Well, that recent Conservative Political Action Conference has my head in a spin, I must say. Ron Paul and Dick Cheney sharing the same podium? Wow – talk about the Abomination of Desolation rendering the Temple impure. And it raises all sorts of questions, which I will attempt to at least start answering here.
To begin with, there are as many definitions of “conservative” as there are conservatives – or non-conservatives, for that matter. The broadest might be, “anyone who didn't vote for Obama”. Or, better yet, “anyone who didn't vote for Obama plus the ones who did but are now sorry they did”. That would be the biggest basket of all, I guess. The problem is, that still leaves the majority of “conservatives” firmly in the Republican camp, which means firmly in the demographic that voted for George W. Bush (twice) and for McCain/Palin -- in other words for big government, business as usual, and empire building at the expense of the American people. And as any good Paleocon would point out, people in that demographic really have no claim to true conservatism. They may be “social conservatives”, but they are hardly less “big government” than the most abject liberal or progressive, and are hardly less imperialistic than the most hard-core Wilsonian. The differences, it seems – as with communism vs. fascism – are more ones of style and iconography than of real substance. By and large, their means are similar, as are their ends. The means amount to getting enough votes to get into office and then impose your will on everyone else... and the ends amount to remaking the nation, and the world, in your own image. And all of it feeds on grandiosity, delusion, power-madness, and the gullibility of the citizenry – i.e. on deception, propaganda, and “bait and switch” tactics.
The Neocons in particular – who, according to some definitions, also count as “conservatives” -- are a particularly egregious bunch, whose treachery extends to drumming up bogus wars in the interests of arms makers, religious fanatics, and foreign powers... and totally against the interests of the American people. And the fact that they are still in power, if not in office, has to stand as the premier ongoing scandal of our time.
Then we have the “business community”, which can, thankfully and finally, be written off at this point, since they have formed a visible and permanent alliance with government that puts the fascist systems of old to shame. And yet even this is an illusion, since, as I have pointed out, the dominant business and financial entities of our time are international in scope and are totally indifferent to the welfare of any given country, people, or even political system, as long as it can be manipulated to their ends. The American government is a wholly-owned subsidiary of international finance, no matter who is supposedly "in charge". So in a way, politics these days is an epiphenomenon – it is not primary or vital, but is merely the visible aspect of something much bigger over which the mere voter has absolutely no influence. In other words, politics in our time is another version of “games and circuses” -- amusing, time-consuming, adrenalin-stimulating, but ultimately without consequence, as we see so clearly in the, ahem, radical breaks the Obama administration has made with Bush policies.
Well, OK then, but what about the “tea partiers”? Ah yes – that ragtag band that has been treated like a mangy dog with AIDS ever since Obama's inauguration, not only by the liberal media but also by most mainstream Republicans... but that is now being assiduously courted by the Republican/”conservative” power structure. ("Hey there kiddo, you don't look so bad after all -- with a makeover and a shot of penicillin you'll be ready to walk into the finest restaurant in town.") Well, as I've said before, the tea partiers came to the party about 80 years too late. Finally the frog realized he was sitting there in boiling water and jumped out of the pot – but by that time he was pretty much cooked. And let's admit that, as implied above, the Obama people aren't doing anything much different from what the Bush people did – it's just that it's being done by the Obama people that has everyone so fired up. It's the other side of the coin from the liberals, who suddenly find themselves enamored of war, now that Obama is commander-in-chief. Take all the “ad hominem” motives away from the tea partiers, and what do you have left? Not much, is my feeling. And this is not to say that there aren't people in the tea party ranks who have actual principles – various Paleocons and libertarians, e.g. But they would be saying what they say and doing what they do whether the tea party umbrella was there or not. What I'm talking about is the main mass of tea partiers, who, for example, had absolutely no problem with Bush's twin wars – and are only now discovering how much they cost (and even then, they aren't demanding we pull out, just “cut costs” elsewhere).
So we now move on to a few vignettes from the CPAC, to further illustrate the dazzling absurdity:
0 Glenn Beck “urges GOP to admit it has a spending addiction”. Good. Where was he during the 8 years of the Bush administration? And where were all the rest of the "conservative" talking heads while Bush & Co. were running roughshod over everything and everybody? And how many of them voted for McCain and Palin, who were all ready to nuke Russia over Georgia?
0 The conferees seemed a bit ambivalent about identifying themselves as Republicans, even though I'm sure the vast majority were. Is that because they're feeling betrayed? Well, they ought to. On the other hand, not a single Republican politician was hanged in effigy, and Dick Cheney was welcomed onto the podium. So clearly the urge to be identified with something big and powerful overcame the urge to retain any principles.
0 In fact, I knew things were horribly wrong when Dick Cheney showed up. Don't these people know that the Dickster is not part of the problem -- he _is_ the problem? It would be like the Democrats getting O. J. Simpson to deliver the opening address at their national convention (actually, they might).
