The Circular Firing Squad

Given the party's defeat in the last two elections—not to mention the spectacular incompetence of the Bush administration—it is not surprising that the Republican Party is going through a period of self-examination. This is proving to be a very painful process indeed.

In a two-party system, the parties tend to be broad-based alliances among interest groups and ideologies that might otherwise have very little in common. For a while they may come together for the purpose of gaining power, but they have difficulty in finding a common ground for actually ruling. Unless there is some over-riding ideal or perceived crises that can unite the factions, internal dissension is a greater threat to the party in power than is the party in opposition. Indeed, a president must often make alliance with the opposition party against his own in order to rule at all.

The last president to have a real unifying ideology was Reagan. However, his small government rhetoric was belied by his big government actions. He managed to triple the national debt and favored the financial interests over the industrial base, turning us from an exporting country to an importer and a debtor nation. The resulting financial difficulties doomed the re-election of his successor.

Carter, the quintessential outsider, found that he was outside his own Democratic majority, and the Congress controlled by his own party paid him very little heed. Clinton, for all his vaunted reputation as a classical liberal, ruled more like a classical Republican on such diverse issues as free trade, balanced budgets, welfare reform, foreign policy and financial deregulation. Indeed, the blame for the current crises lies as much with Clinton as with Bush. And his grand liberal initiatives, such as universal health care and global warming were largely failures, while his effective liberalism was confined to the social issues of gay rights, abortion, and “multi-culturalism.”

Bush II benefited from 9/11; in the fall of the Twin Towers he found the unifying theme of his administration, and all his efforts went into two wars, to building a “national security” apparatus of the most intrusive kind, and into cutting taxes even in the face of rising deficits. Everything else went to hell, and then the wars went to hell, followed quickly by the economy. It is the great irony that the first MBA President turned out to be an incompetent manager, and will likely be remembered as among the worst, if not the worst, of all our presidents, a singular accomplishment in itself.

Obama takes the reins at a time of crises, and this will likely give him an extended period of grace. If he can do something, or at least appear to do something, he has the opportunity to become the next Roosevelt. But I have my doubts. Economic stimulus does work, but it works best in an economy that is largely self-reliant or has balanced trade. The U. S. is not the former and lacks the latter; a stimulus package might just stimulate the Chinese economy and the Arab oil merchant. And his economic team, though super-competent, is largely drawn from the financial sector rather than the real business world, the world were real products are made by American workers. Still, I wish him all success, for my own sake and the sake of my children and grandchildren. He is a thoughtful man and may actually recognize the problems. We shall see.

But where does all this leave the Republicans? Success in American politics, at least since Roosevelt, has been rooted not so much in the triumph of ideas as in the failure of the other party. But even with the spur of failure, a party needs some semblance of ideas to present, ideas that the public does not regard as already discredited. What ideas does the Party have to offer, both to the new Administration and to the public?

The problem is not that they have too few ideas, but too many, and all of them at odds with each other. Of the groups that are willing (sometimes reluctantly) to identify themselves as “conservative,” there are traditionalists, neo-conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, pro-life advocates and even (it cannot be denied) outright racists and jingoists. But The real question is, “What is it that conservatives seek to conserve?” The obvious answer is “liberty.” But the precise meaning of this term seems to cause a lot of dissension. For the neo-con, it means a strong central government with a strong military and supported by an intrusive national security apparatus and strong globalist corporations in an environment of doctrinaire free trade. For the many of the libertarians, it means exactly the opposite. For traditionalists, it is a concern with kith, kin, church, and country, but for others these healthy concerns have mutated into a fixation with race and nationalism. And so on. Perhaps the strongest element is that they tend to be church-goers. This is especially true of the pro-life groups. The party gains much of its strength from its anti-abortion and pro-marriage rhetoric, but abortion was named as a top issue by only 11% of Republicans in the recent election, according to Fox News' polls. Indeed, restrictions on abortion went down to a landslide defeat in South Dakota, one of the reddest of the red states.

