Originally published in Official Artur Davis
It’s worth reading EJ Dionne’s latest piece about the essence of modern conservatism, not so much for the originality of its analysis—its argument that conservatism has morphed into a mean-spirited, anti-communal, exercise in selfishness is a standard liberal trope at this point—but because it revives a valuable debate I’ve written about before: is the Republican Party really in the midst of a hard-right revolution and has the right all but given up on community?
To be sure, there’s a lot to assail about Dionne’s history lessons. Trying to re-imagine Civil War pensions, or the creation of national hospitals to treat sailors under John Adams, as relevant entries in a debate over modern ideology is about as illuminating as linking pro-slavery antebellum Democrats to the modern Democratic Party’s stance on abortion, or dwelling on the Ku Klux Klan’s twenties era power base in the Democratic Party. In other words, minor rhetorical noise, but not much light. Similarly, describing McCarthyism, Vietnam, the civil rights fires, Watergate, and the generation gap as minor pauses in a robust past consensus is the slight-of -hand of a DC pundit framing another lament about the allegedly woeful times we live in now (times that don’t feature inner-city riots, assassinations, 56,000 deaths in a foreign war, or the wiretapping of political enemies).
I won’t challenge Dionne’s premise that modern conservatism is mainly a campaign for “low taxes, fewer regulations, [and] less government.” It is distinguishable from earlier phases when conservatives spent much energy on co-opting liberals, i.e, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, Gerald Ford’s off and on economic stimulus proposals; Richard Nixon’s forays into affirmative action and environmental protection. And to be sure, the cable news organ of the contemporary right sometimes blends an unattractive fearfulness about the future with a bravado-laced denigration of the left (that is of course, matched by the left’s unadorned contempt in return).
But the larger thesis, that an ideological jihad has transformed Republicans into an intolerant, right-wing monolith? Dionne utterly ignores two factors that diminish his argument greatly. The first is that the earlier conservative embrace of proactive, larger government had more to do with the most elemental political calculations–that Democrats one, two, and three decades ago were a decisive majority of the electorate and a Republican could not win without a chunk of them–than some broad-gauged philosophical approach to government or community. Even the immensely popular (at least after 1982) Ronald Reagan faced enough of a Democratic edge that his saccharine “Morning in America” ads downplayed the budget cutting and union-busting in his first term; but the fact that Dionne attributes the messaging to Reagan being “acutely alive to the communal side of conservatism”, and not to a skilled campaign’s reading of swing voters, is likely one more instance of Dionne reading the past through his advocate’s lens.
In other words, while it is true that Republicans have reverted more than ever to a base-oriented politics, it has happened in proportion to the electoral feasibility of a ”get out your own vote” strategy: the traditional post-war Democratic edge has shrunk to almost nothing and the advantage self-identified conservatives enjoy over liberals in Gallup’s polling is almost twenty points. Similarly, the Obama Administration’s self-conscious embrace of communitarian rhetoric is no doubt linked to Democratic calculations that a straight-forward embrace of large government and heightened spending is a political loser of epic proportions, that is, unless it is tied to a carefully varnished theme about our “obligations to each other.” In search of a philosophical realignment, Dionne has stumbled on politicians calculating how to win.
A second flaw with Dionne’s analysis is that the actual Republican Party is a decidedly more multi-dimensional enterprise than he even begins to acknowledge. The reality is that the party will nominate a candidate who is inextricably linked to a government driven expansion of healthcare; his last serious challenger failed to consolidate Tea Party loyalists and social conservatives outside the Deep South, despite a relentlessly conservative message that focused exclusively on Romney’s moderate past; and the bronze medalist who won South Carolina and overwhelmingly led polls of conservatives in the last month of 2011 openly condemned the surge of anti-immigration nativism in his party, and defended the prescription drug benefit that Dionne argues is a relic of a discredited and more moderate brand of Republicanism. No question, there are myriad factors that explain the shifting course of the Republican primaries, including who had money and when they had it, but it is impossible to describe that course as the pre-determined march of a myopic, single minded kind of conservatism.
Dionne writes, by the way, at the same time Cory Booker, Newark’s moderate, pro-business mayor, has been pilloried on the left for the apostasy of defending Bain Capital. One wonders what Booker’s survival minded recantation says to Dionne: does it mean that the liberal version of community just happens to exclude private equity firms? Or does it occur to Dionne that infusions of private wealth into flailing businesses was once an approved Democratic prescription as recently as the Clinton era and that Robert Kennedy assiduously courted the ancestors of modern day private equity to invest in depressed markets like Bedford Stuyvesant? And given that history, does the railing against Booker expose the dramatic ways in which liberalism has slid from its own pro-growth roots?
It is true that there is much to be gained from a vigorous conservative debate over the merits of reforming government versus scaling it down to nothing; or as Dionne puts it, “balanc[ing] our individualism with a sense of communal obligation”. (It’s a debate well underway in the pages of National Affairs and National Review, among others.) But Dionne’s communitarianism looks conveniently just like liberalism: more aggressive redistribution of income; more regulation in the name of skepticism about markets; more expanded personal liberty even if it trumps competing rights of religious association or federalism. In other words, not so much a high-minded vision of community, but the contemporary Democratic platform; not a rallying-cry for centrists, but a liberal laundry list.