Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Reading of Some of Frank Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black, Contra/Pro Giorgio Agamben

This blog post is the first in a series of posts examining Frank Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black. The next essay in this series will hopefully address his reading of Jacques Lacan that he undertakes early in the book. This reading is heavily indebted to readings and conversations with others, not to mention debate performances I have witnessed. Special acknowledgments go to Amber Kelsie, Damiyr Davis, Ben Crossan, Shanara Reid-Brinkley, Syndey Pasquinelli, David Herman, Terrell Taylor, and many, many others.

Frank Wilderson opens the first chapter of his study in racism Red, White, and Black: The Structure of Antagonisms in U.S. Cinema at what seems to be a common starting point for many academics, especially those who tend to locate their scholarly conversations in houses that go by various names like “post-structuralism” or the now mostly out of vogue “postmodernism:” the Holocaust. Alighting on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose ruminations on the Muselmann serve as a kind of stand in for Western philosophy’s fixation on the intelligibility of the event of the Holocaust if not, as Wilderson will claim, the intelligibility of the suffering that renders it as a thinkable event.  This blog post will interrogate Wilderson’s use of Agamben as a point of departure and argue that contemporary dynamics of international violence suggest a reading of affinity between the two.[1]
            Starting at the Holocaust as a point of academic reference enables Wilderson to undermine it by pointing to the ways in which its historical uniqueness should be regarded not as a taken for granted fact but instead as a political status that serves to write over or perhaps frame out other modalities of suffering, especially in the Middle Passage of American slavery and Native American genocide.[2] Why, Wilderson asks, are scholars comfortable with situating the Holocaust as the central tragedy of Western existence when the dynamics at play in Europe from 1939-1945—in which sentient beings were stripped of their humanity, physically segregated, systematically used for labor, and gratuitously murdered for no reason—have been witnessed not only elsewhere but also chronologically earlier? Scholarly uptake of this particular Eurocentrism effects a positioning of “the German/Jewish relation as the sine qua non of structural antagonism, thus allowing political philosophy to attribute ontological—and not just social—significance to the Jewish Holocaust.”[3]
            To further unsettle this fixation, Wilderson turns to the work of black theorist/insurrectionist Frantz Fanon, drawing on his description of the Holocaust as a “little family quarrel” to suggest that the Holocaust was a moment when Jewish bodies occupied a position of “Blackness and Redness” rather than heralding the dawning of some new, ontological regime of life management. Key to this analysis is Fanon’s distinction between social and structural versions of violence, which Wilderson frames as the difference between “oppression” and “suffering.” The Black “suffers” while the Jew is “oppressed,” suggesting that suffering functions ontologically to structure reality while oppression is a contingent state of violation that may be recognized and interrupted by actors in civil society. To give one example, today nostalgia reigns supreme for the America of “The Greatest Generation” that is said to have liberated the concentration camps and defeated fascism. Evidence for this is easy enough to find in the rhetorical archive of presidential address given in the conduct of the war on terror, where we find analogies throughout that conflate Al Qaeda with Hitler and robust American citizens with G.I.’s rolling across Western Europe.[4] For Wilderson, the fact that we can mark a starting and stopping point of the Holocaust suggests its social rather than ontological character: no such judgment is yet warranted regarding the treatment of the Black body.
            The language of positionality in Wilderson’s reading is a point of interest. How can the Jew, for example, occupy the position of the Black and remain the Jew? As Wilderson argues, “Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews, Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks.”[5] The structure of his argument indicates that during the Holocaust Jewish people did occupy the same position of abjection, violation, and invisibility that Blacks occupy. No doubt Wilderson’s argument regarding positionality serves as a strong rebuttal to critiques, on both left and right, of typical “identity politics” characteristic of especially the “culture wars” of the 1990’s in America. Multiculturalism, political designs scripted for inclusion, affirmative action, and demands for “positive” representation of Blacks in media and cinema: this conglomeration of social policies all mistake the absence of robust Black participation in civil society to signal a contingent failure of the political regime of liberalism rather than a deeper, structural issue with how a regime of political life actually demands a negation of the sentience of some beings so that others might live in society as what Aristotle called politikon zoon, political life.[6]
            Indeed, my reference to Aristotle is no accident given how operative definitions of life circumscribe the political economy of argument circulation. In the same book (The Politics) where he gives this definition of life he also offers a philosophical justification for slavery, in holding that there are simply some beings that are suited to rule and there are other beings that are suited to being ruled. Wilderson would hold that this line of reasoning has yet to be interrupted in the West, and the insistence by many on marking moments of “liberation” like the Civil War, legislation for Civil Rights, and victories in war elides or, to say it more precisely, produces the ontological continuity of existence as a thing possessed by all but Blacks. Perhaps no better example exists in Wilderson’s book than in the introduction where he refers to James Baldwin’s failed friendship with Norman Mailer, who “wrote about ‘the terrible gap between [Norman Mailer’s] life and my own.’” Mean that “His long Paris nights with Mailer bore fruit only to the extent that Mailer was able to say  ‘Me, too” in response to Baldwin’s own stories about the depths of his experience of exclusion and abjection in a society constituted by racism.[7]
