Reaching for the pillars: The conservative plan is sabotage

Direct assaults on government fail because people want a secure retirement and education. So the right fights dirty

Published October 2, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)

Grover Norquist               (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
Grover Norquist (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

As the government shutdown enters its second day, let's take this occasion to look back at the original study of conservative misgovernment, "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation" (2008). Here is an excerpt, especially chosen for Salon in this time of federal closure and debt-ceiling showdowns.

Conservative crusaders have often taken up the question of what to do about government. The utopian dream is to wreck it, an impossible goal that is nevertheless the frequent object of conservative reverie. “The mystery of government is not how Washington works,” writes the humorist P. J. O’Rourke, “but how to make it stop.” There are silver-bullet theories for destroying the state: repeal the amendment that allowed for the income tax; bring back the gold standard and thus break the state’s power over money; or—most ingeniously—interpret the eminent domain clause of the Constitution so as to invalidate almost the entire body of government regulation enacted in the twentieth century.

Every now and then conservatives give it a try. “By the time we finish this poker game, there may not be a federal government left, which would suit me just fine,” boasted Tom DeLay, the spiritual leader of the Republican Congress elected in 1994. Before long DeLay and his idealistic colleagues had parlayed a budget disagreement with President Clinton into a full-blown government shutdown, which some of them celebrated as a sweet taste of things to come, an overwhelming demonstration of their supreme ideological point. Right-wing Washington chattered gleefully about how the good folks “outside the Beltway” didn’t really care about the shutdown, and Texas senator Phil Gramm took to the airwaves to scoff, “have you missed the government?”

Unfortunately, the shutdown of 1996 turned out to be a monumental political blunder that led ultimately to Bill Clinton’s reelection. All of the movement’s other direct frontal assaults come to the same end, running headlong into the solid brick wall of public sentiment. The brute fact reasserts itself every time: people like the liberal state. They like the prospect of a secure retirement, a guaranteed education for their kids, pure food, clean air, crash-free airplane trips, safe working conditions, and a minimum wage.

* * *

Realizing that they will never get to dismantle big government in this direct way is, for some conservatives, cause for despair. For example, Albert Jay Nock’s 1935 book, Our Enemy, the State—regarded as a “founding text” of the modern conservative movement—ends by claiming that “simply nothing” can be done to stop the growth of the beast. But then, this man Nock was a born pessimist. He loved to muse about how the majority of mankind were a lesser species and the only beings that mattered were a “remnant” of civilized gentlemen who persisted through this fallen age—a daft idea that he saw fit to assert in the very middle of the 1930s, the so-called proletarian decade.

Nock’s unsparing pessimism blinded him to the possibilities of his own material. Read Our Enemy, the State closely enough and it dawns on you that Nock’s caustic version of history might well provide the ideological basis for conservative governance. The state, according to Nock, is an instrument for “the economic exploitation of one class by another.” He was especially contemptuous of the New Deal, which he described as a “coup d’état” in which the shiftless “masses” rip off the hardworking few and indirectly “loot their own treasury” through such devices as Social Security.

But Nock included virtually every government in his condemnation. All states are built to steal and exploit, including the American state founded in 1776. “Wherever the state is, there is villainy,” Nock has taught generations of young conservatives: Governments are instituted among men in order to help one group in society exploit another; governments are then captured by some other class, which sets about exploiting some other group, and so on.

Albert Jay Nock didn’t approve of any of this, but that was merely because his cynical nerve failed in the end. If we contemplate this thing with the nihilistic eye of the conservative warrior, the answer to the problem of the state becomes obvious. Since there is no possible moral difference between modes of government, it doesn’t matter whether the beast is “big” or “small”; all that matters is who has captured it and whose interests it serves. The object of the political war is not really to shrink the state or shut it down; it is to capture the thing and run it—or run it into the ground—for your constituents’ benefit.

* * *

And when this bunch has finished their work, what do they tell us then? What do they have to say for themselves after they’ve lobotomized regulatory agencies, picked pointless fights with the bureaucracy, brought on budgetary crises, and turned over important federal offices to lobbyists, hacks, and cronies?

They say, with a laugh, that the only way to keep them from doing it again is for us to give up. To have a government that tries to redistribute wealth inevitably attracts the gnawing and the blighting of creatures like them. “The problem is that the federal government hands out billions of dollars, and people will lie, cheat, steal, or bribe to get it,” Grover Norquist once told a libertarian magazine.

If you have a big cake, and you put it under the sink and then you wonder why the cockroaches are in your kitchen, I don’t think any sprays or blocking the holes in the walls are going to get rid of the cockroaches. You’ve got to throw the cake in the trash so that the cockroaches don’t have something to come for.

It’s a funny thing, though: I’ve been eating cake all my life, and I’ve never had problems with cockroaches. And just as there are millions of other people whose cake-eating experiences are largely cockroach-free, so there are also millions who live under governments run by capable professionals, not hacks bent on wrecking the operation; entire countries where American-style scandals are as rare as sweatshops. But conservatives blocked out this possibility as though it were some kind of schoolboy utopia, some French absinthe dream. For these hardheaded pragmatists it is always one or zero, remember, government or no government. If you didn’t like what Norquist’s buddies did in Washington, your only alternative was to give up on economic justice altogether, to throw the whole thing in the trash.

Although Norquist made this analogy back in 1997, it was the conservative movement’s standard, all-purpose reaction to the scandals of 2005 and 2006. If you don’t like corruption, you had to do away with government. Jack Abramoff himself even made the point in a 2006 interview with Vanity Fair: “The only thing that a clever lobbyist cannot manipulate,” he said, “is the absence of something to lobby for or fight against.”

