Political Animal


November 14, 2011 3:25 PM ‘Mindless opposition to government’

By Steve Benen

Rick Perry’s faulty memory during last week’s debate has, as expected, taken on an almost folklore status. It’s been ridiculed by late-night comedians, parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” and even mocked by Perry himself. And while the “brain freeze” will be remembered, it’s worth appreciating what really matters: the substance behind Perry’s argument.

E.J. Dionne Jr. had a terrific piece today using the Texas governor’s incident as a reminder about the state of the conservatives’ movement “and the health of their creed.”

Remember, as far as Perry is concerned, his administration would simply scrap the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy, though the governor didn’t take the agenda seriously enough to remember it.

Would Perry end all federal aid to education? Would he do away with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the part of the Commerce Department that, among other things, tracks hurricanes? Energy was the department he forgot. Would he scrap the department’s 17 national labs, including such world-class facilities as Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., or — there’s that primary coming up — Aiken, S.C.?

I’m not accusing Perry of wanting to do any of these things because I don’t believe he has given them a moment of thought. And that’s the problem for conservatives. Their movement has been overtaken by a quite literally mindless opposition to government. Perry, correctly, thought he had a winning sound bite, had he managed to blurt it out, because if you just say you want to scrap government departments (and three is a nice, round number), many conservatives will cheer without asking questions.

This is a long way from the conservatism I used to respect. Although I often disagreed with conservatives, I admired their prudence, their affection for tradition and their understanding that the intricate bonds of community are established with great difficulty over time and not easy to reweave once they are torn asunder. At their best, conservatives forced us to think harder. Now, many in the ranks seem to have decided that hard and nuanced thinking is a telltale sign of liberalism.

That last point seems especially important, and should give thoughtful conservatives pause. What has become of their ideology? Are they satisfied with the depth of thought and seriousness of purpose when it comes to the right’s approach to public policy? Do they look at the intellectual rigor of conservative politics in 2011 and feel a sense of pride?

Or do even they realize that the right has descended into knee-jerk, soundbite solutions to every problem?

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Earl on November 14, 2011 3:37 PM:

    This is not mindless, this is the plan as directed from Oligarch Central. Any diversion of funds away from the shrinking trough is to be destroyed. Govt is a tool of repression and control, and the days of function and utility are gone. All Hail the Overlards.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on November 14, 2011 3:37 PM:

    And therein lies the problem of a LIBRUL media.
    Seriously ?
    Could you imagine them trying to put that one past any interviewer or panel from the UK.
    They would have them for lunch.
    The corporate lapdogs of the American press , not so much.

  • square1 on November 14, 2011 3:46 PM:

    Iím not accusing Perry of wanting to do any of these things because I donít believe he has given them a moment of thought.

    So what? This is the problem with Democrats. They don't understand politics. When your political opponent says that he is in favor of a stupid policy, yes, you accuse him of wanting to do every logical consequence of the stupid policy.

    If Perry wants to abolish the Department of Education, then, yes, accuse him of wanting to end federal aid for education. If he wants to abolish the Commerce Department, yes, accuse him of wanting to abolish NOAA. And if he wants to abolish the Department of Energy then accuse him of wanting to close nuclear labs and wanting to ignore nuclear security.

    That's how you make idiots defend their idiot ideas. Make them explain the caveats and the exceptions.

  • howard on November 14, 2011 3:48 PM:

    there are next to no real conservatives around these days.

    what there is is a bunch of right-wing nativist populists, and "thinking" isn't part of their personality.

  • Redshift on November 14, 2011 3:57 PM:

    square1: Well said. As the political adage goes "when you're explaining, you're losing," and these clowns have plenty to explain. Those of us who have a platform (Hi, Steve!) should not be giving them a pass on the insane implications of their kneejerk anti-government ideology.

