12 November 2008

We are not the only ones

Barack Obama’s election was the result of a democratic process (give or take a few problems with the MSM and fund-raising by the winning candidate’s campaign, which are unlikely to be investigated, according to a link on Instapundit). It is not true that conservative ideas were rejected wholesale or, even, that the Republican Party was. The results are a little more complicated than that and are being chewed over, even as I write and you read.

The winning side, on the other hand, is beginning to face up to some unpalatable problems. The Washington Post, for instance, having admitted that they were dishonest and unethical during the campaign (though they did not admit the full extent of that dishonesty), is now prattling about continuity trumping change.

(The Jewish World Review has a wonderful Open Letter, written by Barry Rubin, which starts with the words:
Right now you don't understand why Bill Clinton and George Bush couldn't solve a little thing like the Arab-Israeli conflict, defuse the massive hatred of America in the Middle East, end terrorism or turn radical Islamism into an ideology of peace.

Don't worry. You will.
Reminds me of all the various Prime Ministers in this country who come to office not understanding why their predecessors could not solve the “European problem”. They exit sadder and a little wiser but no nearer to a solution.)

However, it was a defeat for the Republicans and for the right, in general and it is necessary to take stock and think about the future. I am glad to say that taking stock for the right in the US does not seem to follow the path of our own Conservative Party a. k. a. Tory Socialists since 1997.

First of all, let me remind our readers that, in the wake, of Obama’s victory I put together some ideas about the position of the right, particularly in this country and very unhappy those thoughts were, too. Nothing I have heard from Tory Socialists or their allies in that party has given me any hope.

Let me give one example. I have been told more often than I can count it by the Tory Obama-supporters that he has promised to cut tax for 95 per cent of the population. There are certain problems with it. For instance, there is a tax cut being promised to people who do not actually pay income tax (what everybody is talking about, I assume) because their income is too low. So, if they get a tax cut, that will be a tax credit, though as they do not pay tax, it will be a benefit. Somebody has to pay for it and the threshold for those tax cuts is going lower and lower. Last heard of, it was $150,000 and I do not believe that 95 per cent of the country’s population earns less than that.

I may be wrong because nobody can predict anything, especially in politics, but it does not strike me as likely that 95 per cent of the population will benefit, especially when one looks at the ever-growing bail-out and all the many things Obama has promised to set up and pay for from government funds.

Ah well, I am told, even if it is not true, this shows that right-wing ideas have triumphed. Oh good. Well, yes, socialist ideas, openly spoken, do not win elections. I think we can say that without fear of contradiction. Just look at the trouble Obama got into when he, not having a teleprompter to hand, admitted to Joe the plumber that yes, indeed, he was planning to tax small businesses more to redistribute the money. The subsequent vicious campaign against Joe was a lesson in … well, vicious campaigning.

On the other hand, sitting back and saying that we are doing fine because our ideas have triumphed is precisely the course of action that has made us what we are on the right in Britain: fat, complacent and defeated.

Some of the Republican stock-taking seems to consist of highly unpleasant back-biting, taking the form of unnamed McCain staffers, who are really to blame for the man’s lacklustre campaign, spreading vitriolic and stupid gossip about Governor Palin, who has reacted with remarkable sang-froid. The whole sorry saga can be followed in various stories on Hot Air.

More on the hoaxer that was the source of the Palin stories here and a very good article in the Wall Street Journal on the need for Senator McCain to speak out. But all that is by the by. Mud-slinging and it-was-not-our-fault-honest whining will disappear after a while if for no other reason that even the clueless staffers and journalists who fall for hoaxers like Martin Eisenstadt [read his self-justification and scroll down] will realize that the public finds it all very distasteful.

Of greater interest is a piece by P. J. O’Rourke on why the Republicans lost and deserved to lose. (Then again, Mr O’Rourke has never, in his life, written a piece that was not of interest.) The article has received much attention on the American blogosphere and is well worth reading in full even if he, naturally, concentrates on matters to do with that country.

P. J. O’Rourke’s list of the many things the conservatives managed to get wrong is very long and probably incomprehensible to many British readers. After all, who gets worked up about abortion in this country, anyway? My own view on the subject as subject is that we should get a little worked up as there are aspects to it that would be hard to stomach if people paid attention.

It may be wrong to interfere with people’s privacy if they want to have abortions and the majority of the United States may be in favour of some form of it being legal (though the figures are quite complicated) but, in my experience, what bugs a lot of people is the way abortion was introduced: through a constitutionally dubious legal decision, rather than votes in states. (There is an echo of that in the present row about gay marriages, particularly in California.) One important part of conservatism in the United States is a strong belief in the Constitution and the separation of powers. I think Mr O’Rourke ought to have devoted some time to that.

His idea of explaining to people exactly what the various possibilities open to governments are sounds rather whacky when one thinks of the average electoral campaign, never mind the exhausting one America and the rest of us have just gone through.
Conservatives should never say to voters, "We can lower your taxes." Conservatives should say to voters, "You can raise spending. You, the electorate, can, if you choose, have an infinite number of elaborate and expensive government programs. But we, the government, will have to pay for those programs. We have three ways to pay.

"We can inflate the currency, destroying your ability to plan for the future, wrecking the nation's culture of thrift and common sense, and giving free rein to scallywags to borrow money for worthless scams and pay it back 10 cents on the dollar.

"We can raise taxes. If the taxes are levied across the board, money will be taken from everyone's pocket, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and least advantaged will be harmed the most. If the taxes are levied only on the wealthy, money will be taken from wealthy people's pockets, hampering their capacity to make loans and investments, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and the least advantaged will be harmed the most.

