They eat their (elephantine) own

There’s a famous definition of conservatism courtesy of one William Buckley, who I am still convinced looks at everything that’s come afterwards and asked himself where he screwed up (and well he should). In the first issue of National Review he published this piece, which included this bit (emphasis mine):

The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that, of course; if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

That key part has been much quoted/parodied/discussed ever since, and deservedly so — it does sum up an attitude and an ideal as pointedly as, say, ‘Workers of the world, unite!,’ and has the advantage of being pithy and brief.

But it’s also defeatist. By its own formulation, all it is doing is calling attention to something which is going to run it over and squash it. Arguably the point was that this was all it could do to begin with — thus my observation at the start, in that whatever Buckley’s obsessive ideals have been and are now, all that yelling back in the mid-1950s didn’t stop history from going forward.

In ways this ties in with my own belief in the fitful, imperfect yet steady enhancement of the American political experiment, its eventual inclusion within the bounds of the Constitution of much more than had initially been planned and/or assumed. This is the kind of talk, I realize, that drives originalists up a wall, but I’ll make no apologies for that; if I may turn the tables of stereotypes on them, too often they make it seem like only the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights counts for anything (and in these curious judicial days, even that latter part seems questionable to them), and my thought is is if they want to rule out the importance of minor things like the amendments that ended slavery and ensured women the right to vote, they have their own problems.

But there’s a larger if extremely obvious point to be made, that the definitions of what is assumed as conservatism, as much as liberalism, changes with time — carrying Buckley’s point back in time, for example, he’s essentially saying that in the 1910s he would have been standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ at said securing of the right to vote, an attitude which I rather doubt any right-leaning female voter or politico would stand for these days (though I gather Ann Coulter made one of her usual heavy-handed ‘jokes’ about that once, but who cares?).

The idea of evolution, modification and rehoning of views with time and with different circumstances has been much on the mind of the right lately, especially with the defeat of ‘classic’ conservative candidates in the Presidential primaries — someone like David Frum has argued in his book Comeback that the GOP needs to do exactly all that to survive, that the previous coalition and attitudes thereon which reigned in the days of Reagan is spent. That’s one side of the coin but another can be seen in this post from one M. Malkin the other day regarding the California GOP in particular.

Now, said California GOP is a joke. They barely have anyone worth noting on the political scene statewide at this point, and Schwarznegger as governor has always clearly been flying his membership as a flag of convenience. They are still the repository of some horrifying characters and attitudes but that’s been starting to ebb with time, even in a place like OC (though there’s still a long way to go there). But they have dimly recognized that the reason why they’re trudging along and dying by inches is a simple one — they need to grapple with things as they are now, not as they’ve been.

This said, they’re still incompetent — Malkin’s linked pieces about the Michael Kamburowski case shows that it’s the usual story of glad-handing, greased palms and whatnot (and before anyone complains, there’s been plenty of that recently among California Democrats, as anyone following the Fabian Nunez story can point to) — but what really gets her goat is the second piece she discusses where the California GOP is on the verge of refocusing its platform towards a tentative center. And she’s spitting bullets:

Move to the center? Become more like Democrats? Join the global warming fear-mongering crowd? Adopt “centrist” social positions? Marginalize conservatism as “divisive” and “strident?”

Yeah, that’ll boost GOP donations and registrations!

…which is funny, because it might.

Might, I note — I actually agree this isn’t going to immediately turn things around for the GOP here at all. But more importantly there’s a perfect storm brewing in Malkin’s head where she’s facing a practical application of the Frum formula on a major level and the danger is not that it might fail but that it might eventually succeed. If it does — and if it spreads — things could be…amusing. Well, for me at least.

And if history trundles on and leaves a Malkin-style conservatism in the dust in favor of a Frum-like one — well, neither of them are actually all that appealing to me. But a Frum-like one attempts to address a situation as it is rather than a fantasy of what it once was like, and that makes rather more sense to me. Perhaps more will think like that as well. Still, you’d think she wouldn’t complain about ‘marginalizing conservatism as “divisive” and “strident”’ — she’s already done a great job at that. But if you’re yelling ‘Stop’ all the time, who would expect otherwise?

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3 Responses to “They eat their (elephantine) own”

  1. Alfred Soto Says:

    As usual you and I are chewing over the same stuff. This post was the jolt I needed to finish something I started a few days ago.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    A reasonable assessment from this angle — it’s the sheer unsureness of what goes where and when in this transformation which is interesting. At one point years ago I fantasized a spectacular collapse of the GOP where the religious right wing in particular died a miserable death; now I imagine them in an enclosed terrarium gnawing at themselves in their misery, to paraphrase Tolkien. And I’m fine with that, frankly.

  3. Why William F. Buckley died (thanks to Bill Hobbs) « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] few days ago, I started a post this way: There’s a famous definition of conservatism courtesy of one William Buckley, who I am […]


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