What Wilderson is suggesting is that ontological violence structures communicative exchanges so that Black arguments never enjoy the force of presumption on their side. I say Black arguments rather than “Black arguments from experience” because I hold that all argumentation is characterized by the argument from experience.  The hierarchy of arguments, from best to worst, is not decided upon by some objective external arbiter of rightness and wrongness. Rather, familiarity tethers arguments to subjects, who mistake the inertia of intelligibility for a token of “right” argumentation instead of as a mark of their own ideological affinity for the given performative argumentative practices.  Baldwin attempted to traverse the gap between his world and Mailer’s, and failed, repeatedly, because much of what he lived was simply incomprehensible to Mailer. Wilderson holds that racial antagonism structured the gulf between the two in such a way that it cannot properly be called “misunderstanding” but instead should be understood as “incommensurability.” Baldwin came to realize that he was articulating his own existence on a communicative plane that was structured in such a way that only to the extent that his life experiences could be made to conform to existing matrices of intelligibility possessed by White society would his life be recognized.
Where external authority conditions life on that life’s capacity to behave in a manner intelligible to said authority, that life cannot be said to exist except as the conditional fuel for the authority of the community which, by virtue of presumption, stands in judgment of what communicative acts or are not worthy. Civil society’s authority, embodied by those who take its existence for granted in their acts of judgment and communication to judge, comes from a double movement of, “Me too” but mostly, “Not me” that simultaneously confirms the capacity of the mass public to render judgment over the appropriateness of argumentation while at the same time consigning that which is not intelligible i.e. Black argumentation to a separate sphere.
            Wilderson’s argument has far reaching implications for those in communication studies who remain interested in rendering accounts of how deliberative practices and institutional action do or do not succeed in achieving certain goals, either thought of in terms of constituting material benchmarks through traditional metrics (legislative change, changes in legal interpretation) or in a more Between Facts and Norms sense of moving the needle in terms of expanding the repertoire of forms and practices of argumentation  that civil society is capable of recognizing as “political.” Wilderson has no compunction about aligning himself with the academic movement of what is called Afro-pessimism because in his view, the structural exclusion of the Black from society ensures that efforts at expansionary inclusion emanating from the mass public serve only to confirm the authority of that public to judge while at the same time routinely failing to address the structural conditions of exclusion. I am cheating a bit here by splitting them into two functions, actually. It is really the case that the confirmation of the mass public’s capacity to judge perpetuates the structural conditions of exclusion. Despite Wilderson’s decision to place Giorgio Agamben in his crosshairs in the opening of his book, I believe that Agamben’s account of the distinction between bare life and political life offers an elegant supplement that explains the rhetorical mechanisms for the production of the process Wilderson identifies.
            In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Agamben outlines his case for how the dispossession of populations comes to function structurally as opposed to contingently. Working from the Aristotelian distinction between life with the capacity for political speech, political life, and life which is incapable of signifying, bare life, Agamben suggests political actors utilize a rhetoric that elevates “the good life,” that is, life which exists above the realm of pure biological existence and into the realm of shared speech, politics. Elevating political life, however, requires that political life be defined against some other version of life, and that other form of life is bare life. Political philosophy has defended Western political institutions on the basis not of their capacity to protect a Hobbesian social contract, that is, the basis to secure bare life, but instead on the basis to provide for the good life. Michel Foucault engineered this turn in thinking politics in The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, where he identified emerging tendencies on the part of the government to rationalize interventions as means of enabling populations not just to live, but also to live well and in a certain way. Such rationales represent racialized thought because they discriminate between various and sundry populations to the extent that some ways of living are valued and prioritized over and above others.
            By the time he wrote State of Exception Agamben was applying his thesis to the conduct of internal politics and especially the war on terror. It should be noted that he does not think the war on terror is a unique example of the politicization of bare life, only that it is one among many available in what he says is now, following Walter Benjamin, a state of permanent exception in which populations find themselves “bare” and thus vulnerable to management, dispossession, and extermination at the hands of the sovereign. These bodies suffer the violence of sovereignty, included only to feel its force, but are otherwise excluded from participation. In this way a simple topographical distinction between inside and outside is not enough, but a threshold, “a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other.”[8]
