Democrats and Conservatism’s Future

And now for something that has nothing to do with the Governor of Illinois:

“The defeat of the Republican Party in the November election is widely thought to signal the decline of conservatism in the United States. But it is important to distinguish between the Republican Party and conservatism rather than to equate them.”

Thus Judge Richard Posner opened a Nov. 30 post at the blog he co-writes with fellow University of Chicago academic Gary Becker. In the same post, Posner confesses:

I would be happy to see conservatism exit from the political scene — provided it takes liberalism with it. I would like to see us enter a post-ideological era in which policies are based on pragmatic considerations rather than on conformity to a set of preconceptions rooted in a rapidly vanishing past.

Posner’s wish for policies that are practical to the here and now tracks with elements of Andrew Sullivan’s re-visioning of conservatism in The Conservative Soul — which suggests Posner is less disillusioned with conservatism than he is with certain definitions of it.

In that regard, Posner is not alone. For many political observers, including this one, conservatism is no longer a GOP cornerstone, nor can we fully accept the narrowcast definitions of conservatism promoted by the GOP’s three primary voting blocs. Posner summarizes those blocs as:

… believers in (1) free markets, low taxes, and small government; (2) believers in tough criminal laws and a strong foreign policy; and (3) social (mainly religious) conservatives …

We resist the rigid ideology that is characteristic of these groups because we recognize, as Alan Greenspan has, that free-market first principles are subject to abject failure; because we reject, as Colin Powell has, the foreign policy of the last eight years; because we decline to engage, as our children do, in the uncompromising and often prejudicial culture wars initiated 40 some years ago.

But if we don’t believe the tenets of any of the aforementioned voting blocs are sufficient anchors for modern conservatism, then what exactly is? Put another, more personal way: How can I still consider myself a conservative, if I refuse to enlist in one or more of these three voting blocs? Moreover, if I’m not aligned with today’s conservatives, would I not be more comfortable in the progressive/liberal camp?

In short, no.

I can no more assume the label of contemporary progressives than I can the label of contemporary conservatives because, like Sullivan and others, I am a natural skeptic, a chronic doubter. I recognize there are problems that cry out for the catalytic touch of government, but given the recurring failures of said catalyst, I will forever be concerned about government over-reach and mis-reach, in matters both domestic and foreign. I am thus compelled to advocate caution, to promote questions, to favor hardy debate whenever we consider government action.

I am equally concerned about the potential concentration of government power in too few hands. If history has proven anything, it has proven that, regardless of the purity of one’s intent, power corrupts. For that reason — like Mickey Edwards and our founding fathers — I advocate rigorous adherence to the U.S. Constitution’s division of powers.

As Edwards persuasively demonstrates, the GOP since 1994 has honored neither caution nor division of powers, and is thus not — by any of the definitions that matter to Sullivan, Edwards, me, and others — conservative.

Are the Democrats? There is mounting evidence they could be.

In the category of respecting the Constitution’s division of powers, I’ve written already about the import of Obama’s “forgiveness” of Joe Lieberman, which allowed Lieberman to remain chair of a committee with investigative powers over Obama.

More recently, we learned about Joe Biden’s commitment to return the Vice President’s office to its historically more-circumspect role, and Harry Reid’s refusal to allow Biden to caucus with Senate Democrats, which together promise an end to Mr. Cheney’s regular intrusion on Congressional turf.

In the category of caution, questions and debate, consider once again Obama’s picks for Chief of Staff and key Cabinet positions. The latter have been repeatedly framed as a largely centrist “team of rivals” — while the former has been characterized by multiple sources as the axe man for the new administration, the one to deliver a sturdy “no” to Congress, when needed.

Consider, also, the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House of Representatives. This coalition could count more than 50 members in the next Congress, representing approximately 20 percent (one out of five) of the Democrats’ total House seats, making the Dogs a potentially significant force with which Pelosi’s crew will need to reckon. A comparable group, the New Democrat Coalition has members in both House and Senate — and the estimated dozen or so it claims in the latter chamber could mitigate the perceived strength of Harry Reid’s formidable majority.

Of course, none of this means the Democratic Party will suddenly and decisively lurch to the right, excommunicating its most progressive members. But what it could mean is this: There are now enough conservative threads in the fabric of the Democratic Party that independent conservative thinkers and voters — those who favor due caution in exercising government action and a robust division of powers to check said action — might find it easier to advance their principles via the Democrats than the splintered, lost-in-the-wilderness GOP.

Author: PETE ABEL