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.