Jonah Goldberg appeared recently on “Conversations with Bill Kristol” to discuss his new book, Suicide of the West. During his chat with one of the nation’s preeminent NeverTrumpers, Goldberg betrayed a serious lack of perspective—one that is indicative of a broader problem in mainstream conservatism.
In the midst of discussing politics and our current political moment, Goldberg noted there are some conservatives who view politics as a “game”—as just about getting “points on the board.” (He made clear this was a descriptive rather than a pejorative remark, and there’s no reason to doubt him.) From there, however, he went on to compare our politics to children’s sports. If your kid were playing, say, basketball, Goldberg reasoned, and the star player on the opposing team was cheating—throwing elbows, for example—you would be incensed and rightly so. You would be even more upset if the referees failed to stop the play and sanction the offending player.
So far, all true. Then Goldberg asserted many on the Right have in recent years contracted “Alinsky envy” as a reaction to the Left’s “cheating.” In short, the Right responds to the Left’s cheating with their own “cheating.” Since cheating is bad, Goldberg laments our current situation.
But some questions spring to mind. Exactly what do Goldberg and those who applaud this analysis have in mind when they lament “cheating” from the Right? Is it that the Right has stooped to the Left’s level since the election of Donald Trump? What does that mean? What exactly has the Right done wrong? We can note, almost without limit, the Left’s penchant for dirty play. But we have yet to hear exactly how the Right has debased itself. Goldberg is frustratingly short on specifics. He seems more concerned with tone.
That speaks to the deeper problem. Goldberg knows perfectly well that politics is nothing like a youth basketball game. In such a game, there are referees whose job it is to regulate the flow of play and punish those who violate the rules of the game. When someone cheats, the ref—who’s presumed by both sides to be legitimate—has the authority to sort out disputes, decide if there’s been a violation, and, if so, what the punishment should be.
But in politics, particularly American politics, who’s the referee? Who precisely does Goldberg—and those who share his perspective—think is going to step in and regulate real-world “cheating”? The Federal Election Commission? The New York Times? The right answer is: nobody. We are on our own. The two sides have no choice but to regulate themselves. And when one side violates unwritten rules of fair play, or the other side abdicates its duty to regulate its opponent, or both (as is our current situation), things get ugly fast.
When one side in politics plays dirty and violates established rules and norms (which flow from our Constitution and our history as a nation), the solution is not to whine that it’s happening and then get skittish about fighting back—it’s to fight back. Make the other side pay a price for its repellent practices. Impose costs for undesired and dangerous behavior.
In politics, the way you prevent cheating is to be vigilant and make the other side internalize costs for having cheated. Each side regulates the other in the rough and tumble of politics. There’s no neutral third party with the authority to bind all actors to his “right” or “good” decision. God is not coming to save us from ourselves.
The conservative movement is committing suicide for reasons quite similar to those that explain the suicide of the West Goldberg catalogs in his book. Each are, at bottom, choices. Movement conservatism chose for years to be a pliant doormat to the relentless onslaught of the social justice-crazed, progressive Left and its ever-escalating leftward demands. It chose to rehearse an inflexible checklist ideology rather than to be guided by prudential judgments about the common good of the nation in light of natural rights reasoning of the American Founding. It chose to see politics as bean bag, rather than the inherently scrappy contest for dominance that it truly is.
They have, in short, opted to view the public square as a debating society and the nation as a playground—complete with imaginary judges and recess duty patrol. They imagine they can send up their trial balloons and tout their pet ideas in this idealized “fair” and objective world rather than in a real place inhabited by real persons who deserve to be led, respected, and taken seriously as political actors—not dominated against their wishes, condescended to, or ignored.
Conservatives like Goldberg want to see less politics—not more—because politics is often ugly. Conservatism in their minds is elegant and elevated, a belief set that alights upon the earth only long enough to inform the common folk that, actually, we just need to keep up with “free trade” and endlessly bombing other countries even when the people (the only referees worth talking about) are not persuaded these ideas represent the national interest just because the graphs these conservative grandees are holding say so, thank you very much. It annoys them that the people have the power to shoot down their ideas. It’s also why they have chosen to go after Obamacare for a third time in the courts—a sort of sneaky, “back door” approach—rather than to flex their political muscles and just repeal the monstrosity. That would require they do politics. And that’s just not the sort of thing “principled” conservatives care to do anymore.
In this respect, these conservatives are the ones who mimic the Left. The Left has been adept in the last several decades at using the federal courts as engines of a rolling constitutional convention, the outcome of which is intended both to impose upon the country the trendy morality of the Ivy League smart set and to bypass the vagaries of popular sovereignty and rule by the consent of the governed.
Losing gracefully to those who despise what you profess to stand for—who you are, even—is shameful. Pretending that courage demands impotency and restraint in the face of such existential threats is both naϊve and immoral. Better to fight in such a way that brings the other side to the bargaining table to hammer out a workable peace than to plod along toward the ruin of the Right and the country as a whole—all in a misguided and selfish quest to preserve some insular sense of decorum.
A hollowed out America so conservatives can preserve their unearned and perverse sense of moral-aesthetic superiority? No thank you.
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