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Kinds of Rightwingery

Andrew Sullivan has a good post up about the fecklessness of conservative opposition to Bush's big spending ways. The conservative movement as a whole has offered this kind of token opposition to this stuff ("we didn't say you should do that") but seems to regard, say, the Medicare bill as something more like a minor foible rather than what it actually is -- the largest expansion of federal entitlement spending since the Johnson Administration. I think it's a little misleading, however, to think about such divisions as exist within the contemporary right as really being conservative versus libertarian ones.

After all, someone like Glenn Reynolds falls more on the "libertarian" side of the divide, but he's still very comfortable with the Bush administration. Meanwhile, if you look at Jim Henley, very little of his considerable distaste for the administration stems from any specifically libertarian (as opposed to social conservative) views. Rather, Jim's dislike of Bush stems largely from the general small government preferences that libertarians and conservatives share.

Or do they share them?

I think Jonah Goldberg introduced a good way of thinking about the more important division in a column several years ago, though I would characterize it somewhat differently. Jonah asks us to think of the movement as divided between "anti-state conservatives" and "anti-Left conservatives." I'd like to strike the "conservatives" so we can encompass libertarians and conservatives alike. The point, at any rate, is that some folks on the right are motivated primarily by a distrust of the state while others are motivated more by a distrust of leftwingers. For a long, long, long time between the 1930s and the end of the 1970s these two brands of distrust were almost perfectly aligned. Liberals gave birth to the vast majority of the federal apparatus, and the government was usually controlled by -- and always populated by -- leftwingers. If you were concerned about the state, you had to be concerned about the left, because the state was full of leftwingers. If you were concerned about the left, you had to be concerned about the state, because the state was the most important institution the left controlled.

Over the 80s and 90s the balance-of-power in Washington and the state capitals started to shift, and now by the 2000s the state is mostly under the control of rightwingers. This has started to pull anti-state rightwingery and anti-left rightwingery apart. The National Review hasn't gone in for Weekly Standard-style ideological revisionism and "big government conservatism." They still offer a sort of token opposition to things like the Medicare bill or farm subsidies. But they don't get nearly as agitated about this stuff as they do about the alleged evils of the universities, hollywood, the media, or the governments of western Europe. From an anti-left perspective, this is natural enough. The American state is no longer an important source of leftwing influence on American or world society. Insofar as the left has any influence on the world, that influence stems primarily from Turtle Bay, Hollywood, academia, Brussles, or elsewhere. The important thing is hounding the leftwingers out of their spider-holes, or destroying the credibly of the institutions where they still have some influence. Curbing the long arm of the state would be nice, but the most important thing, state-wise, is to maintain the right's control over it.

From an anti-state perspective, however, things look rather different. The fact that the right controls the state shouldn't make one any less suspicious of state power. You don't need to start loving the Democratic Party, but you probably realize that, in retrospect, the divided government of the 1980s and 1990s was optimal from the perspective of pure suspicion of the state. Gridlock makes it relatively unlikely that the government will embark upon any ambitious new schemes. The counterveiling partisanship of the congress and the White House make it relatively more likely that misdeeds will come to light, and that people will perhaps try and restrain their corruption lest it be exposed.

Now I think what we've seen over the past few years is that the anti-left brand of rightwingery has a lot more popular appeal than does the anti-state brand. And, in retrospect, I think you can see that 'twas ever thus. Most rightwingers were never very interested in applying the same standard of suspicion to the military and the police that they displayed with regard to "bureacrats" or public school teachers. Not coincidentally, the security establishment was the exception, even during the high tide of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, to the general rule that the state was run by and for leftwingers. With conservatives running the show everywhere, that same sort of attitude is extended by most of the right's constituents to the whole project.

February 25, 2005 | Permalink


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» On Being Rightwing from CommonSenseDesk
Matt Yglesias has a good post on the different kinds of rightwingery. [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 25, 2005 12:35:10 PM

» RIGHTWINGERS AND BUSH from Heretical Ideas
Andrew Sullivan does a great job of twisting the knife over the way conservatives largely ignore the big government ways of the Bush Administration.But try this counter-factual: If Al Gore, say, had, turned a surplus into years of mounting debt, if he... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 25, 2005 2:54:01 PM

» Libertarian Rightwingery from The Bit Bucket
Matt is exactly right about this, with one major exception: libertarianism isn't a "rightwing" ideology. Four years of the Bush administration has convinced this libertarian, at least, that the non-libertarian elements of the Republican coalition have ... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 25, 2005 2:57:35 PM