            Let me give an example of this process. Many of George W. Bush’s speeches in the wake of September 11th spoke of the Al Qaeda and the nations that harbored them as barbaric threats to Western civilization. At the same time that these populations were described in these terms, America continued to conduct a campaign of vigilant military attack on these nations, attacks which created and intensified numerous political and infrastructural deficiencies faced by countries which were often already struggling with developmental deficits that indexed not only the legacy of colonialism but also their position on the periphery rather than center of the global order. Existing cultural differences, especially religious and ethnic, were played up in media accounts of the condition’s facing women in nations like Afghanistan. At the same time that political rhetoric emanating from the West suggested that these nations were politically bereft and thus in need of Western military intervention, sanctions, international scorn, and that military intervention worked to verify the rhetorical account of these nations as backwards and outside of the world of Western “political” life. They were inside sovereignty only to the extent that they faced the exercise of sovereign violence but constitutively excluded in all other ways.
            So the question: would Wilderson recognize the strife between Western Europe and the populations in the East as a “family quarrel” following Fanon’s analysis of the Holocaust? Would the position of Afghanistan be contingent in his view, i.e. occupying a position of the Black but only until there comes to be a recognition of something shared between Afghanistan and the West? Would this recognition depend upon what Wilderson, building on the work of Sadiya Hartman, would call the “fungibility” of the idea of violence as applied to the black body? Those who are both geographically segregated from the West and also marked ethnically will probably not be permitted to symbolically “enter” the West anytime soon. And if the soft, permanent electronic euthanasia of drone strikes is any indicator, civil society’s capacity to perceive the bodies of those like the son of Anwar Awlaki is seriously denuded.  While some Western theorists, chief among them Agamben, are capable of ascertaining similar characteristics in the Holocaust and the ongoing war on terror, one would be hard pressed to identify this analogical mode of thinking as anything approaching dominant or ascendant, which suggests a level of permanence to the position of bare life in the war on terror as constitutively excluded.
            This example emphasizes that Wilderson and Agamben have strikingly similar accounts of suffering. Both suggest that for certain bodies the difference from other bodies is one of kind rather than degree. That is, for Wilderson the slave is ontologically distinct from the body that is included in civil society. Similarly, Agamben holds that bare life is in a position of abjection, subject to the vicissitudes of violent sovereignty by virtue of an inclusion whose only index is the body’s subjection to violence.
            But there is one important seeming distinction: while Wilderson and Agamben both render the violence as ontological in the sense that it absolutely denies the humanity and agency of those upon it is visited, Agamben reads the emptiness of sovereignty’s authority—here I would say its rhetorical basis—as a sign of hope rather than the pessimism that Wilderson suggests.  As he says in State of Exception the lack of a “substantial articulation” between violence and law, that is, the fact that the relationship is established through tautology rather than through appeal to some kind of external authority, suggests that the inability to distinguish between violence and the law is itself a resource for political action, one that could demonstrate that emptiness.[9] Wilderson on the other hand believes that the investment in authority for authority’s sake is evidence that there is no chance for the slave to exist in the world because the slave’s existence is what makes the world possible. As he says it, “No slave, no world” because of both how the physical labor of slavery makes our existing world possible and also how the symbolic figure of the slave secures, through various and sundry means, the intelligibility of civil society itself.
            Above I mark the distinction as “seeming” because I think the attitudinal difference between the two thinkers is much less than the shared explanation both give for the way in which political action sediments hierarchies to the detriment of bodies that have no access to those political worlds. Both Agamben and Wilderson indicate that the authority of civil society is generated by tautological exercises of sovereign power the ground themselves in their own assumption of authority. Agamben suggests that sovereignty anticipates its own success to close off alternative perspectives while Wilderson argues that anti-blackness works as a paradigm by rendering a constitutively impossibility arguments and actions which might testify to its own self-investment in authority. Wilderson and Agamben both outline theories of political exclusion that argue some forms of life are given priority over other forms of life, and the unintelligibility of those other forms of life is the grist for the mill of civil society and politics, respectively. Wilderson’s point regarding Agamben’s focus on the Holocaust is a necessary one, but contemporary situations of global violence also suggest that there may be a level of permanence to the state of exception that argues more for a reading of affinity between the two rather than a theorization of their opposition.