  • DAY on November 14, 2011 4:01 PM:

    You misunderstanded him: Republicans routinely rail against- and vow to abolish- entities that offend their core beliefs. And they can do it with impunity, knowing full well that they would be powerless to do so, in the unlikely event of their election.
    There are- count 'em, Rick- THREE branches of government.

  • c u n d gulag on November 14, 2011 4:06 PM:

    Thoughtful and serious Conservatives have, with the exception of a few holdouts, long become part of the Democratic Party - and much to the detriment of the Democrats.

    Yes, you still have Snowe and Collins, and Dick Lugar, but who else?
    And those three are scared shitless of being primaried from the right.

    Today's Conservatives need to realize that they are part of the new Know-Nothing Party.

  • T2 on November 14, 2011 4:08 PM:

    the current and past (Goldwater) Hard Right Conservatives want government essentially scaled back to the late 1700's. Some guys in powdered wigs benignly exercising governance over peasants, for the well being of the elite class (which they are members in). A simpler time when sugar and salt were valuable and the people who cut the cane and mined the salt were not. And they lived on plantations with names like Niggerhead.

  • MuddyLee on November 14, 2011 4:15 PM:

    Somebody should ask Perry (on camera) how he thinks his budget cuts for firefighting in Texas worked out for the state last summer. Or ask him to name some of the functions carried out by the federal agencies he wants to abolish. My guess is he knows as little about these agencies as Bush2 knew the Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds prior to the Iraq invasion.

  • maryQ on November 14, 2011 4:18 PM:

    Somewhere along the line, some thoughtful and serious Conservatives realized that playing on resentment and ignorance could help them achieve their thoughtful and serious policy goals. The result seems to have been an influx of ignorant and resentful people into the mainstream of the GOP/Conservative movement, and a subsequent loss of the serious and thoughtful foundations of conservative policy goals. They are, in fact, the victims of their own success. And we all are, in fact, the victims of their success. GW Bush was elected by a combination of serious people and ignorant/resentful types, but it was on this watch the the serious/thoughtful core started to collapse. In 2008, Obama's victory seems to have saved us from an actual ignorant and resentful person being a 72-year old heartbeat away from the presidency. And yet, we see further serious/thoughtful collapse, and more intense ignorant/resentful dominance. So my questions is whether we are going to have to live through government by the ignorant/resentful before serious/thoughtful returns to conservatism. Are we?

  • SteveT on November 14, 2011 4:18 PM:

    If the goals they outline weren't so potentially disastrous and if their willingness to lie wasn't so despicable, then I could almost feel sorry for the Republican politicians who feel trapped now the the Teabagging inmates are running the GOP asylum.

    But they are and they are and so I'm not.

  • John in TX on November 14, 2011 4:25 PM:

    That last point seems especially important, and should give thoughtful conservatives pause.

    Are there such people?

    Actually, the American Right has descended into a what can charitably be called a thoughtless, crazed, media-driven mob, incapable of complex thought or reasoning. Call them what you will -- anarchists, extremists, neanderthals -- but they are not "conservatives." I despised William Buckley but at least he could put sentences together and explain his ideology; these knuckledragging Orcs in the party today can barely remember the latest bumper-sticker slogan. Look at the comments section of any local newspaper in the "red" states or on right-wing websites; many of these people don't even have a rudimentary grasp of English.

  • jjm on November 14, 2011 4:28 PM:

    i NEVER liked, admired or even respected conservatives: under a cloud of pseudo argument, pseudo learning and a lot of pompous words, writer/thinkers like William F. Buckley purveyed really silly ideas while supporting the worst kinds of false, meritless hierarchies that so-called conservatives cherish. David Brooks is no less specious, though less pompous: his schtick is to pretend to be in 'the middle of the road,' then to come down squarely and always on the side of the right wing.

    Who are the great past conservatives, Mr. Dionne? If you simply mean people who didn't jump screaming onto some kind of bandwagon, but withheld their judgment until they deemed it appropriate, that is one thing: it is a personality characteristic that has very little to do with political positions or posturing.

