Monday, June 1, 2009

Unassertive Conservatism

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, Mark Levin, 245 pages.
Although Republicans have been completely out of power for only about 130 days (no White House and neither chamber of Congress), the party and the conservative movement are undeniably in a pretty crappy place. Infighting began almost as soon as Barack Obama finished delivering his victory speech. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum immediately threw Sarah Palin and social conservatives under the bus for ruining the party. The spat between GOP chairman Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh still lingers. More recently there was a back-and-forth dispute between talk show host and writer Mark Levin and Dallas Morning News columnist and “Crunchy Con” spokesman Rod Dreher. Also, Levin has recently tussled with David Frum himself. Blood is everywhere.

What all of these altercations reveal is that despite the new president’s ambitious agenda, Republicans and their conservative enablers are still only fighting among themselves. There is good reason for this. Republicans got drunk on power and crashed the family car while their conservative supporters cheered from the passenger seat. They are still trying to figure out who is to blame.

And as conservatism appears no less doomed than the Republican Party, there are efforts to claim the mantle of what constitutes “true conservatism.” Enter the aforementioned Mark ("The Great One") Levin and his new book, Liberty and Tyranny.

Levin, the author of 2005’s Men in Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America, holds a law degree from Temple, which presumably puts him in a higher intellectual bracket than the majority of his talk radio colleagues. Levin’s intellectual background is one of the reasons that his new book is so highly touted. Liberty and Tyranny is supposed to be an index of what it truly means to be conservative in the early 21 century. It is the new Conscience of a Conservative, the next The Conservative Mind and your “one-stop-shop for conservatism.”

When I endeavored to read the latest “This is what conservatism really means” screed, I was prepared to dislike it. As with many others in his profession, Mark Levin was a vibrant voice of support for the presidency of George W. Bush. So how could he possibly write a coherent book about conservatism that doesn’t descend into fawning servility to the GOP?

Well, he does write a fairly coherent book. Whether it’s coherent conservatism is a different matter.

I say this because of the disconsolate and discombobulated state American conservatism finds itself. During the administration of George W. Bush, conservatives became seen as nothing more than the Republican cheering section - supporting the Republican administration, deviating only occasionally on immigration and national education policy. Yet no matter what atrocity the Bush administration committed, conservatives by and large went along. Because of this, it is increasingly difficult for seemingly anachronistic conservatives like myself to believe the majority of these folks. For example, I could listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program for 3 hours and probably agree with the lovable little fuzz-ball perhaps 90% of the time, yet feel utterly frustrated because the man is a hypocrite and a sell-out to his cause.

The same problem generally afflicts Mark Levin. Liberty and Tyranny has plenty of good quotes that are conservative, and at times even libertarian. However, the reader must always remain aware that Mark Levin was another conservative who cheered the march of The Decider.

As opposed to what frequently occurs on his radio program, Levin writes in a rather temperate tone. The constant theme throughout the book is that conservative principles are the same principles as those espoused by the Founding Fathers. In fact, the closing line of the first chapter reads: “Conservatism is the antidote to tyranny precisely because its principles are the founding principles.”

This is a troubling line and as well as a troubling theme. It’s not that I do not believe traditional conservatism can trace its lineage to the Founders. Russell Kirk certainly did this and more. But making a statement like Levin’s is circular reasoning. Conservatives are like the Founders and the Founders are like today’s conservatives. George Washington was the first supply-sider and Thomas Jefferson believed in pre-emptive war, right?

Levin’s chapters on the free market, opposition to governmental take-overs of environment matters, and the Constitution are actually quite good. He descends into some typical fallacies, such as blaming protectionism and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff for causing the Great Depression and saying that World War II ended our worst recession (spending our way out), although these are not particularly glaring instances of a writer’s carelessness or ignorance.

Levin does make many valid points about federalism and restraint, which are historically conservative objectives. Federalism is indeed one of the greatest assets to American republicanism. Dividing up power preserves liberty. Allowing localities to govern themselves, and not by a distant power, was one of the hallmarks of the American War for Independence. Levin even has a great quote for it: “Individuals with widely divergent beliefs are able to coexist in the same country because of the diversity and toleration federalism promotes.”

Another interesting quote, this time regarding the Constitution: “. . . others are persuaded by the Statists’ distortions, arguing that the judge’s job is to spread democracy or liberty.” While Levin is correct that that is not a judge’s job, he later says that sometimes it is the job of the government to do just that. Almost at the end of the book, while discussing “self-preservation,” Levin states that “there are occasions when democracy building is prudent.”

Really? Earlier, Levin says that the government, i.e., the judiciary, should not spread liberty, but somehow the government, through the military and probably also through presidential orders, should sometimes spread liberty. This seems like having it both ways. It’s wrong if a liberal judge decrees something which makes it Statist, but conservatives know that sometimes spreading liberty is okay, if it’s done through the military, that is.