[1] I am excited to interrogate further how Agamben is read by Jared Sexton, Achille Mbembe, and others. I have not yet had a chance to do that.
[2] Frank Wilderson, Red, White, and Black: The Structure of Antagonisms in U.S. Cinema, Durham: Duke University Press, (2010) p. 36
[3] Ibid.
[4] For more see David Noon, “Operation Enduring Anslogy” in Rhetoric & Public Affairs
[5] Wilderson, Red, White, and Black p. 38
[6] Aristotle, The Politics
[7] Wilderson 11
[8] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, p. 23
[9] State of Exception, p. 87

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Return to the Hudson Institute Symposium on the Prospects for Conservative Populism

This is part 2 in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing key ideological and messaging documents in American conservatism from 2009-present.

2010 was a heady time for American conservatism. Not only had it seen the election of a Republican, Scott Brown, in a special election to replace the recently departed Ted Kennedy, but conservatism had a certain energy and momentum not seen since at least since the 1994 Congressional wave, which saw a crowd of Republicans elected alongside the promise to produce a new “Contract with America.” Of course, what distinguished the activity of 2010 was that where Newt Gingrich and others used an implicit theory of American populism tethered to slogans intelligible to an audience stuck in the midst of what were then called the “culture wars,” fought primarily over topics like gays in the military, affirmative action, and abortion, to name a few.

Amidst the rise of the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party and small electoral victories that portended a very successful November for Republicans, the Hudson Institute hosted a symposium bringing together key conservative pundits and politicians to discuss the supposed paradox at the heart of the Tea Party’s rise: if conservatism seeks to “conserve” institutions and morals, how can one reconcile a populist movement with conservative ideology, given that “the people” are often and unpredictable mass who threaten to undermine established institutions and orders?

I have already examined some of this dialogue on the blog in the past, but today I want to look at a different passage, one that focuses most directly on the air of “authenticity” that surrounds emerging social movements. After a lengthy discussion between Jonah Goldberg, Michael Barone, Dick Armey, Mike Pence (R-IN) and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, the panelists get into audience questions, and one member asks about the Tea Party’s relationship to a certain kind of populist libertarianism represented by Ron Paul:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Here was an interesting political poll where they actually went and asked Tea Party people who showed up to rally—that’s different than calling people on the phone and asking whether they support the Tea Party. They asked them with which politician they most identify. Half said Sarah Palin, which makes sense for the point that you made, Bill Kristol, but the other half said Ron Paul. I was actually interested to hear the panelists’ thoughts about how Ron Paul has been kind of caught up in the Tea Party movement, and the extent to which lower-case-l libertarians are part of the Tea Party movement.

RICHARD ARMEY: This point was raised earlier. There is a word that you used that binds. There is a symbiotic word between Ron Paul, the Tea Party activists, and Sarah Palin. The word is “authentic.” And that’s why they’re feared. They’re real. They’re not plastic. They’re not manufactured. They’re not staged. They’re not choreographed. They’re who they are. Ron Paul is who he is, bless is heart. He’s unique; there’s only one like him. There’s one who is similar Not quite the same. You know? And Sarah Palin is authentic. This drives the left nuts. They believe in a world where ceremony triumphs over substance. Scenario over science. And authenticity? It’s like Jack Nicholson said; they just can’t handle the truth. They’re all truth, whether you like them or not. They are what they are. What you see is what you get. And it’s authentic. They have a certain affinity for—why do we grassroots activists find Ron Paul and Sarah Palin attractive? Well, they’re real. We just really don’t know how much we can say that about most people holding or seeking office. Are they really real, or are they staged? We don’t like staged; we’ve had enough of it. So I would say, “authentic” is the (inaudible).

What really sticks out here in Armey’s comments is the insistence that the Tea Party is a natural and organic movement. Indeed, this sentiment is found throughout the document where appeals to “authenticity” or “the grassroots” come up around every other page or so. Armey suggests that Tea Partiers are animated by the same kind of energy that fuels Ron Paul supporters and supporters of Sarah Palin: that is, some kind of gut feeling that something is wrong, and that they are right to be fed up and frustrated with the way the world is. Indeed, the audience member’s question directs a reader to this interpretation, with the framing of how actual interviews produce a response different from that which can be gleaned from phone polls.

