Was the conservative organizations’ abandonment of principle inevitable?

Clark Coleman sent the below comment on September 7 to the thread which he had initiated, “A call for VFR to drop the Palin issue.” I am belatedly posting it now.

Mr. Coleman writes:

Pardon the lengthy reply, but many important things are being said regarding Sarah Palin. I am thankful that there is discussion at VFR. To clarify my previous comments, the “pit bull” entry was the point at which I got the feeling that a witch hunt was taking place. I do not claim that all discussion should stop. I use the phrase “witch hunt” to describe a situation in which we abandon our main objections to someone’s politics and decide that any criticism of them is welcome, that every aspect of their person is fair game for criticism, that every remark they make is a good target for being made into a big problem all out of proportion to its significance. I have seen this happen to good conservatives, e.g. Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. I have also seen our “conservative” talk radio hosts treat liberal leaders in this fashion, going beyond the substantive critique of their politics and relishing any opportunity to criticize them, however trivial. [LA replies: It is simply absurd for Mr. Coleman to suggest that anything like that kind of blanket personal attack was being directed at Palin here.]

The central problems relating to Sarah Palin have nothing to do with her pit bull joke, hence my reaction of disgust to that thread. (By the way, I don’t think that Laura W. understands the context of the pit bull joke when she doubts that Sarah Palin is really part of such a maternal subculture, given how busy she is with her career. Sarah Palin was a hockey mom a long time ago, when her son was young and played hockey, before she was governor. A Wasilla mayor has more time to be a real hockey mom than a governor, but enough about all that.)

My thesis here is that Sarah Palin is forcing conservatives to face certain problems in conservatism and the GOP, but is not the cause of these problems. Namely:

1) Even the most conservative viable candidates in the GOP on the national level do not have a coherent, philosophical conservatism. They merely have a fairly high (but not perfect) batting average when it comes to taking conservative positions on piecemeal issues. They do and say things that reveal the lack of coherent conservative foundations, and their less than perfect batting average also tends to reveal the shallowness and inconsistency of their conservatism.

2) Conservatives talk about family values, morals, etc., but the nationally recognized leaders of both conservatism and the GOP have acquiesced to modern, liberal changes to the family, sex roles, etc. Furthermore, the rank and file GOP voters are at least as far along as their leaders in this accommodation.

3) Conservative leaders who are nominally outside of the GOP itself, holding positions in organizations such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, etc., as well as conservative organizations that are not evangelical Christian (e.g. think tanks, political activism organizations devoted to smaller government or lower taxes, etc.), are highly partisan and will always take a lesser of two evils approach and support the GOP nominee.

Let me try concisely to discuss and justify these three claims, and how they relate to Sarah Palin:

1) The lack of philosophical coherence has been discussed much at VFR and I don’t think I need to convince anyone of the existence of this problem. Voters and public leaders have long failed to insist on coherent conservatism (see #3 above and below), perhaps because voters and leaders have no coherent understanding themselves. At this point, therefore, the best we will get from nationally viable candidates are men (and women) who seem to be conservative on more issues than not, or on more issues than the Democrats. We will only change this through MUCH public discussion: blogs, emails, letters to the editor, books, private conversations, etc. Until the day comes when we have accomplished this educational task, we will get GOP nominees who say and do some things that are conservative and others that are not.

Let me just provide a little food for thought: Ronald Reagan was an exception to the rule, and conservatives continue to think that he is the GOP rule and all other nominees are surprisingly disappointing. What do we say at VFR when people are continually “shocked” and “surprised” by the same phenomena, over and over? We say that they need to gain a deeper understanding, such that they are no longer shocked and surprised. I am not shocked or surprised at the nomination of John McCain and Sarah Palin. We should expect a lack of conservative coherence until we accomplish the Herculean task of producing such a coherent understanding throughout 51 percent of our citizenry.

