Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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JUNE 20, 2012 9:49AM

America's Divided Political Heart

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I cheerfully concede what some soi-disant conservatives charge: my conservatism is not theirs. Some of what passes for conservatism is a radically anti-political ideology, decayed Jeffersonianism characterized by a frivolous hostility toward the state, and lacking the traditional conservative appreciation of the dignity of the political vocation and the grandeur of its responsibilities.

Those are not my words. They belong to a bow-tied and baby-faced George F. Will who, in 1978, at the ripe old age of 37, was fresh off his Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and whose very first book (The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts) was a preview of Will's quirkiness to come.

What set George Will apart from other laissez faire, chamber of commerce conservatives back then was the healthy Tory skepticism he evinced when it came to a free market capitalism whose unholy furies of greed, avarice and ambition were often unleashed with devastating effect on communities whose stability and persistence conservatives have always made it their special obligation to preserve.

I miss that George Will, I really do, because I cheerfully concede that when I first discovered Will as an impressionable college sophomore I was smitten by his uncommon learning and erudition.

Yet, today, George Will's government-respecting conservatism is as shuttered as that original Border's Bookstore on State Street in Ann Arbor where I first found him.

How sad to see Will now recast as such a dependable apologist for plutocracy, defending Citizens United as a blow for liberty and free speech and extolling the virtues of the "rugged individualism" he once deplored as he simultaneously attacks liberals like Elizabeth Warren for delivering the commonplace conservative message that we are all in this together.

I've highlighted Will's criticisms of the "anti-political" tendencies of certain soi-disant conservatives in order to emphasize just how far advanced this assault on "the political" has become on the right.

It is now unremarkable for mainstream Republicans to boast of their allergic reaction to compromise of any kind, thus making politics impossible - by definition.

There are also "Constitutional Conservatives" like Sarah Palin who seek to embed the entire right wing agenda in "The Supreme Law of the Land" with their balanced budget and family values amendments, so that conservatives never need fear some future Democratic president or Congress undoing their handiwork by committing the unpardonable offense of what we once called "democracy."

Given the drift in American politics over the last 30 years to the right, it's not too far off the mark to say we no longer have Republican and Democratic parties. Rather, what we've got is a Community Party that still believes in E Pluribus Unum and a Leave Me Alone Party that was outraged when President Obama "misspoke" by calling our national motto "From the Many, One" instead of the Christian Right's preferred "One Nation Under God."

Into this fray now steps the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, Jr. with a new book called Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. It's a book that tries to make sense of a complex American character where the longing for "community" co-exists uneasily with an almost obsessive infatuation with heroic and rugged "individualism."

Reconciling the E Pluribus part of America's split personality with the Unum is a task that only a Roman Catholic like E.J. Dionne could love, whose Church has for 2,000 years been trying to make sense of the mystery of a Holy Trinity in which God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all co-exist as one.

But it's precisely this divided loyalty between the community and the individual that constitutes the "genius" of the American political tradition, says Dionne, since from the beginning Americans have been "communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians" without being fully comfortable with either.

For all that America's new conservatives claim to represent the values which inspired the Founding Fathers, however, Dionne says it's the right wing that breaks most with our country's deepest traditions about the balance and interplay "between the public and the private spheres, between government and the marketplace, and between our love of individualism and our quest for community."

American conservatism, says Dionne, is now about low taxes, fewer regulations, less government - and little else. Anyone who dares to define it differently "faces political extinction."  That's what happened to Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana when he was derided as a "sellout" for working toward a bipartisan consensus with Democrats -- then defeated in a GOP primary after having served his country and his party in the US Senate for more than 30 years.

Dionne says that Republicans, especially those in the new Tea Party Congress, have abandoned what once were American conservatism's most attractive features: its prudence, its caution, its sense that change should be gradual, but most important, its concern for fostering community.

This commitment, he says, "now lies buried beneath slogans that lift up the heroic and disconnected individual - or the "job creator" - with little concern for the rest."

The same George Will, for example who attacked Elizabeth Warren for being part of "a liberal project" designed to "dilute the concept of individualism" and thereby refute "respect for the individual's zone of sovereignty," wrote in his 1983 introduction to Clinton Rossiter's classic, Conservatism in America, that what made American conservatism incoherent was its too close association with free market capitalism.

"The severely individualistic values and the atomizing social dynamism of a capitalist society conflict with the traditional and principled conservative concern with traditions, among other things," wrote Will.

Those other things, said Will, included "the life of a society in its gentling corporate existence," namely communities, churches and other institutions "that derive their usefulness and dignity from the ability to summon individuals up from individualism to concerns larger and longer-lasting than their self-interestedness."

Validation for Dionne's thesis about the distance that has now developed between conservatism and its former concern for the health and stability of the community is provided by right wing reaction to that thesis.