As Armey says of the Tea Partiers “They are what they are. What you see is what you get.” For Armey, liberal concern and anxiety about what the Tea Party means indexes the importance of a visible and agitative conservative presence: its existence cannot be denied. “Realness” and “authenticity” as key criteria also explain why what sometimes seem idiosyncratic or folksy characteristics of figures like Paul or Palin do not, as their critics hold, undermine their fitness for national office. Instead, they testify to the ease audiences have with identifying with these figures precisely because they represent a kind of style or persona that is not typical to “insider, D.C.” style politics.  This was an especially important argument in the 2010 political environment because it was this disease of crony insiderism that many argued caused the government to unfairly bail out the big financial institutions that had caused the 2008 financial crisis.

As I and others have argued, conservatism won a number of victories through managing to not “appear” explicitly in public as an interest based political formation but instead as a more or less disembodied cultural formation that worked to conserve an existing body of traditional practices and political beliefs.[i] Reports framed the 2008 presidential election as a momentous moment in nation-making, in which America finally broke through the color barrier at the presidential level. At the same time, many headlines after the election portended doom and gloom for a rapidly shrinking conservative demographic of mostly older and white voters.

Armey’s insistence that one cannot deny the existence of the Tea Party cannot be disarticulated from this political context. Nor is it for nothing that the forum hosted by the Hudson Institute was about populism. Populism is not so much an ideology as a political style according to works like those of Michael Kazin and Michael Lee.[ii] Populist argumentation is characterized by the central claim that the population of a nation is better positioned to determine its policy direction that a policy elite. “The people” tend to be summoned as a counter-hegemonic force, emerging to speak with democratic legitimacy against outrages or transgressions that the nation’s population can simply no longer tolerate.

This document represents one quite typical of conservative thought from early 2009 to at least 2011. There is a focus throughout on the resentment derived from bank bailouts, and the authenticity of the public’s fury against them. There is a palpable sense that conservatism is a people’s movement. (Elsewhere in the transcript, Jonah Goldberg is appropriately wary of this claim). “The people” are mostly articulated to two values: limited government and the Constitution.

When looking for guidance about the extensive policy gridlock and partisanship that has accurately described the last four years in Washington, D.C., a document like this tells a very clear story. The animating principle of this particular version of populism is negativity: “the people” are against bailouts, against government, against cronyism, and against overreach. There are no real clear singular policies which can serve as the means to concretize the demands of the movement. With the bar set through these negative demands for an “authentic” movement that establishes its truth simply by virtue of its opposition to the existing system, one begins to see at least one cause of conservative policy decline: the expectation is not that they will engage in particular modes of governance but simply that they will, as a matter of principle, oppose governing.

[i] For more see Michael Warner’s “The Mass Public and Mass Subject” and Lauren Berlant’s wonderful book The Queen of America Goes to Washington City
[ii] Michael Kazin The Popular Persuasion and Michael Lee “The Populist Chameleon” in Quarterly Journal of Speech

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Rhetorical Analysis of “Reform Restore, Modernize—An Agenda to Restore the American Dream”

I’m beginning a project over the next month or so to analyze key conservative policy documents, manifestos, conference proceedings, and white papers from 2009 to present. The hope is that I might generate some sense about the depths of what some have alternately theorized as a demographic and/or policy crisis in conservative politics. My working hypothesis is that existing discrepancies between conservative political programs for specific policy change and those of progressive organizations reflect conservatism facing a difficult choice. On the one hand, conservatives managed to squeeze 40 years of governing dominance out of the post-64 political landscape, crafting a political alliance around shared feelings of marginality and anxiety, taking Nixon’s “silent majority” and letting it speak with policy dominance by the time of Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Triangulation by entities like the DLC and Bill Clinton testified not to enormous Democratic success but instead to the power of this conservative rearrangement of what Cindy Patton calls “political space” in America. The 2008 and to a lesser extent the 2012 presidential elections, however, find conservatism trapped between rehashing its same tired appeals to a shrinking demographic base or embracing policy changes that might alienate members of either its fiscal or social policy base.