2) The conservative movement and the GOP have long had women in positions that were far too busy to permit being traditional mothers. Any woman who is a senator or representative, who typically would have to shuttle back and forth between home and Washington, D.C. for weeks at a time, would be an obvious example. A woman who has to run a lobbying or similar organization (e.g. Phyllis Schlafly) would be in the same boat. Conservatives have long been silent about such women. There have even been occasional noises from grown children that mom was too busy in their younger years because of her political activism, but conservatives have always been accepting of these women and have been grateful that there were such women to counter the Democratic Party/feminist/liberal claims that they speak on behalf of all women.

However, our female senators and representatives and organizational leaders have not run for president or VP until now. Now, we are suddenly giving it some thought, because a VP represents all of us, whereas Elizabeth Dole or Kay Bailey Hutchinson or whoever does not represent all of us and we did not think they needed our collective stamp of approval or disapproval.

3) When has a major conservative leader or organization NOT rallied behind the GOP nominees? The only principled stand I can think of was in 1992, when George H.W. Bush had refused to oppose Democratic gun control measures in the previous few years. When asked about the NRA and its members, he responded, “Where else are they going to go?” i.e. who else are they going to vote for? The NRA responded by endorsing neither Bush nor Clinton in 1992. Clinton won, the Brady Bill became law shortly thereafter, and most conservative pundits said this proved that the NRA had shot itself in the foot.

What actually happened was that the Brady Bill caused NRA membership to more than double, from less than three million to over six million, its fundraising skyrocketed, and it has accomplished one political victory after another, from the federal level down to the state and local levels, ever since. The Brady Bill’s worst sections have been phased out since that time.

The key point is that the GOP got the message that they could not take the NRA for granted. The NRA, you might say, settled one issue once and for all: The GOP opposes gun control. Period. That is a rare accomplishment in national politics.

This is the only time I can think of a conservative organization declaring that it will lose in the short term in order to win in the long term. In every other case, “the lesser of two evils, short term,” “we cannot lose this election,” “this is the most important election in history,” etc. is the approach taken. So, it is not shocking or surprising that conservative leaders support McCain and Palin. Gary Bauer, for example, got on board with McCain a long time ago to (A) gain access and influence the candidate and the GOP platform, and (B) oppose the evil of an Obama presidency. Even if Giuliani had been named VP by McCain, I am sure Bauer would have simply reminded us that this is much better than Obama/Biden.

All of these facts are a painful reminder of how things really are. Back when the GOP women who were too busy for their families were not VP nominees, we did not have to address that issue. When we still thought McCain might choose Romney or Pawlenty or some reasonably conservative man with no family issues, we did not have to admit how bad it already was. But it was already that bad. Sarah Palin did not make it that bad. Her selection shoved it in our faces a little more, to be sure.

It will be a labor of Hercules to make it all become the way it should be in the GOP and in the conservative movement. I don’t despair, and I am not shocked and surprised. I am committed to defending our civilization for the rest of my life. John McCain and Sarah Palin are no more the enemy than is John Q. Public, the apathetic, ignorant, incoherent, nominally conservative voter. After all, he is the reason we have McCain and Palin. I can vote for someone else (as I voted for Peroutka in 2004 rather than for Dubya), but that does not really address the task at hand. I did that for my own conscience, not because I thought it would solve anything in the GOP. (I was right! It didn’t!) I might vote third party again, or might decide that Obama poses an immediate existential threat and vote for McCain, but the solution to our problems will not come from making a mountain out of a pit bull joke molehill.

LA replies:

First, Mr. Coleman, in accusing me of trivializing the Palin issue by focusing on the “pit bull” comment, which I did in one entry out of dozens posted on this subject, is doing to me the very thing he accuses me of doing—trivializing a large issue.

Second, Mr. Coleman’s main point is that the underlying problems have been in existence for a long time, and therefore it’s unrealistic to make a big deal about the anti-conservative response of the conservative organizations to the Palin pick. In his nuanced treatment, the Palin nomination fits into a large, long-term pattern, and the wholesale shocking abandonment of conservative principle before our eyes was virtually foreordained, outside of anyone’s hands, and wisdom is to accept this.

