. His post-election centerpieces, remember, have been 1)social security privatization, 2)appointing two statist reactionaries to the Supreme Court, 3)assertions of arbitrary executive power, and 4)staying the course in Iraq. What we have there is a conservative, indeed the most conservative president in many decades. While it is true that #3 and #4 are completely indefensible in terms of the most useful strands of conservatism (Burkean incrementalism and libertarianism), most actual Republicans have only a marginal relationship to these two conservative strands, and certainly Bush’s conservative defenders generally cite his foreign policy as the most important reason to support him. To say that because what Bush does is inconsistent with some theoretical strands of conservatism he’s therefore not a conservative is as silly as pretending that Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas aren’t conservatives because they’re not conservatives in the Souter/Harlan mode. It’s a useless tautology to claim that people who consider themselves conservatives, and most American conservatives consider conservatives, are actually something else because there are other forms of conservatism. And the same goes, of course, for George Bush. The fact that he’s been a terrible president, and the fact that he’s not an anti-statist conservative, doesn’t mean that he’s not a conservative, and it’s ludicrous to pretend otherwise.

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