Words With Friends

The conservative movement faces many challenges, and there are no easy solutions.

Hey, 

So in the last 24 hours, four friends of mine have posted pieces critical of me. Three of the four were clearly friendly, one was a bit more hostile, but that’s okay. Since I haven’t yet convinced Steve Hayes that we need to have a Dispatch blog (for want of a better word), I figured I’d scrap the “news”letter I had in mind and offer not so much a full-throated response, but a more basic explanation of where my head is at these days. Some of this will be quite familiar to some readers, so feel free to skip ahead for the more practical stuff.

Let’s take not so much a 30,000 foot view but an orbital one. I think America, Enlightenment-based liberal democratic capitalism, and the whole cluster of basic moral rules of the Western or Judeo-Christian tradition aren’t just important, they’re kind of the whole ballgame.

This was the central point of Suicide the West. Until about 300 years ago, humanity wasn’t doing a very good job. What job? Take your pick: feeding and educating people, protecting them from violence and disease. Or, if you’re less materially minded, we didn’t do a good job enforcing the rule of law, protecting liberty, getting rid of slavery and serfdom, and making the pursuit of happiness a meaningful proposition for the average person. Until what I call “the miracle,” poverty, oppression, and tyranny were natural and normal for all but a tiny slice of humanity. Such bad things still exist, but the progress we’ve made from the muck is undeniable.

Conservatism, as I see it, seeks to protect these things. The conservative, in the American tradition, seeks to protect and build upon the revolutionary principles and practices that made the miracle possible. (That’s why I’m so enamored with Yuval Levin’s definition of conservatism as “gratitude.”)

In the grand sweep of human history, American conservatism is something of an oxymoron because it seeks to protect a truly revolutionary orientation from reactionaries of the right and the left. I believe that all of the supposedly revolutionary “-isms”—Marxism, fascism, communism, Maoism, identity politics, most forms of populism, etc.—are better understood as reactionary efforts to restore one variant of tribalism or another in modern garb. Illiberalism—under any flag—is a step backward.

This was Calvin Coolidge’s point about the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Coolidge rejected the familiar claim that the relevance of those principles had expired and new, more modern and sophisticated, ideas deserved our loyalty:

But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Okay, let’s come down to earth.

The present crisis.

A lot of conservatives who agree with me completely (or at least directionally) about all of this have made a prudential judgment that the greatest threat to what conservatives want to conserve comes from the left. This is not an unreasonable view. It may in fact be the correct view. But while they look out from the bridge at threats in front of them, I think they are not paying enough attention to the problems below deck.

Across the right, conservatism is being redefined. There’s not one new conservatism, but many competing ones. Some want a variant of theocratic rule. Some want nationalism of one stripe or another. Some don’t much care about the content of the “-ism” they claim to be fighting for; they just know that fighting is its own reward. Industrial policy, confiscation of property, crony capitalism, and a living Constitution are fine, so long as we’re the ones picking winners and “owning” the losers. Cruelty, rudeness, and deliberate dishonesty are becoming self-justifying.

If these passions masquerading as an ideology succeed in redefining conservatism, it simply won’t matter if Republicans win every battle against the left, because conservatism will have lost the only war that matters. A country with two illiberal, populist parties animated by performative asininity and state-backed vindictiveness toward their “enemies” is a country that deserves the civil war some seem to crave. The conservative project is already being lost on college campuses and a number of conservative institutions, where illiberal definitions of conservatism are seen by young, ambitious, right-wingers as the seductively rebellious ideas whose time has come.

So it’s in this context that I proposed a third-party scheme along the lines of New York’s Conservative Party. My friends (and former colleagues) Dan McLaughlin, Charles Cooke, and Michael Brendan Dougherty all think that’s a bad idea. And they may well be right! Heck, they’re probably right given how smart they are.

But let me push back a little. They all make the perfectly sound point that a third party that throws congressional elections to the Democrats would make a lot of Republicans angry. But I will posit that a strategy that yields a victory for J.D. Vance or Josh Mandel in Ohio would be wholly pyrrhic from a conservative point of view. It would further fuel the transformation of the GOP into a right-wing statist party, and having two statist parties is like a car with two gas pedals and no brakes—the crash is inevitable; the only uncertainty is in what direction it will materialize.

Now, I understand that some people think that having a right-wing statist party would be preferable to a left-wing statist party. And if those are the only choices on offer, I can’t gainsay the reasoning too passionately. But I reject the choice. Keeping conservatism politically viable is more important to me than winning the next election.

Charlie suggests that the rage against a spoiler third party would only intensify if it delivered greater majorities in Congress to the Democrats. He writes of my thought experiment, “I am no fan of the phrase, ‘This is how you got Trump.’ But, in this case, it fits the bill well. Games such as the one Jonah proposes to play aren’t how you get rid of a Donald Trump. They’re how you get the next one.”

