My high school debate coach once gave me a very sage piece of advice. Mrs. Brady explained that I should not combat the argument made by my opponents, since they might not have used the best words possible. Instead, I should infer the central idea to which their arguments pointed and argue against that instead. Her advice has stayed with me more than two decades. Today I want to look at the current state of the Republican Party in the United States, using that perspective.
As President Obama recently noted, the United States is strongest when both its political parties are contributing ideas to the political process. Several forces, however, have reduced the ability of Democrats and Republicans to exchange ideas in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and in state legislative bodies. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are political historians who have evaluated these forces, concluding that the Republican party has raised expectations of change in its base that are not achievable; as a result, Republican voters have sought candidates who are ever more unwilling to find compromise with Democrats in Congress. Changes in individual members of Congress have led to a substantial shift to the right among Congressional Republicans. The creation of “safe seats” through gerrymandering has helped to perpetuate extreme ideology in some politicians. The gap between parties has made our legislature brittle, in my view, rather than flexible and solution-driven.
As Barnard Baruch wrote, “Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” Unfortunately, many citizens now seem to believe that the media cannot be trusted to report facts faithfully. Instead they turn to media that embrace an explicit conservative or liberal bias, producing an echo-chamber effect. Political polarization and even radicalization is the natural result, producing an electorate that cannot see any value in the other party.
My own politics are generally liberal, but I still see that America needs a functional conservative party. What I do not know is whether that party will come about through the dissolution of the Republican Party (as happened to the Whigs in the 1850s) or through its reform. Why do I think the Republican Party of today is in trouble? First, I believe that their manufactured debt ceiling crises and government shutdowns represent a lack of moderation in method. Next, I would point out that the Speaker of the House found his job unmanageable, even with a large majority of the seats taken by his own party. The different factions within the Republican Party simply could not agree on a path forward. The most compelling argument that the Republican Party has lost its way, however, is that it has nominated a populist, demagogic candidate for the Presidency who differs substantially from party orthodoxy on many issues.
With so much disarray among today’s Republicans, it may be hard to remember that conservatives have quite a lot to offer. With the remainder of this post, I thought I would try to spell out some of the value that a conservative party can offer America.
- Constructive Engagement
- Randolph Churchill once explained that “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.” This tautology does not imply that whatever Democrats may propose should be automatically gainsaid by Republicans. When the Republicans did not have the numbers in the Senate to block the Affordable Care Act, their strategy of preventing its passage was probably not sound. If they had instead engaged with the Democrats in moderating its provisions to make it a better law, the United States would have a better health care law. Making the best future requires the contributions of conservatives and liberals alike.
- A Rudder
- Everyone recognizes that the world is changing at a brisk pace. Historically, conservative political parties have sought to moderate the influence of new ideas. Their efforts help to relate the dynamic present to the past. Today, America is filled with people who feel that their world has been taken away from them. We cannot return to the past, but we can certainly do a better job of making room for the alienated among us. For conservatives to stoke the fears of this group is beyond counter-productive; it is their role to see that our future honors and learns from our past.
- Financial Discipline
- To their credit, Republicans talk quite a lot about keeping government expenses down. To their discredit, Republicans have done quite a lot in recent years to ensure that government finances are abysmal (see “Starve the Beast“). Americans now pay lower taxes than most other developed nations, but one would never believe that by listening to most rhetoric on the subject. Since most government spending is on security, health, and Social Security, meaningful cuts in government expenditures require changes to these carefully protected categories. In this case, financial discipline would mean that conservatives should at least consider increasing taxes or decreasing the armed services.
- Limited Government and Individualism
- Is government over-reach a real thing? Assuredly. We would all feel threatened if the government began shutting down newspapers that published anti-administration articles. The United States has recently come to believe that the government cannot dictate that men must marry women and vice versa. Individual freedoms are the heart and soul of the Bill of Rights! Conservatives have generally sought to protect these freedoms, but we have also seen conservatives on the other side when those freedoms weren’t ones they supported. A government that grows so large that taxes become oppressive should be opposed by conservatives. A government that regulates business so egregiously that new businesses falter should be opposed by conservatives. This expansion and contraction is an ongoing dialog between conservatives and liberals.
The United States deserves a thriving conservative party. We will see what party emerges from today’s conservative community.