Monday, October 08, 2007

Bush and Realignment III

Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.” - David Brooks

Green, in The Atlantic, again capturing the essence of the Bush/ Cheney/ Rove project:

“The Middle East failure is all too well known - the vaulting ambition coupled with the utter inability of top administration figures to bring about their grand idea. What is less appreciated is how Rove set out to do something every bit as audacious with domestic policy. Earlier political alignments resulted from historical accidents or anomalies, conditions that were recognized and exploited after the fact by talented politicians . Nobody ever planned one. Rove didn’t wait for history to happen to him – he tried to create it on his own. ‘It’s hard to think of any analogue in American history’, says David Mayhew, a Yale political scientist who has written a book on historical alignments, ‘to what Karl Rove was trying to do.’”

I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of historical anthropomorphism – that is, trying to make moralizing generalizations about the agents of historical epochal changes (hence, the perennial kindergarten question at movie time –“Is he good or bad?”). We (most of us) stand in awe of, and admire, a Lincoln or a Roosevelt. And we never tire of hearing their stories retold, because they’re edifying – the good guys are on the side of historical change. The modern world was forged in the confrontation between the puritans and the older, Saxon communities of the marches. Okay: Cromwell - good or bad? What about when the agents of change are out and out sons of bitches?: Mark Hanna, or the extinguishers of the North American Indians? We avoid these stories as instinctively as we avoid atonal music. But, still, I’m determinist enough to concede that, yes, resistance to these was, indeed, futile.

These changes were driven by technological changes and the tectonic shifts that attend them. The story of the crushing of the Progressives is poignant and disheartening, but I laugh along with everyone else when a Jacques Chirac says that the future of Europe lies in agriculture. Fact is, historical change is values neutral, and the agents of change don’t fit into any neat moral boxes. Karl Rove set out to be one of the bastards who allow themselves to operate outside conventional moral rules, but whose crimes are mitigated by the zeitgeist exemption – "The Spirit Was With Them". Most people don’t make that decision, because they have a sober realization of the limits of their own vision. Bush has made much of his Christianity, and the Manichean rhetoric of good and evil; but the policy choices, as well as the biographies of Bush/Cheney/Rove identify them as Machiavellians rather than Christian moralists. We’re not talking Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter here. Bush and Rove made a Machiavellian gamble, and the only way to redeem oneself in such a context is to be right; to be effective; to succeed. These guys didn’t even come close.

This from Robert Kaplan’s essay on Machiavelli:

Machiavelli believed that because Christianity glorified the meek, it allowed the world to be dominated by the wicked: he preferred a pagan ethic that elevated self-preservation over the Christian ethic of sacrifice, which he considered to be hypocritical… In an imperfect world, Machiavelli says, good men bent on doing good must know how to be bad. And because we all share the social world, he adds, virtue has little to do with individual perfection and everything to do with political result. Thus, for Machiavelli, a policy is defined not by its excellence but by its outcome: if it isn’t effective it can’t be virtuous… Like Machiavelli, Churchill, Sun-Tzu and Thucydidies all believed in a morality of results rather than of good intentions. So did Raymond Aron…. Aron wrote, “A good policy is measured by its effectiveness,” – not its purity.