I can understand why a vile partisan bomb-thrower like Ann Coulter would generate partisan heat with books titled Slander, Treason, Godless, Guilty and If Democrats Had Any Brains They'd Be Republicans.  

But I really have no idea what it is about the mild-mannered E.J. Dionne that provokes such hostility among conservatives. With a book with a title that talks about a "divided political heart," Dionne shows himself to be about as fearsome as a Hobbit or Harry Potter's house-elf, the one named Dobby.

Nevertheless, in the Washington Post's "What others are saying" comment section (what my friend at USA Today calls the "Pig Pile) right wing readers were out in force with their torches and pitchforks complaining about the appalling absence of liberal civility: "Pure tripe as always, E.J.," one called it. "Dems can just eat it," said another. "Keep drinking that Obama Kool-aid," remarked a third. "It is too late to apologize, Mr. Dionne. You have done your share of grinding out propaganda for an abhorrent political ideology that has lost sight of the people it wants to govern," said another.

Actually, that last remark was borderline literate.

Dionne says he has long admired the conservative tradition and has written about it with great respect, which he has. And while I have no way of knowing if part of Dionne's motivation for writing this new book was, like mine, distress at seeing what's become of the conservatism now embraced by his Post colleague, George Will, there is no question Dionne has added his voice to a growing chorus of writers alarmed at the balkanization of our national community along sectional and sectarian lines.

These are writers who recognize that the project begun by the Founding Fathers to pull together a nation made up of multifarious factions of often incompatible and irreconcilable conviction -- and to hold them together in a well-ordered constitutional "union" able to "break and control the violence of faction" -- is unraveling as some of those factions, mostly on the right, are trying to sever the "mystic cords of memory" which once bound our national community together so that they can wriggle free and go their own way.    

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An excellent post, as always. I run a recording studio, and yesterday I had to record another angry screed called, "We've got to take our country back." I have recorded dozens of songs like this in the last couple of years, all written by older white men who seem to think their country has been taken away from them, and who feel threatened by the black man in the White House and his "socialist agenda." I hate that there are so many that feel this way in our country...
Thanks Frank,

Most of the right wing attacks against Obama fall into the hammer and nail category. If you are a right wing hammer then everything not right wing looks like a socialist nail.

Anyone who knows the history of American conservatism and the "radical right," or has spent time on the right as I have, knows that all this talk about President Obama being "the most radical president in US history" is pure nonsense. Obama is thoroughly mainstream, even conservative -- measured by actual US history, not right wing Tea Party ideology, which is the metric most of your callers are using to measure Obama. Naturally. Because they watch Fox News. And Fox News has a deliberate agenda to turn America into a plutocracy. Read David Brooks from last weekend. He spells it out. Republicans are not "extremists" or "radicals" he says. They just don't believe the American New Deal social democracy works anymore. So they want to repeal the 20th century and rip out 70 years of American political experience, root and branch, as the right wing has always wanted to do ever since FDR.

Obviously, Brooks and I have different definitions of "radical" -- and conservative!
What Frank more or less says..
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I have to laugh when I hear conservative friends talking about how they want elected officials “to do what the people want them to do.”

“How can they do that?” I often ask, “when so many people seem to want something diametrically opposed to what so many others want.”

And that is the case. There was a time when differences seemed to be “I prefer a to b”…but now we have a huge population who claim, “a or death” and an equally huge population proclaiming, “b or death.”

We’ve all seen expressions like: “I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils anymore”; “The lesser of two evils is still evil”; or variations on that. When I’ve seen them in threads, I often comment: I do not think either of the candidates or the parties are evil. All seem to be trying to do as good a job as the political climate in America will allow (although even I realize that the polar right seems to have fallen off an edge.)

But both are doing one of the most thankless jobs I’ve ever seen presented--trying to govern and almost ungovernable people…a fickle, demanding, and highly polarized citizenry.

We truly are our own worst enemy.

I hope some of these essays of yours get through to fringes (both left and right), Ted.
Frank Apisa,

As critical as we often are about our own politics it is critical that we not give in to the temtation to chuck it altogether. That is exactly what the dictatorial types among us hope we will do because it leaves more for them, which is why they are always trying to stir discontent. A plague on both your houses, or both sides are equally guilty is the response of someone just being lazy and not doing their part as citizens to educate themselves so that they can see the differences. And as you say, politicians are a reflection of us. If we want better politicians maybe the place to start is with ourselves and what we demand of them and how much room we give them to govern.
Will faces the same knotty problem faced by every brand of chewing gum on the drugstore rack.

Back when he was writing long words in challenging sentences, George was Doublemint. He had cachet.

