Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two Cents vs. Sense

There has been a common story within the media this week of the ongoing infighting within the Republican Party for the tenor and voice the party should take on to succeed in the future. Should the party look to moderate itself and its platform in an attempt to better appeal to the groups it has performed poorly amongst (women, Hispanics, the well-educated)? Or, should the party repel such moderation and make a harder turn to the right, taking harder line stances on immigration, reproductive choice, LGBT rights and the like? There have been some fascinating editorials written on the topic. A few of them are quoted and linked to below:

Jonathan Freedland, an opinion writer at The Guardian, wrote a guest piece for the New York Times:

What might panicked Republicans learn from the Tory experience? That apparently the first response to electoral disaster is denial. In the immediate aftermath of 1997, a few brave Tory souls dared venture that the party would have to undergo radical change, that it had to inch toward the center and demonstrate that it was not as out of touch as the critics alleged.

Christine Todd Whitman in today's Washington Post editorial:

In the wake of the Democrats' landslide victory, and despite all evidence to the contrary, many in the GOP are arguing that John McCain was defeated because the social fundamentalists wouldn't support him. They seem to be suffering from a political strain of Stockholm syndrome. They are identifying with the interests of their political captors and ignoring the views of the larger electorate. This has cost the Republican Party the votes of millions of people who don't find a willingness to acquiesce to hostage-takers a positive trait in potential leaders.

Former House Majority Leader, Dick Army, is convinced he knows the path to Conservative enlightenment at the WSJ (this is the WSJ and it may be blocked to non-subscribers, but give it a shot):

Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 because voters no longer saw Republicans as the party of limited government. They have since rejected virtually every opportunity to recapture this identity. But their failure to do so must not be misconstrued as a rejection of principles of individual liberty by the American people. The evidence suggests we are still a nation of pocketbook conservatives most happy when government has enough respect to leave us alone and to mind its own business. The worrisome question is whether either political party understands this.

Over at Politico, Greg Meuller, a Republican strategist, appears to have been sleeping in the calm seas of denial on Nov. 4th:

“It is very unpopular to be a Republican right now, but it is very popular to be a conservative. The conservative brand is the most popular brand in the country, but we didn’t run as conservatives.”

Regardless of political affiliation, I'm interested to know what the readers here think would be the wiser course, and why, as there does not appear to be a sensible way of doing "both."


  1. This is an easy one. One part of the American character that makes us so singularly successful is our natural pragmatism bordering on natural conservatism. Now, before Roga starts spitting up, let me clarify what I mean by "natural conservatism." By "natural conservatism," I mean a natural disinclination, indeed a natural distrust, of social radicalism in all forms, whether it be Communism, Fascism, or religious fanaticism. Jumco will protest that many on the religious right pray (pun intended) for an American theocracy. But he makes this observation in an historical vacuum. All societies have such groups; however, ours is the smallest and the least ambitious in history enjoying no chance of garnering the political sympathy of the majority of Americans.

    Consequently, if the Republican party jettisons its social ambitions and returns to fiscal conservatism (combined with its traditional positions on national defense), the party can simply wait for Americans to come to it. Here's where President Obama comes in. If in four years, Americans are groaning under the coercive weight of high taxes, high unemployment, high interest rates, with American hostages abroad and American casualties at home, while at the same time listening to speeches about global responsibility and a "greener" planet, Americans will return to the Republican party (at least at the presidential level) the same way they did in 1980.

    The point here is this: Americans like pragmatism. Americans dislike social experiments. If Obama is conservative, he will succeed, and the Republican party will remain marginalized. And that would be fine. Who cares about the health of a party if the nation is doing well? But if Obama gets socially ambitious, he and his party will be out cold. Social ambitions take generations to achieve and yet cause immediate and painful (even if temporary) social dislocations. He will be wise to avoid them. If he pursues them, the nation will run to the next credible Republican leader like frightened passengers to the life boats.

  2. "Consequently, if the Republican party jettisons its social ambitions and returns to fiscal conservatism (combined with its traditional positions on national defense), the party can simply wait for Americans to come to it."

    Doing so would be equivalent to saying that the 'cultural wars' the party has been fighting for the past 20 or so years were of little value. The party that has consistently brought us the largest fiscal deficits and national debts in history while scalding others to be more 'fiscally conservative' has succeeded in covering up their falsehoods with the cuddly blanket of 'social ambitions.'

    Persistent discussion of moral rectitude, bigotry, xenophobia, and the ever dangerous specter of 'life' have kept the voters in the Republican Party, up until and through now. These voters turned out with the greatest fervor they ever have. Greater than in 2004, greater than in 2000. Obama won, not by keeping those voters at home, but by convincing others to vote for the first time.

