When I was 24 years old and fresh from the ivory tower world of the university (having been rudely disabused from the idea that I could make a living as an actor), my father sat me down and asked me what I was going to do with my life.
It wasn’t as simple as that, of course. He was quite subtle about it. He drew me out by asking what my interests were, where I saw myself in 10 years, and other questions designed to discover where my passions lay.
Somehow, our discussion turned to politics. It was at that point that he surprised me by recounting almost verbatim a conversation we had a couple of years previously where I had complained about a course on the American revolution I took my senior year. The long forgotten professor took a decidedly deterministic view of that event and I spent a very long semester reading long forgotten Marxist treatises showing how the revolution was actually a counterrevolution by eastern merchants and the plantation class who were eager to see their debts to British bankers disappear – or some such nonsense.
We resolved nothing with that little talk but a few days later, he gave me a book that was to change my life; Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. For him, a New Deal Democrat, it must have pained him to realize one of his offspring had eaten of the forbidden fruit and had skewed to the right in his politics. And the hell of it was, I didn’t even realize my transformation. I had always thought of myself as a liberal – largely as a result of my opposition to the Viet Nam war. But reading Kirk’s seminal work on conservatism, I recognized to my surprise that I had much in common with Mr. Kirk’s view of the state and society.
There followed something of an exploration – from Burke to Buckley to Strauss and Hayek, I delved into many different strains of conservative thought, realizing there were dichotomies but ultimately putting them aside believing some of the internal contradictions of conservatism – order versus liberty, tradition versus change – would eventually sort themselves out sometime in the future.
Well, the future is here and the internal contradictions of conservatism have generated cracks in not only the political coalition that animated an ideology but also the intellectual framework that has defined it for more than half a century.
I took some time in describing my own ideological journey because with conservatism at a crossroads, I am a firm believer in the idea that before you can fix something, you must go back to the beginning and retrace your steps to discover where you went astray. There are two examples in the last quarter century or so that illustrate that thought:
- Reagan’s courting of the religious right in 1980. Reagan’s rhetoric in support of social conservatives never matched his actions in support of their agenda – an example followed by his successor George Bush #41. Not surprisingly, after a decade of lip service to their agenda, the social conservatives became resentful and sought to increase their influence in the Republican party, rightly thinking that only then would their concerns be met.
- Pat Buchanan’s “Culture War” speech at the 1992 Republican convention. One can draw a direct line from Buchanan’s bombast to Mike Huckabee’s rise as a viable presidential candidate without deviating an inch. The rise of the social cons at the state and local level was a consequence of Buchanan’s run against Bush #41 so that by the time George Bush ran in 2000, the process was heavily influenced if not controlled by the religious right.
Herein lie the seeds of conservativism’s current dilemma; the idea that a decent society supports a just moral order coming into direct conflict with the need for simple, human liberty in order to allow for freedom of thought and action.
The various factions representing strains of conservative thought have started to come unglued as a result of this singular dichotomy – as basic to conservatism as breathing is to living. In the past, differences between social cons and other conservative factions were papered over or, more often, simply ignored. But the shock from being slaughtered in the 2006 mid-terms has brought the fractures into bas relief and the fight for the soul of the Republican party and hence, conservatism itself has been joined with a relish many thought impossible just 4 years ago.
Ross Douthat links to a liberal critique of this phenomenon written by Michael Tomasky, editor of the Guardian-America:
But the important question is not how the nominee will position himself next fall. Think, after all, about Bush’s talk of “compassionate conservatism” in 2000 and about how the national press fell for it. The important question is how he will govern should he win. And the generally ignored story of this race so far is that in truth, dramatic ideological change among the Republicans is highly unlikely. Despite Bush’s failures and the discrediting of conservative governance, there is every chance that the next Republican president, should the party’s nominee prevail next year, will be just as conservative as Bush has beenâ€”perhaps even more so.
How could this be? The explanation is fairly simple. It has little to do with the out-of-touch politicians and conservative voters Ponnuru and Lowry cite and reflects instead the central hard truth about the components of the Republican Party today. That is, the party is still in the hands of three main interests: neoconservatives; theo-conservatives, i.e., the groups of the religious right; and radical anti-taxers, clustered around such organizations as the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Each of these groups dominates party policy in its area of interestâ€”the neocons in foreign policy, the theocons in social policy, and the anti-taxers on fiscal and regulatory issues. Each has led the Bush administration to undertake a high-profile failure: the theocons orchestrated the disastrous Terri Schiavo crusade, which put off many moder-ate Americans; the radical anti-taxers pushed for the failed Social Security privatization initiative; and the neocons, of course, wanted to invade Iraq.
