Obama is the only ‘true conservative’ in the race

By not expanding the range of political possibility, Obama has displayed his own conservatism.

Capitol Hill
Obama has attempted to strike bargains with Republicans by adopting policies they favoured [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, California – Writing on the eve of the first votes cast in the Republican primary race, it’s still impossible to say what lies ahead on that road. But regardless of what happens ahead, the road so far has been deeply revealing, with the weakest front-runner in historical memory besieged by wave after wave of popular sentiment flowing to one unstable alternative after another.

A great deal has been written about the specifics of the candidates who’ve risen and fallen along the way, and a fair amount about the overall dynamic, but there’s been precious little reflection on the historical meaning of it all, which is deeply upsetting to the United States’ bipartisan 1 per cent establishment. That meaning ought to be perfectly clear: The GOP Presidential race is in chaos because its policies, politics and governing conservative philosophy are all in chaos as well. Put simply, they are an unmitigated disaster. 

Conservatives have tried to cope with this disaster by totally rewriting history, as well as their own self-definition. It works reasonably well when they all sing from the same page, in one big collectivist chorus. But when they’re not all singing together – as in a primary campaign – the truth-control mechanisms utterly fail. Which is why the radical, rapid-fire shifts in conservative policy positions, combined with proclamations of “eternal principles” leave those tied to the policy positions of one year dangerously exposed to charges of liberalism, even socialism, from those tied to the policy positions of more recent months, weeks, or even hours. 

This is a good part of the reason that Romney, champion of healthcare reform based on the early 1990s’ Heritage Foundation plan, is in such terrible bind now that Obama has followed suit, with his own conservative healthcare plan, also based on the Heritage Foundation and the 1993 Senate GOP plan, which conservatives now universally condemn as “unconstitutional” “socialism”. (See here, here and here for the conservatives’ failed rewrite of history.) 

Similarly, Gingrich – whose political career as Speaker was thrown into a tailspin when his government shutdown plan blew up in his face, in large part because even conservative voters like their welfare state benefits – nearly saw his campaign end the same week it began when he tried to judiciously distance himself from Paul Ryan’s similarly themed approach, accurately, but near-fatally labelling it “right-wing social engineering”. 

Conservative policy failure

Deep down, there is nothing new about this conservative policy failure. Conservative ideas have been failing from the earliest days of the “Reagan Revolution” over 30 years ago. The idea that massive tax cuts would pay for themselves was clearly fallacious, and in Reagan’s first year it drove his budget director, David Stockman, nuts trying to cope with the Grand Canyon-sized gap between rhetoric and reality. Things only got worse from there. From the federal debt-to-GDP ratio to a whole slew of economic indicators about the national economy, the American economy as a whole turned south when Reagan took office, except for the top 1 per cent, and it has never recovered since, except for a brief respite for average wages, the debt-to-GDP ratio and a few other indicators under Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

In June 2010, Dave Johnson, who blogs for the Campaign for America’s Future, posted a series of charts illustrating this. They covered net international investment, labour’s share of non-farm business, wealth concentration, personal savings rate, household debt as percent of GDP, and nominal GDP growth. In February 2011, Terrance Heath – also of CAF – combined Johnson’s charts with those from a number of other sources, (including this post by me) to make an even more comprehensive case for the disastrous effects of conservative economic policy over the past 30 years. 

But economics wasn’t the only area of conservative policy disaster. Even before Reagan took office, neo-conservatives began to undermine the policy of detente which had nearly ended the Cold War by the mid-70s. Under then-CIA director George HW Bush, an outside group of neo-conservative ideologues (“Team B”) was allowed to secretly re-analyse CIA data on the Soviet Union.

They added no new information, but interjected all manner of ideologically-based paranoid spin to argue that far from badly trailing the US in military power – which they were – the Soviets were on the verge of achieving overwhelming superiority that would allow them to use the threat of nuclear war to blackmail the West into submission. (A similar covert dynamic lead to the Iraq War, Reagan’s assistant secretary of Defence, Lawrence Korb, argued in 2004.) This carefully-targeted disinformation campaign laid the foundation for Reagan’s massive military build-up, which, along with the related creation of the Afghanistan War, greatly intensified Soviet paranoia, strengthening the hand of hardliners, and prolonging the Cold War. 

