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

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