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In this panel discussion on the future of conservatism, Congressman Steven King, columnist Ronald Radosh, Emmett Tyrrell of The American Spectator, and David Horowitz talk about the Tea Party, ideological purity vs. winning over moderates, and other issues that will determine the character and success of the conservative movement. (David Horowitz Freedom Center, Restoration Weekend 2010, November 20, 2010).
Congressman Steven King: I’m happy to talk about the economy and the things that we can do and should do. And I have some, I think, strong and firm ideas on that that have been well-vetted. But in the end, we’ve got to get our culture right.
And I see — I learned in the Iowa Senate, where I was elected in ’96 — I got to know everybody in there. I knew their wives and their families. And when they stood up and spoke, I knew who they were speaking for. And I knew — I could tell who they’d been talking to. I knew them well enough I could tell who had ginned them up to give the speech that they gave.
And in fact, there was a Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that got up in our caucus one day. And he said, you know, I think we can raise some taxes and spend some money better than we’re doing it now. And I was just appalled. And so, nobody said anything. And I went out into the lobby and found just the right people and said, “You know that fellow that you worked so hard to get elected to the Senate because he was a fiscal conservative, and he wanted low taxes and more freedom? Well, he has some ideas entirely different than that, and I think you should talk to him.”
And the next day, in our private little caucus, that same Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee got up, and he said, “Remember what I said yesterday in this caucus? Well, I slept on that last night, and I’ve got a different opinion today.”
I tell you that because you matter. Your voice matters. Everybody’s voice in this country matters. And when you think in terms of two kindergarteners sitting next to each other at a desk, and if one of them tells a lie, and the other one says, You can’t be my friend if you’re going to be a liar — that conversation changed America, in a small way or maybe a large way; we don’t know. When the President goes out into the East Room and does a foreign policy address, that changes the dynamics in the world sometimes.
But in between that spectrum are all the rest of us. And everything that we do and say moves this political center of America a little bit, especially in this modern era, when we have the modern media that we’ve seen make so much difference. If you go back to ’94, and you look at what we had — we had Rush Limbaugh and not a very loud voice anywhere else — the fledgling cable news. And still, still, we took back America in ’94.
I remember the voices of the people that stood on the floor on C-SPAN, which was a significant component, too. And boy, they were loud, they were fervent, they had deep, ringing, clear tones of their conviction. And it inspired me. And I got engaged to try to help a candidate get elected to Congress. And little did I know that I was going to be drawn along in the jet stream of that later on.
But the inspiration that comes from our ideas recruit young people especially to step into public life. And I have — I’ve seen that transition, I’ve been part of that transition. And I’ve also seen some other dynamics that I’d like to try to explain.
And that is that when I was elected to the Iowa Senate those years ago, we took over a new majority. Our majority leaders said, “We have the votes. So sit on your hands and don’t speak, don’t debate with them, don’t argue. Because it just burns up debate time, and we’re going to win anyway. And I sat there and thought, No, we won’t. We won’t win anyway. Because we’ll lose the argument if we’re not willing to engage in the argument.”
I lay that foundation because I’ve seen the cycle now in my state. I’ve seen the cycle here in Congress, where I have — I came in the majority, we lost the majority, and now we won the majority back again; serving now under two separate Presidents for me.
And some of the reasons for that — some of them came out of the Democrats in Florida, some of the 30-something group that came to the floor of the House under special orders, and, night after night after night, just pounded President Bush and pounded Republicans. And a lot of times the screen went blue because Republicans didn’t bother to come down to the floor to oppose and rebut the voices that were there that were directly undermining our visions and our ideals.
And I looked at that. And I thought, “Why would we ever waste a minute of C-SPAN time? Why would we concede any component of the debate?” So I just had my staff sign me up for C-SPAN every day. At 9 o’clock in the morning, it would be — just make the call, sign me up. That way, somebody was going to be taking care of at least one hour every night that it was available.
And the result of that over the years has been that I actually have more words in the Congressional record than anybody else. And I don’t know that that’s necessarily a good thing. Because it tells you that others haven’t been standing there in line to carry that message. It’s important that we carry the message.
And it is the culture. It’s the culture from bottom-up. And the voices of members of Congress that are elected are often fighting a rear guard while we refurbish our culture with our ideals. They are also a reflection of the community at large. We’d like to think that everybody there is a statesman. And, course, it’s not true. But we’re more likely to have a higher percentage of statesmen and -women there when we take care of things at the grassroots level.