Reagan also not simply abandoned Carter’s Mideast peace initiative, but actively undermined it by supporting Israel’s illegal settlement-building policies, and overall shift to hardline rejection of co-existence, imposing a multi-faceted complex of reactionary politics on the Middle East, which is only now being seriously challenged by the Arab Spring. And, of course, Reagan famously removed the solar panels that Carter had installed on the White House roof – a symbolic expression of the extreme denialism towards real-world problems that conservatism cannot begin to comprehend, which has, over the past 30 years, transformed big problems facing the US into virtually insoluble ones.

Economic stagnation

For two decades, conservatives largely escaped accountability for their policy failures. The reasons were numerous, but they included the fact that over most of this period, conservative Democrats aided and abetted Republicans, making it extremely difficult for average Americans, more focused on their everyday life struggles, to clearly discern where responsibility lay. This changed significantly when Bush came to power in 2000.

It marked the first time since 1932 that a conservative Republican majority governed the US – not just a conservative Republican president, but a conservative Republican president and Congress (not to mention the similarly composed Supreme Court). It should have been a time of unparalleled conservative consolidation and triumph – if only conservative ideas actually worked. But they didn’t. 

Instead of a time of triumph, it became exactly the opposite: a time of utter policy disaster, when all manner of cherished myths came to ruin. The Bush tax cuts helped produce massive deficits and economic stagnation, even before deregulatory policy and ideological blindness to warning signs helped usher in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, while poor national security stewardship allowed for the most devastating attack on the American mainland in US history.

Even that need not have been a lasting disaster, if only conservatives had proven themselves to be conservative, in a prudential sense: calm, balanced, skeptical of adventures and slow to engage in extravagant escapades. But that sense of conservatism proved utterly absent (quite typically, as author Corey Robin has recently argued in The Reactionary Mind. More on that below.)

Instead, the US set off on an ill-considered – as well as illegal and immoral – warpath of indiscriminate violence under the rubric of retribution and revenge, at the very moment when the entire world was massively disposed to support the US, if only it had chosen the pathway of justice instead. And then, of course, there was the Katrina disaster, epitomising and symbolising the generalised and multi-faceted failure of conservative domestic policy as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, none of this worked. Not the economic policy, not the national security policy, not the rest of domestic policy, either. Conservatism had proven itself to be such a massive policy failure that during Bush’s last two years in office, those on the right began denying that Bush was a conservative. Conservatism could not have failed, they argued, it must have been failed by people who were not “true conservatives”, even though conservatives had been running everything in sight, to an extent not seen since the beginnings of the Great Depression.


Bereft of anything else, conservatives effectively re-branded themselves as opponents of everything Obama, while labelling him as the antithesis of everything American. One key aspect of this was adopting the mantle of “constitutional conservatism”, based on a vision of the Constitution closer to that of the Confederacy in 1861 than to anything else. Along with praise of the original document, there was steadfast refusal to accept it as originally written, much less to tolerate a bevy of subsequent amendments, or close to a century of Supreme Court rulings about what the Constitution means.

This stance even went well beyond the Constitution itself, applying to the political struggles that lead to the US’ founding, as the reactionary, tax-hating Tea Party tried to claim the legacy of the Boston Tea Party, when the actual historical foundations of tax-hatred in the US derives from Southern slaveholders, rather than Northern freedom-fighters, who lived in relatively prosperous, high-tax colonies that really did care more about self-determination than overall levels of taxation. 

The fact-free foundations of the Tea Party mythos and so-called “constitutional conservatives” more generally was perfectly in keeping with the meaning-making function that this sort of discourse entails, as religious historian Karen Armstrong explained in her book published in 2000, The Battle for God, which I’ve alluded to previously on several occasions. Electorally, a powerful mythos can be extremely effective, but fact-free foundations don’t make for sound policy, no matter how many levers of power you control.

