Thursday, January 08, 2009

Your'e Conservatism Is Too Small

Alex Massie has a wonderful post on how dogmatic the Republican Party has become and ties it to the history of the Conservative Party in the UK after the age of Thatcher. Reaganism helped revitalize the GOP and ushered in a conservative era in the United States. But as Massie notes, the party has become stuck in its past, unwilling to change as the nation changes, and that past has become highly fictionalized, make Reagan more doctrinare than he was in reality.

The point here is not to say how great Massie's article is, though it is a good read and you should take some time and read it. He puts into words, what I have wanted to say for a while, that conservatism in the United States has become too small; more interested in setting up tests to show who is the "true" conservative and expelling those who are deemed heretics. As Massie notes, you'd think Reagan was the only Republican commander-in-chief, with no one ever mentioning Ford or Eisenhower or even Teddy Roosevelt. (We kind of know why Nixon isn't mentioned with any pride.) All the others are in some way deemed as insufficiently conservative.

Reagan was a good president, but to focus on him alone is too fashion a Republican Party that is very narrow, when in reality there are many different forms of conservatism, that have had a place in the GOP at some point in the past. The real Reagan was more willing to widen the base to make the GOP a majority party, something that many his current devotees would find an anathema.

Maybe because I'm a pastor, I've been fascinated at how the GOP resembles the mainline Protestant congregations that I have been a member of or served at. Many of these congregations were great institutions in their day, but those days are now long gone. However, people look at the past with rose-colored glasses, ignoring all the shades of grey or all the things that might not have been so good during those so-called "good ole days." People in these congregations then end up holding on to the past, afraid to change in order to keep the church going. This road is a slow road to dying, as the old folks in the congregation die off and the new are never really allowed in.

In many ways, this is what the GOP is facing. We are in love with the past or more succinctly, the past when we were king. And many in the party have held on to a fictionalized past that they long for, afraid to let anyone in lest it changes their perceptions of the party.

But we hold on to the Reagan years at our peril. The America that Ronald Reagan faced in 1981 is not the America of 2009. The nation has changed, we have become more diverse, and more accepting of issues like homosexuality. But instead of trying to fashion a conservatism for the 21st century, it seems like time has not changed and that has caused people to walk away from the party. Here is what Massie says:

Witness, for instance, the party's hostility to gay marriage. That plays well with the base, but it's not something that's likely to endear it to the political future. It's a symbolic issue in some ways, but each year plenty of voters who agree with the GOP die while plenty more who don't are added to the electoral roll.

Style matters too. The Tory position on Europe in the 1990s (and on immigration and crime more recently) was more popular with the electorate than were Labour's policies, but the stridency and, to many, the ugly tone in which the Tories expressed themselves turned many voters off. Similarly, the GOP position on, say, immigration is not without its supporters but the manner in which a position is expressed matters almost as much as the position itself. And the GOP has seemed bitter and parochial - qualities with which the electorate is unlikely to wish to associate itself.

Another example? The Terri Schiavo affair: millions of Americans might have been conflicted as to what they felt in what was a horrid, ugly affair. But they knew they didn't like the spectacle of Congressional Republicans stomping all over the case in hob-nailed boots, abandoning any notion of Congressional restraint, let alone respect for States' Rights and due process. The party that says the other mob always want to interfere abandoned all pretence to principle to interfere itself. Voters can spot hypocrisy and while they may sometimes forgive it if its purusued with a modicum of subtlety or on grounds of expediency, more often they dislike it intensely when it seems a flagrant breach of promise or purpose.

He also goes on to chat about how the whole tax debate is still stuck in 1981. Of course, back then taxes were very high and were lowered. Today, taxes are much lower than 30 years ago, and I don't see Obama raising taxes back to the 70 percent top marginal tax rate it was back in the early 80s. It made sense to cut taxes for the upper income back then, but not anymore. But the answer to anything economic seems to be cut taxes as if time had not changed.

But as Massie notes, the worship of Reagan speaks to a very narrow interpretation of who is a Republican and who is not. Conservatism is not as much a philosopy as it is a checklist. There are some in the party who have a figurative list that determines who is in and who is out. If you don't have enough of checks then you aren't a conservative.

Witness a recent post by Robert Bluey at the conservative blog RedState who believes that former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele is not loyal enough to head the Republican National Committee. Steele, who running for RNC chair deemed "defective" because he dared affiliate with moderates:

Steele’s well-documented role with the Republican Leadership Council and association with co-founder Christie Todd Whitman is perhaps the most egregious political error he’s made. Any conservative who partners with the liberal Whitman must be viewed skeptically. Steele claims he was trying to broaden the party’s base by appealing to moderates. “We have to elect moderates in the party,” he told CBN’s David Brody.

One of those moderates Steele supported was former Rep. Wayne Gilchrist, a classic RINO if there ever was one. Gilchrist faced a primary challenge from conservative Andy Harris, a Maryland state senator with strong backing from the Club for Growth. It didn’t matter to Steele. He threw his support to Gilchrist. Harris went on to win the GOP primary, prompting Gilchrist to turn on the GOP and endorse Harris’ Democrat opponent.

Nevermind that former New Jersey Governor Whitman was a successful GOP governor in a "blue" state. She's a "liberal" and hanging around moderates makes you suspect among a true believer like Bluey.

The same goes with his trashing on Wayne Gilchrest, the a former Representative from Maryland. He was a moderate Republican in a blue area, which should be seen as a good thing. Not with these folks. He was a RINO, and the Club for Growth ran a candidate to unseat him in a primary, who was later trounced by a Democrat.

Political parties are always dealing with the tension between those who are the dogmatists and those who are pragmatists. In the 80s and 90s, the Democrats were fighting amongst themselves, with the New Deal dogmatists on the one side and the New Democrat pragmatists on the other. In the end, the pragmatists were able to win the day and elect one of their own, Bill Clinton, to the presidency.

While this isn't a perfect analogy, (the New Democrats are not as strong as they once were and the New Dealers are back in power) it might explain the situation the GOP is in. The dogmatists are in control and looking for heretics to expell. But after several losses, people are going to want to win instead of just holding on to principle. For conservatism in the US to grow, it has to become more pragmatic, more willing to open itself up to differing strains (there is more than one way to be conservative). This doesn't mean becoming liberals, but trying to figure out how to be conservative in a different age.

Our conservatism is to small. It's time to dream big.

1 comment:

Steve Nizer said...

I think an earleir post of yours made a lot of sense. Develop a 435 district strategy and rely less on national platforms. If you're a pro-life zealot, you're probably not going to be a great fit for a district in Rhode Island. Conversely, a liberal Republican wouldn't be a good fit in a place like Utah.