I begin today by examining a very recent statement regarding the core values of modern conservatism, entitled “Reform, Restore, Modernize—An Agenda to Restore the American Dream.” The document comes out of recent meetings of top political conservatives like Ted Cruz (R-Texas). A recent Jim Pethokoukis column in The Week did well to analyze the document from a Right economic position: he bemoans the “time-travel tale” of the document which, he argues, the only thing holding us back from a new moment of American dominance is a return to Reagan-style economics.

Pethokoukis’ argument is insightful, but I am not here to comment on macroeconomic virtues and vices. Instead, I want to examine this statement for the type of appeal it crafts, what sort of audience it imagines. After all, conservatism faces a historically unique challenge at this moment to hold together a coalition commentators tend to divide into social and fiscal conservatives.  Social policy claims about the necessity of defending traditional institutions of family and society are withering as support for gay marriage reaches historical highs. At the same time, real wages have stagnated against inflation, creating an opportunity for economic appeals to carve out broader new constituencies. The post-2008 bailout fury created an opening for economic populism, one that was seized on by a coalition of political organizations and motivated individuals to crest in the wave of political organization that found its greatest gains in the 2010 midterms.

Actual economic populism, however, is of limited political utility for conservatives (and perhaps Democrats, depending on how strongly you view the capture of the Democratic party by corporate interests). Economic populism does not discriminate, its advocates work by sketching Manichean lines between those at the center of an economic hierarchy and a virtuous “people” unjustly positioned at that periphery. Uncorking economic populism, as many did after 2008, did a lot of important work to guide intense feelings into political action at the polls. But it also intensified rather than alleviated the political crunch facing conservatism, namely: the principles behind economic populism draw on feelings of marginalization and victimage that often appear in public in exactly the kinds of statements and images that might be most off-putting to emerging demographics to which conservatives will have to appeal to survive in the political long term. So when Rick Perry focuses on a narrative about the “Makers and the Takers” in his presidential campaign in 2012, and others like Red State’s Erick Erickson engage in the rhetoric of the “53% vs. 43%” with reference to those who pay taxes and those who don’t, economic populism shows its seedy and, demographically counterproductive, underside.

At the same time, conservatives tend to favor policies that include less regulation, fewer taxes, and more freedom for enterprise. Unsurprisingly, these policies are generally favored by large businesses because of the way they enable freer commerce and impose fewer restrictions on businesses. It is in the short-term electoral interest of conservatism to thus cultivate rage against economic injustice, but absolutely fatal to its long term interests, unless one believes that there is more blood to be squeezed from the turnip of trickle down economics. Complicating matters further are emerging demographic issues: economic populism tends to appeal to xenophobic elements of American political culture, meaning that the “people” of economic populism will often be defined narrowly in ways that eliminate economically beneficial proposals like comprehensive immigration reform from consideration. Thus economic populism might well be aimed at the core constituencies of the GOP rather than at the opposing party.

Documents like the one I am about to analyze, then, emerge on difficult terrain. They increasingly try to do the impossible, threading a needle between maintaining rage about current economic circumstances while also encouraging political fealty to ideology that encourages fewer, not more, regulations and restrictions on the very large entities to which much of this blame is directed. “Crony capitalism” is a key term used by conservatives to try to massage out this political knot, as it offers a way to conflate governance and business to politically productive ends. However, the concept has to do an awful lot of legwork to maintain the conservative constituency. I want to suggest in this post that at least one section of the document fails to do so.

The document opens with a reference to the American founding. This reference to the founding is an exceedingly common reference in post-2008 conservative political materials. No doubt, the reference to the founding, a supposedly neutral point of origination of the nation, serves as a place around which all conservatives should be able to gather. The Founders themselves are then described as figures that “sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty, and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.” One especially interesting note in that passage is the phrase “republican self-government,” which is seemingly redundant. Is not all republicanism governance from within? After all, governance from without is not considered governance, per se, or at least is certainly not regarded as legitimate. Going out of their way to frame the matter as one of republican self-government suggests this document will in part attempt to continue to constitute its audience in a populist manner that focuses on the importance of self-government as a concept.

The document then moves on to use the term “fusion” to describe the marriage between economic and social conservatives. The reference to fusion no doubt calls to mind the ideology of 1950’s conservative Frank Meyer, whose “fusionism” sought to bridge the gap between traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-Communists. The framing here is almost one of chastisement, as it argues that Constitutional conservatism “reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key” to a healthy America.