I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing compelled social conservative leaders to issue their treacly press releases warmly embracing the Palin family situation. For that matter, nothing compelled them to support McCain at all. Mr. Coleman points to one instance in which a major organization refused to support the GOP nominee, by way of suggesting that such an occurrence is so rare we cannot see it as a model. But in fact his account suggests just the opposite. The NRA refused to support Bush the elder, and as a result, the GOP henceforth gave its support to the NRA’s platform. So, if such intransigence was so successful then, why does Mr. Coleman dismiss out of hand the possibility of its being practiced successfully again?

In his comment, based on his knowledge of the conservative movement and its organizations, Mr.Coleman adds up so many factors that seem to militate in the direction of exactly the result we’ve had, that he creates the impression of a deterministic process which could have had no other outcome than the one that has actually occurred. What he leaves out of his picture are such factors as human intelligence, conscience, principle, decision, will, moral freedom. The conservative leaders were not COMPELLED to respond as they did. They could have said, yes, we are compromised in various ways by the fact that so many conservative mothers are career women, but to make Sarah Palin with her young family, her special needs infant, and her pregnant unmarried daughter, the model for America, is going far beyond anything we have done and far beyond what is acceptable to the conservative movement and America. If we go along with this, if we approve this nomination, we might as well shut our doors and go out of business, since we won’t stand for anything any more. Therefore we will not approve the Palin nomination.”

That’s what they should—and COULD—have done, notwithstanding Mr. Coleman’s deterministic, insider’s portrait.

LA writes:

Also, my initial response to Mr. Coleman only emphasized where I disagreed with him. I want to add that his historical backgrounder has been helpful. At least he is providinng an overview of this sad transformation within conservatism, while the conservative McCain champions are just brainlessly going along with it.

Terry Morris writes:

You wrote:

“But in fact his account suggests just the opposite. The NRA refused to support Bush the elder, and as a result, the GOP henceforth gave its support to the NRA’s platform.”

‘Tis true, but…

GHW Bush insulted and challenged the NRA and NRA supporters directly, saying in effect, “They can’t go to the other side, and they’re not going to go to the other side, so I can do whatever I want and they’re still going to end up supporting me.” And as far as I know Bush kept that attitude ‘till the bitter end, and the NRA, therefore, stuck to their guns (no pun intended).

That’s not quite the case with McCain, is it? I mean, the way the social conservatives took Palin’s selection was that McCain was in some way reaching out to them, perhaps trying to make amends…

Clark Coleman writes:

A reader of VFR might think that we have switched positions over the last week in one respect. A week ago, you were saying that McCain’s choice of Palin was forcing conservatives to accept teenage pregnancy and illegitimacy. In this entry, I argued the opposite, that conservatives could easily have stated that they do not approve of Bristol’s actions in getting pregnant, that they do not want anything they say to be interpreted as approval, but that they are glad she chose life, and leave it at that. I indicated that Obama-fear combined with a highly charged climate of political partisanship contributed to the lack of balance in the response of many conservatives, although it does not excuse it. I made the point that conservatives have free will, that no one “forced” them to do anything.

Now, it seems that I am arguing some kind of determinism and you are arguing that conservative organization leaders have free will, etc. I think we need to clarify that we are talking about two subjects here.

First, there is Bristol Palin. My previous point was that we are never forced to accept everything about the relatives of a candidate. Thus, I was disappointed that GOP partisans felt they had to exhibit 100 percent approval of Bristol.

Second, there is Sarah Palin herself and the question of whether someone with five children, of the ages and needs of her children, should be running for VP. It is much trickier to be balanced and nuanced when conservative leaders are responding to the candidate herself. It can be done, however. The four possible responses to this issue are (a) total acceptance; (b) total rejection; (c) a claim that Sarah Palin is exceptional and that acceptance of her candidacy is not acceptance of every woman trying to emulate her; or (d) a statement that the question of her devotion of time to her family is indeed troubling, but that support is being offered strictly to defeat Obama and does not even imply that Sarah Palin is exceptional.

