Buchanan: The Next Generation, and the Conservative Cloud

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Almost four years ago, I wrote a post here on Dorf on Law in which I noted that my nephew, Ross Buchanan, had just graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio.  In the time since then, he has been teaching high school, first in Seattle, and then for three years as a Fulbright Scholar in South Korea.  Starting this Fall, he will be entering the Ph.D. program in History at the University of Texas in Austin.  Ross was in middle school and then early high school in a suburb of Toledo when I was in law school, which is the time I came to know him best (because I lived nearby, in Ann Arbor); and it was easy to see even then that he was going to be an academic.  He had a keen interest in public policy, and his insights into intellectual issues were truly precocious.

Meanwhile, last Friday, my Dorf on Law post discussed the especially odd thinking that appears to lie behind the gold buggery that has moved from the most extreme right wing of the Republican party into its mainstream.  Conservatives for generations have mostly been big fans of monetarism, a policy that calls for minimalist monetary policy responses to economic crises (and no fiscal policy responses at all), which they like because it minimizes Big Government and purports to makes crises less necessary by following mechanical rules during good times.  A gold standard has the supposed virtues of the mechanical rules, but without the ability to respond to even the most extreme economic crises.  (As a matter of reality, of course, a gold standard is no more bound by its rules than is any other monetary system.  Congress -- or the Guardians of the Gold, or someone -- would retain the ability to change the ratio of gold to paper/electronic dollars.  The only way around this would be to require that all transactions be carried out in actual gold.  But why let reality intrude upon a good story?)

In that post, I argued that conservatives' abandonment of monetarism was similar to their attacks on the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement, because in all of these cases they rebel against even the most minimal attempts to save the United States from its worst excesses (economic and social).  Professor Robert Hockett's recent Dorf on Law post seemed to offer the best explanation for this phenomenon: Movement conservatives have been increasingly grabbing onto magical ideas that promise to solve problems without human intervention.  On the comments board for my post, Ross Buchanan offered the following extremely interesting observation (which he posted in two parts, and which I've lightly edited to re-post here):
Why is the right wing so passionately adopting such irrational and ultimately self-defeating causes, like abolishing the Federal Reserve? I suspect that we find such moves unfathomable because we—as outsiders—don’t understand the thinking of the right wing.

To anyone not in the camp of the modern right wing, it would seem natural to judge any given policy based on its projected impact. (For instance, a world in which an amoral plutocrat supports a regressive tax code and someone who cares about the poor supports a progressive tax code makes sense to us outsiders, regardless of where any one of us stands on that issue). From such a results-based perspective, goals like adopting the gold standard are truly inscrutable.

But perhaps the modern right's complete rejection of monetarism—as well as many other instances of extreme (and often erratic) shifts in right wing thought—has little to do with actual monetary policy, policy more generally, or its results.

I suspect that these shifts have more to do with a growing unwillingness by the right wing to trust the judgment of any person not deemed to be from its camp. Thus, the “anti-judgment” bias discussed in the post is really a bias against the judgment of all those not identified with the conservative movement.

This "anti-judgment-of-non-conservatives" bias would help to explain the discrepancies between prominent conservatives calling for specific policies in the past and then opposing those very same policies once Obama and Congressional Democrats championed (or at least accepted) them. (Examples include Newt Gingrich on health care, and Wayne LaPierre on gun control). It would also account for why so many of the self-described libertarians on the right were silent during George W Bush's presidency of big government and irresponsible spending (including rank and file members who didn’t benefit from his regressive economic policies).

In an unusual sense, identity politics now defines the right wing. The merits or goals of any given policy are secondary to the political identity of the people supporting it.
The ‘anti-judgment-of-non-conservatives’ bias may now be coinciding with a more general anti-judgment bias simply because the right wing no longer thinks it can muster a governing majority.

Basically, I don’t think most conservatives have a philosophical problem with governing institutions, so long as they control them; I suspect that even a lot of the anti-tax crusaders would be okay with the IRS if tax policies were regressive enough.