» We hate the State at any rate from The Moderate Voice
Adorable little blogging superstar Matt Yglesias (heretofore known as "Yggy") has an interesting essay on the split between "anti-state" and "anti-Left" righties since the Bus... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 25, 2005 9:21:41 PM

» Oh by the Way from Unqualified Offerings
Oh by the Way - Matt's absolutely right about the distinction between anti-Left and anti-State. And it explains most everything.... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 27, 2005 11:07:02 PM


Yeah, this sounds OK, except that no 'leftwingers' have ever been running the US government or participating in it. You're talking about pro-Captialist, pro-American-exceptionalist liberals. To call them 'leftwingers' is, of course, completely absurd.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 25, 2005 11:33:39 AM

I think this is quite a good post. One comment, on this:

Most rightwingers were never very interested in applying the same standard of suspicion to the military and the police that they displayed with regard to "bureacrats" or public school teachers. Not coincidentally, the security establishment was the exception, even during the high tide of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, to the general rule that the state was run by and for leftwingers.

I don't think that point holds up very well. I think that most "anti-state conservatives" (and, I'm more anti-Left than anti-state, so others may contradict me...) believe that there is a much more legitimate role for the state in national defense than in, say, health and welfare. That is, most anti-state conservatives would be more than happy to get rid of the Department of Education and the Department of Energy and HHS, but acknowledge that the Department of Defense is still a necessary function of the state.

Accordingly, rightwingers were not, as a whole, more accomodating toward the military because the military was less Left than other parts of the state, but, rather, rightwingers were less skeptical of the military because even anti-state conservatives believed that the military was a proper function of the state, in a manner that HHS or DOE wasn't.

Posted by: Al | Feb 25, 2005 11:35:49 AM

rightwingers were less skeptical of the military because even anti-state conservatives believed that the military was a proper function of the state

well, that, and it's pretty clear that righties make up more of the BlowEmUp !! crowd than lefties do.

Posted by: cleek | Feb 25, 2005 11:41:00 AM

And this is different from the libertarian/conservative split because?

Posted by: AF | Feb 25, 2005 11:42:20 AM

What I want to know is: will the State finally wither away and die if the Left is destroyed?

Posted by: praktike | Feb 25, 2005 11:50:30 AM

Mr. Praktike,

No, the state won't wither away and die if the left is destroyed. But politics will get rather less stupid and most people will get rather more prosperous I think.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 25, 2005 11:55:09 AM

This sounds more like the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic party. Wait, Richard Perle......now I'm starting to see the picture!

Posted by: DC Loser | Feb 25, 2005 11:57:19 AM

luisalegria: your comments on the schools the other day were weak. your comments today are ridiculous. what is the matter with you? we live in an era of right-wing dominance in which facts no longer matter, and you think politics will be "less stupid" if there is no left? and you think more people will be more prosperous? We've had 4 years of bush-league economics, enough to satisfy the most fervent wet dream of any right-winger. Would you care to show us where all those more prosperous people are?

Al, nice try, really, but no: whether you think that military is a more vital function of the state than health (apparently you don't think the preamble to the constitution is actually supposed to mean anythign, but i digress) has literally nothing to do with whether a given administration is managing that function well or poorly. It is perfectly possible to be an honest conservative, to oppose social welfare spending in all of its forms, and yet still to demonstrate a severe skepticism to the military, yet we rarely see this.

Posted by: howard | Feb 25, 2005 12:00:36 PM

Luis: the past four years are empirical evidence that refutes your hypothesis.

Posted by: Huh? | Feb 25, 2005 12:01:04 PM

"No, the state won't wither away and die if the left is destroyed. But politics will get rather less stupid and most people will get rather more prosperous I think."

Mr. Luis,

I didn't think that you of all people would take the bait! That was something of a jibe, you know.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 25, 2005 12:07:16 PM

Huh?: The left was destroyed four years ago? Then what are y'all doing here?

Posted by: Jeff R. | Feb 25, 2005 12:07:52 PM

howard, I think there are two different levels here.

On level is skeptecism of the effectiveness of a particular program. That is, does the Department of Education educate well, or does the Department of Defense defend us well (and "well" in an absolute sense and in the sense of effectiveness for the money spent). And that's the level you mean when you say "whether a given administration is managing that function well or poorly".

But there is a whole other level, which is whether the government should be involved in a particular activity in the first place. And my point is that some (most?) anti-state conservatives don't think that the government should be deeply involved in things like health, welfare, and education, whereas they DO think that the government should be involved in national defense.