At least one issue the authors of these documents are confronting is that Meyer’s “fusionism” probably always fell short of the name. It is more proper, in fact, to speak of something like “covalent bonds” produced by mid-century conservatives rather than the act of atomic reconfiguration suggested by the metaphor of fusion. The interests of “national security” conservatives (then anti-Communists), economic conservatives, and social conservatives were linked, yes, but more by the careful cultivation of certain attitudes rather than the production of a philosophical schema capable of resolving what might prove, logically, to be fatal contradictions.[1] What they held in common were not political ideologies, per se, but instead shared positions of political marginality.

It comes as little surprise, then, that the document then uses a fair amount of combative language to describe the “restoration” of America.  The authors are “fighting to retake and resolutely defend” American principles. Metaphors of conflict and battle tend to suggest an antagonistic situation wherein the stakes of the political battle are themselves existential. These are not matters of disagreement, but instead survival. Rather than resolving the messy debate about fusionism, one which the 2008 and 2012 elections emphasized represented a crisis for conservatism by way of demographics, conservative political documents like this one have to double down on principles of union through persuasive concepts of popular unity and togetherness instead of tangible policy proposals that might offer a way forward only at the risk of fracturing the base.

After priming the audience both for a fight but also suggesting that what is to come is a reminder about what America “really” is, the document moves into its elucidation of areas of policy and specific recommendations for the achievement of goals in this area. The areas are “An Agenda for American Recovery and Growth”,” “An Agenda for a Stronger and More Peaceful America,” An Agenda for Cultural Renewal and the American Family,” and “An Agenda to Hold Government Accountable by Preserving the Constitution.”

Under the section entitled “An Agenda for American Recovery and Growth” one finds a call that reforms should “reward hard work” while also creating “ a level playing field for everyone.” The document also animates this vision with the idea of the “who” that should benefit from this recovery. The “middle class” appears twice in this section along with “ordinary people” and “hard-working American families.”  There are also four references to either “taxes” or “taxpayers.” And for good measure, there are five instances of reference to “everyone.”  The population that deserves this playing field is positioned almost exclusively in opposition to the government. In each of the four major captions the actor preventing Americans from realizing their potential is “excessive regulations,” “Washington’s fiscal mess…government spending,” “ineffective government programs,” and “ Obamacare.” When it comes to the economy, the effervescent powers of all Americans, it seems, would shine if only the government would get out of the way.

When the document then moves to the specifics, suggestions remain somewhat generic. Under the subheading “Restore a Fiscally Accountable Government that Works for Everyone, Not Just Washington” for example, there are seven bullet points six of which represent somewhat empty or impossible demands. They do, however, articulate to a set of political subjects that many conservatives have taken on as pet projects during the Obama administration.

The first bullet points reads “Pass Congressional rules that require balanced budgets, responsibility and accurate accounting.” This point touches on several important political nodes of interest. It connects to public anger and resentment over the bailouts of in the fall of 2008. which many thought represented “irresponsible” spending. It also connects to a series of common talking points raised against the stimulus bill, namely that it was implicated in corruption (hence the reference to questionable accounting practices as implicitly problematic) and was also charged with running up the deficit.

The second bullet point reads “Pass spending levels that adhere to discretionary limits already promised in law.” This point touches on common claims about the problematic lack of a budget during the Obama administration and also taps into general resentment against government spending on social service programs.  The budget argument has been well documented by Dave Weigel and others: with political gridlock at historical highs (link to recent Atlantic article) following certain ordinary points of budgetary order is not a practical option for a government that has to keep operating. Moreover, “discretionary spending” is a term of art that refers to moments where the Congress utilizes its power of the purse to fund the actions of federal agencies. This is the precise kind of spending that continues without authorization in a new specific piece of legislation in lieu of passage of a robust and full budget document. At the same time that the call appeals to those who follow the ins and outs of budget disputation, the term “discretionary” itself might signal otherwise to a less wonkish audience. “Discretion” implies a strong agent-centered notion of choice. Hence the government is in the business of exercising its discretion to decide what does and does not receive funding. Where parts of conservative communities are caught up in discourses fueled by images of “makers and takers,” where the latter vote Democratic just for “free stuff,” the idea of reigning in “discretionary” spending might mean something quite different for many different conservative audiences of this document.

