It’s A Party, Not a Lifestyle
The recent resignation of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has had many a blogger and commentator talking about her and the GOP. That she has chosen to step down from her job less than eighteen months before she up for re-election has made many (myself included) believe that her career in politics is over. However, there are many who believe she has only begun to prepare for the presidential race in 2012, even though she will have had hardly any experience in governing.
It’s easy to think those who are avowed Palin backers are a bit crazy to think that a woman who was mayor of a small town and then governor for half a term is somehow qualified to be the standard bearer for the GOP in three years. But the thing is, while it may seem crazy to an outsider, it doesn’t to those on the inside.
Why? Because to many in the GOP, being a Republican is not a political choice, it is a lifestyle.
I believe something has been happening in the GOP over time, that has transformed it from a regular political party to more of a counterculural movement. Other writers have seen this and explain it much better than I can, so what I am saying is nothing new. But this bizarro version of the lifestyle left does has implications on the future of the party and if it will be a competative party in the coming years.
In the past, there were conservatives that offered solutions to problems that most everyone saw as a problem. Take the late Jack Kemp. Kemp was concerned about racial equality and poverty and offered conservative solutions to those problems. There was no doubt that his view on how to solve a problem were conservative, but he and the most liberal Democrat could see the problem; they just had different ways to solve it.
These days, it seem that conservatives tend to just do the opposite of what liberals do. It’s no longer enough to just offer conservative solutions to problems, one must denounce the problem itself as a liberal plot to turn the United States into a socialist republic. While Democrats are interested in health care reform and pushing for a public option, the Republicans either balk or go as far as saying there isn’t really a problem with health care. The same goes for issues like global warming. A reasonable Republican can be against the Waxman-Markley bill that says it will curb greenhouse gases. But among lifestyle Republicans, one has to talk about how global warming is a myth. What is missing in both of these discussions are ideas on how to solve these problems. Of course, the problem is that many Republicans don’t want to see a problem.
Which brings us back to Ms. Palin. The soon-to-former governor is in someways the embodiment of this sort of lifestyle conservatism, that is little on ideas, but everything on lifestyle and resentment. Cathy Young notes in a great article that Palin seems to revel in no knowing much of…well anything:
And then there’s the matter of Palin’s fitness for the second-highest office in the land. I say this as someone who initially hoped she would be an inspiring standard-bearer for conservative/libertarian feminism, a model of a woman who had it all and was a winner, not a victim.
It’s not just the “liberal elites” that found Palin clueless; so did many in her own camp. Indeed, Douthat concedes she has to “bone up on the issues” if she is to have a political future. Those who believe Palin held her own debating Joe Biden forget that the McCain camp had requested a less-challenging format for that debate, with follow-up questions limited.
Palin critics on the right – George Will, Peggy Noonan, David Frum – have been slammed by the Palinistas as “haters,” elitists threatened by a political star without proper intellectual credentials. Yet these same conservatives have been devout admirers of Ronald Reagan, hardly a product of the Ivy League.
As Young notes, those who came out against Palin have been accused of being “uppity.” Young goes on to say that many try to make Palin into Ronald Reagan in high heels, a common person who became president. Reagan was viewed as stupid by some on the Left, but as Young says, Reagan was a man of ideas. Reagan, like Truman before him, wasn’t an intellectual, but he was someone who thought about things and wrote about the issues of the day? Ms. Palin? Well, a wink doesn’t suffice.
Young then goes on to show what has become of the conservative movement in America circa 2009:
If Palin does have a philosophy, it is the flip side of the class-and-culture warfare of which she has been a target. In fact, it was Palin who fired many of the volleys in this war – extolling the moral superiority of small towns and rural areas and calling them “pro-American parts of the country,” mocking people who had traveled abroad as spoiled kids with rich parents.
While eschewing “victim feminism,” Palin has enthusiastically embraced “victim conservatism”: the grievances of cultural traditionalists who feel trampled and disdained by the more educated and influential (and often, more affluent) segments of American society. Like the “oppressed groups” of the left, these traditionalists have some valid complaints but channel them into a destructive ideology of polarization and resentment.
Such a zeal can energize the base – but also fatally split it and alienate the unconverted.
So, a group of people that feel shut out of American society sets up its own lifestyle based on that resentment and disdain for “elites.” Creating such a form of “lifestyle conservatism” can give great comfort to true believers who don’t feel as though they fit in anywhere. In fact, I believe that is primarily what lifestyle conservatism is all about: providing comfort and support to like-minded individuals as well as defending their values against what they see as threatening hordes of modernity.
When a party starts doing that, it stops promoting ideas. This is why over the last ten years or so, the GOP has done less to promote new ideas on governing in the 21st century. This is why we have not heard strong plans on how to solve the health care issue without resorting to a single payer system or finding solutions on the economy and the environment. A party looking for that is more interested in being countercultural, in trying to take care of those feeling left out, is not interested in presenting ideas. Instead it is interested in protecting its band of believers from a dangerous world and rooting out those who don’t toe the line.
The problem with this is that political parties are not supposed to be lifestyles or countercultural movements. They are supposed to offer solutions on how to solve problems facing the nation and and way to govern. Political parties are interested in bringing in converts to their way of thinking. They are outward and always thinking of ways to govern better.
Which brings us back to Palin. She has not been an innovative governor in the vein of former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. She doesn’t appear to be someone interested in policy, in trying to find a better way to govern Alaska. Palin’s selling point was that she was countercultural and represented a new “silent majority.”
In this light, the following statement from her press conference makes sense:
So that Alaska will progress, I will not seek re-election as governor. And so as I thought about this announcement, that I wouldn’t run for re-election and what that means for Alaska, I thought about, well, how much fun some governors have as lame ducks. They maybe travel around their state, travel to other states, maybe take their overseas international trade missions. So many politicians do that. And then I thought, that’s what wrong. Many just accept that lame duck status and they hit the road, they draw a paycheck, they kind of milk it, and I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.
People who are interested in ideas would do just what she was putting down: go on trade missions to other nations to burnish one’s foreign policy credentials, tour the states and speak on various issues, and just get down to good old governing. But Palin is not interested in taking that route. Her popularity is based on not good governing, but what she represents. Why mess that up with being involved in government?
The problem that Republicans face in the near future is between those who see the GOP as a political party, and those who see it as a lifestyle. My guess is that the lifestyle conservatives will be in charge for sometime. How long, I don’t know. But a lifestyle party isn’t going to be a winning party, able to compete with the Democrats.
But it will be a nice party as the GOP ship sinks.