Those were the days when you could spot a Conservative in a crowd more or less the way you spot a dweeb in a schoolyard--they were the narrow-chested guys with Coke-bottle glasses and an armload of books; the chess-club geeks who missed the prom because they were splitting atoms in the lab.

George paid for his brand of Conservatism. The soi-disant conservatives used to kick his bony keester with their radically anti-political ideology, decayed Jeffersonianism and frivolous hostility toward the state. George clung to his traditional conservative appreciation of the dignity of the political vocation and the grandeur of its responsibilities while the bullies devolved, as they had to, into meaningless lives of bloviation and Klan rallies that...

made them all really rich.


It too George a while to figure it out, addled as he was by his book-learnin' and his 20/3500 prescription glasses, but he finally saw the truth: soi-disant is as good as any disant on AM radio. The money isn't in selling erudition to literates. George's complicated thoughts, insouciant foreign colloquialisms and the dignity of the political vocation don't play for the crowd that thinks Red Bull is for babies, NASCAR is a sport, Larry the Cable Guy is an oracle, and Obama is a Muslim. Doublemint is boring besides all those tasty brands that explode with artificial flavors and chemical neon.

Years after he started his career as a philosopher-pundit, Will has to face a couple of ugly truths. First, no one listened to him, least of all his own party. Whatever it was he was for--small government, respect for the Constitution, financial prudence, protecting the homeland--Conservatives ignored, trampled and betrayed. Meaning, George couldn't preach effectively even to his own choir. That's gotta sting. And second, all the soi-disanters made way, way more money then George did. The louts, dirtbags and bullies didn't just beat him up; they outperformed him at his own game. That's gotta sting bad.

Hence his presence late in the game as a wannabe loudmouth dilettante of soi-disant. He's sick and tired, gosh darnit, of being brilliant and right and not getting the girls, so he shows up at the prom in a new biker jacket, riding a mighty Vespa of trash talk, leaving tire tracks over the traditional conservative appreciation of the dignity of the political vocation and the grandeur of its responsibilities. He's not Doublemint anymore. He's not boring, darnit. He's here to show the angry white men that he can chew Red Man and blow the dog whistle with the Glenns and the Michelles and the Rushs and explode with artificial conservative flavor.

If the rest of what he wanted isn't going to happen for hum, he's still got time to make a few bucks.
Well said. Taking on the big boys.

Will is the most interesting "conservative" to me because he is at least the most articulate and erudite. He writes brilliantly on cultural matters and lately has been lobbing bombs at the Catholic hierarchy.

But when he gets into his "individualism" rut and anti-liberal polemic he reduces himself to the short term, rather than the interests of the society in the future. (Coulter is nothing more than a cheap hack.) I think basically it's due to an unconscious attachment to authority, and some sense of stability he has projected onto the body politic. I don't know his personal story, but my bet is there is a trauma back there that remains an undigested piece of cheese.

My contention with him is that his "America" cannot survive. We have seen enough of it to know. The "private enterprise" he esteems is nothing of the sort. We are closer to oligarchy than ever and not facing the fact of the integration of the "new America" (as Buchanan has stipulated) is the real threat to civil order and economic abundance and will be for the foreseeable future. We either "practice" liberalism our threaten our own survival.

By the way, I knew that bookstore in Ann Arbor. You must have gone to U of M. I wasn't so lucky.

We either practice liberalism or threaten our own survival. Well said. No, I didn't go to UofM either. I am an OSU Buckeye fan so they wouldn't let me in! Actually, I graduated from Eastern Michigan right next door in Ypsilanti, but I lived with my aunt and uncle in Ann Arbor while going to school. Uncle Ted was a UofM law professor.

Good enough for Wikipedia! I think you've got Will nailed. Do you remember the time that Will's respectable, fiscal conservatism led to champion tax increases to keep deficits under control!? Also term limits? For the Permanent Republican Governing Coalition? That didn't last long.
Thanks Ted, but in fairness, I can't accept being complimented for recognizing the obvious.

It's not as though the Conservative media has tried to hide its tracks. They've succeeded in doing what most rational people would assume is impossible: they've gotten Conservatives to gleefully, vigorously deny their own interests. They've gotten people whose lives were built by the New Deal to decry the New Deal; they've gotten people on Medicare to insist they're against "socialist" programs. They've linked the personal self-esteem of rank and file Conservative voters with unqualified idolatry of Conservative leaders. They've gotten people to eagerly embrace the Orwellian lies WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH as patriotic truths, and best of all, they've gotten people to pay for the lies with credit cards.

Will suffers from an integrity hangover. He used to pride himself on reason and rationality, and to build a case with irrefutable logic. He didn't get the memo, it seems, that Conservatism after Reagan didn't require logic any more to be refuted--you could just shout down and belittle the other side, and Conservative voters would love you for it. Will can try playing that role, but he can’t pull it off convincingly. He can fake indecency but it just isn’t his instinct.

