On Thursday, the sexiest place in Milwaukee was -- without question -- Schwartz's on Downer, where people were
packed politely gathered to see Rick Perlstein read from his book about the rise of Dick Nixon and the fracturing of the American polity, Nixonland. How sexy was it? So sexy that the Brawler found himself sitting next to none other than Mark Borchardt, the "star" of American Movie and, like the Brawler, a one-time paper boy.
Perlstein's a liberal who's spent the past 10 years studying and writing about American conservatism. His work has drawn the praise of everyone from William F. Buckley to William Kristol to George Will. In other words, he engages seriously with the ideas and personalities of American conservatism. (Unlike, say, Jonah Goldberg, who tries to define everything he doesn't like as fascist in a book that was roundly mocked although the very serious Rick Esenberg seemed to like it all right.)
Anyway, during a Q&A (during which Perlstein demonstrated his considerable knowledge of history and current events, and the connections between, with remarkable aplomb (an aplomb sometimes overlong) unlike,say, Jonah Goldberg, who during an interview famously stumbled over the question of why Mussolini was called a fascist), someone asked Perlstein (paraphrasing here) "Whither conservatism?" Are there any new Burkes out there?
And Perlstein said he thought conservatism was in a real rut. On the other side of that rut, his comments suggested, lies a precipice. The dawning of the new century saw what amounted to a real experiment for American politics: Three branches of government run by conservative Republicans. And by any reasonable measure the results have been less than satisfying (How do you know someone's a GOP hack? If they say the problem is because Republicans didn't adhere to their true values). "People have seen conservative governance and they're turning their noses up at it."
And he cited ideological rigidity as a key factor in that. He mentioned Tim Pawlenty vetoing a budget bill that involved a tax hike on the grounds he opposed any new taxes. Said budget included highway spending, which included infrastructure improvements, and after that budget went down in flames, I-35 collapsed.
Now, GOP hacks will cry: "That's not Pawlenty's fault!" To which the Brawler would reply: You're probably right. But the fact remains that America's infrastructure is aging and crumbling and needs to be replaced. Replacing it is going to cost money. One of the biggest obstacles in accomplishing that is a conservative, government-strangling ideology that decries any kind of public investment or views any tax as evil. (Others include road builders or construction unions that just want to widen highways.) Or a Republican administration that is committed to pissing away our treasure in unnecessary tax cuts and an occupation of Iraq.
A Charlie Sykes would say: The government already spends plenty of money, it should just figure out how to do it more efficiently. And the Brawler would agree with that argument, to a point. But eliminating waste, etc. takes you only so far.
Ideas have consequences. Sinkholes sucking down city streets is in no small part a consequence of the conservative movement (not to mention wasteful defense spending).
"They're going to have to think about the rigidity of their positions," Perlstein said. The Brawler wishes he would take a hard look at Scott Walker sometime.
Meanwhile, Perlstein's taken a look at the crumbling state of American infrastructure at one of his myriad intraweb outlets.