This is a theory of political venality that is deeply entangled with venality itself. When a free-market theorist says that the answer to corruption is no government and is then seconded by the leading corruptionist of the time, a “free-marketeer” who says that no government is the only way you will stop people like him, we have come very close to a union of theory and practice. Free-market theory, that is, and practices that should have turned the stomach of every believer in democracy. Seen this way, corruption is just another way to attack the liberal state, a sort of street theater in which the right-wing provocateur makes his point about government by demonstration. Give him what he wants, or he’ll do it again.

* * *

Conservatives have often discussed the vulnerability of their enemy to such acts of sabotage. The most famous example can be found in a 1964 book by the conservative political theorist James Burnham, which diagnosed liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide.” What Burnham meant by this was that liberalism’s so-called virtues—its openness and its insistence on equal rights for everyone—were in fact fatal weaknesses.

Either liberalism must extend the freedoms to those who are not themselves liberals and even to those whose deliberate purpose is to destroy the liberal society—in effect, that is, must grant a free hand to its assassins; or liberalism must deny its own principles, restrict the freedoms, and practice discrimination. It is as if the rules of football provided no penalties against those who violated the rules; so that the referee would either have to permit a player (whose real purpose was to break up the game) to slug, kick, gouge and whatever else he felt like doing, or else would have to disregard the rules and throw the unfair player out.

For its very survival, in other words, liberalism depends on fair play by its sworn enemies, making it vulnerable, as Burnham observes, to assassination, hijacking, or sabotage by any party that refuses to play by the rules.

The “suicide” that all of this was meant to describe was the destruction of the democratic West at the hands of communism, a movement in whose ranks Burnham had once marched himself. But after many flagrant decades of unsportsmanlike conduct by conservatives, his theory seems more accurately to describe the strategems of its fans on the American right.

Liberalism has indeed proven vulnerable to the tactics of its swaggering, bullying foes, but to call this suicide is like saying that your window got in the way of my brick, or that your nose smacked my fist. The correct term for the disasters that have disabled the liberal state is vandalism, conducted by a movement that refuses to play by liberalism’s rules. It loots the Treasury, dynamites the dam, takes a crowbar to the monument, and throws a wrench into the gears. It slams the locomotive into reverse, tosses something heavy on the throttle, and jumps for it.

Mainstream American political commentary, with its own touching faith in fair play, customarily assumes that the two great political parties do whatever they do as precise mirror images of each other; that if one is guilty of some misstep, the other is also automatically and equally culpable. The idea has a geometric elegance to it, and to journalists this doctrine of symmetry is especially appealing: It is a shortcut to fairness, an easy way to brush off the accusations of bias that plague them. But when applied to the political war that I have described in these pages, it serves to advance our understanding barely at all.

There is no symmetry. Liberalism, as we know it, arose out of a long-ago compromise between left-wing social movements and business interests. It depends utterly on the efficient functioning of certain organs of the state, and it does not call for some kind of all-out war on private industry. Conservatism, on the other hand, speaks not of compromise but of removing its adversaries from the field altogether. While no one dreams of sawing off those branches of the state that protect conservatism’s constituents—the military, the police, the legal privileges granted to corporations—conservatives, in their heyday, freely and openly fantasized about doing away with those bits of “big government” that served liberal ends. And while defunding the left remains the north star of the Washington right, no comparable campaign to “defund the right” exists; indeed, it would be difficult to imagine one. Even in the darkest economic times, liberals are hardly likely to crack down on the Fortune 500 with the same resourceful malevolence that business leaders, to choose one example, have used in their war on labor unions.

* * *

As I relate all these dreams of vandalism and destruction, I am reminded of the emotional eulogy given in 1983 by Jerry Falwell for Congressman Larry McDonald, the chairman of the John Birch Society, who had died on a Korean airliner that was shot down by the Soviets. McDonald, Falwell declared, was like Samson in the Bible story, killing countless Philistines (in addition to himself) by pushing the pillars out from under their house. In fact, Falwell continued, this was a metaphor for what the entire conservative movement was doing.

Like Samson, some of us are reaching for the pillars. We may not clearly see the way . . . we may be lacking in wisdom . . . but we have the will and the confidence in a God who is sovereign, and cannot fail. . . . Larry McDonald was [like Samson] a victim, a prisoner of a society moving to the left. But he never moved with it. He still was looking for the pillars. And at a certain hour on August 31, 1983 [when McDonald died], he found the pillars, one with his right hand and one with his left.

Let us pass over Falwell’s confused suggestion that McDonald’s murder was what changed America. What glares out at us here is the preacher’s desire to wreck “a society moving to the left”—to knock out its props and pancake the whole arrogant thing, even if it costs conservatives their lives.

In 1983, they were “reaching for the pillars”; twenty-five years later, we are all living with the consequences.

The middle-class America that Falwell and Co. wrecked with such gusto is not going to be easy to rebuild. For one thing, the balance of social power has been so decisively altered since those days that the political landscape itself has been radically transformed. Dramatic economic inequality of the kind conservatism has engineered has inevitably brought political inequality with it. The rich vote at higher rates than others, they contribute greater amounts to candidates, and, should they choose, they are able to afford today’s expensive campaigns for public office. They can also subsidize authors, newspaper columnists, academics, magazines, and TV shows; they can fund the careers of friendly politicians and buy off dubious ones; and they can reward right-thinking regulators and bureaucrats when these worthies’ stints in government are done. They can launch cable TV networks, buy newspapers, and bankroll think-tank operations charged with making their idiosyncratic personal ideas into the common sense of the millions.

In this sense, conservative Washington is a botch that will keep on working even after its formal demise. It defunded the constituencies of the liberal state while constructing a plutocracy that will stand regardless of who wins the next few elections and that will weight our politics rightward for years.

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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