Conservatism Isn't to Blame for the Right's Recent Woes

“Take responsibility!”

That phrase has meaning when a pregnant woman tells a man, “take responsibility for the child you helped conceive.” It makes sense when a judge tells a negligent property owner, “take responsibility for the rabid Bengal tigers you’ve loosed to guard your unfenced suburban construction site.”

In his latest post, Freddie offers a vision of “taking responsibility” that is different, insofar as it is nonsensical and incoherent.

The setup: In 2005, a devastating hurricane hit New Orleans, Louisiana. The suffering and death left in its wake are owed to factors including a population beset by endemic poverty, utterly incompetent local Democratic officials, a dearth of disaster preparedness, an unqualified Republican appointee leading FEMA, and a Republican president inadequate to the task of leading federal disaster relief efforts.

Thus Freddie is making demands about “taking responsibility,” but they aren’t directed at the locals in charge, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or the Louisiana Congressional delegation, or the unqualified FEMA head, or the Republican Party, or the Bush Administration, or President George W. Bush — no, he wants responsibility taken by everyone who subscribes to a common American political philosophy that calls for government limited by constitutional bounds, preserving the wisdom contained in tradition, and an aversion to rapid change.

To use his terms, Freddie wants conservatives, especially ones named Ross Douthat, to take responsibility for Hurricane Katrina, and every other ill of the Bush Administration, because even though George W. Bush violated numerous tenets of conservatism, he called himself a conservative, and that means that everything he did is the responsibility of everyone who also calls him or herself a conservative. Or something.

Before delving any deeper, let’s afford Freddie a long excerpt.

Ah, but I hear the keys of Conor Friedersdorf clattering away now. That wasn’t me, he insists, and it wasn’t Ross! That, after all, is all you ever hear from conservatives these days. It wasn’t I who sent our soldiers into Iraq, it wasn’t I who left children to drown in New Orleans, it wasn’t I who ordered federal prosecutors fired for failing to politicize prosecution, it wasn’t I who sat idly by as the financial sector plunged itself off of an abyss…. The only consistent definition of conservative I now feel confident in is that a conservative is someone who is not responsible for anything that the Bush administration or Republican congress has done. No, no one is responsible for the Bush administration and its many crimes. No one is responsible for the congressmen who cheered their way along. No one is responsible for the systematic failure of the Republican party machine, which placed such a pathetic, unqualified and ignorant man in the greatest seat of power the word has ever known. No, don’t blame any actual conservatives for conservatism massive failings. Such a thing wouldn’t be fair. The fact that we now have outrage and scandal over Nobel peace prizes and NEA conference calls, when in the recent future we had hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and children shivering chest-deep in putrid water– hey, that’s a facet of the fact that no one is responsible for the GOP. No one is responsible for conservatism, and Freddie, stop being unfair.

This is sloppy reasoning. It treats conservatism as though it is indistinguishable from the Republican Party and the Bush Administration — as though a political philosophy and an American political coalition are the same things — and it proceeds to make a rather stunning implicit assertion: that if one objects that conservatism isn’t responsible for some ill, one must necessarily believe that no one is responsible for it.

In fact, this Conor Friedersdorf “clattering away” on his laptop doesn’t think that no one is responsible for Hurricane Katrina’s unnecessary casualties. He thinks that responsibility is borne in various amounts by a long list of people that starts with Ray Nagin and ends with George W. Bush. What would it mean, exactly, for me to say, “I, Conor Friedersdorf, as a self-described conservative, take partial responsibility for the mismanagement following Hurricane Katrina?” Either it would be meaningless, or it would mean that I recognized some part of my political thinking that, prior to the hurricane, led me to wrongly believe that the federal government shouldn’t respond to natural disasters, or that levies shouldn’t be built to withstand strong storms, or that presidents should error on the side of committing too few resources when a major American city is underwater. Believing none of those things, I am hard pressed to know how I could coherently “take responsibility” for Hurricane Katrina even if I desperately wanted to do it.

Freddie writes:

This is the true consequence of conservatism’s never-ending series of rendings and divisions: because every conservative these days fancies himself a sect of sanity in a failed ideology; because so many conservatives have taken to patting themselves on the back for their distance from the rabid rump of the conservative base, and doing nothing else but that; because American conservatism has become an army of Andrew Sullivans, parties and cliques of people who proudly declare themselves to be of no party or clique, a never-ending stream of self-styled iconoclasts who take the rich pleasures of being individuals and take none of the hard-fought, difficult and tiring dignity of being responsible for something; because of this, conservatism is lost. The problem is not that conservatives fall too quickly in line. The problem is that conservatism is a line of people insisting that they aren’t a part of the line and as such are not responsible for the actions of the line.

