Saturday, January 12, 2008

Conservatives, Republicans, and Cheating Hearts

If you want to understand what's going on today in the Republican Party (it's an ugly business but somebody has to do it), you have to understand that politics, like marriage, thrives on faithfulness and founders on betrayal.

The Democratic and Republican parties are (generally) on opposing sides, but they are not symmetrical, and nothing makes that fact more apparent than an election year. The Democratic Party is reliably liberal. They talk liberal, they think liberal, and when elected they act liberal. If you find a room full of Democrats, shake up your Pepsi bottle, and start spraying, you are certain to get a bunch of liberals wet. But if you shake your Pepsi in a convention full of Republicans, your odds of splashing a conservative are only about one in three -- if that. Electing a liberal is therefore easy; you vote for the Democrat. Electing a conservative is harder; voting Republican is no guarantee.

This assymetry reflects a more basic assymetry between liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism is a cohesive philosophy; conservatism is not.

Liberalism is all about creating the brave new world. It is a religion in the form of a political movement. Christianity believes Heaven exists someday for the faithful, but liberals ask, what's wrong with the here and now? Human beings are basically good, and all that's holding them back are the flawed institutions which have turned them away from the path of righteousness. It is the liberal's greatest desire to dynamite those institutions into oblivion and clear the way for changing society through educating the ignorant -- "the ignorant" being defined as those who aren't liberal. Yet.

Despite the best efforts of conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. and the stalwarts at National Review magazine, conservatism has no such unifying set of philosophical principles. As a political movement, conservatism is simply a loose coalition of various factions, each of which has its own philosophical reasons for opposing the liberal agenda. That's why we refer to "the Reagan Coalition", rather than "the Reagan Movement". If there is a unifying principle, it is the reactionary impulse -- a reaction to liberalism.

Some of these factions are:

  • Establishment, or "Country Club", Republicans -- electorally the weakest part of the coalition, but financially and politically the strongest part. These folks resent it when liberalism's bill comes due, and they are expected to be the ones who pay for it. Put lower taxes down as their biggest concern, followed closely by less regulation, and anything else that stands between them and their second home in the Hamptons.

  • Religious conservatives, or the "Religious Right" -- they resent the challenges presented to the sanctity and authority of the family by the intrusions of liberalism, and prefer to educate their children in the ways of scripture rather than the gospels of political correctness.

  • "Traditional" conservatives -- they distrust the desire to destroy institutions that lies at the heart of liberalism, and are afraid of what might happen if things change too quickly.

  • "Small government" conservatives believe that large liberal-style government is too expensive, too ineffective, and too inefficient to trust with their hard-earned tax money.

  • "Law and order" conservatives are fearful of liberal permissiveness and want violent criminals off the streets.

  • Libertarians have a genuine ideology and everything, and even have their own magazine (which is modestly and self-deprecatingly known as Reason magazine). They are handicapped by the fact that they make a lot of sense most of the time, and thus serve no one's political interests. As a species, they are suspicious of the consequences of too much power focused in the hands of a few in Washington.

  • "Working class" conservatives or "Reagan Democrats" -- these folks resent paying high taxes and the exporting of jobs overseas, as well the inroads made here in the U.S. by illegal aliens, which they (rightly) blame for the stagnation of the wages of skilled labor.

  • "National defense" conservatives find liberals to be strangely sympathetic to our nation's enemies.

  • And so forth.

    These erstwhile allies often have serious bones to pick with each other. E.g., libertarians are as spooked by religious conservatives as they are by big-government liberals. Working-class conservatives distrust the country-clubbers, convinced that they are determined to keep the working man down. Libertarians and small-government conservatives see the war on drugs as expensive in terms of money and constitutional freedoms, but it is worth every penny to religious and law and order conservatives. These factions are not discrete; for example, many religious conservatives are working-class conservatives at the same time. Nevertheless, the ideas motivating these factions are distinct, and thus friction between the groups can and does exist. So, Republicans must often exhort their unruly supporters to focus on the common enemy -- and they often do. But the point stands: this is an alliance which needs to be maintained.

    Which brings us to another fact about the Republican Party: it is, and has always been, controlled by the country-club Republicans, who have done a miserable job of maintaining the coalition. The country-clubbers too often succumb to temptation -- they are easily beguiled into coming to their own terms with the liberal Democratic machine. After all, it's easier than fighting, especially when it's a fight about other's people's concerns. Basically, the country-clubbers couldn't care less about any grievances held by the religious conservatives against the education establishment or the popular culture -- their money insulates their own kids. It might bother other conservatives that illegal aliens are driving down the wages of skilled labor, but this actually makes money for the country-clubbers. Big government may be anathema to traditional conservatives, but it's just fine with a Republican Congressman if it means more pork for his own district and a more prestigious role in governing. As long as country-clubbers are allowed to exploit loopholes in tax policy and business regulations, they can all too often be seduced into betraying their fellow conservatives. Some of them do it reluctantly, some do it eagerly, but they do it.

    The unfaithfulness of elected Republicans toward their political allies often litters the headlines, but (I think) is seldom understood as unfaithfulness, least of all by the Republicans themselves -- they are, after all, "the stupid party", in the words of conservative pundit M. Stanton Evans. There have been at least three big moments during the current Bush administration that have showcased the wandering eye of Republican office-holders:

  • The first moment was the education bill, shaking hands with a smiling Sen. Kennedy. (Note to Republicans: if you care at all about maintaining the Reagan coalition, you will never be caught in a photo op with Sen. Kennedy unless you're giving him the finger.)