Three failures, and there are more like them. And yet, so far as the internal dynamics of the Republican Party are concerned, they have been failures without serious consequence, because there are no strong countervailing Republican forces to present an opposite view or argue a different set of policies and principles.
Tomasky leaves out a few important factions; libertarian conservatives and their cousins, the federalists. Nominally supportive of fiscal conservatives like Norquist and hawks on foreign policy (wary of neocons but equally disdainful of Scowcroft realists), the libertarian conservatives and federalists (recently described as “Leave me the hell alone” conservatives) are bunched on the internet and dominate the conservative blogosphere. They consider themselves the true heirs of the Reagan legacy.
Tomasky’s analysis is pretty shallow and his criticisms, as befitting an editor of The Guardian, are exaggerated (“radical” anti-taxers?), selective (support to invade Iraq was broad based among conservatives), and just plain wrong (“conservative governance” hasn’t been discredited because it hasn’t been tried) except for his denoting correctly the three strains of conservatism that run the the Republican party.
Ross Douthat responding to Tomasky:
It’s true that the current conservative intelligentsia, forged in the crucible of Ronald Reagan’s successes, is heavily invested in keeping the triple alliance intact – hence the Thompson bubble, the anti-Huckabee crusade, and the “rally round Romney” effect. And it’s true, as well, that if the Republican Party recovers its majority in the next election the alliance will be considerably strengthened. But such a recovery is unlikely, and already, in the wake of just a single midterm-election debacle, it’s obvious that the Norquistians and neocons and social conservatives aren’t inevitable allies – that many tax-cutters and foreign-policy hawks, for instance, would happily screw over their Christian-Right allies to nominate Rudy Giuliani; or that many social conservatives don’t give a tinker’s dam what the Club for Growth thinks about Mike Huckabee’s record. (So too with the neocon yearning for a McCain-Lieberman ticket, which would arguably represent a far more radical remaking of the GOP coalition than anything Chuck Hagel has to offer.)
The “movement” institutions, from the think tanks to talk radio, have resisted these fissiparous tendencies, and if Mitt Romney wins the nomination they’ll be able to claim a temporary victory. But if the GOP continues to suffer at the polls, in ‘08 and beyond, the (right-of) center can’t be expected to hold, and the result will be a struggle for power that’s likely to leave the conservative movement changed, considerably, from the way that Tomasky finds it today. Like most such struggles, this civil war is beginning as a battle of the books – Gerson vs. Frum; Sager vs. Sam’s Club, Norquist contra mundum – but it’s likely to end with political trench warfare, and the birth of a very different GOP.
Sing it, brother.
Matthew Yglesias concurs and offers a realistic scenario for the near future:
Alternatively, maybe Romney gets the nomination and Romney gets beaten pretty badly. Then maybe conservatives say he was done in by (a) flip-flopping, (b) anti-Mormon bias, (c) bad political headwinds and decide nothing really needs to be done. Then, the congressional GOP just realizes that the conservative movement is really more comfortable in a quasi-opposition role, sets about using the filibuster and the timidity of the remaining southern Democratic senators to make the country ungovernable, does well in the 2010 midterms, and everything just kind of keeps on keeping on. It could happen. One’s natural desire, as an observer of the political scene, is for something dramatic and interesting to happen. And sometimes something dramatic and interesting does happen. And it really might happen. The signs are there. But then again, it might not.
Yglesias is referring to Dr. Johnson’s dictum of how the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully. The very threat of the coalition’s break up before next November will force the factions to seek accommodation – save perhaps the hard liners like Dobson and Richard Viguerie who would most likely sit out the election rather than form a third party.
Richard Viguerieâ€“a pioneer in direct mail fundraisingâ€“was one of those young activists. He has warned and petitioned against Giulianiâ€™s candidacy, recently telling the Concord Monitor that â€œheâ€™s wrong on every single social issue,â€ and under the mayorâ€™s stewardship, â€œthe Republican Party will be unrecognizable.â€ And it would be, at least as far as the partyâ€™s base is concerned. The thought of a socially liberal adulterer, with a weak record on all of the hot button base issues, getting the nomination must startle Republicans like Viguerie.