"And we can borrow, building up a massive national debt. This will cause all of the above things to happen plus it will fund Red Chinese nuclear submarines that will be popping up in San Francisco Bay to get some decent Szechwan take-out."

Yes, this would make for longer and less pithy stump speeches. But we'd be showing ourselves to be men and women of principle. It might cost us, short-term. We might get knocked down for not whoring after bioenergy votes in the Iowa caucuses. But at least we wouldn't land on our scruples. And we could get up again with dignity intact, dust ourselves off, and take another punch at the liberal bully-boys who want to snatch the citizenry's freedom and tuck that freedom, like a trophy feather, into the hatbands of their greasy political bowlers.
There, I suspect, speaks a man who has never had to run a political campaign. Long before one got to item 2 the listeners would have lost interest and gone off to vote for the other guy who had promised some instant solution in a sound bite. As a character says in that superb musical “Bandwagon”, you can’t spread principles on a cracker.

On the other hand, as Marxists defined it a long time ago, there is propaganda and there is agitation. There are political principles and there are sound bites; both have their place in political discussion but the sound bites should be based on political principles and, above all, information.

Here, on the other hand, is another article that advocates more precise ideas by way of a Night of the Long Knives, by Deroy Murdock in the National Review. What is rather interesting about this piece as well as P. J. O’Rourke’s is that neither suggests that the way for Republicans to get back is to move further to the left and espouse their opponents’ ideas, the panacea that was advocated here in 1997 with the disastrous result that the Conservatives have been out of government for ten years and the right is all over the place.

Mr Murdock’s idea is that only a return to Reaganism (and, perhaps, an improvement on it, if that is not too sacrilegious an idea) can save the Republican Party. They also need to get rid of those who have compromised it in the years since that great presidency. Well, that’s being hopeful. Politicians never know how much trouble they created and cling to their position with a ferocity that is off the Richter scale.

John Hinderaker on Powerline also raises the subject of what the conservatives should do now but does not answer the question – it is a little hard to do so immediately – merely suggesting that new ideas and a new understanding is needed. Obama managed to win support by simply sounding different.
By merely raising the idea of a new kind of politics that would get past the current battle lines and come at issues from new directions, he became one of the most popular figures of our time, even though he had absolutely no clue how to do what he talked about. We should be able to do at least as well as that.
It seems slightly pointless to emulate somebody who hasn’t a clue what he is talking about simply because that empty rhetoric won him the election handily but not by a landslide as it had been predicted in a year when the Democrats were predicted to sweep all before them. This sounds a little too much like the sort of stuff our own Conservatives have been producing in the last ten years to no effect whatsoever. I am, on the other hand, looking forward to any future discussion on Powerline. They are always interesting.

Well, that’s America. What about us? How are we doing on the right? Still not very well and still clinging to the idea that we have anything in common with that sorry lot of incompetents, the Conservative Party or Tory Socialists.

As it happens, the things people are interested in have not changed all that much anywhere, despite the article on Powerline. High on the agenda is the economy and taxation. The Conservatives seem to have blown it again. The proposals are described as timid, unimaginative and generally unhelpful in its complexity. The Taxpayers’ Alliance gives a harsh verdict, which would be a little more credible if they did not come up with that old canard about cutting VAT by 2 percentage points. An interesting thought – where do they get this idea that it can be done by national government fiat? In order to achieve a temporary derogation a government has to apply to the Commission. Now, it is possible that, in the circumstances, the Commission will be happy to give that permission but, in order to remain credible, it might be a good idea to get these facts right.

The reason for the timidity is quite clear. The Conservatives have no idea of what they think governments should be doing and how much income they should be getting. They cannot actually present the arguments Mr O’Rourke suggests because they have not got that far in their thinking.

Then we get to the big issue of the day, the one Tories and their various think-tank acolytes will not touch: the European Union, which has now invaded every nook and cranny of our national life. No political campaign can be conducted without running up against that noisome organization but the Tory Socialists pretend that it is a separate issue and can be discussed as such. The separate issue, they say pompously and stupidly, is of little interest to the electorate. Oh right. How about the fact that VAT is an EU tax? Or that immigration is an EU competence? Or that we have outsourced international trade to the EU? Are these of interest to people in this country? You betcha.

I realize that once again I am raising questions without providing answers. That will come in good time through this blog and, I hope, the Bruges Group. (Still working to set something up in that organization that would provide serious research.)

For the moment let me return to the Marxist idea of propaganda and agitation. As outlined by the first Russian Marxist, Georgy Plekhanov, the two had to address two different groups. Plekhanov was one of the world’s worst political writers so it takes a little time to work out what he is saying but, on the whole, this is accurate.

Propagands is a more extensive, more profound collection of ideas, aimed at people who are already aware of political ideology. In Marxist terms that was the conscious working class, though in reality it was the intelligentsia and the middle classes that mostly fell for it. Agitation, on the other hand, is what we would probably call political campaigning – a collection of easy ideas and slogans poured out at people who have not yet started thinking about politics. Many of them will be taken by those slogans sufficiently to move on to the next stage and listen to propaganda.

Let’s translate it into our own terms. Shooting from the hip gets us nowhere because we cannot substantiate our own arguments. What we need is a body of research and analysis that deals with the various topics (by which I mean serious research rather than vague figures that are presented with the hope that nobody will challenge them) and can be mined for those arguments. The notion that “ordinary people” cannot understand serious arguments is rubbish. Konstantin Stanislavsky said that there are no small parts in plays only small actors. There are no stupid electorates only badly presented political arguments.