I think Charlie’s point is well taken, but there are two problems here. We didn’t get Trump because conservatives played hardball. We got Trump in part because the Republican Party is a craven and weak brand-marketing operation pretending to be a real party, and in part because of the collective action problems of a 17-way primary race. Second, my point here isn’t primarily about getting rid of Trump; it’s about getting rid of the cancerous imitators of Trump and the general cult of Trumpism taking over the GOP that threaten to long outlive Trump himself. If Charlie has a better solution for doing that, I’m all ears.

Charlie rightly worries about how much worse Democrats will be if they get more power. It’s a totally legitimate concern, and one I share. But the mere fact that the Democrats are poised to take a drubbing in the midterms mitigates it somewhat. When parties overreach, the electorate ultimately punishes them. If you subscribe to Flight 93 paranoia—one election from the “end of America!” and all that nonsense—then counting on a natural correction is folly. But I don’t subscribe to that stuff (and I don’t think Charlie does, either). Again, I think the “end of America” is far more likely in a country where Bernie Sanders and Josh Mandel define the debate.

Dan’s proposed solution is to duke it out in the primaries. I loathe the primary system, but that’s an argument for another day. The salient point here is: That’s not working. I understand why Republicans who care solely about winning have no particular interest in monkey-wrenching the party. But for conservatives who care more about conservatism’s survival, this strikes me as, at minimum, a second-order concern. Parties’ demand loyalty when they reciprocate it. If the GOP isn’t going to fight for its integrity, I see no reason why conservatives should rush in to prop it up.

My point isn’t that conservatives should abandon the GOP, it’s that they should practice politics seriously. Right now, there are no mechanisms for doing that within the party/primary system. Imposing those from without may be the wrong way to do it, but, again, I’d like to hear the right way to do it.

Finally, Michael’s key point is, I think, right on target. A potentially fatal problem with my proposal is that a third party would be very vulnerable to mission creep. The pressures of a two-party system and the natural tendency of politicians to bend institutions to their ambitions is not one I sufficiently wrestled with. MBD doesn’t mention it, but this is precisely what happened to the post-Perot Reform Party, which became a kind of ridiculous clown car attracting unfit candidates like <checks notes> Donald Trump. And of course, the Lincoln Project is nothing more than a de facto Democratic super PAC now. 

I don’t think a conservative party would have to be run like a religious movement as Michael puckishly suggests, but he’s right that it couldn’t be run too democratically. That’s fine with me. Before 1972, neither of our parties were run very democratically. I have no problem restoring some of the pre-McGovern mechanisms, particularly for a party whose mission would be to fix the GOP and thus render itself obsolete.

I know where all three of my friends are coming from and I have nothing but respect for them. But I will just say broadly that I think the rush to defend the GOP from threats to its electability is a symptom of the problems facing conservatism. The Trump cultists and other denizens of the illiberal right have no problem heaping scorn on traditional conservatives and demanding that politicians express total loyalty to Trump and his myriad lies. Purges of conservative Republicans like Liz Cheney are fine, but attempts to purge Trumpists are somehow outrageous, elitist, or traitorous. None of my interlocutors see things that way, but their response to an effort to fight back against the tide is to throw flags on the play. Again, that’s fine; some of the flags are called for. But my only point is that by training the bulk of their fire leftward, they’re leaving the necessary fight from the seditious movement in their rightward ranks unattended to.

And when I say seditious, I’m not speaking purely figuratively. Because of Trump’s lies about the election, a vast effort is underway to corrupt not just confidence in democracy, but the actual mechanisms of democracy. As National Review’s own Kevin Williamson puts it, “the Trump coup is still raging.” I don’t need to belabor the details. But even if you reject all of my concerns about conservatism—populism blows over and all that—much of my argument still applies to the corrupting of the electoral process.

In re: The Bulwark.

Which brings me to Mona Charen’s criticism of me. I think a lot of her potshots are predicated on some misunderstandings. I don’t spend a lot of time disparaging The Bulwark. I like a lot of what appears there and I like and respect its contributors and staff. I am often asked about The Bulwark and I answer honestly, as I did in Vanity Fair. If you read that piece, it’s quite clear the author simply cut out all of the nice things I said about The Bulwark: “Goldberg, who prefaced his comments to me by expressing support for a lot of The Bulwark’s work, still believes there are stark differences.”

I do believe those differences are stark. Indeed, my point that The Bulwark is too enmeshed in electoral politics seems like an understatement going by David Drucker’s reporting. I also think Mona is unaware that if one were to keep score on “sniping” between The Dispatch and The Bulwark, The Bulwark would not only lead in the snipe-count, but the record would also show it put points on the board first. But this is all petty stuff and I don’t want to dwell on it.

Mona’s chief objection is that I’ve objected to Bill Kristol’s argument that conservatives should rally to the Democrats to counter the Trumpification of the GOP. I don’t think any of what I’ve written about Kristol’s arguments amounts to sniping, never mind unfair sniping. I just think Bill is wrong. As much as I like and respect him—and my unrequited invitation to have him on The Remnant to discuss these things still stands—we have substantive disagreements and differences in approach.  