    Conservatism had nearly 30 years, the strongest of which for 6 of the last 8, to put forth a system of lower taxes for all, balanced budgets, humble foreign policy, and a stronger 'moral fabric.' They have failed on all of these fronts. Where they have succeeded, of course, is in generating a wealthier and more powerful American Aristocracy the farthest its ever been removed from the masses. Not one of the other objectives of American Conservatism has been successfully implemented. The political discourse has not been heightened, political erudition has not been elevated, patriarchy is not strengthened, and liberty is not greater. The government plays a larger role in our lives, there is a lower-brow social and political discourse, median incomes are and have been stagnant, and there is greater sexual activity, STDs and teen pregnancies. Conservatism has been in power overseeing this transition for nearly the entire time. Point blank, Conservatism has failed.

    Where, exactly is the selling point in conceding that issues of supposed social import were fluff, and at the end of the day, we should trust again the party that has consistently brought us larger deficits and dramatically larger debts while simultaneously accelerating the rate of wealth concentrated amongst the wealthy?

    I do not believe that your response is as self-evident nor 'easy' as stated.

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  5. Unfortunately, it is not possible to edit a posted comment. What I have done in the past is copied the posted comment, pasted it in as a new comment, made changes, posted the new, revised comment, and completely deleted the old one.

  6. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone on this blog desires what is best for the nation over what is best for any party or group. The problem, of course, is that 'best' is a tricky qualifier. Best for whom?

    An increase in the minimum wage, or the establishment of a 'living wage' (a minimum wage tied to periodic functional adjustment with inflation) would be significantly better for tens of millions of Americans. This would, however, likely make the wealthiest Americans' rate of wealth increase a bit slower. Governance does not occur in a vacuum, and there are few decisions at the national level that are actually better for everyone.

    This, of course, is the conundrum of modern governance. A nation with better overall infrastructure, public transportation, and efficient freight benefits some more than others. Great public universities benefit the young more than they do the old and those more likely to attend public rather than private schools. The list goes on.

    The question that matters, in my very humble opinion, is not, "what is better?" The question is, "what set of policies generates the greatest good for the greatest number?" How do we best fatten that intersection of the Ven Diagram we know as governance so as to have the most effective, efficient, productive, and just input to generate the most effective, efficient, productive and just society?

    The point(s) I raised in my previous post on this thread was that the Republican party and the conservative ideology they claim to subscribe to, despite vast and sweeping power, has failed to deliver a better world, a better nation, or a more effective, efficient, productive or just society.

    The question that faces them now, as per the origins of this post, is the following: "Has our party failed to implement our ideology, thus justifying significant changes to the operating mechanics of our party; Or, has our ideology failed our party, thus justifying significant changes to our ideology?" Despite Pericles's response, the answer to these questions is not easy and there may not be a clean response.

  7. On the contrary, Jumco: the Republican Party has been captured by an ideology. Ideologues are, by definition, more interested in their ideology than in any particular consequence that derives from adherence to it. So, as no ideology can (probably) ever be translated in its purity to reality, one can always complain that it "hasn't been tried."

    In this regard, note that the view of abortion gaining traction on the right is that it is always wrong, and there should be no exceptions for the mother's health, for incest, for rape. Sarah Palin espouses this belief; the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans disagrees is seen on the extreme right as irrelevant: their position is logically consistent, and damn the consequences.

    It follows that the answer to the question you pose is that "our Party has failed to implement our ideology." And therefore, the solution is yet another attempt at purity in the party, rather than a "pragmatic" attempt to modify the platform, the principles of inclusion, the subliminal message, etc of the Party.

    This is borne out by the ever-present risk, most recently faced by McCain, that "conservatives" might desert the Republicans, by staying home on election day, or by veering off in search of a purer candidate outside the Party.

    For an ideologue, party is never more than a vehicle for ideology; the party itself is beside the point. That is why the Republicans face such a dilemma. If they were indeed pragmatic, they would look to the reality of the political climate in the U.S. and conclude that they need to accept the wishes of the electorate as to ends, and try to sell themselves as having the best means. That would, of course, also be best for the country.

  8. [Corrected Version of comment originally posted on Nov. 16 at 11:44 P.M.]

    Of course, the American "social experiment" was itself as much a feature of the developing nation in the 18th century as was the political experiment. Our society began in "social radicalism," and was constructed to be wildly different from the (primarily) English antecedent one. Indeed, the stiff, tradition-bound social conservatism of the English upper classes took nearly a hundred years to change, beginning with the first Reform Bill (1832, I think); and it took the slaughter of WWI to shake up seriously the class structure, which even today is still pretty evident in that nation. Here in the U.S. we were far ahead of the Brits; not that we didn't have our unique problems.