    Conservatives always try to invoke a 'better, finer, higher' past that they wish to bring back into existence. The Russian theorist Bakhtin noted that this is the traditional way that whatever the status quo of political rule can be justified, saying one is just trying to redeem the present for the sake of the purer, higher, 'better' past.

    It's a massive fraud. Always has been, always will be. It preys on current discontent by pretending it's the fault of the enemies of the ruling class.

  • maryQ on November 14, 2011 4:45 PM:

    But, I neglected to add (and I am sure this won't make me popular), this presents a real problem for the rest of us, and this is what EJ meant by "At their best, they forced us to think harder". It is so easy to ignore and ridicule their ignorant and ridiculous "ideas". We are justified in thinking them cynical or mendacious at best, just plain stupid at worst. So, we get to take a pass on figuring out whether the ideas have any merit, and then engaging in productive discussion. I'm NOT saying it is our fault. You can't have an engaged discussion with a tub of Play-Do. It is of course their fault. They brought this on. But all of have to live with it, and the results are not pretty.

    I do think, if you strip away the demagoguery and appeals to knuckle dragging mouth breathers, there are and always have been some merit to some parts of some conservatives ideas. But no one can see merit in the god awful nonsense that the current crop of idiots feed to their base. So, we don't ever need to consider any legitimate critiques of our own ideas and policy goals.

  • jb on November 14, 2011 4:46 PM:

    I blame Fox News. They will think for you and all the answers are easy.

  • CyraNose59 on November 14, 2011 8:20 PM:

    "should give thoughtful conservatives pause." Just where are we to find the members of this endangered sub-species?

  • Rick B on November 14, 2011 9:58 PM:

    Want to know what has happened to the conservatives? During the Reagan administration they allied themselves with the social Republican religious whackos so that together the conservatives and the religious right could win more elections.

    It worked. That alliance has been the basis of the conservative movement for 30 years. But the religious whackos are selling the literal reading of the bible as a technological instruction book for living and they reject the thinking and logic that is core to modernity.

    The intellectual rigor of conservative politics of the past has been abandoned in exchange for winning more elections.

    For the conservative alliance to continue the conservatives must appear to take the biblical inerrancy and anti-thought ideology of the religious right seriously. If the conservatives don't take the whackos seriously then the alliance and the process of winning enough elections to be a serious national party are over.

  • Anonymous on November 15, 2011 1:22 AM:

    All questions I asked myself 30 years ago, all observations I made about the shift in Conservative thought back then, too.

    I have found many answers to WHY they do what they do, in a 30 year empirical study by Dr. Robert Altemeyer.


    To quote the introduction....

    "OK, what’s this book about? It’s about what’s happened to the American government lately. It’s about the disastrous decisions that government has made. It’s about the corruption that rotted the Congress. It’s about how traditional conservatism has nearly been destroyed by authoritarianism. It’s about how the “Religious Right” teamed up with amoral authoritarian leaders to push its un-democratic agenda onto the country. It’s about the United States standing at the crossroads as the next federal election approaches....
    "think you’ll find this book “explains a lot.” Many scattered impressions about the enemies of freedom and equality become solidified by science and coherently connected here.

    You think I’m pulling your leg? Click the link."


  • Gov't Mule on November 15, 2011 9:43 AM:

    The problem is the media still refer to them as conservatives. Conservatives are cautious by definition. These people are actually Right Wing Authoritarians. Just saying...

  • Rugosa on November 15, 2011 9:44 AM:

    E J Dionne suffers from the liberal ailment of being too generous to the other side. Conservatives have talked about sound ideas, but when in power they don't govern according to those principles. In particular, they have touted themselves as fiscally prudent, as opposed to "tax and spend" Democrats. But when they have the reins of government, they drive up the deficit. Every liberal pundit and politician should be making that point everytime they speak or write.