I’ll make two more points on this. One of them is, when people get elected into leadership, they may have been revolutionaries in their earlier days. But by time they make the agreements necessary to have a broad enough coalition to be elected into leadership, they have decided that now they know the course for everyone else. And they’re very interested in smooth sailing. And anybody that rocks the boat like they did may not be met with a pat on the back and an “atta-boy.” Instead, they’ll be met probably with something that will drag their power down and diminish their ability to rock the boat. Because leaders want to chart a smooth course.
And when they chart a smooth course, that means that there can’t be confrontation as often it might be. It means the challenge isn’t there as much, and it means that the voice of our visions and our deals, and our ideals and our rhetoric, will diminish over time, if we hold back.
So what I’m suggesting is, I and others will need to hold the feet to the fire of our leadership, so that there’s somebody pushing out there, so we can be a little bit edgy, so we can carry out our principles and not compromise five or 10 percent of it along the way.
And while that’s going on, those members that are pushing on the leadership to make sure that we keep over there on the true path, the conscience of the conservatives, they need to be pushed on by you. And it goes on down across the whole country in that fashion. I kind of see it as the rank-and-file need to push on leadership, the Constitutional conservatives in America need to push on the rank-and-file.
While we’re doing that, and as aggressively as we can while we have an interested America — and by the way, if we don’t do that, and if everybody gets in lockstep, and we all follow a formula that perhaps might be written in a document, and fold our hands and just march through in lockstep, who’s going to be inspired? Who’s going to be testing us for ideas? Where’s the vision going to come from? Do we really think that the formula we have today is the one that will be good for all time? Or are we going to be out front and taking this nation to another level of our destiny?
I think we got a long ways to go. And I think our job is to keep the pressure on, to keep the movement going, to take the foundation that goes back, so far back [but] I think of Goldwater; and grow that to the modern era, and put these pieces in place that set America on a foundation where we really can chart a stable course.
And the important part of this is — back to the first thing I said — the culture. It is the culture. And the institutions that have been taken over by the Left have to be taken back again, piece by piece, until we can look at this and say the American civilization has been established in all of its institutions.
And for us, the simple one goes to the D.C. vouchers as just a pilot program. To have the state take over our kids and decide what they will be taught, and then tell our parents they can’t send their children to a school of their choice — I mean, how is that an American vision? It’s a control of the culture and the mindset that’s here.
Also, David Horowitz has articulated, I think, better than anybody else the situation we have on our campuses and how bad it is. I go to the University of Iowa School of Law. And there, they have 50 professors. And there are, as I understand this, 48 Democrats, one independent and one token Republican that I wouldn’t call a Republican. And so, I go on that campus and tell them the Constitution means what it says, and I’m met with a whole fusillade from people that have been taught something entirely different.
This country believes in our core principles. We’ve seen that in the streets of this country over and over again. I fly a Gadsden flag outside my office in Washington, D.C. Because I don’t want them to tread on me. The architect of the Capitol came by and said, “You can’t have that flag there.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got that answer that the Texans had when they had that flag with the cannon on it — come and take it!” It’s still there. It’ll stay there.
And we need to set about refurbishing America’s belief in our ideals. And that will be this — we need to restore those beautiful marble pillars of American exceptionalism, one by one by one, and teach our young people that those principles, tied to the Constitution, are what’s made this country the greatest country in the world. And if we always revert back to those principles, it will be an unerring force for us, no matter what technology might do into the future. Those first principles still prevail. And we need to get — restore our institutions, so that we restore our culture. We’ll get the rest of it right.
Thank you very much.
Ronald Radosh: I think my comments will actually relate somewhat to what Representative King said. You’ll be glad to know, Representative, I did get my Masters at the University of Iowa. So I’m familiar with the campus, not the Law School.
David and I both come, as you know — unfortunate, but what can we do — from the old Communist background. So I want to start with an insight from the late Italian Communist, activist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, who argued that before any kind of political or social change can occur — he, of course, wanted a Communist revolution—a fight must be waged for what he called cultural hegemony. That meant a war which acknowledges that cultural issues decide the nation’s future.
And taking off from that, the American historian Eugene D. Genovese — once a Marxist; now, like us, a rock-ribbed conservative — wrote about what he called the cult of perpetual adolescence, in which would-be revolutionaries rebelled against society for its own sake and “did not want to face the necessity of waging a long, hard struggle to reshape our national culture as well as our national politics.”
And that’s what is meant by waging a war over the culture. And I maintain that conservatives would do well to adopt this insight from Gramsci, and wage a major intellectual war over the cultural issues before we can successfully change the nation’s politics.