But now all the factions formed a circular firing squad to eject the others from the party. The neo-cons attribute the failure to the Sarah Palin types, detecting a pure anti-intellectualism. While Palin may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, she did inject some life into what was an otherwise dull campaign. Indeed, the neo-cons may be the first to bolt the party, as if Obama didn't have enough problems already; their “conservatism” was a bit too new-fangled for the rest of the party. Electorally, they are the weakest group; not many people actually identify themselves as “neocons.” Nevertheless, the are institutionally important, since they control a number of important think tanks, such as The American Enterprise Institute, are well connected to the media from Fox News to the New York Times, run several important opinion journals, like The American Spectator and National Review, and they have a strong influence on talk radio and on such popular writers as Ann Coulter. It was due to their institutional strength—and their friendship with Dick Cheney—that they were able to capture the administration of a weak and incurious President.

But while the party is more Sarah Palin than David Brooks, Sarah has little appeal outside the base, and it is unlikely that even four years of reading all the newspapers in Alaska will make of her a thoughtful and effective candidate for 2012. Indeed, no one in the party has much power to reach beyond their own group. Ron Paul, for example, was well-funded and had a corps of dedicated followers, but his showing was disappointing.

Even the term “conservative” is becoming problematic for some on the right. Take the right-wing gadfly, Taki Theodorocopulos, who provided the original funding for The American Conservative magazine, whose founding editor was Pat Buchanan. Taki also funds the popular website TakiMag and has asked his writers to avoid the term “conservative” in their work, because, according to Taki, the second someone reads the C-word the mind jumps immediately to Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. In Taki’s words, “Bush has done for American conservatism what Hitler did for the German variety—ruined it, ruined the very name!” Taki is on the far right (and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense) of the party, and when he won't use the “c-word,” you know that something is fundamentally wrong. Indeed, some writers at TakiMag have begun attacking The American Conservative as too leftist. TakiMag has recently banned all public commentary on its website, which will undoubtedly shrink the attention that it gets. The editors gave no reason for this, but it may be that the site had attracted far too many who saw conservatism in terms of racial purity. But in that, the posters were no worse than some of the writers.

Well, everybody seems to be to the left of everybody else. So what is wrong with the Republican Party? Let me suggest that the problem is that they have no idea of what they ought to conserve; they have no idea of what constitutes liberty. Indeed, the only common theme among the factions is economic, and in that what they are trying to conserve is economic liberalism, the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism. They have forgotten that this was the very doctrine that destroyed conservatism in the 19th century, and while it is now over 200 years old, it will never be conservative.

What conservatism ought to conserve is the proper scale of things; government at its lowest possible level, strong families as the foundation of society, small manufacturing, small farms, strong communities. Low taxes, to be sure, but taxes commensurate with the tasks we ask government to perform. We know that the key to lowering taxes is to localize government as much as possible and reduce its scale. But you cannot have localized governments in the face of commercial institutions that are bigger than most states—indeed, bigger than most nations. These institutions declare themselves “too big to fail,” when in truth they are too big to succeed without massive government support. Republicans since Reagan have tried to grow government, shrink taxes, and deregulate everything. Alas, they have been all too successful.

Distributists know that the key to shrinking government and ending oppressive taxation is to shrink the need for government. Great and global institutions require big government and large military and regulatory apparatuses. And these require big taxes. And while they create great wealth, for some, they create great dependency for the mass of men, a dependency that expresses itself as the welfare state. The small farm is better for food, but it is also better for community; the small manufacturer, tied by bonds of economy and affection to his locality is the basis of a sane economy.

Taki may with reason ban the C-word, since America does not have a conservative party, and perhaps never had one since the death of Jefferson. It has two liberal parties that squabble over details but agree on the larger principles. The right-wing liberals cling to the antique but failed economic liberalism; the left-wing liberals realize the failure of antique liberalism and want the government to bring the prosperity to all that laissez-faire never did and never could.

