We have recently tracked the destruction of anything resembling a conservative temperament. Eliot A. Cohen, a powerful foreign policy voice among #NeverTrumpers, eloquently diagnoses the problem, describing the Judiciary Committee rage festival in which Senate Republicans used their time for “partisan baying at the opposition”:
Perhaps the collapse of modern conservatism came out most clearly in [Judge Brett M.] Kavanaugh’s own testimony—its self-pity, its hysteria, its conjuring up of conspiracies, its vindictiveness. He and his family had no doubt suffered agonies. But if we expect steely resolve from a police officer confronting a knife-wielding assailant, or disciplined courage from a firefighter rushing into a burning house, we should expect stoic self-control and calm from a conservative judge, even if his heart is being eaten out. No one watching those proceedings could imagine that a Democrat standing before this judge’s bench in the future would get a fair hearing. This was not the conservative temperament on display. It was, rather, personalized grievance politics.
The mingling of right-wing populism and the disintegration of conservative tone are inextricably linked. Right-wing populism thrives on anger, resentment and hostility toward elites. To defend irrational policies built on non-facts and fear of outsiders, vast conspiracies are required. (You really don’t see many rational, humble, modest, respectful right-wing populists.) If know-nothingism is essential to support your movement, you’re not likely to see many intellectually honest, measured leaders.
As Cohen observes in recollecting the happy warrior Ronald Reagan, “The spirit of a president who celebrated America as a city on a hill that was generous abroad, welcoming to newcomers, and self confident at home, has been replaced by the sour meanness of a party chiefly of men, who build walls to keep the world out, erect tariffs to destroy free trade, despise the alliances that keep Americans secure, and sanction the deliberate plucking of babes from their mothers’ breasts in order to teach illegal immigrants a painful lesson. In such a world, decorum and courtesy are irrelevant.”
The temperament that Cohen and I define as conservative has nearly vanished on the right — or will when another tranche of Republicans retire or lose this year. The Republicans who remain will be angrier, loopier and more belligerent than we see even now. (Think about the Republican Judiciary Committee without Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.)
Cohen is doubtful, as am I, that the GOP can recover. “It is impossible at this moment to envisage the Republican Party coming back,” he writes, “Like a brontosaurus with some brain-eating disorder it might lumber forward in the direction dictated by its past, favoring deregulation of businesses here and standing up to a rising China there, but there will be no higher mental functioning at work.” He concludes that the GOP “will plod into a future in which it is detested in a general way by women, African Americans, recent immigrants, and the educated young as well as progressives pure and simple.”
Are we then destined to see a face-off between left- and right-wing populism, both angry, disrespectful, irrational and prone to conspiracy theories? We will all have to permanently turn down the volume on our TVs if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and President Trump are the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, respectively.
Well, we saw a few expressions of a first-class temperament (let’s call it “first-class temperament” rather than “conservative temperament,” which ironically now means “unhinged”). Flake was willing to learn something from his experiences (female friends sharing their experiences, two activists confronting him in a Capitol elevator, his observation of Christine Blasey Ford) — a sign of personal humility — and forge a pact with other senators. Humility, comity and empathy: Those are the signs of a first-class temperament.
We saw superior temperament in a somewhat different manifestation when Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) spoke to the committee on Friday, methodically laying out the facts. He showed no anger toward colleagues. It is easy to see why his words moved Flake to go forward with a deal:
Reliance on facts, composure and no assumption of ill will evidence the sort of temperament we should be looking for in elected officials.
Only a few others in public life consistently manage to exhibit grace, rationality and good humor under pressure — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), calmly persisting with her questions after Kavanaugh’s mean-spirited attack (asked if he had any alcohol-induced blackouts, he spat back, “Have you?”); Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) saying genuinely nice things about his opponent — twice (!); popular blue-state Republican governors who reject the herd-mentality; the congenial and dignified former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, the Democratic Senate nominee from Tennessee; and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, calm and precise in speech, refusing to bootlick as his fellow Cabinet members do.
Perhaps instead of ideology or even experience, candidates for spots in any branch of government, at any level, should be assessed on temperament. Without cooler heads in elected and appointed offices, our descent into rage, extremism and meanness will continue. Government by screeching bullies is not a political system any of us should desire.
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