Friday, March 26, 2010

Bruce Bartlett, David Frum, and the closing of the conservative mind

Bruce Bartlett has had a long career in Republican politics. He worked for Ron Paul and Jack Kemp. He was a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He was a senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House, working for Gary Bauer, later a Treasury official under Bush I. He worked at the Cato Institute.

Starting in 1993, he was with the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas... until it fired him for being too critical of Bush II. As he puts it himself, he was fired "for writing a book critical of George W. Bush's policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D." And that, it seems, was it. The scarlet letter was applied. "In the years since," he laments, "I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC."

All because he broke ranks and spoke out, putting principle before partisanship. No matter his long record, an entire career, of committed conservatism.

In related news, David Frum, the former Bush II speechwriter who has been deeply critical of the GOP over health-care reform and other issues, and the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have parted ways. Was he fired? He claims not, and he very well may not have been, but Bartlett, responding to the news, and taking it for granted that Frum was fired, launched a sound criticism of the current state of American conservatism:

I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn't already.


I wanted to say that this is a black day for what passes for a conservative movement, scholarship, and the once-respected AEI.

Even if Frum wasn't fired, even if the parting of ways was mutual, or perhaps a cost-cutting measure (Frum claims that he was invited to stay at the AEI on a "non-salary basis"), Bartlett, I think, is right. Conservatism these days is about either a) blind loyalty to the Republican Party, b) anti-government teabagging extremism, or c) theocracy -- or d) some contorted combination of the above.

What's more, both the Republican Party and the conservative movement, to the extent there is one anymore, are about purging and purifying, with dissenters, even conservative ones like Bartlett, even the occasionally bipartisan likes of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, ignored, alienated, or excommunicated. Simply put, in Dear Leader Rush's party, in a movement dominated by the Hannitys and the Malkins, all that is acceptable is the narrow ideological fringe of the increasingly extreme right.


The title of this post refers back to the title of Bartlett's post at Capital Gains and Games, which, of course, refers back to the title of Allan Bloom's famous book, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom, as you may know, was a Straussian, a follower of Leo Strauss, and I, who studied at the University of Toronto with two of Bloom's leading students, am also one.

Yes, I remain one now, despite my liberalism and objections to neoconservatism (which, through Bill Kristol and others, is linked to Straussianism), and I still think there is a great deal to like about Strauss, an amazing political philosopher in his own right, and his immediate followers, including Bloom (who taught at Chicago and Toronto), whose translation and textual analysis of Plato's Republic are simply magnificent, as is so much else of what he did academically.

There is also a lot to like about The Closing of the American Mind, which tells some difficult truth about the intellectual decline of America as a modern liberal state. Anyone who pays attention to contemporary popular culture with a critical mind, even a generally open-minded liberal who welcomes new things and finds Bloom's occasionally reactionary conservatism distasteful, should agree that all is not well with the American mind. The decline of standards not just of excellence but even of goodness is all too apparent. Liberals like me argue that the benefits of progressive politics and an opening society far outweigh this decline in terms of importance -- I hardly think that returning to the narrow, oppressive elitism of the past, a bigoted world ruled by privileged white men, is desirable -- but we should nonetheless be seriously concerned about what has happened, and is happening, not just in America but in liberal democracies everywhere.

For more on Strauss, and on the possibility of reconciling Strauss and liberalism, see a pair of posts I wrote at my place way back in April-May 2005:

I would add here that Allan Bloom himself was a lifelong Democrat -- unlike most Straussians, who tend to be Republican and generally on the political right. I hope that he, of sound and acute mind, would have objected to what is happening in the Republican Party and in American conservatism generally.

The American mind may very well still be closing, in a cultural way, despite the incredible advances of recent years (such as the growing recognition of gay rights, a greater appreciation for human rights, despite the barbarism of the George W. Bush administration, and the election of a black man to the presidency), but the conservative mind, now decaying, seems to have been shut down altogether, the Great Purge, of which both Bartlett and Frum have been victims, showing no signs of abating anytime soon.

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