Matt Labash laid out the map a while back. They haven't deviated at all from it:

JournalismJobs.com: Why have conservative media outlets like The Weekly Standard and Fox News Channel become more popular in the past few years?

Matt Labash: Because they feed the rage. We bring the pain to the liberal media. I say that mockingly, but it's true somewhat. We come with a strong point of view and people like point of view journalism. While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually.

What's hard for George Will is where that leaves him: he wanted to be Mr. Chips in a school for erudite well-mannered students, and instead, he finds himself in a biker bar, where his crew-neck sweater and clipped preppie erudition don’t really impress the locals. He’s not the alpha male in this crowd, any more than Buckley or Kirk or Nash would be. They’ll tolerate him as a mascot as long as he’s entertaining at faking indecency, but he’s living on tips and wishing to God he had some other way to make a living.

The amusement here is that Will, Brooks, Levin and other foppish schoolboys still try so very hard to talk about Conservatives as though 1) they speak ex cathedra; 2) Conservatives can be addressed as a bloc and 3) anyone is listening. One of the few discernible fundamentals for the Right these days is that there aren’t any fundamentals for them. They can all secede from each other, instantly, for any reason, at the slightest hint that anyone else is trying to require them to compromise their God-given rights as they see them. Pundits like Will desperately pretend to represent people who will not be represented; they try to characterize the thinking of people who will not be thought for, and who won’t think at all if they don’t want to. The only truly authentic Conservative position now is no position—any commitment, any consensus, any agreement on some external reality is a bitter concession for a Tea Partier who insists on the right to his own facts. Will isn’t a thought-leader in this mob; he’s an orderly in an asylum where rules and reason have fled, and he’s praying that the inmates don’t discern his sanity.

You almost have to laugh. It reminds me of “The Road Warrior,” where those post-apocalyptic gangs of savages roamed the desert scavenging and slaughtering. Will finds himself a fellow-traveler among them. He decks himself in leather and feathers and tries like hell to make himself useful, but he knows the script he’s in. Soon someone big drunk and mean will fire bullets at Will’s feet to make him dance. The crowd will laugh—it’ll be one more come-uppance handed to another one of those smug educated elitist punks who thought they were in charge. It will have been a great little racket, and for George, it’ll be over. One hopes only that Will understands the symmetry of what’s happening to him, what he might have done to prevent it, and how much he did to make it so.

I've added you to my friends list. And I agree with you. The problem is "intellectuals" of almost any stripe are personna non grata in the GOP at present, which explains the defection of the moderate wing.

It's part of the cycle for the ideologues to take charge, dig them into a ditch, and then the Wills come back in vogue. I personally believe that isn't going to happen this time. I think they are determined to make the final slapdown, using Obama as their foil, and I see little indicating faux liberals are going to get off their ass.

I'd love it if I was wrong, but just don't see much evidence to the contrary.

Ted: I went to Western.
Ben, thanks, but I don't post often and frankly I find the whole exercise a little dangerous. Our side in discussions like this has a tendency to make the same error Will makes--we equate reasoned outcomes from logical arguments with safety. We're wrong.

George Will must see it with painful clarity that the Right has been taken over by a mindset that seeks not to reach reasoned outcomes, but to make them impossible. These people are book burners, anti-empiricists, fanatics; they would bend the law, undermine science, discredit the idea of evidence in any context and shed blood to take power and keep it. Until we see this, our smugness here is a weakness, not a strength, Our ability to best these Conservatives in reasoned deliberation is meaningless--they've given up reasoned deliberation. We're soldiers in Fort Sumter wondering what all the noise is about.
It looks like a hefty chunk is bent on relearning things the hard way. That massive tax cuts benefiting mainly the rich financed by gutting the social safety net at the expense of mainly the poor will NOT make most people better off. That allowing those with money to exercise a disproportionate influence over who gets elected will NOT result in wiser policies. That curtailing access to birth control and abortions will cause immense distress to women and resuscitate the back-alley business that once died out. That venturing into an oligarchic form of free market capitalism untried successfully by any other country will NOT vindicate American exceptionalism. That teaching religion-based theories dressed up like science will NOT produce a populace capable of being in the forefront of R&D. That ignoring criminological studies disparaging high incarceration rates does not result in a safer or more prosperous society. That the tribalistic reaction against global warming warnings neither makes it go away nor lessens its impact once it becomes to obvious for even the most blinkered partisan to ignore.

This is the crew that Wills now seems to have hitched his wagon to.
Great post, good discussion! Rated, but all this is too thought-provoking to post much more of a comment than this without taking more time to collect my own thoughts!