Falling Down

Is conservatism dying?

It’s an interesting thing to see; a few years ago, after having lost an election wherein the Democratic party was perhaps at its most united, there were some who said that the Democrats were on the verge of breaking up. Karl Rove, who had got the seemingly unelectable incumbent president reelected, had cemented his legacy of dubious political genius, and seemed well on the way towards establishing long term Republican control over the federal government.

As the old saw goes, why would you put a group of people who don’t believe in government in charge of government? For Republicans, who still sometimes echo their paleoconservative roots that champion small government, this has become an increasingly significant question in light of what appears to be a catastrophic election year for their party.

Whether permanent or not, Bush has most definitely wounded his party severely, and cast the GOP in a kind of metaphysical quandary. They have gotten quite good at winning elections for a time, but once those elections were won, there seemed to be no actual interest in governing in a manner that might convince people to keep voting for them.

It was almost as though they really believed in the self-described “mandate” that was won in the 2004 election. More accurately, it was almost as though they had forced themselves to believe that winning elections was enough. Governance didn’t matter, especially if you knew how to campaign despite poor policy making.

2006 would prove to be a moment of foreboding, however, that this was not the case. While not universally true, people do actually start to care about what their government is doing, though admittedly there may be a threshold factor in there somewhere that warrants further study.

Whether it is something as dramatic as a threshold of tolerance for one’s existing government or not, it was made perfectly clear two years ago that knowing which hot buttons to push, and which demographics to cut up and how were not going to be good enough to make up for a president who would ultimately make history as the most hated president of contemporary times, and a Congress that acted as a rubber stamp for him.

Thus, here we are. Only four years after long term Republican rule appeared to be a sure thing, many are coffin shopping for the Republican party in its current guise.

Writing for the New Yorker, George Packer provides an interesting, though lengthy, combination of history and eulogy for the GOP, one that is well characterized by the following excerpt:

…the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces.

Recalling the way in which Pat Buchanan and Richard Nixon etched out a blueprint to power based upon harnessing the electoral gold mine of hate is strangely eerie; far too parallel to the political machinations of Karl Rove for comfort.

But looking at the politics of hate that drove the early and later years of the Republican dynasty is interesting and informative. There are many ways to be successful in politics, but a core principle to winning any election is not to just get the voters to agree with you, but instead to be emotionally vested enough to take that agreement and express it on a ballot; to inspire someone to leave their couches long enough to pull a lever, check a box, or navigate a touch screen.

For Republicans that emotional incentive was hate; or more amicably, to create a narrative surrounding any given election of good vs. evil, and to offer voters the opportunity to be among the righteous.

But when the governing precepts behind a movement are exhausted, all that one finds left from the Republican party is a set of divisive politics. When the principal opponent they must face is someone who has built his entire candidacy as the antithesis, even the cure, for such politics, that spells disaster.

Which is about where I tend to find Packer’s analysis wanting.

McCain is painted as un-Republican enough to maybe give him a chance to win at a time when being Republican has gone seriously out of style. We can’t know the future, and he very well may win; that’s always a possibility.

But McCain is stuck in a rut that he did not suffer from eight years ago. He has become the establishment candidate, signing on to all of the policies that Bush has turned into political poison, and wavering back and forth between employing the politics of the old, or the post partisan politics that the McCain of 2000 appeared to be a champion of.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that McCain back then was anything remotely like a saint, but I am saying that whatever he may or may not have been then is quite different than what he is now.

If he chooses to campaign as a Republican, he finds himself in one very difficult but surmountable position. We’ve seen the mechanism that Obama has established for fighting old style politics, and it has thus far proven to be very effective. Every attack that is leveled upon him gives Obama the opportunity to hit back with impunity, while delivering a statement that lets him turn the initial attack into a validation of his campaign’s core message.

If, on the other hand, McCain chooses to campaign upon the merits of his ideas, he must come to answer for the fact that the policies that he is espousing now are the same policies that his predecessor has turned into electoral suicide.

The death of movement conservatism, if that is indeed what we are seeing now, boils down to some pretty simple concepts. The first is the radicalization of the party. Not only did this guarantee that Republicans would lose their center once they lost the ability to win the center based upon divisive politics on their own, but it also held the party in the thrall of its more radical wings. As a letter in 2004 to Bush by Bob Jones III makes clear, when you pander to the most radical part of your base, eventually that part starts demanding results.

Second was adhering to the agenda of the radical wings of the party despite blatant overtures on behalf of the public to signify that such an agenda is not in keeping with average Americans. The Republicans and the Bush administration should have never taken the fight to privatize Social Security as far as they did. They shouldn’t have pursued their course of action on Terry Schiavo. They should have and should still recognize that America isn’t playing when it makes clear that it is not pleased with the occupation of Iraq.

Finally, there should have been someone somewhere who understood that negative politics could only work for so long. Getting the electorate to hate the opponent as opposed to selling the candidate eventually becomes transparent.

Those in politics should never, ever, come up high and dry when asked, “What are you for?”

Now, Democrats are approaching this year with a new kind of politics, and with ideas that the last six or seven years of Bush’s administration have turned into very desirable ideas indeed, and there’s a high likelihood for political misfortune for the GOP this fall.

But I think this will be a good a thing for both the Republican party and America. Hopefully such a heavy loss will give Republicans cause to assess their hard luck with more honesty than they have recently. It will, perhaps, force them to go beyond just trying to figure out how to package the same old, tired, and unwanted policies that their party has stood for for so long.

it’s called navel-gazing, in case they didn’t know. And if they need help getting started, they need look no further than their Democratic counterparts.

(edited by DrGail)

One Response to “Falling Down”

  1. Mark says:

    1. Nixon was in no way, shape, or form a conservative, except for perhaps on “law and order” issues. On economics, he supported wage and price freezes. Although there is actually much in his foreign policy that I personally admire (e.g., detente), his foreign policy was quite the opposite of “neo-conservatism.” His “contribution” to the Republican Party is ultimately what led to its destruction more than anything, which was his Solid South strategy.
    2. The article makes the fundamental mistake of confusing “conservatism” as a governing philosophy with the “Republican Party.” While there has long been a lot of overlap between the two, they are slightly different. The problem with the GOP these days – which I wrote about regularly back in December and January – is that in its attempt to represent all of the various strains of “conservatism” (which are really four or five entirely different governing philosophies) it has wound up pushing a sort of “pu-pu platter conservatism” that doesn’t really represent anyone particularly well except for party hacks who mistakenly think that they have a coherent ideology. This was all well and good during the Cold War, when all of the various strains of “conservatism” and “libertarianism” could agree on anti-Communism as a unifying principle; after the Cold War, this coalition immediately began to break apart, resulting in the embarassing rout of the first President Bush. The coalition was able to re-unite during the Clinton years, thanks to a perfect storm of Hillary’s Health Care Task Force, Newt Gingrich’s ingenious “Contract with America” that managed to find common ground amongst the various forms of conservatism, as well as Bill Clinton’s propensity to get himself into stupid scandals. But once he was gone, the band aid was ripped off and the fissures between the various forms of “conservatism” began to reopen. The only way for Bush to try to maintain the coalition was through a sort of top-down dictation, but this was doomed to failure and now the only people who adhere to the GOP’s “pu-pu platter conservatism” are a few remaining die-hards.

    What I mean by all this is that “conservatism” as a philosophy is not dead – what is dead is the Republican form of “pu-pu platter conservatism.” You have seen and will see a similar cycle play out in the Democratic Party over the years, though I don’t have time to go into the details on that right now.

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