By Robert Capehert
WHEN Barack Obama was reelected Tuesday, Nov. 6, conservatives, especially ones dedicated to voting for the Republican Party, panicked. All manner of hyperbolic overreaction commenced—including, some, on Crede, ut intelligas, intimating from Dave Beilstein of all people.
Some of this is the result of one half of American conservatism’s personality: Tory pessimism. The other side, Old Whig optimists, were not so ill at ease—seeing Romney’s loss as problematic on a small scale, rather than a wider, more disastrous level.
Barry Obama is a disaster. In defense of Beilstein’s affinity with Old Whig political alliances, I have empathy for his rude temper following Mr Obama’s reelection. Nevertheless, both Whig optimists and Tory pessimists made good points in the following weeks and months.
Still, Daniel McCarthy’s recent American Conservative column on Republican Party dislocation and electoral defeat is the best yet in unpacking G.O.P., and conservative, electoral misfortune.
America doesn’t really have a two-party system. It has a one-and-a-half-party system, where one party at a time tends to dominate the national agenda while the other becomes a half-party—one that might hold onto the House of Representatives and some state governments, but that isn’t trusted by voters to run the country. The Republicans are America’s half-party today. This is a reversal from a generation ago, when the GOP typically held the White House—for all but four years from 1969 to 1993—and occasionally the Senate, while Democrats, despite a 40-year majority in the House of Representatives, were the party Americans deemed incompetent to govern at the national level.
The root of the GOP’s problem now is the same as that of the Democrats in 1969: the party’s reputation has been ruined by a botched, unnecessary war—Vietnam in the case of the Democrats, Iraq for the GOP. This may sound implausible: every political scientist knows that Americans don’t care about foreign policy; certainly they don’t vote based on it.
But foreign policy is not just about foreign policy: it’s also about culture.
That the “culture war”—as well as the “War on Drugs”—assumed its present shape in the wake of the Vietnam conflict is no accident. Vietnam polarised, realigned, and radicalised cultural factions. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, Republicans in Congress were still more likely than Democrats to support civil rights legislation. Attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality did not clearly divide left from right: Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and even William F. Buckley favoured liberalising abortion laws in the early 1960s, while as late as 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominees Sargent Shriver and Thomas Eagleton were anti-abortion.
Few mainstream figures in either party supported gay rights, but it was clear enough from their social circles that right-wingers such as Reagan, Goldwater, and Buckley were not about to launch any witch-hunts.
McCarthy provides striking exegesis on everything wrong with the contemporary Republican Party in those three paragraphs—and, more broadly, the American conservative movement in our time.
I think it should be stated now, in the face of statist progressivism, that American conservatives/libertarians need to draw the line at defending the Bill of Rights politically, animating constitutional limited government barriers, rather than all these side issues that divide and tilt toward extremism.
Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservative thought, used to say political discourse and political action should always resist dogmatic extremism—something those on the cultural-warrior right ought to comprehend.
Conservative ideas about social policy are not unpopular—not if worked through the avenue of Federalism, and not if the difference between positive liberty and the constitutional idea of negative liberty are properly explicated. Social conservative policies are—as is said, commonsensical.
But social conservatives have made them dogmatic and unattractive with a whirlwind of grandstanding.
In essence, the notion of a preservation of best practices in the conduct of human behaviour is—and can be, popular. It is when folks like Rick Santorum moan and wail about government belonging in the bedroom, such social conservative ideas are found by the American public to be violently untenable. Many social conservatives decry such an idea.
But how one says something is key to political persuasion.
If there is a challenge to American conservatism, it is an electorate base wholly confused about what is American conservatism. Is it Jerry Falwell style evangelical democratisation—where a moralistic preference-based “moralism” is held too, or Barry Goldwater’s idea, where government is reigned in by constitutional parameters?
There seems to be much improvement here. And movement.
Rand Paul (R-Ky.) won the CPAC straw poll instead of pretenders like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Even better, former cultural-warrior social conservative, Glenn Beck (whose candidates of choice used to be feral social conservatives like Ms Bachmann and Mr Santorum) is now Sen. Paul of Kentucky.
Change is, therefore, in the wind. Are our principals going down the drain?
The current realignment of conservative thinking is an ad fontes [back to the sources] classical liberal movement. It is a rekindling of a proper conservation of 18th century liberalism—as opposed to showboat populism gone excreta.
There was a famous exchange in which a man was picked on when proven to be inconsistent. If John Maynard Keynes got anything right, it was his response,
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”