I think I can speak with some authority when I say 2012 was a difficult election to survive as a conservative.
The fact that Mitt Romney was a strong, competent, thoughtful candidate (granted, sometimes more on paper than in practice) could barely hide the fact that his party, increasingly, was dominated by some of the most flamboyantly unreasonable, sheltered, and just plain dopey figures to ever consume half the oxygen in a major two-party democracy.
From the vaccination conspiracy theories of Michelle Bachmann to the armchair psychoanalyzing of Newt Gingrich to the infamous “ten-to-one” tax pledge to the so-called “rape apologist caucus” to any of the other dozens upon dozens of cringe-worthy GOP anecdotes that dominated the 2012 cycle, to say the Republicans were a party ill-prepared for prime time was to revel in understatement — this was a party barely ready for nap time.
One really had to feel for intelligent conservatives like George Will, David Frum, and David Brooks, trapped as they were into defending this braying, unhinged mess that while ideologically like-minded (kinda), could not have been farther removed from their personal standards of decorum and self-respect. Hardly a surprise that their GOP endorsements were so drearily muted this time around; the very notion of a “Republican Intellectual” has rarely seemed more oxymoronic.
Thankfully, in the aftermath of November 6 the need for a phase of “Republican rebuilding” has been almost universally acknowledged by leading voices on the American right. From Ann Coulter to Karen Hughes, from Bobby Jindal to Pat Buchanan, conservatives across the spectrum all seem to concur that the Grand Old Party’ in dire need of some kind of prescription, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to settle on a common diagnosis.
When I was younger, one of the smuggest sources of my own conservative worldview was the simple observation that Communism and socialism — those purest manifestations of leftist logic — were so obviously the wrong choice. Wrong in ignorant theory, wrong in destructive practice, wrong in immoral outcome. This was back in my university days, when it was still common to encounter actual Marxists in positions of influence, and the astonishment that there still existed people who clung to such an obviously backwards, unpopular, and discredited ideology was a source of much righteous amusement as I headed down the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Memories of that self-confident phase probably explain why this editorial from American Conservative editor Rod Dreher hit so hard, because he argues, in effect, that contemporary American conservatism is now in danger of becoming the Communism of our time.
This idea, says Dreher, that “conservatism,” as it’s presently formulated, is a perfect ideology corrupted only by failed implementation is about as persuasive as those campus Commies who attempt to brush off the massive, observable failures of their own ideology with purist excuses that Marxism “had simply never been properly tried.”
Maybe conservatism, like Marxism, is just, you know, wrong about a lot of stuff, and maybe it’s failing to catch on because voters are smart enough to realize that. Maybe it is impossible to balance the budget and tame the debt without some tax hikes. Maybe there are ways to create jobs beyond enabling the rich to get richer. Maybe there aren’t rational arguments against gay marriage. Maybe global warming and evolution are real. Maybe constantly insisting otherwise requires a rejection of observable reality that’s so odious it can poison other ideas by proximity alone.
Conservatism doesn’t have to be this way, but this is what it has become. Its present leaders of thought and policy, particularly in the Tea Party and what David Frum calls the “conservative entertainment complex” have encouraged the conception of conservatism as a smotheringly conformist doctrine; a large, and increasingly arbitrary bundle of take-it-or-leave it prepositions of which no dissent will be tolerated. And it’s more than just abortion and tax cuts; today Republican primaries can literally be lost over a candidate’s insufficiently “conservative” position on issues as random and seemingly unideological as the gold standard or direct election of senators. For a partisan cause nominally devoted to preserving the freedom of self-reliant individuals, the Tea Party-infused GOP’s growing resemblance to a mini-totalitarian state is quite uncanny.
Now, what should separate conservatism from doctrinaire pseudoscience philosophies like Marxism (and libertarianism, for that matter) is an understanding that conservatism was always supposed to be a personal attitude as well as a partisan ideology; a natural “way of approaching the world” that’s cautious and prudent, in Dreher’s words, but never an infallible dogma.
More than granting amnesty to illegals, more than flip-flopping on gay marriage, more than any other loudly softened stance on any high-profile issue, as the GOP rebuilds there needs to be an admission that conservatism, first and foremost, must be a movement that’s measured, respectable, dignified, and fact-based in thought and deed, and not merely the “radicalism in the other direction” that defines Republicanism today.
The Republican Party has to be one that people from outside the narrow and useless Romney electorate — which is to say, any American who’s not a old, white, rural, male, reactionary southerner — can join and support without embarrassment or fear. This meagre goal can be achieved by means as obvious as not hiring candidates who spout biological nonsense disguised as embryology or cite biblical authority to justify secular law, but also by encouraging zero tolerance for anything that smacks of conspiracy theories, racialized code-talk, McCarthyism, or any other rhetorical technique that’s crass, ugly, vicious, or extreme.
Or, as we should start to say, “unconservative.”
Conservatives, in the small-c sense are everywhere. There are no shortage of people, in all states, of all races, religions, and sexual orientations, who carry themselves with a basic skepticism towards government excess (but not government itself), a basic affinity for American traditions, institutions, and culture, a basic desire to avoid radicalism in policy and ideology, and a basic preference for a certain degree of dignity and restraint to govern the affairs of daily life.
The fact that the Republicans are so clearly not the party of this kind of conservatism, the conservatism of history and the kind that had previously served them quite well, is a crisis both philosophically and strategically.
It’s hard to imagine any path back to power that does not begin by acknowledging it.
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