Building a Better Conservatism
Columnist Steven Greenhut writes:
Syndicated columnist Bob Novak, writing about the surprising number of conservatives who are backing Democrat Barack Obama rather than Republican John McCain for the presidency, captured their widespread sentiment when he quoted one "Obamacon" with impeccable GOP credentials: "The Republican Party is a dead rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of ‘Weekend at Bernie,’ handcuffed to a corpse." These Obama supporters hold no illusions about Obama’s liberalism, but they are so angry at the GOP, Novak writes, that they seek a "therapeutic electoral bloodbath."… [I]n a two-party system, when one party screws up royally, the voters reward the other party.’
(OC Register; emphasis added)
It’s actually quite affirming that some conservatives have decided to rebel against what the Bush administration and its abettors and enablers and are prepared, in the best traditions of democracy, to throw the rascals out.’
Because ‘conservative’ sure doesn’t mean what it used to. It doesn’t actually even mean ‘conservative’ anymore.
After all, as Greenhut points out:
President Bush has increased the size of the federal government faster than even LBJ. Bush promised the nation a humbler foreign policy. Certainly, that’s a dead letter. There was a time when Republicans understood the importance of the separation of powers and other protections against centralized government. No more. Another Republican with unassailable credentials, former Reagan appointee Paul Craig Roberts, wrote recently: "The Republican Party has shown beyond all doubt that it holds the U.S. Constitution in total contempt. Today, the Republican Party stands for unaccountable executive power. To re-elect such a party is to murder liberty in America." (OC Register)
At Poligazette, Michael van der Galien similarly suggests that what the GOP really needs is a message about what it can do to make things better.
The Grand Old Party has, from the perspective of an outsider at least, a grumpy old party, with grumpy old man, who offer fear, sarcasm and cynicism. Now, there’s reason to be cynical about politics, but if you want your country to make progress, cynicism won’t get you anywhere. You need a healthy dose of cynicism in order to be able to say what plans will and won’t work, and to point out to voters that they should not expect miracles from the government – they’ve got to do
it themselves in the end, but you also need a positive message to progress. You need to work towards something, a goal, a vision.
This ‘vision thing’ is sorely lacking. And if Republicans do have a vision, it’s a negative one. Republicans should use their strengths and not just exploit the weaknesses of the Democratic Party. Conservative policies can revive the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. They can increase competition and give people the feeling that they can get ahead in life, they can succeed, if they want to and work hard for it. And when you do, the message and policy should be, you’re rewarded.
I think van der Galien is both right and wrong here. He’s written well elsewhere and often about conservative principles so I give him a pass for reducing it down to one questionable assumption when he’s really talking about something else. But I am nevertheless going to challenge — or perhaps just question — the notion of what a conservative vision ought to be.
I agree that the Republicans desperately need to revise their message. But they need to start by retooling their vision of reality.
It’s just not true what van der Galien says: that people can necessarily ‘get ahead in life…if they want to and work hard for it.’ If that were so, all those middle-aged people in the Rust Belt who are having to move back in with their parents — and all the people who saved for years to pay for their homes, provide for a comfortable retirement, and pay for their children’s educations —would be laughing.
If it were true, I — and I consider myself fortunate both in my work and my ability to work 15 hour days when I need to — wouldn’t be worrying how I’m going to scrape up the money to help pay for my stepdaughter’s wedding without incurring serious debt…or to pay the expenses of flying my husband and me to England to attend it, ditto.
In fact, the idea that hard work = success was probable never true. For one thing, ‘to get ahead in life’ is a relative concept. It depends on where you want to go, and on there being somewhere to get. It might be as rewarding, for example, to be a community worker as it is to be Donald Trump, but you aren’t going to be financially rewarded for it.
What does ‘getting ahead in life’ even mean to someone who is doing necessary work — say, collecting the garbage — and doing it well, responsibly, etc.? Suppose that person isn’t really qualified to be anything else? Suppose then after 15 years of working responsibly, that person’s job is cut be a state desperate to conserve funds and no longer has health care, money to pay the rent or the mortgage, or a pension fund? Suppose that the person tries to find other work and ends up settling for a job that pays minimum wage and offers no benefits, or offers such benefits as a health care plan that pays 70% and has a $1500 deductible? How does that person ‘get ahead’ by working hard?
Maybe today’s self-styled conservatives really need to completely rethink what it means to be conservative. Or maybe what I am really saying is that they should return to their roots—van der Galien knows more about this than I do. But what is it, exactly, that conservatives aspire to conserve? I’d recommend:
(1) Supporting notions of responsible stewardship, such as:
- Caring for the environment, conserving resources, protecting wildlife to prevent further accelerating species die-off (which in the long run IS going to affect humans).
- Rationally balancing the risks of short-term benefits against the possible disastrous consequences of long-term risks.
- Objectively looking into the opinions of environmental scientists, embryonic stem cell researchers, and other experts on subjects affecting our long-term welfare so as to make intelligent decisions that correctly weigh competing interests.
I could go on for hours. None of these notions are at odds with true conservative principles, but they are certainly at odds with the ideas that most Republicans have pushed on the American public during the last few years.