I’ve always considered this term an oxymoron. Anybody who knows anything about Burke gets this. Ideally my students get it as well, given that they should know some of what I know about Burke, which is greater than nothing but shy of authoritative. This term also illustrates a rift between theoretical expectation and empirical reality. True conservatives shouldn’t be a movement. True conservatives should weigh any action against the potential for unintended consequences. But, then, movement conservatives have as much in common with Burke as I do, a point somewhat illustrated in this excellent read by David Roberts.
Roberts nails two of the conventional wisdoms held here at LGM. First, increased polarization in American partisan politics is not symmetrically distributed. Although the left has crawled further left, the right is sprinting towards the cliff. It’s the right who are moving. Citing both political science (Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal) as well as Galston (also of The Democratic Strategist) and Mann from Brookings, Roberts offers a compelling account which demonstrates the asymmetry in contemporary polarization. His argument is perhaps best captured by the following quote:
The national Republican Party, by contrast, has now been almost entirely absorbed by the far right. It rejects the basic social consensus among post-war democracies and seeks to return to a pre-New Deal form of governance. It is hostile to social and economic equality. It remains committed to fossil fuels and sprawl and opposed to all sustainable alternatives. And it has built anepistemological cocoon around itself within which loopy misinformation spreads unchecked. It has, in short, gone loony.
Such an epistemological cocoon allows for this sincere exhibition of hilarious lunacy noted by Erik a few days ago.
Second, “centrist” pundits are, well, idiots.
Instead, pundits — and, to be fair, lots and lots of non-pundits — cling to the presumption of symmetry. Their minds rebel at asymmetry, especially extreme asymmetry. The notion that “partisans on both sides” are preventing a sensible middle course is deeply rooted to the point of catechism.
Which nicely sets up the money shot of Roberts’ post:
Maddeningly, when pundits actually lay out what that sensible middle course would look like, they end up describing Obama’s agenda. Benjy Sarlin at TPM put it best: “Pundits Urge President Obama To Back President Obama’s Proposals.”
It is this political environment that allows for Mitt Romney to vociferously run against an ACA that is close to the very Massachusetts plan that he signed. It allows for voters in the “center” and the right to disbelieve that Romney supports the Ryan budget when the specifics of the latter are spelled out for them (
I saw this within the last week, but I can not find the link / cite to it. Ergo, I could just be making it up. h/t commenter Howard, I’ve now attached the link.) And it might even allow for John McCain to say, presumably with a straight face, that it wasn’t the 23 years worth of tax returns which cooled McCain to selecting Romney as his VP running mate, it was that Sarah Palin was the better candidate all along.
Back to our pal Burke: “It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.” I wonder whom Burke would find the loudest complainers of the past
three 20 years.
h/t Tom Birkland for the Roberts piece.