But because America has no conservative party does not mean she has no conservatives. Indeed, The left wing is scratching its head over the fact that the Black Obama voters in California voted solidly for a ban on gay marriage. At heart, America is a conservative country, not only in the South and Midwest, but in the Northeast, Northwest, and even in the great cities that are regarded as the strongholds of liberalism. Indeed, much of the new liberalism today involves a certain nostalgia for the land, for the community, and for a more human scale to the economy and to politics. It is a natural conservatism that spans race and age and gender. Indeed, the newcomers are more authentically conservative than many of the older population. But American conservatism lacks any real institutional support, and any real ideology. It picks up what older liberals have discarded and calls it conservative, and then is very surprised when it turns out liberal.

Distributists have no real party, though many feel a certain attachment or even affection for the Republican Party, largely because of its half-hearted stands on abortion and marriage. And while this is reason enough to support the party, it is not reason enough to take it seriously. We must always realize that while we welcome their support on family issues, it is the rest of their ideology that makes the family, and the community, difficult or impossible. But times are changing, and changing rapidly. We may be in a profound crises that will change the nature of America forever. We need to be keen spectators of the results of the circular firing squad, and find places where we can have influence. But mostly, we need to wait and work, and where possible, build local institutions and local farms and businesses.


IDIOT face Sunday, December 28, 2008 at 12:24:00 PM CST  

Another well written blog Mr. Medaille. I'm quite new to the distributist scene and I only know the basics of it. Slowly but surely I am coming around to agreeing with distributism. ( I wouldn't call myself a distributist yet. )
I used to be the ultimate liberal lefty in my teens. An atheist, a socialist and a republican ( the no monarch type not the political party. )
Nowadays I am not a liberal or a conservative. I find that like the left/right political spectrum, the liberal/conservative political spectrum seems far too broad for people's social and politcal views e.g. A person could be pro life and agree with gay marriage. What does it make this person a conservative, a liberal, a lefty or a righty.
What Thomas Storck has written on another distributist website sums up my feelings of the liberal/conservative thing perfectly.
here's the blog:
Also as a former liberal lefty, I can say that many liberals also believe in strong family values and strong communities as well. Where I live ( jolly old England ) it's the left wingers that are opposed to intrusive government tactics and the right wingers are all for them.
Well that is my two cents on this blog. Looking forward to more of your blogs and learning more about distributism.

P.S. I don't know how to put the slash mark above the first "e" in you surname. If it offends you I am very sorry.

don pedro Sunday, December 28, 2008 at 4:27:00 PM CST  

if you hold down ALT while typing 0233 on the number pad, the e with accent aigu will appear =) (or you could switch your keyboard to U.S. International mode; however, it doesn't seem like that would be very practical in your case.

I made the opposite journey. I come from a long line of die hard Republicans who lean towards the more libertarian end of the "political diamond." I'm the only distributist I know non-virtually and I get a lot of flack from by mainstream Republican acquaintances. Fortunately they are rather understanding, so my registering as an Independent didn't cause any problems. =)

Septeus7,  Monday, December 29, 2008 at 1:46:00 AM CST  

Hello John, that was a very nice post but few things have me confused or maybe I disagree.

First you say "What is it that conservatives seek to conserve?” The obvious answer is 'liberty.'" and then you say "What conservatism ought to conserve is the proper scale of things..." It seems like you are saying two different things regarding what conservatives ought to conserve.

The way I think about it is that human civilization is given 3 commands in Genesis; 1. Be Fruitful and Multiply. 2. Replenish the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over other form of life. 3. "till thou return unto the ground." and conservatives are trying to "conserve" civilization by making sure that we follow these rules for civilization.

Now look all of these commands and see how necessary these are to civilization. Every civilization and nation that have ceased to increase permanently it native population has failed. They have died off or were displaced by nations with increasing populations. Every civilization that failed to manage manage or have "domination" of natural resource base by using their minds and knowledge, labor to replenish the Earth and extended the resource base but instead let the power of wilderness, disease, and drought, storms, displace the native population has failed. And every civilization that could not grow it's own food has also destroyed itself.