After the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, Abu Ghraib, reckless spending, the appointment of incompetents, and every other Bush-era ill, Freddie casts about for the problem on the right and decides that it is people like Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan who are to blame, due to their unwillingness to take responsibility for their ideas. It is difficult to imagine a more wrongheaded account.

In fact, the most disastrous policies of the Bush Administration — the Iraq war, the torture, and the irresponsible deficit spending — were all profoundly anti-conservative, and insofar as conservatism as opposed to jingoism or excess partisan loyalty among Republicans were to blame, the problem was precisely that the conservative base too easily fell in line behind an incompetent leader because they called themselves conservatives, and he called himself a conservative, and they’re the same word! Just ask the intellectually dishonest talk radio hosts, who acted as enablers for Bush’s most damaging policies by spreading the meme that one must support him in order to be a loyal conservative.

Freddie writes:

Everyone laments the Republican party’s various failures, electoral or otherwise; no one is responsible for the Republican party. Everyone delights in the rank, unfocused and violent anger of the Tea Parties; no one will claim them as their own. What you have, ladies and gentlemen, is an ideology in a decaying orbit, an ideology that prides itself on insisting on personal responsibility as so many, thanks to their well-polished, phony individualism, refuse to take any responsibility for the whole.

Again, there are actually lots of people who are responsible for the Republican Party — the party officials at the grassroots level that I’ve been interviewing, state and national leaders on up to Michael Steele, every elected Republican in the country, and to some extent every voter who registers as a member of the party. Contra Freddie, there isn’t anyone who claims that “no one is responsible for the Republican Party.”

I find it especially weird that I am one of the two people mentioned in a post about conservatives who think that “no one is responsible for the Republican Party,” seeing as how Freddie knows that I am even now surveying GOP County Chairmen, and that I am on record lamenting the malign influence talk radio hosts have on Republican candidates.

Even more bizarre, however, is levying the same criticism at Ross Douthat, a man who has co-written a Freddie-approved book about how best to reform what he regards as a broken Republican Party! If that isn’t “taking responsibility” for the GOP’s future I don’t know what is.

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6 Responses to “Conservatism Isn't to Blame for the Right's Recent Woes”

  1. davidlosangeles Says:

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    I think perhaps you are over-personalizing this. I do not believe that your personally are at issue here, irrespective of how certain posting may be worded. If you past this limitation, there is room for a substantive discussion. You wrote about the posting:

    “It treats conservatism as though it is indistinguishable from the Republican Party and the Bush Administration”

    First, the Republican Party and the Bush Administration have very much advocated the view that they are indistinguishable from conservatism. They announced themselves as the very embodiment of conservatism. Further, when things were going their way, there were not any conservatives out there decrying the actions of the Republican Party / Bush Administration. Which conservatives denounced the reckless borrowing and spending of the Republican Congress and Bush Administration (remembering that there was no deficit at all on January 1, 2001). Where were the conservative voices opposing the invasion of Iraq? There were no demands from conservative that Bush appoint only competent experts instead political hacks. Until things started going wrong, “conservatism” made not the slightest effort to distinguish itself from either the Republican Party or the Bush Administration. Indeed, what differences are there?

    What this exposes is that “conservatism” realy was, just a bunch of empty phrases that meant nothing to its advocates. The conservatives talked about the wild “tax and spend” liberals but once in control of Congress they borrowed money as fast as they could spend it on pork barrel projects. Conservatives talked about “individual responsibility” but refuse to take any when they run something into the ditch. Conservatives present themselves as being morally superior to others and are disdainful of “moral relativism” but in practice are no more moral than anyone else, perhaps less so.

    Any political philosophy or movement is finally judged by what its advocates do when they are in power, hence the political collapse of the Republican Party.

  2. Federalist Paupers » Blog Archive » Responsibility. Says:

    […] A good one from Pauper Emeritus, […]

  3. The Young And The Dissident: Meditations On The Reformers From Some Ordinary Gentlemen « Around The Sphere Says:

    […] Conor Freidersdorf: “Take responsibility!” […]

  4. Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog – The Many Projects of American Conservatives - True/Slant Says:

    […] various sins of the Bush Administration rather than taking responsibility for them. I responded by arguing that Freddie possesses an incoherent notion of what it means to take responsibility for something, […]

  5. “Taking responsibility” again. | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen Says:

    […] play, and the wisdom of attacking talk radio hosts” that’s been playing out recently, with Conor and Rod Dreher on one side, and fellow Gentlemen Freddie, Mark, and E.D. on the other, with a […]

  6. Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog – Scoring My Debate with Right Wing News - True/Slant Says:

    […] Quite right! As I’ve written many times, the Bush Administration’s failure doesn’t reflect poorly on conservatism. He goes on to assert that the failures of the Bush era were in fact cases “where […]

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