Hence, with respect to things like health, you will see anti-state conservatives generally skeptical on two levels (both whether the government is effective in what it does, and whether it should do those things int he first place), whereas with respect to defense, anti-state conservatives will generally only be skeptical on the one level.

Which is why, I think, it is not accurate to say (as Matthew did) that "rightwingers were never very interested in applying the same standard of suspicion to the military and the police that they displayed with regard to 'bureacrats' or public school teachers" BECAUSE the military and police were less Left than bureaucrats and teachers. I think, rather, that rightwingers would not "apply the same standard" to the military than to the teachers/bureaucrats because they fundamentally believed in the state's role in the military in a way that they didn't with respect to education/bureaucracy.

Posted by: Al | Feb 25, 2005 12:18:52 PM

That was something of a jibe, you know.

I suppose the retort was as well, praktike.

Posted by: Al | Feb 25, 2005 12:20:25 PM

Jeff R.-
Is that a joke? The left has to be literally destroyed? It's not enough that the right makes all of the policy decisions to see if rightwing policy will work, the very existence of the left ensures that conservative policy will fail?

Posted by: washerdreyer | Feb 25, 2005 12:20:54 PM

Spot on. Also explains why, when reading the NRO these days, you don't get much on what conservatives think of what the gvt is doing. They've got headings for Hollywod, War on Terror and wedge issues, but little about the US government.

The bizarro right-wing obsession with Brussels, the UN, and western Europe makes sense when you look at it as an extension of their war of the left. After capturing all 3 branches of gvt, they need new enemies to fight.

Also, read what Goldberg and Frum write about Harvard. They clearly state that Conservatives need to take over big institutions like Harvard(also the NYT) from the left. They do not oppose big institutions, elites, or concentrations of power per se.

Yesterday in The Corner, KJL linked to a complimentary Washington Times piece on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gary Andres puts in a good word for the Dana Gioia-led National Endowment for the Arts (which, I confess, might be right but feels dirty because I'm so used to hating the NEA).

That's modern American conservatism for you. Nothing left but a hatred of the left.

Posted by: Ikram | Feb 25, 2005 12:24:30 PM

I think the main reason for the failure of conservatives to criticize W is best explained not by critiques of their philosophy but rather by hypocrisy. If a conservative criticizes W for spending money like a drunken sailor, for inserting the nose of the dysfunctional Dept of Education deeply into local education, etc., etc., ad nauseum, then the conservative will be assisting liberals. His criticism will hurt the conservative cause by helping elect liberals, who will spend even more money, force innocent children to participate in unspeakably vile Gay History Month activities, murder babies, emasculate the military, surrender to terrorism, and so on. Therefore, rather than speak the truth, conservatives just keep their big mouths shut. For Congressional conservatives, there is the additional truth that they buy voters through pork and campaign contributions through pork and focused tax credits.

There is also the explanation that some people just aren’t too bright.

As for me, I’m appalled by W.

Posted by: ostap | Feb 25, 2005 12:26:10 PM

Well, I wouldn't say "has to be" in any way at all [and is it even possible? No matter how much you cut off from a stick, it's still going to have two ends, isn't it]; just disputing that the past four years can be in any way dispositive in judging the truth of a hypothetical involving the destruction of the left.

Especially with regard to the "politics will get less stupid" part of the claim...

Posted by: Jeff R. | Feb 25, 2005 12:32:35 PM

This is a very good point that I have been making for a while in my own little crusade to help seperate libertarianism from the republican party. My only comment is that I'm not sure anti-Left conservatism is precisely the term you are looking for. It's something more than that and I haven't yet come up with an exact term for it.

Posted by: Glenn Bridgman | Feb 25, 2005 12:34:48 PM

Jeff R.: There are many well-written chapters in stats books on hypothesis testing; perhaps you ought to leaf through one. Try Casella and Berger for example. Pay particular attention to the concept of observational equivalence.

Don't you and Al have Bush Town Hall Meeting to attend?

Posted by: Huh? | Feb 25, 2005 12:50:42 PM

I don't think the divide is really "anti-left vs. anti-state", or "libertarian vs. conservative", so much as it is "hack vs. non-hack". Show me a hack and I'll show you a Bush supporter. It's as simple as that.