Obama’s own conservatism

Fortunately for conservatives, in many ways Obama has turned out to be one of them, though not quite so extreme. A key dividing line is whether or not a politician is willing to expand the range of political possibility to address unmet challenges, striking off in new directions because the answers cannot be found in doing what we’ve always already done. However vague his campaign rhetoric may have been, however much he depended on symbolic and evocative symbolism rather than concrete statements, the campaign themes of “hope” and “change” clearly spoke to this kind of politics – to being progressive, in some sense or another, rather than being conservative.

And yet, as soon as he was elected, Obama sent exactly the opposite message, filling his cabinet and other top posts with establishment figures, including Republicans responsible for aspects of the Wall Street crisis, while excluding the sorts of critics who had played important roles in mounting systematic critiques of Bush-era policies. And immediately after that, he began focusing on trying to strike deals with Republicans, while ruling out any sort of accountability for past mistakes, particularly those rising to the level of war crimes.

Most significantly, however, Obama proved most adept in escaping much of any criticism from his own base for doing all this, no matter how politically ineffective it proved to be. On the economic stimulus, on healthcare reform, on energy policy, immigration policy and on and on and on, Obama tried mightily to strike bargains with Republican conservatives by adopting policies they favoured as part of his initial bargaining positions, and yet they repeatedly and almost universally rejected him, employing a demonising rhetoric portraying him as absolute other.

Over time, Obama’s excuses took on the appearance of a self-fulling prophecy, in part because he never tried anything different for more than a random news cycle or two – at least not until quite recently. But this was clearly not initially the case. When he first took office, Obama had considerable support from self-described moderates, independents and even a chunk of Republican voters.

He could have fought back by directly appealing to the substantial majority of Americans who initially supported him, but instead, he fruitlessly sought to gain conservative Republican leadership support – the one group totally opposed to him from the beginning. This did have one benefit for him, though: it helped stifle potential criticism from his own side, no matter how politically disastrous his strategy proved to be. Over and over again, his actions were defended in terms of political possibility – neglecting the fact that political leadership is first and foremost about shaping of the political consensus and political possibility, rather than the following of it.

This point about political leadership was recently stressed by Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald, calling attention to something that influential media critic Jay Rosen said back in 2009, when Greenwald interviewed him, in a follow-up to an important, and widely commented-on post by Rosen on his Pressthink blog. Rosen’s reference frame was a chart from Daniel Hallin’s book, The Uncensored War (1986), defining three categories of arguments the media dealt with during the Vietnam War, Greenwald succinctly summarised: “(1) those within the ‘Sphere of Consensus’ (ideas deemed so plainly true that they required no debate or examination); (2) those within the ‘Sphere of Legitimate Controversy’ (ideas deemed reasonable enough to be debated and disputed within mainstream discussion); and (3) those within the ‘Sphere of Deviance’ (ideas so plainly wrong, radical and fringe that they deserved no hearing at all)”.

In his original post, Rosen wrote that “one of the problems with our political press is that its reference group for establishing the ‘ground’ of consensus is the insiders: the professional political class in Washington. It then offers that consensus to the country as if it were the country’s own, when it’s not, necessarily”.

And, indeed, the entire emergence of the liberal blogosphere was primarily driven by the profound clash between empirical reality (no WMDs for example, no connection between 9/11 and Iraq, etc., etc., etc.) and the Bush-supporting insider consensus of the traditional political press. Obama largely won the blogosphere over, primarily because he was outside that consensus as a state senator in 2002, when he spoke out against the Iraq War as a “dumb war”.

In the part of his interview Greenwald now reprises, he shifted focus to the role of politicians and other political actors, asking, “[O]ne of the points you make is that it’s not just journalists who define what these spheres encompass. That politicians, political actors can change what’s included in these spheres based on the positions that they take. And in some sense, you could even say that that’s kind of what leadership is – not just articulating what already is within the realm of consensus, which anyone can do, but taking ideas that are marginalised or within the sphere of deviance and bringing them into the sphere of legitimacy.”

