Zack Stanton's interview with George Will for Politico a few days ago pretty much equated American conservatism, a political philosophy, with the Republican Party. Stanton introduced him by noting that, though he still seems to be at the heart of the DC establishment and the Republican Establishment, "the intellectual conservatism he embodies is without an obvious political home." Will told him that the Trump years "made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked." He wasn't thinking about the hijackers being the Democratic Establishment that has slipped seamlessly into comfortable conservatism as the Republican Party has more and more pursued authoritarianism and fascism.
Stanton wrote that "Now, what society thinks of as 'conservatism' is different. To Will, this is not unlike the trend of self-identified conservative evangelical Christians whose identity is based not in scripture but in cultural totems. In one sense, yes, they’re Christians, but in another, what does that term mean if divorced from scripture? What does 'conservative' mean when politics is, as Will describes it, now 'cut off from anything other than making one’s adherents feel good?' To Will, this is a fundamental change in what society understands politics to be. 'Grievances-- which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious-- are very difficult to address with "politics" understood as "legislation and policy," Will said. 'If people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It’s very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. … What do you do politically? I don’t get it.'... What does American conservatism mean in 2021?"
Well, what it has come to mean-- and what is not just about the GOP-- was on full display in a NY Times report on Sunday by Jesse Drucker and Danny Hakim: How Accounting Giants Craft Favorable Tax Rules from Inside Government. It's a story of DC's revolving door and displayed what happens when conservatism and capitalism merge. "In the last four presidential administrations," wrote Drucker and Hakim, "there were at least 35 instances of round trips from big accounting firms through Treasury’s tax policy office, along with the Internal Revenue Service and the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, and back to the same firm, according to public records and interviews with government and industry officials. In at least 16 of those cases, the officials were promoted to partner when they rejoined their old accounting firms. The firms often double the pay of employees upon their return from their government sojourns. Some partners end up earning more than $1 million a year. Federal rules prohibit government officials from working on many matters in which they have financial interests, like having an unwritten agreement to return to their prior firm. The purpose of the rules is to avoid having officials beholden to private parties instead of working on behalf of the public, though it is hard to prove the existence of such financial entanglements." I recommend you read the whole report. Reading it caused Missouri populist Senate candidate Lucas Kunce to tweet:
Shervin Aazami is the progressive reformer running for Congress in the San Fernando Valley seat occupied by do-nothing corporate Dem Brad Sherman. "The revolving door between corporations and elected officials,"he told me this morning, "does not observe party lines-- the only thing it observes is profit. And when it comes to corporate profit, both parties are lucrative options. In the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, both parties came together to enact provisions that opened the floodgates for Wall Street private equity firms to take over the housing industry. Both parties have come together multiple times to bail out health insurance companies. Right now before Congress, three Democrats who've collectively taken millions from Big Pharma tanked a committee vote on drug pricing reform. In fact, when you look at total political donations from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in 2020 you'll see that a comparable amount went to both parties-- 53% went to Democrats while 44% went to Republicans. Or take the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin-- in 2020, about 51% of their donations went to Democrats and 45% went to Republicans. The party lines quite literally start to blur together when it comes to the stranglehold of corporate political power. In my view, there is no greater cancer on our democracy than the corporatization of both electoral and legislative politics. That is why it's so important to elect corporate-free progressives up and down the ballot across the country. Getting money out of politics is probably the single greatest thing we could do to save our democracy."
Or, if you want to know more about DC conservatism, you could read Judd Legum's and Tesnim Zakeria's essay posted this morning at Popular Information: The Manchin Industry. "While Manchin has acknowledged that fossil fuels contribute to climate change," they wrote, "he is planning to craft the climate portion of the reconciliation bill to 'protect and extend the use of coal and natural gas.' Manchin will have plenty of help from a phalanx of former staffers who are paid to represent the fossil fuel and energy industry. A Popular Information review of the Senate Lobbying Database found that six former Manchin staffers are currently listed on 15 lobbying contracts with fossil fuel and energy companies. Collectively, these contracts are worth $2.4 million per year. These lobbyists 'spend much of their time serving as professional Manchin whisperers, advising clients on how Manchin thinks and, in some cases, lobbying his office.' Lobbying rules allow former staffers to lobby their old bosses after one year... Manchin is the top recipient of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry. In the 2021-2022 election cycle, Manchin has received more than $179,000 in contributions from the oil and gas industry... Manchin doesn't just receive contributions from fossil fuel companies. He maintains lucrative ownership stakes in two coal companies that he founded, Enersystems and Farmington Resources. Enersystems 'purchases low-quality waste coal from mines and resells it to power plants as fuel' and Farmington Resources 'holds coal reserves' and supports mining activity. The companies are currently run by Manchin's son, Joe Manchin IV. Senator Manchin's stock is held in a 'blind trust.' But Manchin, of course, is aware of his own financial stake and his son's economic interest in the firms. Manchin's stock has produced 'more than $4.5 million' in dividends since Manchin joined the Senate in 2010. A rapid move away from coal and other fossil fuels would likely have a negative financial impact on Manchin and his family."
Nonetheless, Schumer thought it would be a good idea to make Manchin chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In practical terms, this is exactly what conservatism has devolved into-- and who even needs Republicans if you're looking for it? Well, Stanton, no doubt. He asked Will, "When you look back how the conservative elite has talked about populism in the past-- William F. Buckley famously said that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the first 2,000 names on the Harvard faculty-- it had at the very least tinges of anti-intellectualism. And it shares that trait with what happened on the right during the rise of Trump-- with the notable change being that the intellectual conservative elite was overthrown by the very anti-intellectual populists they glorified. Do you think that that’s an accurate way to think of it?" Of course, Will does.
I do. You know, after the Second World War, when conservatism began to grow-- and began to refute Lionel Trilling’s famous statement in The Liberal Imagination that there is no conservative thought in America, only “irritable gestures which seek to resemble ideas”-- it was an extremely bookish persuasion: Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences; Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind; Bill Buckley’s Up From Liberalism; Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Bookish people! It was to the point that the man who became my very best friend-- the best thing that I’ve had in 50 years in Washington was getting to know Pat Moynihan-- said in the 1970s that “something momentous” has happened: the Republican Party has become the party of ideas.
So to overturn the so-called “Republican establishment” meant overturning the bookish side of it, overturning the intellectual side of it. It’s natural, if disreputable, that populism would say, “Enough of these ideas. We want passions.”