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Monday, February 13, 2006
A Leaderless Cult?

(updated, please see below)

As you already know, this post by Glenn Greenwald is a must-read, a powerful, by-the-numbers proof of what many of us have suspected for a long time: there is nothing more to Bush Republicans/conservatives than politics.

Glenn makes his point in a very clever and insightful way, through examples of how conservatives identify their enemies. Conservatives are slippery, nearly impossible to pin down and define. By turns they can be compassionate and torturers, government-drowners and pork-barrelers. Glenn's approach hits them where they haven't yet thought to camouflage themselves, and succeeds brilliantly.

I want to leave the personal issues to the side and examine a few of the substantive issues raised (unintentionally) by Alexandra’s post. It used to be the case that in order to be considered a "liberal" or someone "of the Left," one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day – social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, "judicial activism," hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a "liberal," such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a "liberal," only one thing is required – a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a "liberal," regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based. And the more one criticizes him, by definition, the more "liberal" one is. Whether one is a "liberal" -- or, for that matter, a "conservative" -- is now no longer a function of one’s actual political views, but is a function purely of one’s personal loyalty to George Bush.

I mean to take nothing away from the brilliance of this post, but I think one point could use a bit of clarification. It's not about George W. Bush. I mean, it is now--he's the flag they rally 'round today--but it wasn't always thus. The same movement was in evidence 13 years ago, and it was aimed at Bill Clinton. There was no single charismatic leader at the center of the movement then, and I don't believe there is one now.

Or, if there is, it isn't George W. Bush.

I know that's not the point Glenn was trying to make, and, in what I hope is fairness to him, I don't think he intended to address it. I just want to help to propagate the idea that it is not Bush we're against, but the movement of which he's currently the figurehead.


Of course, Glenn already knew this:

I don't believe that one instance of independent thought in five years proves or disproves much of anything. The fact that people cling tenaciously to [conservative opposition to the Miers nomination] as proof that there are residual flickers of independent thought left among Bush followers says alot in itself. I think and have argued that Bush followers are excessively loyal to their leader, not that they've been lobotomized into mind-controlled zombies of the type one sees in a science-fiction film.

But I will say this: one will see criticism of Bush when he doesn't defend the movement with sufficient vigor or extremity. If they perceive that the White House isn't attacking liberals with sufficient fervor, or that they're backing down and compromising too readily, they will urge a more resolute posture on behalf of themovement. That's all Harriet Miers was. They were unconvinced that she would be as reliably loyal as Bush thought she would be, and they wanted someone more reliable and dependable to the cause.

(linked from a quote of his own comment on a previous post)

It's pretty clear that Bush is the very antithesis of a movement leader: as soon as he deviates from the line taken by other people, he loses his legitimacy. He cannot think for himself, or take any substantive initiative. The movement leads him.

It should also be noted that apostasies committed against core conservative principles don't seem to faze the movement's constituents. Bush has increased the size of the Federal government, increased the defecit, reduced the autonomy of the states, taken measures to limit personal privacy, and even caused income taxes to rise by failing to reform the AMT. The chairman of the RNC is widely alleged to be a gay man, and the Vice President's daughter is a lesbian. About the only conservative taboos he hasn't broken pertain to gun control and abortion, neither of which he has been willing to be caught denouncing on the record.

These are the principles that animate voters, the hallowed "base" toward which all of Bush's actions are supposedly directed. If in practice he actually does little to advance their interests, we must conclude that said interests have nothing to do with the movement. The movement works for its own ends, and the base is seen as a bunch of useful idiots whose votes can be bought with empty, intolerant rhetoric and junior membership cards.