This is precisely what the liberal blogosphere was looking for from its inception, and what it thought it had gotten with two wave elections in 2006 and 2008.

Rosen agreed with Greenwald’s point about political leadership, and went on to argue that the spheres are actually malleable, “if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them”. Yet he also warned that “the ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have”.

He went on to note that he was bothered by those on the left who were critical of the media, and yet still accepted the media’s implicit portrayal of what other Americans believed, and thus what was or was not politically practical. Obama, quite clearly, has taken maximum advantage of this weakness on the left using it as cover even when, for example, polls showed 60 per cent support for the public option.

There have been endless disputes over why Obama does what he does, but one thing seems broadly clear: he has professed a belief in a vision of the political process that is profoundly conservative, according to the received tenets of so-called “Burkean conservatism”, which supposedly accepts and applauds gradualist change, but opposes rapid and violent change. If change is a produce of a broad social consensus, then it should be accepted, even championed, or so the story goes. Implicitly or explicitly, this is clearly part of Obama’s philosophical background.

And, most importantly, the social consensus he has in mind is precisely the elite consensus Rosen was describing, not the actual consensus of views in the population at large – which, for example, is powerfully opposed to the elite 1 per cent consensus that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must be cut, with the only question being “how much”? This is why Obama has doggedly and dogmatically insisted on trying to negotiate with conservative Republicans who’s only interest is in politically destroying him, because that is now integral to their self-definition as conservatives.

‘Conservatives always change’

The extreme reactive and reactionary nature of this brand of conservatism has given rise to a lot of talk about how conservatism has changed from the sort of cautious Burkean conservatism of the past. It’s curious how this sort of discussion can co-exist with the dominant discourse saying that “both sides” are equally intransigent, equally to blame for Washington gridlock, equally likely to lie and unfairly attack one another, etc., etc., etc. And yet, as mentioned above, author Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, argue powerfully against this idea how conservatism has changed, for entirely different reasons.

Even before taking up Robin’s argument, the idea of Burkean conservatism mentioned above always has been problematic. After all, Burke famously supported the American Revolution, while opposing the French. But there was nothing consensual or non-violent about the American Revolution. So-called “Burkean conservatism” never really has added up, even on the most superficial level of describing it. It is, however, propounded by some very self-important people, and so the mental gymnastics surrounding it have generally passed without comment.

But Robin goes much farther than this, quoting chapter and verse – particularly from Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace – to show unequivocally that Burke himself was not a “Burkean conservative”. In a post about the book from late September, Robin wrote, concerning Regicide Peace:

Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation-all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table-would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast. In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.

Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.

To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.

The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.

Every little measure is a great errour.

These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism plaguing Europe.

In short, there may actually be Burkean conservatives out there. I believe that Barack Obama is one. But Burke himself was no Burkean conservative, which leaves the entire concept deeply shrouded in doubt. It may be, as Robin himself described in another post, simply a matter of utopian belief – an ideological fantasy never realised in actual practice.

Or it may be a good cover story that different people for different reasons buy into from time to time – as I think best describes President Obama. At any rate, if Burke himself was no Burkean, it seems absurd to argue that today’s conservatives have changed, except in the sense that they always change – as Romney and Gingrich can both bitterly attest.

Beyond Conservatism?

Where American progressives stand today – particularly with movements like Occupy Wall Street – is strikingly similar to where Arab Spring activists in Egypt and elsewhere stand. The idea that “the people and the army are one fist” was deeply intoxicating last February, and true enough to prevent a massive bloodbath, and to allow some degree of change to take place. But in the end, the Egyptian army – in power since 1952 – is a far more fundamental aspect of Egypt’s established order than Hosni Mubarak, with a mere 30-some years under his belt, could ever hope to be.

This is not to say that every established institution must be an implacable enemy of change, much less transformation. But those who struggle for a new world, for a new way forward, must do so on terms that they themselves define, and must do it collaboratively with one another, in ways that constantly challenge the boundaries of what is thinkable, what is permissible, what is possible, what is real.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.