Conservatism needs to come out from under the shadow of Barry Goldwater and assert itself against both the traditional Left in the Democratic Party, and the radical ideology of a noisy, religious minority within the GOP. To get this done we have to recognize a set of changes in the world around us. The great political conflict of Uncle Barry’s time was the battle between Liberal Democracy and Marxism. It will disappoint many in the GOP to discover that conflict is over. They won’t be consoled much by hearing that we won.
The Democrats have struggled to offer a clear definition of themselves in the decades after they accomplished all the things that defined them – Civil Rights, Medicare, Social Security, and so on. For almost fifty years they have been incapable of offering anything to the public beyond extensions or reinventions of what they have already done. We don’t need fall into the same trap.
Goldwater’s ideology doesn’t make much sense in a post-Communist world. Opposing bank regulation and health care reform on the basis of Big Brother hysteria sounds positively loopy. We just aren’t facing the enemy we all love to hate – creeping Marxism.
In the wake of our victory over Communism, we are back to an age-old and much less sexy ideological standoff between the rural individualism of Thomas Jefferson and the capitalist values of Alexander Hamilton. We are faced with a situation in which Hamilton’s vision of the world has almost universally triumphed, but Jefferson’s romantic ideals are lodged in the Republican imagination like a chicken bone in the throat.
If we are to remain relevant as a Party – not just winning elections, but moving the country in a positive direction, we have to strike a balance between the individual liberty that animates Jeffersonian politics, and the Hamiltonian need to harness government power to develop a vibrant and powerful free marketplace. Strike the wrong balance, as we are doing now, and the country goes into a ditch.
The anti-government mania that drives the Party as we speak will not curb government spending, it will not curb government expansion, it will not protect civil liberties, and it will not prevent the government from becoming an obstacle rather than an enabler of competitive markets. The Confederate Libertarianism of goofball politicians like Sarah Palin and the Religious Right would make government impotent to accomplish anything besides fighting wars and spying on its citizens. Infrastructure upgrades, updated energy policy, meaningful market regulation, and sensible foreign policy would be out the window. While, if the past administration is any example, we can expect pork-barrel spending to climb through the roof, revenues to decline, and deficits to balloon.
So why not just vote Democratic? Seriously? Apart from fundamentalism, there is no peril the country faces from an unreformed GOP that won’t be (isn’t being?) magnified by placing faith in the Democratic Party’s patronage machine. No, my friends, the Democratic Party is not going to save us. The future of America depends on the outcome of a struggle within the Republican Party that is unlikely to be worked out soon.
Conservatives must define themselves positively in favor of individual liberty, a focus on reality over ideology, and in support of people and politicians who are willing to take courageous, intelligent positions on difficult issues. More than that, we will have to make it clear that “intelligent and courageous” does not mean “the most outlandish and extreme you’ve ever heard.”
This effort will pit the remaining Conservatives in the Party against not only religious fundamentalists, but against an emerging force of media personalities who earn millions competing to outdo one another in extremism. Figures like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage long ago unhitched themselves from the dull anchor of reality and make a living selling politics as entertainment. It should be a comedy watching these folks trip over themselves in an endless race to the farthest fringes of political imagination. The tragedy is that they are taking the Party with them, and there doesn’t seem to be any credible force to stop them.
Anyone who would take seriously the need to reestablish genuinely Conservative values in the Republican Party will have to reckon with this lucrative noise machine. Merely flirting with them or attempting to appease them will lead to continued failure. The McCain campaigns in 2000 and 2008 are glaring examples. Conservatives will have to find both their senses and their spines if they are going to regain their voice inside the GOP and begin to take the country toward sanity and strength.