And I think there are some people who were conservatives that were doing this. My two favorite journals that engage in this kind of thoughtful comments in our culture are National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin; and the Claremont Review of Books, which not enough people are reading, and should read.
To win the culture war, conservatives need a well-thought out and serious alternative to that advanced by the liberals, one that I argue should not undermine the entire edifice of the welfare state. Take Social Security, for example. William Buckley once said, when asked by someone in a discussion if we shouldn’t get rid of the entire New Deal structure, get rid of Social Security — and Buckley responded, It’s one thing to engage in a great intellectual argument in the 1930s when they should never have passed Social Security. But he went on to say that it’s one thing to wage an intellectual debate about Social Security and its origins; another thing to try and win and take control of the country by opposing it now. It’s something that all the polls show a majority of the American public do not want to undo.
So I say that conservatives must not undo the entire past. But what we have to do instead is try and argue for fiscally responsible ways of saving a minimal welfare state. We should make it clear, for example, that in opposing Obamacare, we are opposing a plan that in fact leaves decent medical care only for a small minority of the extremely wealthy, and very bad healthcare for the majority of the American people, all put over by the liberals in the name of social equality.
We have to propose valid conservative alternatives to statist liberalism. And, as the former mayor of New York, Ed Koch, said a week ago in his weekly blog, we have to stop the Democratic Party in particular from moving along the Obama path which is moving America toward socialism. Now, if Ed Koch could say that, a Democrat, he understands that the Obama agenda is to move America toward socialism.
And I want to quote one intellectual who writes in The Claremont Review, a very smart man named William Voegeli. And he wrote the following — The roadmap we need will be to transform America’s social contact, enshrining a New Deal principle that the nation has a responsibility to alleviate and prevent poverty through government action, while stipulating that these actions should be targeted and limited, replacing the open-ended universal approach that defines the New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Not do away with the whole thing, but show the need for a limited welfare state that is fiscally responsible and possible to carry out.
Now, the Tea Party has played a phenomenal role, as everybody has said. It has created enthusiasm. It was largely responsible for the recent electoral triumph. But there is a danger here. And that danger is insisting on complete ideological purity.
Let’s use some examples, again from the Left, in history. Go back to 1896. There was a strong, leftwing populist upsurge in the 1890s, particularly among the farmers, who were getting bashed by both laborers in the East and the corporations. And the farmers felt they were getting the short end of the stick. And they had a whole populist agenda. They elected people to state Senates, to Congress. And of course, their main demand was free and unlimited coinage of silver.
Well, they finally got co-opted by the Democratic Party whose nominee William Jennings Bryan gave his famous — it was the equivalent then of the Rick Santelli rant — the Cross of Gold speech: “Mankind will not be crucified upon a cross of gold.” The delegates gave him minutes of thunderous applause and stamping, everyone went wild. But as you know, William Jennings Bryan did not win the election. The election went to McKinley. The public at large would not vote for the program of the activist base, which they maintained was misguided and wrongheaded, as it was.
It’s very easy for an activist minority to take control of a party through the primary process and get their candidate. But we have to worry about getting a candidate elected who will not turn off the center and the center right, and particularly those working-class Democrats who, in the ‘80s, were Reagan Democrats and are now leaving the Democratic Party in drove and returning to vote Republican. We need their votes to win.
And if we go too far, many of these Democrats who are not now — as Michele Bachmann said—supporting Obama, even though they may have voted for him two years ago – [will not support our side.] Because they are quite a little bit worried about elements of what they see as ideological purity that got a candidate on the Republican ticket that they don’t feel they can support.
And that’s why I want to raise the Sarah Palin question at this point. Sarah Palin is a phenomenal woman. She’s done a lot for the conservative movement, she’s done a lot for the Republican Party, she has energized thousands of people. She is a strong woman with a great, broad appeal. But I don’t think it’s an appeal that is broad enough. I think we cannot afford to put in as a Republican nominee a polarizing figure, no matter what her strengths, that could lead us to lose the presidency two years hence.
Too much is at stake. And I think we have scores of great candidates, one of whom will emerge. My favorite is the same as Ann Coulter’s — Chris Christie of New Jersey, a man who can speak the truth, who is fiscally responsible, who is tough-minded, who has a great personality. He will reach out to people and say what has to be said, and convince them that this is the right path forward.
I think that these are the dangers we have to look out for. We should focus on things like reducing the deficit and the debt, repealing Obamacare, fiscal discipline, balancing the budget. But we must appeal to independents. Pat Caddell made the point yesterday that it’s the first time since 1930 that a party has taken the House and not the Senate. And it’s the first time since 1859 that the Republicans have controlled the House without the Senate or the White House.