So to "conserve" civilization we must support: 1.Increasing the relative population density of the native population (No Abortion, No War, No Eugenics). 2. Replenishing and increasing the resource base needed sustain increases in human population using the unique creativity given to man being made in the image of God. 3. workers (starting with farmers) and infrastructure that is needed to alter the land to make it more productive to these ends i.e. production and labor not trade, finances or thief is basis of human economy.

So where does liberty come into this? I think comes in understand that if men are not at liberty to follow the kinds of activity needed for civilization but are instead subjected to a parasite ruling class then that civilization will fail and its people perish. So liberty, properly conceived is necessary for civilization to survive thus must be defended as part of the proper order of things.

So between conserving the "proper scale of things" or "liberty" I think "liberty' is subsumed within the 'proper of scale of things" as far as politics are concerned. Liberty exists as an idea within the Gestalts of Eunomia and Harmonia.

As far I can see the major problem today not just with conservative but liberals as well as they are trying to created rules according an "ideal condition" called liberty whereas government must be guided by the principles which lead us toward the condition. The condition of liberty tells you nothing about how it is to be achieved thus can be the basis for nothing except nihilism.

Those principles result in the condition of liberty are Harmonia and Eunomia and almost no one today has the slightest clue as what the principles of harmony and good order are well can see the results in music, arts, buildings, business practices, laws and on and on.

I hope this clarifies where I'm coming from and I hope John responds telling me where I went wrong with my biblical application but hopefully those 3 principles I mentioned can become the basis of something of a political cons`ensus i.e. Pro-Life, Pro-Production, Pro-Worker. I hope people can get behind that platform otherwise I don't see much hope for the nation and indeed Western civilization (you can't build a civilization on eugenics, consumerism, and usury).

As you stated we "conservatives" are in a period of "self-examination" and I know started reconsidering things from being a mainstream right wing conservative in about 2006 into something between a Classical Cameralist and a Neo Distributist but I know this process necessary and if the circular firing squad doesn't kill us hopefully it make us stronger.

Julian,  Monday, December 29, 2008 at 7:28:00 AM CST  


Here is some applause from the choir..."Hurray! Spot on! Bravo!"


I'm not sure I understand where exactly you disagree with John. It doesn't seem like you're saying that his definition of liberty as well as what conservatism ought to conserve is tending towards harmonia and eunomia. Am I reading you correctly? I wasn't sure if you were disagreeing or refining his point. In any case, I think you could very well consolidate a party platform to "Pro-Life, Pro-Production, Pro-Worker." Granted, this would be a radical departure for either party but if developed effectively would ring true for the majority of the country.

John Médaille Monday, December 29, 2008 at 9:30:00 AM CST  

Mr. I. Face. Thanks you for your comments. I agree, the left/right dichotomy turns politics into an interesting game, like football, but like football, it has very little meaning.

S. 7, I agree on the importance of the family and the decisive quality is demographics. Further, I think that societies that lose their sexual vigor also lose their intellectual vigor and finally lose everything. But for me, that means everything is scaled to the family, which means local scale. The larger political world serves a purpose and the empire has a place, but its place is to serve the family, not displace it.

I agree that the Bible is the place to start. It is an often overlooked fact that the first command given to man and woman is not about apples and not even about love of neighbor; the first command is to make love. God says to his children, "get on with getting it on!" That's my kind of God!

DV Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 7:18:00 AM CST  

Is there a more activist possibility?

Chesterbelloc's main practical goal appears to have been "propaganda" - awakening a desire for true liberty where there basically had been none.

In the UK there are small campaigns like the Land Value Taxation campaign which appear to have similar ideas to distributism.

Given that parties are such a mixed bag as you say, is there room to put forward a political party as a platform these ideas (basically subsidiarity)?

Richard Aleman Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 10:15:00 AM CST  

A.M.C. Currie tried to start a distributist party in the 1930's, but distributists back then didn't view a formal party as a solution.

I believe individuals, supported by campaigns can certainly have a serious impact, especially at the local level. I am however skeptical of a regularized party.

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