What would a partisan do?
Anyone who visits the right side of the blogosphere will be sure to find multiple dialogues about why conservatives were not more critical of the George W. Bush administration. And, while I do think that intra-party or intra-ideological dialogue has normative value, much of this debate misses some finer points. At times, it even seems to take place at a level of abstraction far removed from practical politics.
What I believe to have been the major conservative shortcoming during the Bush administration was not its lack of criticism. Nor was it the Right’s incessant cheerleading. Rather, it was the rhetoric that was used by the Right to support the President and to batter the opposition. I am referring specifically to attacks on people’s patriotism or their commitment to keeping the country safe from terrorists, etc. I do not believe that we have, in modern times, seen such vitriolic rhetoric used by either the Left or the Right (I want to make clear that my use of the terms Right and conservative refer to what I perceive to be the dominant strand of conservatism, including the Right media.)
The after effects of that escalation of rhetoric are still plaguing the current GOP, as evidence by the ascendancy of the know-nothing Tea Partiers. Their fires were stoked by eight years of attacks on liberals and Democrats that went beyond policy differences to allegations of terrorist sympathy. It’s no wonder that these same people can not now articulate even a basic understanding of politics or American government. All they know is anger, anger and more anger. Of course, adding to that anger is some underlying racism from the white middle and underclass who feel as though “their country” is somehow slipping away from them.
This is the legacy of eight years of conservatives and the GOP feeding nothing but red meat to the frothing masses while at the same time constructing something akin to a cult of personality around President Bush. In other words, the conservatives infantilized their base. That was/is the problem, not the lack of conservative criticism.
Which leads to my further point about the abstract nature of this dialogue. The reality of America is that we are a two party system. And, generally speaking, conservatives support the GOP and liberals support the Democratic Party. Certainly there will always be some members of the Left or Right who will criticize their own partisans, but it will never happen on a large scale. Why would it? What would be the point of weakening your own allies? Now, as I mentioned above, I find that much of the support for, and surrounding Bush, was detrimental in both the short and long term for conservatives. But it’s not because of the quantity of dissent, or lack thereof, but the quality.
Conservatism is/was tarnished less because there were not enough Conor Friedersdorfs or Andrew Sullivans or David Frums, and more because the language of the Right has become so far detached from any semblance to reality. And that trend has only continued into the Obama administration. So, dissident conservatives (whatever that ambiguous term means) can write and write about how there were not enough critiques of the previous administration, but they will be missing the larger point. (I want to note that Conor has taken on the loony Right and their mouthpieces for their rhetoric.)