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.

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