0 Ron Paul won a straw poll for the 2012 presidential nomination. You remember Ron Paul – he's the guy who was mercilessly boycotted and defamed by the bulk of the conservative media all throughout the primary campaign, and who the conservative talking heads wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. So does this reflect some sort of a “fault line” between conservatives and conservative leadership? What it reflects, more likely, is that people will have a fling with truly conservative ideas once in a while, but when they wake up in the morning they'll find themselves in bed with Dick Cheney. So sad...
0 As further evidence, note that “others [at the conference] booed loudly when event organizers announced Paul as the winner”. Right. So we evidently had some real conservatives in attendance, but the majority were still the big government/American Empire types who are scared to death of true freedom. Any idea now why the Republican Party is in the shape it's in, and why “conservatives” aren't doing any better?
So that's the bottom line to all this? The CPAC was really an incoherent bunch of people scattered around a very large room trying to pick the hero, or position, or cause du jour – i.e. the one that best fit their impulses of the moment. The winds of hypocrisy and demagoguery blew through the very large room, stirring up dust, raising hopes on the one hand and doubts on the other. No one was quite sure which hero, or which position, or which cause, was the best fit for their personal needs. And no one was quite sure which of their personal needs should most influence their actions – power? A sense of belonging? Sticking with the “tried and true” (or the tried and failed)? Or – heaven forbid – real, rock-solid principles – you know, the kind that are difficult, if not impossible, to detect in any political speech or campaign platform. In other words, are they absolutists or relativists? (And no one wants to be accused of being “dogmatic” or an “extremist” -- this goes without saying. That's not for polite people; that's for the lumpen proletariat that put Obama into office.) And what, after all, does it mean, these days, to be an “American”? Supporting endless, unwinnable wars? Allowing the unnatural marriage of government and international business and finance? What does it mean to “support the troops”? Even that is the basis for endless controversy. What nearly all seem to agree on is that big government is bad when it does things they don't like, but OK when it does things they like. But this is not a principled stand, is it, class? One could say the same thing about the military, for that matter – or about “social programs”, or entitlements. There is very little that these so-called “conservatives” will consistently object to on principle – which leaves them, basically, no less impulsive, arbitrary, or self-serving than the typical liberal/progressive/Democrat. Which, in turn, explains what I see as the chaos inherent in events such as CPAC. And it's not that the liberals do much better – but what they have on their side is the universal delusion that government gives back more than it takes. Whereas conservatives at least have an inkling that this cannot possibly be true. But guess which position typically gets more votes.
And as for this euphoria that “we're about to take back the government” and “turn it back over to the American people” -- aren't those the exact same lines that the Obama campaign used? Really, folks, you're going to have to come up with something better. Everyone thinks that the government – or party, or administration – they like is the proper one for “the American people”... and that's because everyone thinks they're one of “the people”. This, of course, reflects a traditional core value – fetish, even – for populism, democracy, non-elitism, and so forth... the same core value that inspired “Grapes of Wrath”, no less than Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. No politician in all of American history has ever stood up and announced that they represent the elite, or special interests; they are all “men of the people” -- including those who are obviously anything but. It might be healthy, in fact, for Americans to admit, once and for all, that there are, in fact, no general interests but only special ones... and that all government spending is, ultimately, “pork-barrel” spending... and that all anyone wants out of the system is to get back more than they put in. Then it would be more like a poker game – an honest one, even. Anything but what we have now, where hypocrisy is the only position that is permitted to be voiced in public.
So what did it all amount to? The last, dying gasp of a movement, or point of view, that is voluntarily jettisoning itself onto the dust heap of history – which is what all the liberal/progressive talking heads fervently hope? Or perhaps a renewal of the American spirit, and of traditional values, against what – and this time it's the real thing, honest... I mean, I know we say this every time, but this time we really mean it – appears to be the final triumph of socialism? Try as I might, all I can see is one mob reacting against the political dominance of another mob. Each mob has its heroes, its fetishes, its iconography, its symbols and buzzwords, its “personal style”, its mode of discourse – but each is, ultimately, incoherent, impulsive, arbitrary, self-centered, and abysmally ignorant. And yes, there must be a few people of true principle among the tea partiers, and some undoubtedly showed up at CPAC. But they should admit that they are strangers in a strange land, no matter how much they might agree with some of what is being said some of the time. Because if they stand back and look at results – look at what these so-called “conservatives” manage to do when they are in power – they will find that the truth is not in them, and in fact never was. Today's “conservatism” bears very little resemblance to the real thing of old, and in fact is not worthy of the name. It would be better, and more honest, if they would rename their movement/cause/whatever “imperialism”, or “nationalism”, or "neo-fascism" -- because at least those terms would reflect some of their core values. When someone calls themself a “conservative”, the first question should be, what do they want to “conserve”? In these people's case, the answer seems to be – not much, and nothing of any real substance.