The Corner

What Country Is Matt Lewis Looking At?

Matt Lewis writes over at The Week:

Something weird is happening on the American Right. Over at Politico Magazine, Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has penned a column titled “America Needs a King.”

Had Auslin’s strange desire not come on the heels of Pat Buchanan’s paean to Vladimir Putin, or an anti-democracy movement being championed by tech libertarians like Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, one might see this as merely an example of an academic being intellectually provocative. In other words, “trolling” us.

But this isn’t mere trolling. It’s a trend.

Hmmm. Color me unconvinced. For starters, Michael Auslin — a friend and colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute — doesn’t want a king, I’m fairly certain. He was making a point about the political culture. Moreover, to lump him in the same intellectual camp of Pat Buchanan (or Peter Thiel) is pretty ridiculous. Also, Buchanan as far as I can tell isn’t calling for a monarchy in his regrettable praise for Putin (and Buchanan’s standing on the right is remarkably diminished these days). Peter Thiel’s views — while always interesting — strike me as more of a mix of technocracy and minarchism, not monarchism. Lewis goes on to talk about the neoreactionaries, an interesting intellectual subculture from what I can tell, but calling them extremely marginal to the mainstream right probably still gives them too much credit. 

Lewis also suggests that conservatives have a special weakness for strong men. This isn’t a ridiculous statement, but it woefully lacks context. It’s true that conservatives have sometimes championed dictators in foreign countries, but almost entirely as bulwarks against Communism. Moreover, the idea that right-wingers are uniquely prone to liking strongmen might come as a surprise to some given the Left’s defenses of Stalin (the Man of Steel) to, more recently,  Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro (one might also quote all the wonderful things The New Republic and others had to say about Benito Mussolini). 

By the end of the piece, Lewis offers a number of to-be-sures and take-backs acknowledging the generally flimsy or non-existent connective tissue between his main examples. He then writes:

Still, they all have some things in common. First, they are boldly venturing outside the bounds of what would have been considered acceptable shared political opinion just a few years ago. This is, perhaps, indicative of the low level of confidence we have in our system and our leaders, of the atomization and feeling of alienation that is plaguing our nation, and also of the way technology can empower people whose opinions are outside the mainstream to spread what unconventional ideas.

But the other things these movements have in common is that they occur during a time when America looks weak.

Additionally, these movements tacitly accept that conservatism as a political force is utterly incapable of slowing the leftward march of liberalism. By definition, conservatives, who want to conserve the good things about the past, are always playing defense. When you consider that many of my conservative views aren’t terribly different from John F. Kennedy’s views in 1960, this becomes self-evident.

Some on the Right have given up the belief that they can fix our country by working within the current paradigm. And for a country that got its start by breaking the yoke of monarchy, what these conservatives are proposing is really quite radical.

Well, maybe. But I see a quite different story at work. Consider the last few years. Tom Friedman, one of elite liberalism’s favorite thinkers, has routinely touted the superiority of Chinese dictatorship. He likes to say he has no ideology save the desire to impose “optimal policies,” an argument that is commonplace among global-warming alarmists of a certain technocratic bent. One of Friedman’s biggest fans, Barack Obama, was elected on the vow to bring change to Washington, by acting on the mantra that a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” He keeps joking or otherwise glibly laments about how dictators have an easier time of things. He recently quipped that he’s jealous of how a murderer gets things done in the TV show House of Cards. He routinely and passionately invokes moral equivalent of war arguments to justify his unilateral, often lawless, executive actions. Once he lost complete partisan control of Washington, his defenders in the press and Congress spent much of the last five years despairing how the system created by the Founders “sucks” — to borrow a phrase from his recently hired one-man brain trust John Podesta. It is a routine trope of liberalism generally and the president’s rhetoric in particular to contend that the president’s opponents aren’t simply wrong but are in fact driven by illegitimate motives.

As a response to this, the first right-of-center populist movement in modern memory — the tea parties — rose up. Their single most galvanizing organizing principle is the desire to restore the constitutional order, not the crown. They’ve dedicated themselves not to strong-man politics, never mind monarchy, but to winning grassroots elections across the country. Meanwhile, more establishment Republicans, licking their wounds from the 2012 election, have redoubled their efforts to reach out to minorities and the poor through the democratic process.

Seen from this perspective, Lewis gets the story exactly and monstrously wrong. While liberalism has steadily grown illiberal, conservatives have become more libertarian and redoubled their faith in the democratic system. A poorly headlined op-ed, a cranky column by Pat Buchanan, and some interesting but obscure blogger chatter notwithstanding.

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