Let’s talk about approaches. As I’ve written before, I’ve never been a political player in the way Bill has been. Bill has always had one foot in the political trenches and another in the world of intellectual affairs and journalism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—the same was true of Bill Buckley. As much as I’m willing to propose a conservative third party, I would never become an activist or official within it. It’s not my role, it’s not for me, and not for The Dispatch.

As for my disagreements, I think it is simply factually true that the Democratic Party is no home for conservatives interested in staying conservative. The chasm is unbridgeable. Moreover, Joe Biden has made it clear that he’s not even willing—or able—to reach out to centrists, never mind conservatives, in any meaningful way. If I thought what Bill is proposing could work, I’d say so.

Second, even accounting for everything I said about Trump’s assault on democracy, I don’t think the solution to that is to drop or tactically downplay your objections to the Democrats in the interest of forming some kind of popular front. This is a mirror image of my objection to the way so many conservatives drop or tactically downplay their objections to the Trumpist captivity of the GOP. Such self-censorship is bad in its own right, but it also was the first step toward the “body snatchers” phenomenon Mona and I witnessed. That body snatching dynamic hasn’t only played itself out among pro-Trumpers. If you compare the writings of, say, Jennifer Rubin circa 2012 and Jennifer Rubin circa 2021, you can see what I mean. I didn’t accuse Mona & Co. of having “Trump derangement syndrome” as she suggests, but Trump derangement syndrome is most certainly real.

Last Friday, I responded to Jonathan Chait’s argument that “anybody who supports the Republican party’s normal political operations—even the handful of remaining open Trump critics—is throwing lit matches around the kindling of Trump’s next Reichstag fire.” I said that my job is to tell the truth as I see it regardless of the political consequences (a position Chait holds when it comes to his own criticism of Kyrsten Sinema). Mona’s response to that, with a bit more sneering than I think was warranted, was, “There is, as far as I can tell, no organized movement to persuade Goldberg not to tell the truth as he sees it. Everyone of basic integrity values truth. That’s not the question.”

My point was that I can “support” or decline to condemn Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers on the debt ceiling without being guilty of throwing matches on Trump’s next Reichstag fire.

Also, Mona is actually wrong about this not being “the question.” She distorts the issue with the snarky “no organized political movement” line. But such pressure is very real. I used to give a lot of speeches to conservative groups. I don’t do it nearly as much anymore because they don’t want to hear my gripes about Trump. The same goes for conservative talk radio. Heck, I don’t think I’ve been asked a serious question about Donald Trump—one that would elicit a harsh and critical response—more than once or twice on Fox News for several years (and that’s when I’m invited on at all). The “movement” isn’t aimed at me personally, it’s the overall political climate. There are institutions on the right that very much want The Dispatch to fail and anti-Trump conservatives to vanish. As I’m sure Mona has experienced herself, truth-telling actually does come at a very high price these days. Just ask Liz Cheney. Heck, just ask some of the folks who worked at The Weekly Standard. (And not to revisit the “sniping” issue, but when I last made this argument about truth-telling in the context of Bill Kristol, our mutual friend Charlie Sykes mocked me for it on his podcast.)

I’m running very long here, so let me cut to the meat of it. I probably agree with Mona and Bill on their diagnosis of the problems we face, if not 100 percent then close to it. Where I disagree is on the prescription or treatment of those problems. I think Bill’s support for H.R. 1—the For the People Act—was wrong. I think his praise for the New Dealish nature of the Biden agenda is misguided tactically and on the merits. I didn’t like (most of) the New Deal when disliking it was conservative orthodoxy, I didn’t like it when Steve Bannon promised that Trump would deliver a New Deal at the beginning of his presidency. And I don’t like it when Joe Biden proposes it.

My friends at National Review disagree with me on a conservative third party not because they dispute my diagnosis of the predicament we’re in, but because they don’t think it will get us out of it. I disagree with my friends at The Bulwark for the same reason.

The “work with the Democrats to save democracy” argument rests on a slew of faulty premises, starting with the idea that a handful of scribblers like me or Mona can have much effect on moving large numbers of voters in the first place. It also hinges on the idea that even if we could, the plan would work in obvious and foreseeable ways without compromising other commitments and principles that are also essential to democracy.

In 2016, I was told constantly that I had to not only vote for Donald Trump but, in effect, lie about his unfitness in order to “save America.” This Flight 93 catastrophism was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Democracy always needs saving. As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.” And one of the things that can destroy freedom is the ironclad conviction that if everybody doesn’t fall in line with the good guys, the bad guys will win—for all time.

I’d rather see Republicans lose than see them win by abandoning conservatism. And I’d rather see Republicans I despise win than abandon my own conservatism. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t other virtuous, decent, or even better ways to respond to the moment. Nor am I imputing bad or corrupt motives to anybody at The Bulwark or National Review. I know all the players too well to do anything of the sort. I am just trying to explain where I am coming from. I’m fully aware that I am writing for a Remnant these days. My hope is that I can play a part in the revival implied in the term.

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