This, however, does lead to an error that is glaring: Levin never once mentions that war has not been constitutionally declared since 1941. For a writer that went through law school, and extols the Constitution over and over in this book, it’s rather odious to see that the most heinous of unconstitutional acts, undeclared war, is altogether ignored. Levin can go on and on about how such-and-such liberal program is not specified in the Constitution. But he seems to ignore outright that Republican and Democratic presidents have commandeered the power to make war for themselves.

An Aberration like that is indicative of the great problem of contemporary conservatism. To satirize, the routine goes something like this, “Government is bad. Government intrudes into our lives. Government intervention into the private sector is Statist. Oh, but the government has the right to intervene into other nations’ affairs.”

Now which is it? Should government intervene, under the banner of spreading liberty or not? Lots of conservatives rail against statism, some of them do so very well. But if someone, say Mark Levin, expresses support for a standing army, that itself is statist. The military, no matter how noble its warriors, is still a big government institution. It is an institution that requires heavy taxation and expansion at home in order to manage it. And there you have it: Conservatives say they want small government at home, big government abroad, and seem surprised to discover that they have gotten big government in both.

Another constant throughout the book is Levin’s campy dichotomy between conservatives and statists. In Levin’s world, conservatives only look to restrain themselves and keep the civil order in mind when they make decisions. Statists only want to accrue more power. True enough about statists, but what conservatives is he talking about? It couldn’t be George W. Bush who only amassed more and more power for himself. Although President Bush clearly fits Levin’s definition of a Statist, Levin, almost nowhere in his book, makes any attempt to distance himself from our most recent chief executive.

Let’s take a look at another quote to illustrate this: “The Conservative believes that in the context of the civil society, progress and modernity are essential to man’s well-being and fulfillment, despite their inevitable imperfections.” Sounds good to me, but this begs the question, when did a “conservative” ever act this way once they were in power?

Perhaps the best line that sums up the bewilderment of today’s “conservatives” is this: “Republicans seem clueless on how to slow, contain, and reverse the Statist’s agenda.”

That just about says it all. For all of the work conservatives have done for the Republican Party, some who are genuine anti-statists, have little to show from their party of choice. And this is one of the great downfalls of the book. At no point does Levin ever suggest that the problem for conservatives may be that we have put too much faith in the GOP to achieve our goals. As long as people like Levin continue to support the Republican Party no matter what, no amount of conservative rhetoric in books like Liberty and Tyranny will change a thing.

Examining Levin’s notes, almost 40 pages, one has to wonder just what sort of research the man did to come to his conclusions about conservatism. There are a few sprinkled references from the Founders, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Toqueville, and St. Augustine, but the vast majority of resources Levin used were from websites and contemporary newspapers. If he wished to glean wisdom from past generations, which he claims, he could have made more than one reference to Russell Kirk or a single reference to Robert Nisbet or Richard Weaver, men who spent years researching the historical tenets of the conservative tradition. Instead, it appears Levin sought to justify his opinion of conservatism by cutting-and-pasting.

One minor improvement in this area would have been to supply a reading list at the conclusion. That was one of the assets of Ron Paul’s 2008 book The Revolution. Once Dr. Paul’s book was finished, there was a list provided for the reader to continue their quest for freedom. Instead of only taking the doctor’s word for it, readers were encouraged to keep learning. Levin would have benefited his readers or anyone else looking to expand the conservative cause by including something similar. Absenting such a list makes Liberty and Tyranny the last word.

Taken as a whole, and considering my initial angst, Levin’s book isn’t awful, but it certainly isn't good, much less a sure-to-endure “conservative manifesto.” It’s a decent book, but does a poor job convincing this reader that the conservatives who followed George W. Bush without hesitation have learned anything from the mistakes of that administration. In the end, it is unlikely that Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny will be any more memorable than any of Ann Coulter’s endless ad hominem “Liberals suck” books.


Thomas said...

Digg it here:

Carl Wicklander said...

Thank you for the digg, Thomas. I'm flattered.

Steel Phoenix said...

Conservatism as a label is both a uniter and a divider. It gathers together several major and minor factions which in the end can only find one thing in common: the dislike of the Liberal agenda.

This leaves both of the major parties as groups led by partisan idiots.

It's time to stop being afraid of losing an election and begin to follow our own paths. There are no victories in the two party system. A fragmenting of the Republican party won't strengthen the Democrats, it will weaken them as Liberal Libertarians, religious Liberals, and moderates all find better analogues on the right to the jumble of partisan crooks that are the Democrat and Republican parties.

Carl Wicklander said...