  • The second moment was the Harriet Miers fiasco. Conservatives had stuck with Bush through an unpopular war and through such liberalesque lapses as the aforementioned education bill, believing they would be rewarded for their faithfulness someday with conservative Supreme Court appointees. And so what did Bush do? He picked a crony of his, from a list of "acceptable" nominees handed to him by Democratic Senator Reid. It was like watching a train crash. There were more unbelieving stares and mouths agape in horror and disgust than at the opening night of "Springtime For Hitler" (in the movie, "The Producers"). Bush saw it as a chance to avoid a fight with the Democrats. Problem is, religious, traditional, and law and order conservatives alike have been spoiling for this particular fight for years. The fight needed to happen, and it needed to be loud, raucous, brutal, and decisive. And, with a president, a vice president, and 55 Republican Senators in their corner, they fully expected to win it. When would the odds ever be better? If you can't win a fight with all that -- even worse, if you turn away from it -- conservatives had to conclude (rightly) that the Republicans' hearts just weren't in it.

  • The third moment was the immigration "reform" bill this past summer. This is one of those issues where the liberal agenda squares nicely with the interests of country-club Republicans. Liberals see illegal immigrants as more clients for their social programs and ultimately more Democratic votes, while country-club Republicans see them as cheap labor. As for the remaining portions of the conservative coalition, there was something to offend almost everyone. For the law and order conservatives, this rewarded lawlessness. For the working-class conservatives, it steals their employment opportunities and adds to their tax bill. For the traditional conservatives, unrestrained immigration raises doubts about the long-term viability of our institutions. And Bush made matters not one little bit better when he accused his critics of bigotry. Charming, George, way to go, you really won them over with that one. Every president likes to pick a moment when he can be ostentatiously tough, but it takes a rare breed of politician to shake his fist at the folks who actually voted for him. That'll show 'em.

  • Political coalitions are quid pro quo arrangements. You do something for me, I do something for you. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You want my vote, what do I get for it? This is the part of leading a coalition that the country-club Republicans have never quite figured out. They think it ought to be enough for everyone else that they're not liberals, exactly. "Vote for me, instead of {fill in the blank} -- he's (or she's) a liberal!" That this feeble gambit appears so often during campaigns is a tacit admission by country-club Republicans that not being liberal is the only thing they have in common with their irritated constituents.

    So far, the story of the 2008 Republican presidential campaign is that the coalition is restive. The Huckabee phenomenon is a (doomed, I think) bid for a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by perhaps its most aggrieved faction, namely religious conservatives. Ron Paul is trying to win votes by making sense, in that doctrinaire style prevalent among the more intellectually rigorous libertarians. Candidates like Romney, who try to say all the right things to everyone, face a jaded base that has had it up to here with mere pandering.

    What is needed is a candidate who understands that the liberals win if the coalition does not stand. And also that, for the coalition to continue standing, elected Republicans must be true to their base. No more sell-outs.


    Anonymous said...

    Hey RT,

    Great post! It really helped me to put the Republican party into some perspective. I knew something was dreadfully wrong. And I think you've hit the nail right on the head when it comes to the troubles the GOP is having.

    Some questions: Towards the end of your post, you say that the Republicans need a 2008 presidential candidate who can unite their base. But if their base is really as fragmented as you say it is (and I believe you're correct about that), can their ever be such a candidate again? Can this base really be truly united? Might all of this division be causing the end of the Republican party as we know it? Even the end of the two-party system?

    Ken Christian said...

    RT, that last post was from me.

    -Ken Christian

    Glen said...

    There are some similarities between our time and the birth of the Republican Party.

    Throughout the 1830s and ’40s, American politics had been dominated by two political parties, the Whig and the Democratic, that disagreed on a host of issues concerning political economy. Debates over banks, tariffs, internal improvements, soft and hard currency, and workingmen’s rights largely defined the political discourse of that time, and for the most part the parties enjoyed strong support both North and South. By the late 1840s, however, there were signs that the system was under strain.
    The debate over whether to permit or prohibit slavery in the Mexican territories threatened to realign politics on a sectional basis. Though politicians from both parties and both sections ironed out a series of agreements—the so-called Compromise of 1850—that seemed to put the issue to rest, subtle events were conspiring to weaken the Whig and Democratic parties’ hold over the electorate. In recent years the two parties had largely hashed out many of the key issues that had formerly divided them, so that by the early 1850s their candidates began to sound much more alike. All it would take to loosen the voters’ allegiances to the otherwise similar parties was a new, salient issue. And that issue was slavery.

    The Republicans should beware trying to sell themselves as Democrat-lite. There is no need for two parties that do the same thing.

    Lee said...

    When the Republican Party has emerged as a unified whole, it was due to a national revulsion towards the policies of liberalism. Within my memory, that's twice: the national revulsion toward Jimmy Carter, which gave us Reagan; and the national revulsion toward the Clinton's health care plan, which gave us Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in the Congress. Then, what generally happens is the country-club Republicans gradually forget the rest of us exist, and we wind up slouching again toward Gomorrah, which in this case is the Democratic Party.

    We're in for another cycle. The good news is that the revulsion happens very fast.

    Lee said...

    Glen, I think James Burnham is right that liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide, and that ideology is on a collision course with a crisis of civilization. We'll either succumb, or we will triumph only by recognizing liberalism for what it is, namely: it is Grima Wormtongue, whispering thoughts of impotence and surrender to a mighty king who he has convinced is a weakling. The West is only as weak as it is faithless. If we restore our faith, then we restore our strength.