A Meandering Consideration of Absolutism

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, 3 March 2015.  (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

“Maybe it’s an unfortunate hallmark of contemporary conservative thought?”

Steve Benen

Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan offers an interesting consideration:

It’s looking more and more like Benjamin Netanyahu committed a strategic blunder in so ferociously opposing the Iran nuclear deal and in rallying his American allies to spend all their resources on a campaign to kill the deal in Congress.

SlateIf current trends hold, the Israeli prime minister and his stateside lobbyists—mainly AIPAC—are set to lose this fight. It’s politically risky for Israel’s head of state to go up against the president of his only big ally and benefactor; it’s catastrophic to do so and come away with nothing. Similarly, it’s a huge defeat for AIPAC, whose power derives from an image of invincibility. American politicians and donors might get the idea that the group isn’t so invincible after all, that they can defy its wishes, now and then, without great risk.

It would have been better for Netanyahu—and for Israel—had he maybe grumbled about the Iran deal but not opposed it outright, let alone so brazenly. He could have pried many more favors from Obama in exchange for his scowl-faced neutrality. Not that Obama, or any other American president, will cut Israel off; but relations will remain more strained, and requests for other favors (for more or bigger weapons, or for certain votes in international forums) will be scrutinized more warily, than they would have been.

There is, of course, much more to Kaplan’s consideration, including the implications of current Congressional momentum and the widening gap between the credibility of favoring and opposing arguments. Toward the latter, he notes, “Most criticisms of the deal actually have nothing to do with the deal”, and that’s about as least unfavorable as his critique of the criticism gets.

It would be better if proximal and superficial could be somehow construed synonymous, because there is always a reasonable question of when the superficial becomes the proximal. To wit, Steve Benen, who provides a more proximal look at how the politics of the P5+1 nonproliferation accord dispute enters and affects our daily lives and news consumption; it is true, he is looking at a more superficial valence, but in many ways, this is the one that counts effectively in the news consumption marketplace; sometimes the sound bites and hunt sniping really do outweigh the actual issue analysis. That is to say, between pundits going back and forth on cable news and Mr. Kaplan’s fine analysis for Slate, which do we think will have more effect in voters’ minds?

Mr. Benen brings a question of what the analysis and punditry sector refers to as optics:

The policy will apparently move forward anyway, while Netanyahu has undercut Israel’s relationship with his country’s closest ally.

msnbcThere is an art to losing well. The prime minister has conducted a clinic on what not to do.

If it seems like this dynamic comes up from time to time, it’s not your imagination. Congressional Republicans have routinely had opportunities to advance their own goals – on immigration, health care, and even the environment – shaping public policy in ways that benefit their own agenda, even while losing the larger fight, but they’ve been too short-sighted to take advantage.

Their first instinct – attack, reject, and oppose anything and everything President Obama suggests, regardless of merit – has done GOP lawmakers no favors. Indeed, it’s ultimately self-defeating, since Republicans could have produced a more favorable outcome, from their own perspective, if they’d tried to compromise a little with the White House and congressional Democrats.

They, like Netanyahu, instead end up with nothing except a policy they like even less.

Maybe it’s an unfortunate hallmark of contemporary conservative thought?

There are reasons this sort of gamble seems to keep playing out this way. We can assert an historical issue reaching back to the 1980 election, the mobilization of a large, generally stay-home bloc of voters. It was a very successful maneuver in the short and middle terms. But in the first place, these were voters who wilfully withheld ostensibly because they didn’t like the compromises they had to choose between. And, to a second, they happened to be really, really religious.

We all see where this is going, right? And we’ve witnessed evidence of the phenomenon over the years, as the Republican Party has transformed into the strange machine it is today. On the left, and also among those who pretend some sort of centrist neutrality, there is a frequent presumption that a critical mass exists in some context, and that it can’t be long before the whole thing comes crashing down. It is an unwise presumption, because nobody knows what that threshold and context actually are. And as we’ve seen now over the course of decades, one of the worst things we can tell ourselves is that it can’t get any worse, or weirder, or whatever. To wit, we already knew―it was easy enough to project after last time―that the GOP nomination contest was going to be strange, but what is this we’re actually seeing and hearing?

It is easy to note the perpetual chatter of “anti-intellectualism” and the decline of intellectual conservatism; then again, it seems reasonable enough to suggest we should not be surprised at the increasing ferocity of a certain, inchoate absolutism. For various reasons, these hardline conservative factions are simply in no mood to compromise.

And yes, of course there is a discussion to be had about that; many of those reasons are simply … well, they’re no good reasons.

And we see it over and over and over. Now that you are ready to concede our health insurance reform package, we consider it absolutely unacceptable. Or religious freedom: My equality requires that I should be able to reserve superiority under the law for myself. Remember, they even tried this absolutist line to prevent the government from functioning. Republicans would legislate ontology. This is all part of the absolutist demand. Anything to get their way, because there is no other acceptable outcome. And this, too, is part of a harvest from long cultivation.

Serrano, Piss Christ (detail)Traditionally―historically―conservatism asserts in order to retain older institutions in the face of transition, and the world seems to be living through transformational times. At home in these United States we see traditionalism distilling toward its neurotic components; the slow return of the repressed is accelerating such that Ron Paul and Todd Akin, among others, apparently did not see even the political danger in deigning to declare judgment of “honest” or “legitimate” rape. And it keeps going on. Even the conservative economic platform is showing the weather. The GOP is cobbling together an increasingly purist coalition, and the big mistake in liberal and centrist quarters has been to presume that the structure should have failed catastrophically by now. But think back to the days when it was about music and censorship; this is the heritage that demanded First Amendment religious “equality” at the expense of censoring First Amendment free speech. More recently, there are lessons to learn along these lines from the midterms, for instance, and what happened in places like Colorado, Iowa, and Kansas.

It feels strange, too, to mention the Southern Strategy as if in passing, but where else in the marketplace could Republicans sew such seeds? There really is no question as to the fact or shape of common cause between so many evangelical Christians and traditional cultural resentments. But it is true that multiple traditional orders are in transition, and the identity bonds stabilizing their customary implicit authority are rupturing.

Internationally, it would seem many traditional orders are in major transition as well. In the particular case of Israel, it really does seem the traditional way of dealing with Palestinians is finally starting to perceive the last of its support waning. But as an analog to the American domestic context, does this mean Netanyahu and his general paradigm are in some sort of crisis or rupture? That is harder to discern from afar, but, again, some of what goes on in the region seems to beg the question.

Benen is playing with the optics, to be certain, and there is unquestionably utility in that analysis. But it is also important to remember that there are reasons this is happening. What longer and better historical analysis of this period will someday tell will be, for better or worse, fascinating.


Image notes: Top ― Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, 3 March 2015. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters) Right ― Detail of “Piss Christ”, photograph by Andres Serrano, 1987.

Benen, Steve. “Mastering the fine art of losing well”. msnbc. 28 August 2015.

Kaplan, Fred. “How the Iran Deal Will Pass—and Why It Should”. Slate. 27 August 2015.

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