SP, you may want to visit the site on my blogroll labeled "Left Conservative." At the top is listed the quote: "It may yet take an alchemy of Left and Right to confound the corporate center." The writer, Dylan Hales, is someone I think you'd probably enjoy. He hasn't written in his blog much lately but he has some pieces on that may also interest you.


I saw an awakening this past election Carl. From Reagan's time, the right used fear to win. With Reagan, he touted fear of the Soviets. Bush I touted fear of Willie Horton. Bush touted fear of terrorists. The other common theme was attacks on their opponents for cowardice. Conservatism was more of a catch phrase than a belief system.

But inreality, I said this on other sites and I stand by it, we all want government to do stuff for us. Nobody in our Country at one time or another hasn't asked what is the government going to do about this. True conservatism says it's your problem. We have a health care system that's financially unsustainable. What other entity than government can fix it, or make health insurance available to everyone?

Katrina is another prime example of most people asking what government is going to do. Or the floods here in the midwest.

Americans fork over 30 to 50% of their incomes in taxes of all types. What it comes down to is this. We want our money's worth. Conservatism says it's not the government that you contribute so much of your money to's problem.

Carl Wicklander said...


I would say that conservatism has become a catchphrase. What was billed as conservatism was pretty sharp starting in 1955 with William F. Buckley and the founding of "National Review." Sometime in the mid-1970s, in the aftermath of Watergate, conservatism really faltered. Levin's book is weak and it's indicative of the current state of conservatism.

I do agree with you about Republicans and fear. You saw it last year when when everybody on McCain's side threw the "socialist" epithet at Obama. For the record, I do think the label is accurate, but I would also be applying it to McCain.

And the Republicans are not the only guilty ones on the Willie Horton business. Former G.H.W. Bush adviser Jim Pinkerton said that they got the idea from Al Gore, who pulled the same trick on Dukakis during the primaries.

You also bring up a valid point about taxes. It would seem that since so much of our income gets plucked, we should get our money's worth. I contend that if we got taxed less, we could better afford health care. I mean, look at the service we get with what we are taxed on now.

Thanks for coming by.

Left Coast Rebel said...

Carl - Thanks for Putin speech link again, your writeup here is one of the best that I have seen about what conservatives actually face, the biggest obstacle is the conservative movement itself. I knew that when McCain was the candidate, the party was destined for a massive defeat, as they should have been. As you know, he made a career out of not being conservative, bashing such principles and being a 'maveick' in the media's eyes for doing so. I usually support Levin but and it is a big but, as you describe here, he has some major flaws in consistency and philosophy. Also, I don't appreciate his treatment in the past of Ron Paul and Paul's fans, if you want to really be disgusted, google mark levin + ron paul.

Carl Wicklander said...

Oh, I know all about how Levin treated Ron Paul. Because of that, I was prepared to dislike his book. Most of the book's not too bad it's just that Levin's not believable - and it's all because of his treatment of Ron Paul. Levin claims to speak for conservatives but he utterly hates the most ideologically pure of all conservative Republicans. That tells you something.

I'm Not Going To Take It Any More said...

As A Conservative, I say...We too shall have our day.

The Law said...

I have to say as a liberal, (of the center-left kind) I have to say this is by far the most honest assement of the state of the party I have seen. truthfully, I was prepared for an all out glorifcation fest of the book, but I find it impossible to really disagree with anything you said here.

I think if the GOP was able to honestly asses their values as you did, they would emerge stronger and do so faster.

Also, I 100% agree with Steel Phoenix. I think a single party solution is never a good solution. It was the will of the people to elected a democrative majority in all branches of the government. Thus the conservatives should be a checks and balance against liberal agenda, to make sure we're mot moving too fast, too soon. Without that crucial debate in Washington, we find ourselves in the mess we're in today. Debate is not really possible when the minority party is looking to point fingers left and right without the willingness to stare hard in the mirror.

Great post, and I'll definitely be back.

Carl Wicklander said...

Thank you for the kind words, Law.

Steel Phoenix would agree with me that we're already in a de facto one party rule. The Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same bird of prey, as Pat Buchanan famously said. There's very little philosophical debate as it is and we're all the worse for it. I'm trying to provide a real forum for philosophical debate. I'm a conservative and a Republican but I don't toe the party line. The party sucks.

Levin and the others aren't really conservative in my estimation and are more like party hacks. So while Levin's book certainly isn't bad, he is definitely an unreliable spokesman for conservatism.

Left Coast Rebel said...

BTW Carl, I have now read this piece of yours 4 times, like I said it may be the best that I have seen. I'm looking forward to your next post!

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Forget, please, "conservatism." It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

"[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

John Lofton, Editor,
Recovering Republican

PS – And “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” Rush Limbaugh never made a bigger ass of himself than at CPAC where he told that blasphemous “joke” about himself and God.