Viguerie has been grousing for years – going all the way back to Reagan’s presidency - that the party leader was betraying conservative principles. Ironically, what he and Dobson and the rest of the social conservatives have done is make both conservatism and the Republican party unrecognizable from the party and movement that was built in the 1970’s and 80’s that stressed personal responsibility, individual liberty, and that most wonderful of all conservative attributes; prudence.
Reading Russell Kirk’s “10 Conservative Principles” makes us all see how far the social cons have taken the Republican party away from its core conservative beliefs. At the expense of personal freedom, of “variety,” and “restraints upon power and human passion,” the social cons have elevated “a secure moral order” and consecrated themselves to making it their business in enforcing it.
This has led to pushing social issues to the fore of the Republican party’s identity, a monumentally bad idea politically that cost the party in 2006 and will no doubt lead to ruin in 2008 if a candidate like Mike Huckabee is nominated. While the chances are slim of that happening, stranger things have occurred in politics.
But no matter who is nominated and elected in 2008, the fracturing of the conservative movement, already well underway, will remain a huge issue. While I wouldn’t expect a rethinking of basic conservative principle, when the dust settles it is possible that conservatism and the GOP will not be as joined at the hip as they are now – especially given the animus between many mainstream conservatives and the social cons. I laid down some thoughts on what a post-fractured conservative movement might need to think about:
For conservatism to survive and even thrive, a new paradigm must be realized that recognizes we live in a different world than the one inhabited by our ancestors and that many of the old verities we cherished are just no longer relevant to what America has become. For better or worse, the United States is changing â€“ something it has always done and always will do. Without altering most of the core principles of conservatism, it should be possible to change with it, supplying common sense alternatives to liberal panaceas for everything from health care to concerns over climate change.
Obviously, there is no lack of ideas in this regard if you read the policy prescriptions appearing on the pages of Heritage, AEI, Cato, or other places where academics and policy wonks gather to supply these alternatives. But there seems to be a disconnect between the thinkers and the doers â€“ politicians, pundits, and activists. Having read most of the Republican candidates stands on issues, outside of Fred Thompsonâ€™s detailed critique of entitlements and his ideas on a muscular kind of federalism, there isnâ€™t much in the way of deep thoughts being generated in this campaign so far. In fact, there appears to be little in the way of original thinking at all; just a rehash or recycling of projects and programs that wouldnâ€™t stand a chance of passage in Congress.
Now I am not saying that conservatives should compromise their principles to gain success in the legislature nor am I saying those principles should be abandoned in order to gain electoral victory. But there is a difference between having a vital conservative movement that shapes and informs government and one that has no relevancy whatsoever to modern America.
Clearly, applying conservative principles to governance should be the goal. And just as clearly, there is no lack of ideas on how to make that happen. The disconnect I speak of above arises from the cage that Republican candidates have been placed in by the various factions of conservatism that makes them slaves to an agenda that is out of date, out of touch, and after 2008, there’s a good chance that it will lead to Republicans being out of luck.
Breaking out of that cage will be difficult unless the party continues to lose at the polls. And part of that breaking free will be making the Reagan legacy a part of history and not a part of contemporary Republican orthodoxy. The world that Reagan helped remake is radically different than the one we inhabit today and yet, GOP candidates insist on invoking his name as if it is a talisman to be stroked and fondled, hoping that the magic will rub off on them. Reagan is gone and so is the world where his ideas resonated so strongly with the voters.
But Reagan’s principles remain with us. Free markets, free nations, and free men is just as powerful a tocsin today as it was a quarter century ago. The challenge is to remake a party and the conservative movement into a vessel by which new ideas about governing a 21st century industrialized democracy can be debated, adopted, and enacted. Without abandoning our core beliefs while redefining or perhaps re-imagining what those beliefs represent as a practical matter, conservatism could recharge itself and define a new relationship between the governed and the government.
But before reform comes the fall. And even if, as Yglesias believes is possible, the party and the movement are able to limp along for a few years with a cobbled together coalition, eventually the piper must be paid and the wages earned. It won’t be a quick or easy process. But it will happen nonetheless. And out of the bitterness and recriminations will emerge a different Republican party, animated by conservative principles and true to a legacy that has as its foundation a belief in individual liberty and personal responsibility.