Day By Day

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Perils of Principles

Charles Kessler, writing in the WSJ, notes one of the follies of today’s conservative movement:

Conservatives are offering a curious explanation for the drubbing they took at the polls: they blame the Republicans. The 2006 elections were not a conservative defeat, you see; they were a Republican one, a rejection of a party that had strayed too far from the conservative path.

Read the whole thing here.

Kessler treats this lunacy with far more respect than it deserves. I call it lunacy for two main reasons. First, it assumes that mainstream voters punished Republicans for being too liberal. That is sheer nonsense. What really happened is that die-hard conservatives stayed home in droves in order to teach the party leadership “a lesson”. Afterwards they crowed about the “thumping” they had administered to the party. It was the movement conservatives, not moderates and mainstream voters, who cost the Republicans control of Congress in 2006.

Secondly, as Kessler notes, there is no agreement as to what constitutes “conservatism” these days. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union conservatives of various stripes have been charting independent courses while hurling occasional broadsides at those who they see as abandoning the faith. There cannot be a return to conservative principles until there is some agreement as to what those principles are.

In his article Kessler identifies the following denizens of the conservative menagerie:

1) “Civil Society conservatism” – an anticipation of what Bush calls, “Compassionate Conservatism,” that recognizes an obligation for the government to act to meliorate social injustices.

2) "Third Wave" conservatism – that placed its faith in technological solutions to current problems.

3) National Greatness conservatism – which sees a dominant role for the United States in shaping the emerging world order.

4) Libertarianism – solipsistic conservativism.

To these we can add:

5) Small government conservatism on the Reaganite model that has as its major concern shrinking the size and scope of government.

6) Fiscal conservatism – deficit hawkishness.

7) And of course “social conservatism” that sees an active role for government in sustaining traditional institutions and promoting traditional values.

8) And in the field of foreign policy you have “neo-conservatism” that advocates the use of American power to promote classical liberal political and economic doctrines and institutions throughout the world.

9) And countering them are a conservative “realists,” “protectionists,” and “isolationists” who see a much more constrained role for the United States in world affairs and who view globalization with fear and loathing.

10) And then there are the various philosophical schools of conservatism – Straussians, Oakeshottians, Burkeans, and the like.

I could go on, but these are sufficient to illustrate the problem. Not all of these "conservative" positions are mutually exclusive, but enough of them are so to make it impossible to carve out a clear and broadly inclusive conservative program.

The Republican Party is a “big-tent” institution, what political scientists used to call an “umbrella party,” that can ideally accommodate a number of differing points of view within its ranks. All too many conservatives, however, would like to turn it into an ideological party more concerned with virtue than winning elections. But to focus on one, or a few, of these positions runs the risk of alienating a significant number of “conservative” voters.

The problem is not apostacy – it is infantile truculence dressed up in fancy terms such as the "politics of principle." Conservative temper tantrums cost the party dearly in the last elections, and a similar outburst could do the same in 2008 and beyond. By all means conservatives should have vigorous and robust debate over principles and programs. But at some point in the coming year, the ideologues are going to have to accept the need to compromise their principles and to unify behind a single candidate who will imperfectly represent their ideas. In other words they will have to grow up. If they do not, the Republican Party will be doomed to decades of defeat and conservatives will be consigned to the margins of American political culture.

No comments: