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Two Kinds of Meanness: The Modern Conservative Movement

I grew up and did my early work in politics in Nebraska, and my wife is a farmer’s daughter from rural Missouri. I spent about 10 years organizing and door-knocking for campaigns in rural Iowa. So I know a lot about the kind of Bob Dole conservatism that used to be the dominant political culture of those places. Since I became a progressive Democrat, I didn’t agree with those conservatives on many things, but I mostly liked and respected them. Wary of the unintended consequences of change, suspicious of big government, fiscally conservative, traditionalist in many ways, they were generally decent folks with much to admire in them, and very worthy political opponents.

To my great sadness, though, I feel like the modern conservative movement (and the Republican Party, which has been completely captured by this movement) has devolved into something quite different. It’s not necessarily more conservative (in some ways it is, in other ways not), mostly just a whole lot meaner.

At conservative conferences and Republican gatherings over the last decade, we have seen the crowds turn ugly. Remember the Republican presidential debates four years ago, with audiences cheering for torture and people dying because they had no health insurance, and booing soldiers, decorated for their heroism, because they were gay? Remember the McCain/Palin rallies of 2008 where the audiences were openly racist and called Obama a Muslim terrorist? Here’s another example that still chills me: Glenn Beck giving a speech to CPAC a few years back, talking about how there should be no safety net because “in nature, the lions eat the weak.” The audience burst into applause and laughter, and these are the same folks preaching Christian values.

It is important to note, though, that there are two different kinds of meanness that animate the modern conservative movement, and they are very different from each other. Two recent videos illustrate that difference.

The first is of the kind mentioned above: that nasty, racist meanness that animates so many conservatives. The woman speaker from the audience is the mother of David Bossie, one of the leading figures in the conservative movement and the head of Citizens United. Listen to her compare immigrants to rats and roaches while the audience goes crazy, cheering her on:

Note that the moderator of the session, famed GOP pollster Frank Luntz, not only doesn’t push back but praises her and asks the crowd if they would support her for president. This kind of undiluted racism takes my breath away.

However, there is another kind of meanness that is even more central to modern conservatism. If you are looking for a philosophical forebear to this kind of philosophy, read some Ayn Rand, who proclaimed that selfishness is good and that government help for poor people, or even charity, is bad because it encourages the leeches of society. This kind of meanness is a lot smoother and more sophisticated than the rats-and-roaches kind of meanness, but it is just as nasty. Check out this truly sobering interview by my colleague Lauren Windsor with this senior Cato Institute staffer, George Selgin. He says bank runs are good because they will make the economy stronger and bank customers more savvy:

Now, remember how influential Cato is: It is the Koch brothers’ leading think tank, pushing their philosophy, and it advises Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress. At the conference where this interview took place, leading Republican appointees to financial regulatory agencies were the keynote speakers. And their banking policy guy, Selgin, argued that the the Federal Reserve, FDIC deposit insurance, and almost any regulation of financial markets should be eliminated. Because that worked out so well during the Great Depression!

Selgin actually thinks that the onus should be on consumers to evaluate the safety of a bank by researching their balance sheets. Given that the nature of banking is to lend out or invest the money that they get from depositors, and given the complexity of modern finance — the “best CEO on Wall Street” couldn’t figure out that the London Whale was going to lose billions overnight for JPMorgan Chase — this is a pretty incredible philosophy. And at its heart it is meanness in its most distilled form: It doesn’t matter if millions of people lose their life savings, their homes, and their jobs in a financial collapse, because, hey, they deserve it if they didn’t know better in the first place. And in the meantime, if financial charlatans and speculators become billionaires for setting up these market failures and getting out just before the crash, so be it.

This is not the kind of conservatism I grew up around. This is devil-take-the-hindmost conservatism: Every man for himself, and let the unlucky ones starve if it works out that way. These two kinds of meanness together — the Ayn Rand kind and the nasty, racist kind — paint a very ugly picture of modern conservatism.

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