How the Right Lost It’s Mind
Charles J. Sykes
Stories are powerful. So indulge me in a story.
Once upon a time, I didn’t have a smart phone. I carried a BlackBerry for work, and my trusty flip phone, but I left the iPhones and Androids to others. When asked why, I told the truth: I couldn’t afford it. The monthly charges for phone, voice and data were just too much.
Then a friend of Mrs. AHC showed up, iPhone firmly in hand so as not to miss a post, tweet or message. This friend had more reason than I to stick with a flip since she was on disability and that left me puzzled.
Until I heard–from a very angry friend who’s sympathetic to Tea Party views–that of course she did, Obama was giving phones away.
Reality, as often happens, is more complicated than that. There is a program, Lifeline, that subsidizes phone and broadband service for lower-income consumers. But it doesn’t give away phones and it’s not Obama’s. Lifeline was launched in 1985 so people with lower incomes wouldn’t be marginalized in a telecom-dependent society. It is, in fact, a Reagan administration program.
I have no idea whether or not this is good public policy. But I understand wondering why, if I work hard and can’t afford something, that same thing should be subsidized for some people. And I really want to know why (and how) such a long-standing creation of a Republican administration suddenly morphed into an object of fury, blamed on a guy who was in law school when the program was created.
Charlie Sykes thinks he can help me understand how that happened. I must say, he gives it an able try, despite having played some part in creating the problem.
It’s the second part of that sentence Sykes would take exception to, so maybe I should start with why I think that. Charlie is a veteran conservative talk radio host whose home base is Milwaukee. He is a born and bred Wisconsinite, a mid-western type I actually have an affinity for.
Charlie is that most rara of aves, a never-Trumper. On principle–and Republican commitment to principle is arguably negligible these days–he objects to Trump for both behavioral and philosophical reasons. Now an apostate, he’s no longer on the dial.
It’s hard to remember that in 2015 and 2016 there were loud Republican objections to the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. His personal behavior–on and off the campaign trail–was found wanting and his policy positions–to the extent they existed–were not aligned with party orthodoxy.
We all know what happened: forced to choose between winning and standing for something, the GOP chose winning. That course set the party of Lincoln down the road to its present state. A handful of people in the conservative commentariat have refused to take that journey, which is how I stumbled across Sykes in the first place.
The journey, though, started long before the race to be 45th President got underway. Sykes traces the change in tone to the emergence of the Fox News-centered, talk-radio driven, Breitbart-exploited communications eco-system that arose and expanded during and after the Clinton administration.
That would be the era during which Sykes, the broadcaster, came of age. His telling is a bit foreshortened, though. In 1981 New York’s WMCA, former home of the Good Guys, was already broadcasting Bob Grant and the callers often seemed to be between tin hat fittings. As Hofstader showed, paranoia on the Right has a long history.
Sykes doesn’t strike me as especially paranoid. He’s neither a populist nor an authoritarian but has cast himself more as a Reaganite conservative. I often wonder if those who vilified Reagan have rethought that position or if they still see him as villain number one.
If you want villains, though, why not start with Rush and Newt and Rupert and Roger? There’s no doubt that the ability to filter out unwanted viewpoints and only hear the opposition described in Manichean terms has poisoned thinking–on both sides, though it’s worse on the right.
Sykes deploys all the tools of his trade in telling this story. He’s almost rueful in describing his fallen comrades–Mark Levin, Erick Erickson, even Rush. How, he wonders, did they come to trade their informed, principled conservatism for the theatrics of a populist bully?
Where, Sykes repeatedly asks, has the commitment to small government, liberty, personal responsibility and free markets gone? Have we failed in our decades-long quest to bring Burkean thinking to the masses? Did we suddenly awaken to find the mob at the door and, sensing danger, quickly became their mouthpiece?
The answer to the last two questions is an emphatic ‘Yes’ while the answer to the first is ‘Out the window.’ As I tried to demonstrate a couple of weeks back, at the elected official level it’s just about power. There is no principle involved.
Three things occurred to me as I read Sykes. The first is the great majority of people don’t want to dismantle the protections that have existed since the New Deal and this has been a bind spot for the GOP since Reagan departed.
How politicians, allegedly attuned to the people, decided that stripping those people of some minimally basic support is God’s work eludes me. A better explanation is that a certain type of wealthy individual/political donor, besotted by tales of pre-income tax Gilded Age America, wants to Make America Gilt Again.
I also realized that Sykes’ and others’ claim that they advocate a Burkean model is a misleading. Burke never said to thwart change and turn back the clock. What he abhorred was disorder and chaos, not evolutionary change that conserved that which tradition and experience showed to have value.
Most important, though, are the two little words ‘free markets.’ Try as you might, you will find no mention of the concept in the debate over the Constitution. In fact, until the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1909, the government was funded exclusively by tariffs and excise taxes (except for during the Civil War). I doubt Justices Kavanaugh, Alito and their originalist colleagues read things that way, though.
I’d argue that the obsession with free markets–an obsession easily dated to the mid-20th century and attributable, at the root, to Milton Friedman–is the true wrecker of our politics. Big business likes efficiency and there’s nothing more efficient than manipulating one set of national rules in one city.
The small government types Sykes reveres are also anti-big business types. Taken to an extreme, you get pronouncements about the people being failed by businesses fixated on the world and not the US.
Sykes is right to see this as a deeply unconservative argument: the failure of capital to ‘abide a limit,’ let alone a border, was first proposed by Karl Marx.
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