Noah Smith has an interesting post that diagnoses the problems facing what he calls “Conservative White America’s Grand Strategy” and offers five things that they need to rethink:
The five big pieces of Conservative White America’s Grand Strategy that I think need reevaluation are:
1. “White flight” to suburbs and exurbs
2. Rigid and inflexible “family values”
3. Hostility toward immigrants and minorities
4. Excessive distrust of the government
5. Distrust of education, science, and intellectualism
I don’t disagree with Noah: the U.S. (and given our reach, the world) would be better served with conservatives who abandoned these principles (such as they are). But I don’t see how they can do it without abandoning–and thereby losing political power–what I’ve called the Palinist base. Put another way, the authoritarian-esque politics of the blood are an integral part of the conservative coalition (boldface added):
…people have described Palin as engaging in identity politics, but that sells identity politics short. Palin along with the proto-movement surrounding her–Palinism–practices what could be call ‘politics of the blood.’ It’s derived from Giovanni Gentile’s description of fascism: “We think with our blood.”….In Palin’s case, it’s an emotional appeal to a romanticized, mythical past of “real America.” And that’s why I think the fixation people have on Palin’s complete policy incoherence and ignorance is missing the point.
Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way. Why risk having your fantasy muddied by reality?
In this way, symbols and short phrases are the goal, not a means (although others, such as corporations and lobbyists, are willing to co-opt the emotions these symbols generate to further their own agendas)….
But that romanticism is at the heart of Palinism. It’s not a forward-looking utopianism, but a desire to return to a mythical, halcyon America that was Christian, low-tax, small government, and had less racial and ethnic discord (the latter is the most absurd, but, if you were white, there weren’t racial problems: you were white–no problems!). This vision has not existed for decades, if at all, but it is a predictable reaction to the loss of primus inter pares status of Christian whites; they are no longer the default setting.
What’s potentially dangerous about Palinism is that it is not the usual form of ‘identity politics.’ Even in its crudest, bluntest form–or when policies influenced by identity politics are implemented poorly–identity politics are ultimately about inclusion: a group believes it has been excluded or marginalized and wants to be included into the mainstream. What makes Palinism worrisome, and why I think it can be labelled ‘para [or proto]-fascist’ is that it is marginalist. For ‘real Americans’ to take back ‘their’ country–and note the phrase take back–they, by definition, are taking it back from an Other, whether that Other be a religious minority, racial minority, or some other group.
In a sense, the recent blather about the oxymoronic* ‘libertarian populism’ is an attempt to purge the Palinist impulse from the conservative movement. But I think, for too many self-identified conservatives, it’s not arcane discussions of Burke and Hayek that motivate them, but sentiments dangerously close to “mobilizing passions (currently, it would be wrong to call them fascists–though this little incident does seem to fit the bill). When you strip away the Palinist impulse, you’re left with Bruce Bartlett or David Frum–and they aren’t just in the minority, they are considered apostate and heretical.
Movement conservatism is grounded in a virulent politics of mythical identity. It, at its core, is not a set of policy objectives, but a comprehensive belief system. Like all belief systems, it is incredibly resistant to change. For many, to abandon it will require some kind of personal trauma (though it could be collectively experienced)–one doesn’t change or alter identities based on a few speeches.
Hopefully, I’m wrong, but I think movement conservatism is only at the beginning of the forty years in the wilderness. Much to the detriment of us all.
*Anything that raises contracts to the level of holy writ can’t be populist.