And I think picking someone who is polarizing, and insisting on complete ideological purity, is a danger we have to watch out for. An activist base can elect someone to get the nomination, but that does not translate necessarily into winning the election.
You can play to the base. But if you emphasize issues that are very divisive, you’re going to lose the center and some of these Reagan Democrats. I think we need the support of centrists and independents, and working-class Democrats. We’ve got to keep them with us. And you know, if you don’t like Christie, there’s Tim Pawlenty, there’s John Thune, there’s Mitch Daniels. If Palin is the nominee, she’s going to become the issue, rather than the issues we all support.
So that’s my point now. We can go on to victory in 2012 by doing these two things — winning the cultural war, waging it relentlessly, introducing great, sound, conservative alternatives; and putting in a candidate who can enunciate them, but a candidate who will maintain the appeal to the moderates and to the center. Because we can’t win without them.
Emmett Tyrrell: Well, I guess it falls to me to defend the pulchritudinous Sarah Palin. But as I see it, people are holding her pulchritude against her. And I for one will not be a part of such a discriminatory movement.
The culture is a very central part of any political problem. We at The American Spectator have coined the term “culture smog.” Because our culture has, until recently, been thoroughly the culture of the other side. You see this in rock ‘n roll, which now, I’m happy to say, is moribund. One of the reasons you know it’s moribund is every city in the country has talk radio, which is overwhelming rock ‘n roll, and which is listened to by people who I assume are either sick and tired of 40 years of rock ‘n roll or really interested in American politics. Either way, I’m for both.
But you saw it when rock ‘n roll moved from happy songs, kind of like Elvis Presley’s happy songs; to preachy songs, like the Beatles, and even worse. And that really became — and I think now, every 23-year-old kid in the country with a guitar thinks he’s got to tell us how to live, even though the average lifespan of a rock ‘n roll singer is not very long. I love to hear rock ‘n roll singers sing about pot and marijuana, and other drugs, and tell me what I should be smoking, even as they’ve got about 10 years to live.
Jim Morrison — I remember hearing so much about this fellow Morrison, who’s actually buried in a cemetery in Paris with philosophers and poets. He died with a bottle of Jim Beam’s in his hand, or something like that. I mean, I don’t even have an old uncle that died with a bottle of Jim Beam’s in his hand.
And of course, our literature has almost completely declined into a literature of preachment. And it’s preaching the politics of the other side. The Pulitzer Prize is a prize that is utterly politicized, so much so now that you have a new political movement in the country, a new literary movement in the country. And that is the literary movement of the plagiarist. And you notice that many of our finest Pulitzer Prize winners are also plagiarists.
And other forms of our culture are taken over by politics. And the political seers of the country, we could say I suppose, are almost always people of the Left.
But we know — we who read The American Spectator, and The Claremont Review, and National Review, and Commentary, and Weekly Standard — we know that there are other political seers in the country, and they’re actually conservative. And there’s probably a rock ‘n roll singer out there who is conservative. And it’s — one of the things that we try to do at The American Spectator is bring forward the people who don’t get a proper accounting.
The political class of the country that has allowed this politicization of our culture to take place is now moribund. And it’s being met with a strong competition from the Right. And the competition comes from talk radio. And it comes from our magazines. And it comes from cable, and it comes from The Wall Street Journal, and it comes from Fox News. And it is putting up a competition to this moribund culture.
Not long ago, a judge, Judge Posner from Chicago, showed himself, again, to be a bit of a fool. He held forth that there are no public thinkers out in the country anymore. They all died with Irving Kristol and Bill Buckley and people like that. And I would like to say to Judge Posner, if there were a public intellectual of Irving Kristol’s significance or William Buckley’s significance, who would listen to them today? The culture has shifted. The culture has shifted to talk radio.
And talk radio has some real superstars. Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. These people have changed the direction of American culture and affected American culture. And they’re bringing forward in our culture new voices.
And so I would end by saying, by happy with Fox News. Be happy with talk radio. Be happy with the magazines of the Right. Because I think those magazines and those thinkers, and those public speakers, public intellectuals, if you will, are the public intellectuals of the future.
Thank you very much.
David Horowitz: The subject of this panel is the future of conservatism. And when conservatives think about the future, they bump into what is an occupational hazard, since conservatives are inclined to pessimism and fatalism. And the reason is that conservatives are pragmatic people. Of course, conservatism has core principles. But even the core principles are derived from a look at human reality, unpleasant as that may be.