The “Sarah Palin is exceptional” argument is a hair-splitting and barely tenable position, in my view. It is a “do as I say, not as I do” position that can hardly be positive in its impact on our culture.

The “McCain-Palin as better than Obama-Biden” argument is one that I think GOP partisans should have made, and I am disappointed that they did not. I don’t think it was that hard a position to take, although the partisan climate and Obama-fear and circle-the-wagons mentality certainly contribute to making it a minority position.

As to the seeming determinism of my recent comment, my point was that the country has moved to a certain spot on the issue of women working outside the home. A politician starts out by solidifying the base, putting him at 40 percent or more of the vote, then tries to grab some independent voters to get to 50 percent. A politician does not start out by fighting against his base. I was just pointing out that the GOP base is already split on the working moms issue.

However, I have for years been disappointed that columnists, bloggers, the NRO crowd, and leaders of conservative organizations act like politicians. They are not running for office and don’t need 50 percent of the vote. They are supposed to be opinion leaders, which means they are not beholden to what people already believe and accept. Yet most of them act like the neocons, always positioning themselves on the political spectrum, triangulating, trying to appear mainstream and reasonable.

Columnists and bloggers should have more courage. However, leaders of large organizations, whether inside or outside the GOP, generally cannot be expected to go against their own members. If we want things to improve, we have to change minds in the public at large.

All of this is a reminder that true conservatism today is a mixture of conservation and restoration. Some aspects of our culture need to be conserved, but other aspects have been lost and have to be restored. We cannot hope for restoration from any leader of any organization whose membership is not already close to 100 percent in favor of that restoration.

Thus, my original point in this thread: Sarah Palin is forcing conservatives to recognize how far gone we are on certain issues. Most conservatives have not accepted illegitimacy, hence there is no excuse for the celebratory remarks about Bristol; but they have accepted working moms. That goes double for the “conservative” women whose lives have nothing to do with staying home with the kids (e.g. Coulter, Ingraham, Malkin). The conditions existed already; don’t blame Sarah Palin or McCain’s choice of Palin.

LA replies:

I appreciate the nuanced statement that Mr. Coleman argues the conservative organizations should have made: “that the question of her devotion of time to her family is indeed troubling, but that support is being offered strictly to defeat Obama.” If they had done this, their actions would have been far less damaging to conservatism.

Here is another option I would suggest. Mr. Coleman will probably say my option is practically impossible, because it involves rejection rather than acceptance of the nomination. However, just as his suggested position involves a nuanced support for the nomination that preserves conservatism, my suggested position is a nuanced rejection of the nomination that recognizes the reality of working mothers.

The conservative organizations could have said that while they accept the reality of working mothers, a working mother as vice president of the United States is a different order of thing, both in the nature of the duties, and in the job’s status as model and exemplar for the country. To say that mothers working is a necessity is not the same as presenting it as a positive good and as the norm for everyone. Yet that indeed would be the effect of having Palin as vice president. Also, the fact that Palin has a five month old baby with special needs and a seven year old daughter militates against support for the nomination. Thus the conservative organizations could have said, “We understand and accept the fact that working mothers have become a common part of our society, but the particular factors in this case argue strongly against putting this mother in this job.”

September 12

Clark Coleman writes:

I agree with your reply, and that is a course that should have been taken, at least by organizations such as Focus on the Family and any others strictly dedicated to family matters, and also by others. They can even praise Sarah Palin as an individual, as a governor and mayor and oil and gas commissioner, but stop short of saying she is suited for VP. Personally, I don’t see how the governorship of Alaska doesn’t already present family time issues. After all, they lived near Anchorage, as I recall, and Juneau is a long way away. How does that work?

