artium and moribus, Novus Ordo Seclorum, Status quaestionis, Weekly Politikos

OF CLASSICAL LIBERALISM AND REPUBLICAN IDENTITY

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By David Beilstein

I’d like to spend some time sitting in on the Grand Old Party’s identity in the spacious political times we happen to find ourselves in as classical liberals.

In a sense, possibility has been normed by probability in American politics–as it is elsewhere, under the sun.

Whereas both are the product of the grist of complicating factors life exudes, nevertheless, political parties and human beings together cannot put a finger on it all that precisely–nor control the multitudinous aspects of humanity within contextualised events.

On top of that, it would be helpful to interact with Mr. Kevin D. Williamson’s piece, recently published over at National Review Online.

Gentleman Williamson puts together the thesis based upon empirical datum that in America two paradoxical truths are developing: the United States is becoming more conservative, and it is becoming far less loyal to the Republican party at the same time (particularly when we periscope in on national politics).

That conundrum is worth thinking about right now in light of this astonishing fact: When it comes to the policy opinions of American voters, there have been three peak years for conservatism: 1952, 1980, and . . . right now, according to Professor James A. Stimson, whose decades-long “policy mood” project tracks the changing opinions of the U.S. electorate. Americans have grown more conservative on the whole, but the even more remarkable fact is that the electorate has grown more conservative in every state. As Larry Bartels points out in the Washington Post, the paradoxical fact is that Barack Obama was first elected in a year in which the American policy mood already was unusually conservative, and he was reelected in a year in which it had grown more conservative still. And so the question: Why did an increasingly conservative electorate elect and reelect one of the most left-wing administrations, if not the most left-wing, in American history?

Williamson’s answer: Increasingly, Americans are not associating conservatism (classical liberalism) with the Republican party, or rather, are not associating Republicans with classical liberalism, i.e., either of American conservatism on one side, or libertarianism, on the other.

That seeming paradox may be explained in part by the fact that the American public’s increasingly conservative views are not associated with an increased sense of identification with the Republican party. In late January 2004, Gallup found a Republican/Democrat split of 31 percent to 33 percent in the Democrats’ favor, with more identifying as independent  (35 percent) than as a member of either party. In September of this year, those numbers were 22/31/45. Add in the “leaners” — those who do not strictly identify with one party but generally are inclined toward its views — and the GOP was at a 44/51 disadvantage in 2004, and today is at a 41/47 disadvantage. Which is to say, the Republicans lost 3 percent who didn’t move to the Democrats, and the Democrats lost 4 percent who didn’t move to the Republicans. Independents jumped from 35 percent to 45 percent during that period.

Jonah Goldberg, Williamson’s colleague of sorts, wrote in his 2007 bestselling book, Liberal Fascism, that American society is liberal in the classical sense. Goldberg is correct of course.

To the extent the Republican party strays from classical liberalism, then, either into the stale bog of moralistic socialism (too much social conservative jeremiads), or an affinity with leftist progressivism on the other side, an erosion of the connecting fabric between the party of Lincoln and the kind of society Americans normally support in given electoral cycles unfolds.

Nothing could illustrate this more than the conundrum of same-sex marriage debates within “conservative”/Republican circles.

In peek-a-booing into the idea America’s increased sense of conservatism does not stretch uniformly across all issues, such as same-sex marriage, Williamson unpacks some of the ongoing philosophical realities at work when it comes to marriage “equality” debate:

It’s worth nothing that the rightward shift was not uniform across all issues, with the notable exception being the question of gay marriage, which Americans have grown consistently more friendly toward. (Was it as late as 2008 that Barack Obama ran for office opposing gay marriage? It was, indeed. Was it as late as 2012 that he felt safe announcing his not-unexpected reversal? Indeed.) Those of us who take a more traditional view of the role of marriage and family should note that if the American people are here in error, it is an error that in one sense speaks well of them: Americans’ shifting views on gay marriage are rooted in a deeply American sense of fair play and toleration. They may have come to the wrong conclusion, but their hearts are in the right place.

No investigation into the paradox of Republican erosion, conservative ascendency, would be complete without ideas about a way forward. Even so, gentleman Williamson unpacks some wisely-tuned logic of his own, going forward.

So as the electorate grows paradoxically more conservative and less friendly to Republicans, the challenge for the GOP is to figure out how to connect its conservatism with a conservative public that distrusts the conservative party. That doesn’t sound like a terribly difficult challenge, but it is. Conservatism is a philosophy, which is a different thing from a specific policy agenda. Talking endlessly about the middle class is not going to cut it, nor is tinkering with tax rates. And beyond the specific political platform, Republicans have to show that they can be trusted to govern with the best interests of the broad electorate in mind. In 2013, showing that Republicans can govern starts with Republican governors. If there is any upside to the shutdown showdown, it is that by highlighting the fecklessness and foolishness of Washington, it increases the odds that a governor rather than a senator will emerge to lead the GOP in the next great contest.

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