But as the conservative coalition continues to shrink and national elections become ever harder for conservatives to win, the right wing is becoming increasingly fearful of institutions it cannot control.

Destroying governing institutions would seem to be preferable to letting them fall into the hands of the enemy.
I find this to be an extremely promising explanation for much of what we are seeing.  The most crude form of the phenomenon that Buchanan describes is the Right's now-long-gone romance with term limits -- a "commitment" that was so crude and transparent that I doubt anyone even at the time expected it to survive Republicans' retaking Congress.  But even on policy matters, I think Buchanan is surely right that this is a matter of, to twist the old phrase, movement conservatives now favoring a "government of men, not laws."

Certainly, the Reagan and Bush II administrations were largely committed to subverting the executive branch, by putting people in charge of various agencies who were deeply committed either to eliminating the agencies altogether, or to neutering the agencies to prevent them from carrying out their statutory missions.  Putting Clarence Thomas in charge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was exquisitely disgusting, as was the parade of anti-environmental appointees to the EPA and the Department of the Interior.

There were also plain old hacks put in charge of Transportation and HUD, who mostly used the agencies for venal purposes, but the larger point in all of these appointments was to take control of the agencies away not only from the political appointees that previous Democratic Presidents had put in place, but from the career civil servants who actually follow the law in carrying out their duties.  A Treasury official told me once that a Reagan appointee actually held "re-education seminars" in which he required senior nonpolitical staff economists to listen to him explain the wonders of Supply Side economics.  That was silly and ineffective, of course, but the point was that the agencies were the enemy of the conservative movement, in exactly the way that Buchanan's argument above identifies: The question is whether you can trust the people in charge of the government entity.

Buchanan's hypothesis, however, makes it even more important to solve another mystery that has been stumping me recently.  Last month, I wrote two Dorf on Law posts (here and here) in which I tried to figure out what Republicans are talking about when they say that they refuse to "compromise their principles" even after a bitter electoral defeat.  The problem is that none of the principles that they so loudly proclaim seem to be immutable, except perhaps for a deep commitment to reducing/eliminating taxes for the rich.  In the end, I found myself concluding that their only principle seemed to be pure partisanship.  They oppose Obama and the Democrats simply because of partisan bile.

Taking Buchanan's argument seriously, however, means asking how one becomes one of the trusted people in whom other conservatives are willing to vest power.  We know how they treat outsiders, but how do insiders become insiders?  And perhaps an even more interesting question is how insiders become outsiders.  Consider the response to Newt Gingrich during last year's Presidential primaries, when he referred (accurately) to Paul Ryan's economic policies as "social engineering."

Gingrich was demonstrating his commitment to a principle -- laissez-faire economic and social policy -- and was trying to say that a fellow conservative was betraying that principle.  The response was, I am sure, shocking to Gingrich.  Suddenly, he was the outsider being savaged by the venomous attack machine that he had done so much to assemble.  Movement conservatives forced him to back down in humiliating fashion, making it clear that he was no longer trusted to do what must be done.

Again, however, what exactly is it that must be done, and how does that change over time?  An "It's not what, it's who" explanation loses its traction, I think, when we see prominent arch-right conservatives scramble to stay in the good graces of what one might call the "Conservative Cloud."  Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was one of the people whose views and actions led me to say that the modern conservative movement is led by sociopaths, is now reportedly in the crosshairs of "true" conservatives for various deviations from the invisible playbook.  Orrin Hatch had to scramble to his right to save his Senate seat in Utah last year!

I do think that Buchanan's explanation carries a lot of weight.  The "anti-judgment bias" on the Right really does look like an insider/outsider problem, although I would not have seen that without Buchanan's help.  Even so, the content of the insider group is clearly based on fealty to ideological commitments that are anything but random, but that continue to defy explanation.

But hey, my nephew is only 25 years old!  Maybe after his first year of graduate school, he will solve this and many other questions that have puzzled me for years.