Dreampolitik and the Death Spiral of the Modern Conservative Movement

While social media (predictably) was obsessed with partisan sniping over what is or is not an appropriate way to acknowledge the passing of a deeply divisive public figure with the death of Rush Limbaugh last week (that is when we were not all busy appropriately dunking on Ted Cruz for the most ill-advised vacation in US political history), I’ve been more interested in using this moment to reflect both on Limbaugh’s legacy in our political history and the causal relationship between the success of his conservative infotainment movement and the ideological collapse of the post-Goldwater modern conservative movement. Ross Douthat at the NYTs took an interesting look at Limbaugh’s legacy and saw the petrification of the conservative movement. The whole piece is worth your time, but this passage really hits at the crux of what Rush’s real legacy is:

In its place today is a fantasy politics, a dreampolitik, that’s fed by a deep feeling of grievance and dispossession. Part of this feeling is justified, insofar as liberalism really has consolidated cultural power everywhere outside Conservatism Inc. But the right’s infotainment complex is itself a major reason for that consolidation. Conservatives have lost real-world territory by building dream palaces, and ceded votes by talking primarily to themselves.

Ross Douthat, NYT 2/20/21

Dreampolitik is a glib play on the Cold War foreign policy decision making process most associated with Henry Kissinger known as Realpolitik. Realpolitik was an ideologically agnostic approach to foreign policy that urged practitioners to consider the specific conditions of the moment and make choices based on pragmatic understandings of those circumstances, stakes, and power dynamics. This is the sober politics of cold, analytical professionals. Douthat’s Dreampolitik is the opposite, portraying the Limbaugh legacy as having turned the conservative movement into a monolith obsessed with viewing every choice through a highly partisan filter of white grievance and loss of privilege and to make policy choices based on pre-ordained, ideologically driven beliefs. What does this look like in more practical terms? Kissinger used Realpolitik to thaw relations with China to stimulate the US economy and weaken the Soviet Union, despite his own hawkishness, China’s human rights record, and communist government. Dreampolitik leads to Mitt Romney opposing Obamacare despite backing the same approach to health insurance as Governor of Massachusetts. Dreampolitik means ignoring the circumstances and context of the moment (skyrocketing costs of health care, the ascendance of a moderate conservative approach to the problem in coopting Romneycare, the lack of any viable alternative proposal) and instead opening a new front in the culture war. Every policy debate is an opportunity to show how liberals are bad and conservatives are good. No compromise. No coalition building. Just full on opposition.

The story of how this happened is long and varied– from the Faustian bargain inherent to the Southern Strategy to the nearly complete repudiation of zombie Reaganism under the failed George W Bush administration economically, domestically, and internationally, there is a lot of blame to go around. But the ascendance of Dreampolitik is easier to explain. Rush Limbaugh and the infotainment industry he spawned coopted the conservative intellectual culture war for the schools, mixed it with conservative evangelical “No true Christian” posturing, and exposed the unlimited grift you could engage in if you fed this beast. The Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world replaced the George Wills and Charles Krauthammers as the public voice of conservative politics, replacing sober right-leaning political policy analysis with increasingly unhinged lib hating. Out were ideological arguments about the legacy of Locke and the Founders (or even Milton Friedman). In were books calling liberals godless, stupid (“If Liberals had any Brains, They’d be Conservatives”), deceitful (Liars: How Liberals Exploit Our Fears for Power and Control”), and a host of other insidious things. The easiest way to make a buck in this industry is to tell your consumers how wonderful they are and how awful their opponents are.

Douthat remarks that the conservative infotainment industry also led the movement to abandon the field in the culture wars, ceding all the most important educational and cultural institutions to liberals and instead setting up their own safe spaces where their ideas went unchallenged and their lack of voice in the institutions they have fled can serve as proof of their claims to persecution. Douthat is right to call this out. The lack of conservative voices in the mainstream media, academia, arts, and entertainment was a predictable result of the approach they took to the culture wars. Unwilling to fight in the marketplace of ideas, voices like Limbaugh’s have broadly painted every major institution, from our colleges and universities to our major film production companies, as tools of some vast leftist conspiracy. Instead of participating in these traditional institutions, they created their own dream palaces, as Douthat calls them. Why bother to engage in decades long debates in academic journals over a narrow historical topic while making a modest living and dealing with all the headaches of research, publishing, teaching, and committee work when you can do none of this work and claim victory from behind your radio desk?

I’ll stick to history education as I know it best, but this pattern holds true in entertainment, the arts, journalism, and science too. Conservative activists attack history scholarship and curriculum as being deeply biased by liberals and write polemics with thinly veiled pretensions to reach their predetermined conclusion. For example, Lynne Cheney’s investigation into what our 17 year olds know was not a scholarly attempt to contextualize what students know about literature and history as they graduate from our schools. Instead, it was a leading question to show that they did not seem to know key pieces of the conservative cannon of literature and an outdated conservative narrative of American history. Cheney wasn’t trying to honestly answer a scholarly question– she chose a question that allowed her to get up on her soapbox to slam the liberal bias of schools and academic professionals who developed the curriculum.

A legitimate approach to this question would have examined how the subjects had been taught in the past along with how and why the curriculum, teaching materials, and pedagogical approaches had changed. This story is messy and would have undermined Cheney’s narrative. Telling her readers that the history taught in the schools of the late nineteenth century contextualized the United States inside of the history of the world and that the primacy of Western Civilization as an organizing concept only happened as a result of political justification for American involvement in WWI undermines the idea that the history curriculum was ever apolitical. There is over a century of arguments over what history we should teach this in the records of various historical associations, university faculties, journal articles, and books. A historian would consult those records and follow them to a conclusion. Cheney and her intellectual heirs in Trump’s 1776 Commission, start from the position that they already know the answer and go in search of evidence to show how right they are.

Of course, they were never really writing for scholars or educators. The 1776 Commission never really met and most of their publication was picked up directly from previously published polemics. Their report had no teeth. It wasn’t a real attempt to provide a structured curriculum or guidance for states and school districts looking to update their own standards. It was just a cheap attempt to score political points by dumping on the NYTs 1619 Project, our schools, and “liberal academics.” This is the essence of Dreampolitik. Lots of angry words to wind up the base and rile up the libs, but no one is doing the serious work to turn any of this into meaningful policy. It is pure impotent rage.

Like Rush, the movement was never really interested in changing academia or our culture. They were polemics designed to score cheap political points and to preach to the choir. While conservative culture warriors were busy pining over a “traditional” Western Civilization narrative in the 1980s they lost the ability to influence or shape the World History narratives that replaced it. Like Ben Shapiro making his own movies to counter “Liberal Hollywood,” these childish efforts may burnish the conservative credentials (and bolster the bank accounts) of the hacks promoting them, but they do nothing to challenge the ascendant liberal orthodoxy. By refusing to engage the content within the structure of the profession and instead retreating to their insular safe spaces they get locked out of the process altogether, weakening conservatism and further narrowing its appeal to blind partisans and grifters. Driving out moderate voices in favor of fanatical lunatics, trading George Will readers for Alex Jones listeners, has sent the GOP into a death spiral. The only way to be relevant in the 2021 GOP is to build ever more elaborate dream palaces. Practicing Dreampolitik might win the GOP a few more elections in the short term, but it will never deliver meaningful policy. It can only ever lead to performative nonsense like the 1776 Commission and darker things like the 1/6 insurrection.

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