LA replies:

Thanks, I’m glad we found common ground here. And I agree that conservative family organizations should have raised questions about her governorship as well. It doesn’t mean that they would have to say, “She should not be governor, she must resign!” But at least that they should indicate that there is something problematic here.

And indeed, as indicated by the National Enquirer’s coverage of the Palin family’s problems last week (discussed here and here) and this week (not discussed yet), her focus on her political career has had a negative effect on the family. Notwithstanding the attractive, wholesome family portrait the Palins make, the two oldest children have been in a lot of trouble, with Track being heavily addicted to Oxycontin (his going into the Army is part of an effort to clean himself up), and with Bristol having been, as the saying goes, a party girl for the last couple of years, with several other boyfriends in addition to Levi Johnston. Sarah Palin is decidedly not a model of a woman combining a high level career with successful mothering.

As for Gov. Palin’s commuting situation, I’ve been puzzled by that for a while, and got the answer the other day: there is a governor’s office in Anchorage, even though the capital is Juneau, just as, in New York, there is a governor’s office in New York City as well as in the capital Albany.

Carol Iannone writes:

Mr. Coleman is not quite right about total acceptance of women working. Conservatives have defended the wage gap by saying women do not make the same choices as men in the workplace, they want to stay home more with their children, drop out a few years, work part-time etc. The famous Sears case of years ago was a conservative landmark in that a woman historian testified that women have different attitudes toward work and the workplace, and that those attitudes and choices explained why women were not in the commission sales divisions, where people could make more money. Mary Eberstadt has connected childhood obesity and many other problems that children have now with women working and no longer taking care of their families as they used to. In general, conservatives have been trying to defend the idea of differences between men and women as explanatory of different outcomes in society, and have greeted with enthusiasm reports of career women deciding to stay home when they have a baby. Also, a recent Pew study showed that only small minorities of mothers, working and non-working, thought a full time working mother was good for children. They favored staying home or part-time work by huge majorities. There is a lot of confusion about that, whether women working means part-time or full-time, and what does full-time mean—eight ours a day, or, like Condoleezza Rice, fourteen. So there is no need to give up completely on this. What was discouraging was to see conservatives becoming furious at the mere mention of concern over Palin’s large young family with issues and possible conflicts with the job.

Here’s something else: Regnery has published “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.” Here are two of the taboo areas that the book discusses, according to the Conservative Book Club ad:

  • Recent discoveries about the differences in men’s and women’s brains that may account for some of the different characteristics we associate with the two sexes.

  • The impossible feminist dream of “having it all”: how women who put their careers first inevitably suffer in their personal and/or family lives

By the way, Phyllis Schlafly had the author of this guide speak at a conference broadcast on C-Span.

LA replies:

Based on the conservatives’ recent prohibition of any questioning of whether a mother of young children should be vice president, we can expect a move by the McCainized conservative movement to suppress the Regnery book.

September 13

Clark Coleman writes:

In reply to Carol Iannone, there is a difference between noting that some women interrupt their careers to stay at home with children, causing a statistical wage gap, and saying that mothers should all do so. There is a difference between noting that women make different career choices, even have innate psychological differences, etc., and making public statements about what choices women should make.

I am not saying that there are no conservatives making prescriptive statements. There are. Carol Iannone provided examples, such as Mary Eberstadt’s writings. But our relativistic, post-modern culture generally abhors anyone telling someone else what they should and should not do with respect to traditional morality. Almost every statement I hear about women working is qualified with “Now, I realize some women have to work outside the home …”, which is so subjective that almost any woman can put herself in that category.

Talk radio hosts talk politics, not culture, so that subject does not come up. George Will is not likely to write a column about it. So, I ask, how many people are in the audience reached by Mary Eberstadt et al., compared to those who see conservative columns, hear conservative talk radio, see conservative political gab shows, etc., all of which are pretty silent on these matters? It has been years since I have heard Jim Dobson’s radio show. Does he make prescriptive statements on this matter any more?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 10, 2008 09:45 PM | Send

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