The next statement reads “End fraud and overpayments that send taxpayer dollars to those who abuse the system.” Such a statement connects directly to a number of budget and spending controversies as well as debates over health care. Indeed, one of the primary talking points in favor of the Affordable Care Act was that it would lower health care costs. A key rebuttal to this point was that simply tightening screws on waste and fraud in government programs like Medicare would achieve substantial budget tightening.  Similarly, ideas of fraud circulate intensely in debates over federal spending on social services like food stamps/programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as myths like the “welfare queen” refuse to die.

The next statement about ending “direct payments to private companies based on connections instead of the best product” wades into a retroactive debate about the stimulus bill (less well known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Solyndra controversy, in which the government invested stimulus funding into a solar panel company that went belly-up, constitutes a key political talking point for many conservatives, who argue that the result of a cozy, cronyist relationship between the Obama administration and Solyndra officials resulted in a bad investment.  And of course the notes about paying companies “based on connections” also serves to generate a connection to frustration with the bank bailouts, which were perceived to have emerged in part due to a cozy relationship between federal financial regulators and large financial entities.

The next claim is that the government should refuse to authorize the Export/Import bank, an entity that guarantees loans to foreign entities that purchase U.S. export.  The Ex-Im bank finds itself the convenient target for “cronyism” which seems to target any relationship between government and business, and in this case the fact that the bank guarantees loans to foreigners makes it an easy target because (ostensibly) the entities it benefits are not American, although on balance the bank represents a net gain for American commerce.

The document then turns back to 2008, arguing that the government must “Stop pumping tens of billions into big banks at the expense of average Americans.” The clear reference to the 2008 bailouts reflects abiding discontentment with the financial crisis and its management as a key factor animating conservative politics. Especially given the language of “average Americans,” the statement not only works by stating that the present is a moment when the government is pumping billions into large banks, but also positions these large corporations as the opposite of “the people,” indicting the government for its decision to side with them.

The next statement reads “Reform financial and banking laws that enshrine permanent bank bailouts in law.” This statement works through a version of sleight of hand and refers to the Dodd-Frank banking reform legislation passed in the wake of the 2008 crisis. In fact, Dodd-Frank does not legally codify bank bailouts in law, it only says that banks which are valued over a certain amount are “systematically important” to the economy and thus eligible to receive federal assistance. By conflating a legal obligation with a legal option the statement makes it seem like Dodd-Frank, which in many senses restricted large banks, actually benefited them.

At this point, it makes sense to pause and take a breath. I have analyzed only one of a total of sixteen different subheadings within the document. I probably return to analyze a few others at some point. But it is fair to say that the economy has been the dominant political issues for the GOP over the last 5 years, along with Obamacare. Indeed, a large percentage of the rhetorical case against health care reform was tied to arguments suggesting it would harm the economy. One should expect that this document, representing the statements and opinions of some key GOP leaders on economics, would have a bit more to it. Instead it seems much more interested in reminding folks of how they feel instead of generating proposals that aim at resolving the cause of that anxiety and fear.

The various and sundry dog whistles buried in the document, including references to the stimulus, Obamacare, Solyndra, and welfare, just to name a few, suggest that conservatives are experts at referring to certain scandals and crises so long as their audience has already been primed to become interested in them. But, one wonders what sort of broader constituency this document imagines. (Indeed, a look through the other sections does not inspire much optimism). There are zero references to immigration in the document. Issues valued by traditionalists like gay marriage are instead briefly mentioned only obliquely through references to "traditional family structures." 

A document that tries to be something for all Americans is not a very useful political document. Moreover, a document that fails to bring to the table some positive and active sense of a political agenda suggests that conservatism remains locked in a self-sustaining feedback loop of political negativity. Conservatives oppose Big Government, a weak economy, waste, fraud, and unfairness. With the exception of the first of this quintet, none of these represent meaningful partisan difference out of which politicians make hay. And even the point about size of government seems to have been squeezed within an inch of its life, as debates over the debt ceiling and budget suggest making meaningful inroads into the deficit will require substantial cuts to very popular government programs, including Medicare, the military, and social security. The path forward remains murky for conservatism, at best.

Next in the series I will examine the transcript of a Hudson Institute symposium on the prospects of conservative populism, and the contradictions therein.

[1] It might be said that the bond was true fusion to the extent that it could be manufactured by the unity of skepticism the three groups shared towards black Americans. I think this description would also apply to numerous Democrats who switched parties during the 1960’s.  That a substantial portion of the disorder of the 1960’s was raced by virtue of its attachment to the struggle for civil rights lends credence to this judgment.