Posted by: Kuas | Feb 25, 2005 12:59:51 PM

I'm not sure anti-Left, but not anti-State types should get to call themselves "libertarians." But then, you'd have to set up a bureaucracy to stop them, and I don't see the potential coalition for that. So, Glenn Reynolds is safe for now.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 25, 2005 1:04:48 PM

Jonah's anti-state vs anti-left logic is quite sound, even if the current left is morphing out of its 20th Century pigeonhole into complete irrelevant absurdity. Come to think of it, so is the right.

The problem is and has been the right's authoritarian statism; it's not even slightly conservative, at least economically.

Ironically, Goldberg's mom runs the biggest Bush cheerleading squad on the Net...

Posted by: 5Gun | Feb 25, 2005 1:15:52 PM

I actually think Al made a good point in his first comment: libertarians generally have more "trust" for the military because, for national defense, there really is no alternative. What they don't trust is institutions and agencies designed explicitly to make and enforce policy with regard to personal matters such as health care. To understand why this makes sense, you have to think about Rand or Friedman.

In the libertarian worldview, each human being is a particle interacting with other particles on a "tit-for-tat" or value-trading basis. If you have something I need or want, and I have something you need or want, then we agree upon an equitable exchange, and therefore net aggregate utility is increased. What's important to keep in mind is that this does not just apply to what most people think of as commerce; to a libertarian, this trade function is the basis for nearly all day-to-day interaction.

The effect of this mindset, as far as I can tell, is to produce a sort of hyper-rationalist utopianism that is the direct converse of Marxism. So, to a libertarian, it makes perfect sense that health care should be a commodity just like any other, because doctors have medical expertise, patients have medical needs, and so just let them trade. If the government steps in to regulate any transactions between the two parties (particles), this creates inefficiency at the macro level.

Of course, what this worldview fails to take into account (again, like Marxism) is that human beings simply are not always rational. The Prisoner's Dilemma and "tit-for-tat" model would make perfect sense if this were the case, but then, so would "from each according to ability, to each according to need."

The thing is, mainstream conservatives actually recognize this, and so really, the biggest point of contention between welfare liberals and social conservatives is in which aspects of society and the economy they believe the government should intervene in and/or regulate. This is where Matt's "anti-state/anti-left" model comes in. On the statist/anti-statist axis, there really isn't all that much distance between mainstream liberals and conservatives. They just have different sets of policy prescriptions that they want the state to enforce for them. But it's precisely this proximity that leads to conservatives' "anti-left" stance. I think Matt mentioned this a few months back: the narrower the gaps in broad political philosophy among groups of people, the more significant and divisive the policy differences will seem. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Viewed from the perspective of a libertarian, conservatives and liberals just look like two sides of the same coin, and, at different times and on different matters, appear equally objectionable. There's probably a slight bias in favor of the right, because as far as I know, most libertarians believe economic freedom is the prerequisite to personal freedom, and so therefore are more willing to work with socially conservative free marketeers. Even so, the anti-gay, Christian moralist agenda creates an awful lot of division within the ranks.

Which brings us back full circle to the matter of national defense. Libertarians and conservatives agree, in essence, that the best defense is a good offense. Most liberals, even if acknowledging the common-sense necessity of a strong defensive capacity, prefer a more cooperative foreign policy, and object more specifically to the idea of pre-emption, among other "conservative" foreign policy ideals. Then there are elements of the extreme left who really do espouse views that are functionally (and sometimes explicitly) anti-military. This is the seed of statements like "mainstream Democrats are engaged in an effort that's a betrayal of this country" or Glenn Reynolds' "Sigh. I wish he were wrong" in response to an assertion that the goal of the left is to destroy America in order to establish Soviet gulags or whatever. The libertarian hawks and Christian conservatives remain united primarily because they agree on how to pursue the WOT, and because they have successfully created a narrative that paints the left as traitorous, anti-American, or "objectively pro-terrorist."

Given the rise of the James Dobsons and Rick Santorums in the Republican Party, I believe that in the absence of that pro-Bush/traitor dichotomy (along with the whole absolutist free-market/Communist thing), the right-wing hawk coalition would be unsustainable. Not that the libertarians would vote Democratic, but they might just stay home and/or throw away their votes on the Libertarian Party. This is the nightmare scenario of the pro-Bush crowd, and they will do anything to prevent it.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Feb 25, 2005 1:17:34 PM

I got mine, you get your own!

Posted by: Al | Feb 25, 2005 1:25:41 PM

I got mine, you get your own!

What up, Zizka!

Posted by: Al | Feb 25, 2005 1:27:20 PM

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