    No, Americans like their individual liberties, and the belief (often against all evidence) that one man is just as "good" as another. This egalitarianism is what gave us presidents like Andrew Jackson and George W Bush (and others); it goes without saying that this is also a significant element in the popularity of Sarah Palin.

    I do not think that the "American character" is what makes us so successful; I think our political institutions, our wealth of resources, our wide, wet borders, and the almost unique way our country's settlement developed had much more to do with our success. To believe it's in some way because of our unique character leads to exceptionalism and xenophobia. I also do not believe that "Americans like pragmatism," or that they really think much about such things. Like people everywhere, they don't like change, and they typically shy away from it absent special circumstances (1932, and this year).

    Pragmatism, after all, and ignoring its philosophical pedigree, is shorthand for "what works," at least in our political discourse. It is foreign to the recent history of the Republican Party: witness the aborted attempt to reform Social Security by changing it to be something other than what it is. This attempt did not grow out of a belief that Social Security didn't work (although some attempted to hide the proposed reform behind that mask). No, what the modern conservative wing of the Republican Party does not like about Social Security is that it does work; and things like that are contrary to the social Darwinism of contemporary conservative dogma, which insists that the government has no business conducting exercises in social welfare, even if (I am tempted to say, especially if) they work. They (that is, social welfare initiatives) don't undercut the principles of conservatism; but a lot of self-described conservatives seem to think otherwise.

    Another example: it is an article of conservative faith (vide Grover Norquist) that (1) reducing income taxes produces more government revenue, and also that (2) the way to control government is to cut its revenues until it perforce becomes "small enough to drown in the bathtub." So, to cut its revenues and shrink it, we should raise taxes! But Norquist & his co-religionists insist, against the logic of their own position, on reducing taxes!

    This argument is akin to the one that says the Jews are perfidious because they killed Jesus; and, on the other hand, it's good that Jesus was killed (in fact that's the purpose for his being born), because otherwise we wouldn't have been saved. Why are the Jews perfidious, again?

    Conservatism is the natural and, usually, proper response to a period of rapid or severe social (etc) change. A good conservative wants to retain the best that has been produced in the past; what has been produced has been the result of previous (often radical, often intentional) change. A period of severe dislocation, regardless of its source, thus can result in a conservative period --witness the 1950s, when people who had spent most of two decades in Depression and War just wanted to come home and have boring, normal lives for a change. Hence the popularity of Eisenhower Republicanism.

    The "social ambitions" of the Republican Party are not, properly understood, ambitions of the Republican Party at all; they are the ambitions of a reactionary (not conservative) minority, formerly housed within the Democratic Party, that was harnessed in service of the Republicans by Dick Nixon, who saw that a new majority could be cobbled together by adding to the respectable Eastern, upper-class base of the party the votes of the disaffected Southerners who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party's embrace of the cause of Civil Rights. Prior to this, the Republican Party housed liberals and conservatives, just as the Democratic Party did. The experience of Goldwater (or perhaps just the timing of his ascendancy) convinced people that conservatism and bigotry were somehow allied, a notion that Goldwater would have abhored.

    Pericles is correct in his analysis of what the Republicans should "wait" for. Unfortunately for the health of the country, the scenario he paints is not unlikely, the table having been so thoroughly set by the Bush Administration. But the answer to his patriotic question, "who cares about the health of a party ...?" is this: some reactionary elements in our society crave the outcome of 4 Obama years that Pericles suggests, because they are more interested in their dogma than in seeing a success that benefits everyone. Although I have not read them, the "Left Behind" books of Tim Lahaye, I believe, serve up with a certain relish the corruption (as he sees it) of modern society, because it will produce a destruction of civilization that he righteously wants to see. A related impulse at the other end of the political spectrum delights in casualties in Iraq, because it means that things aren't working, and this reinforces one's belief that Bush is wrong.

    One last comment: we have been very successful in demonizing most "isms" even though the average American has no idea of what any of them mean. But American society has always had a strong religious element, and it has usually been in the forefront of the political actualization of social change (an excellent picture of this feature of the country in the 1830s is the bilgraphy of Henry Ward Beecher, "The Most Famous Man in America").

    There are signs that even the modern evangelical movement, which has a rich pedigree, is moving in a progressive direction, at least in some aspects of its political catechism.

    We need a strong, vibrant two-party system (or maybe a 3-party one). It is too bad that the Republicans, having been very successful in moving the center of American politics sharply to the right, seem bent on abdicating the role of a constructive opposition in favor of pushing ahead with various dreams of social backwardness and political exclusion (see the demographics of Republican voters for a clue as to the party's future, if it maintains its current track) that will not only inevitably fail, but will also squander the party's heritage and deprive us of a needed alternative political narrative.


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