When the founders were putting together the Constitution and trying to decide on the form of government, they did a study of how governments actually worked with the material that they had to work with. And they decided, pretty much as Churchill said, that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.
And because they so distrusted people, knowing that people are swept up by passions which override their intelligence — particularly passions for hope and change — they made it very difficult to change the system. They put in all these checks and balances. They made sure that we did not have a parliamentary system, where you have really one body that decides things. And you had a Senate which wasn’t elected in the founders’ days, and a Supreme Court. And you all know this.
But this is basically the way conservatives look at the world — that the root cause of all social problems is us. It’s that people have to be civilized, and they’re not naturally born moral and cooperative and harmonious, which is the opposite of our opponents’ view.
So conservatives are inclined to be happy when the world isn’t worse than it is. So it’s hard for conservatives to be optimistic.
One of the unnecessary reasons that we’re inclined to pessimism in these times is that we don’t call things by their right names. So if it’s conservatives versus liberals, then what do you have? You have people who are always saying, No, no, you can’t do that, that’s not a good idea, that could be dangerous, as opposed to people who are promising you the moon — liberals, who are “open-minded.” I mean, the word is such a wonderful word. Its root is “liberty.” Once you understand and stop using “liberal” and start calling our opponents leftists or socialists, everything changes.
Here’s the thing about socialism — it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. So whatever scheme they have, and whatever snake oil they can sell to the voters at any given time, you know this is not going to work. And it is going to cause huge problems, and it’s going to make people angry in the end.
So despite this handicap of not selling people the moon, we can count on the fact that the left’s plans are going to fail. And the problem, of course, is that they can ruin a country before everybody wakes up. And that’s really the task we have that draws us into politics.
For 20 years as a former radical, understanding exactly what’s happening, or what has been happening to the Democratic Party, which is a leftwing, socialist party since McGovern. The McGovernites came in, they changed the rules of the party. And anti-American, anti-democratic socialists have increasingly been in control of the Democratic Party and have been in control of the Congressional party for decades — while — that was a source of incredible frustration in me — while our team is calling them “liberals.”
And I got a dose of this when I first stepped out into the conservative world. How many people remember Cardinal Mindszenty? A few. Well, Cardinal Mindszenty was a cardinal in Hungary. And when the Soviets and the Communists overthrew the government of Hungary, and made it a Soviet satellite, he did not flee the country; he took refuge in the American Embassy and became a symbol of the anti-Communist struggle.
When I came out of what we called the New Left, but was really a Communist Left — I was invited to speak to the Mindszenty Foundation in St. Louis. And I went and spoke. And I was introduced by my host, the Mindszenty Foundation, the president of the Mindszenty Foundation — and said, “This is David Horowitz, a former civil rights worker and peace activist.” That’s how bad it was.
And it’s bad in part, it’s because conservatives are so polite. So well-bred. You’re going to have to fight this upbringing to engage effectively in the political battle. And I’ve said, probably, to many of you before, but I often think that I was sent as a former radical to teach conservatives bad manners. But you have to have some bad manners to win this political battle.
I am absolutely thrilled by the developments of the last two years. The Tea Party movement has taken a great burden from my shoulders, because I’m always banging up against this wall and this frustration.
Three years ago, you couldn’t have found 10 conservatives to march on Washington. They’d look at each other and say — if they saw [you] marching in step, What are we becoming, collectivists? It just would feel so uncomfortable for a conservative to protest. And all that’s now changed. We have a mass movement that’s going to keep the Republican Party honest, I hope. That’s what they’re there for.
Jim DeMint, it was obvious, has been at these weekends and the reason I invited him was because he is a leader, really, of the Tea Party syndrome. Jim DeMint has a book out about how the Democratic Party’s leading us into socialism. It is a socialist party. He has called it by its right name.
I just get tremendously optimistic about the next phase of our struggle because of this. Conservatives don’t like politics. They don’t like government, and they don’t like politics. And we lost the California governorship this year — a woman who never voted until she ran for governor.
Anyway, here’s something, I think, is very important. Again, conservatives — when they see these government, these statist programs — and of course, we have to thank Obama for all this — that Obama has [waked] up everybody. As I said the other night, he fooled the people some of the time, but he couldn’t fool them all the time. But he is the reason that people are waking up. We have elected the most radical President in our history. And that’s waked people up. But now, we have to also understand what the political battle is about.
And I wrote a book about this called “The Art of Political War.” But in a democracy like ours politics is never really about reality. It is a drama. And if you are on the side of the underdog in a democracy like ours, you’re going to win. Or you have an enormous advantage, so people will believe a lot of your blather and most of your promises, until they see differently.
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