Sunday, May 15, 2005

Double meanings

What does the Intelligent Design movement have to do with Bush’s Social Security proposal(s)? Both operate on two levels simultaneously. Each has a stated agenda – to reform Social Security along “ownership society” lines and shore up its finances; to advance the idea that only a Creator could be responsible for the complexity of life.

But each also has an unstated agenda. In the case of Social Security it's to get rid of Social Security as we know it. Or more generally, to undermine the social compact and political consensus that made Social Security popular in the first place – and that remain intact today. In the case of ID, it’s to undermine the scientific method and replace it with – well, I don’t think they’ve gotten that far.

This is the problem – and the genius – of modern conservatism. Unless it’s cutting taxes, conservatives can’t come right out and say what they want to do because it would be unpopular. U.S.-style political liberalism may be in hibernation right now, but the liberal edifice endures, and in general, people like it.

So conservatives adopt devious, pseudo-liberal rhetoric – and in some cases, entire pseudo-liberal systems of thought – that mean different things to different people. For the broad audience – sometimes the media too – it may sound reasonable to talk about Social Security reform or to question something that is only a “theory.” But a conservative audience hears something completely different - and closer to the truth.

The result is a political discourse ever more layered with code words and consumed by fierce disputes over minor rhetorical points like "private" vs. "personal" accounts and the “nuclear option" vs. whatever they are calling it today.