Going to War with the Ideology You Have

Kevin Drum, responding to Jonah Goldberg‘s argument that George Packer‘s “The Fall of Conservatism” erroneously conflates conservatism with the Republican Party, retorts:

No political ideology lives in isolation. We judge communism by how Mao and Stalin implemented it, we judge 60s-era liberalism by how LBJ and the Democratic Party implemented it, and we judge social democracy by how Western Europe has implemented it. That’s how you judge movements: by how their real-life adherents put them into practice, not by reference to a utopian vision of how they should be implemented if only we lived in the best of all possible worlds.

Nonetheless, now that the Republican Party has been brought low, an awful lot of conservatives are jumping ship, claiming that it really doesn’t represent them at all. But look: when the GOP made common cause with evangelical extremists, conservatives cheered. When the GOP accepted Grover Norquist’s tax jihad as sacred writ, conservatives cheered. When Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay all but declared the GOP the party of corporate welfare, conservatives cheered. When George Bush declared war on the Middle East, conservatives cheered. Somehow Burke never really entered the discussion. But now that it turns out these positions have been pretty much played out, Burke is back in and Karl Rove is out. That’s just a little too convenient.

That’s exactly right. Especially when, in the same three-paragraph piece, Goldberg does exactly what he accuses Packer of: “[L]ast I checked liberals are not exactly churning out a lot of policy brilliance either. Their rising fortune has almost entirely to do with the political failures of the GOP and the natural cyclical nature of politics generally.”

Goldberg, incidentally, hits the nail on the head with that one. Even though Democrats control Congress again, the American people have been trained to view both history and current events in presidential cycles. We’re in a down cycle right now so, naturally, George W. Bush and, by extension, the Republican Party, get the blame and the opposition party’s calls for change naturally have tremendous appeal.

It’s true, too, that there’s not a perfect overlap between conservative/Republican and liberal/Democrat, although it’s much closer now than it was even ten or twenty years ago. For example, the highly touted Democratic pickups in recent special elections were achieved by finding conservative candidates to wear the Democrat label. Still, the parties, especially the Republicans, brand themselves by their ideology. (The Democrats have shied away from “liberal” in recent years, as Ronald Reagan successfully turned that into an epithet. But they’re still selling the same soap in a “progressive” wrapper.)

Modern American conservatism is a strange coalition between social conservatives motivated by a fear that they’re losing the cultural wars, national security hawks of various stripes, and economic libertarians. With the right standard bearer and set of external circumstances, that’s a winning message at the presidential level. All three groups are necessary for Republicans to win in the Electoral College even though they (especially the first and third group) tend not to like each other very much.

The social conservatives are in the most trouble of the three groups. First trimester abortion will never be illegal; indeed, the ability to terminate pregnancy safely at home will continue to increase, making it a moot point. Homosexuality is rapidly mainstreaming and gay marriage will achieve the status of interracial marriage through some combination of judicial action and social change within the next 10-15 years. Women’s equality is long established now, with the remaining battles taking place over relatively small issues. Prayer in school is a dead issue. It’s not clear what’s left, really, of the movement as it existed when Ronald Reagan was its secular standard bearer.

The economic libertarians continue to carry the day on the macro level but lose on the margins. Institutionally, rent-seeking behavior is all but impossible to eliminate. And, as Kevin suggests, we’re near the end of the days where calling for tax cuts is a sure-fire winner. Not because people don’t like low taxes, incidentally, but because, relatively speaking, we already have them. Cutting the top marginal rate from 90 to 70 to 35 all make sense. It’s hard to morally justify confiscating the lion’s share of a person’s income, regardless of their ability to pay. But arguing about the difference between 35 and 33 just isn’t very sexy. And the demand for government programs is increasing, not decreasing, and somebody has to pay for it.

Despite the incredible unpopularity of the Iraq War, the hawks are in the best shape. They dominate both parties, with the difference being what the legitimate reasons for military intervention are. And even that difference has been blurred with the rise of the neocons and their “national greatness” agenda. Rhetorically, it’s light years from the liberal interventionists; practically, they’re all but identical.

All that said, I’d put the odds at John McCain nonetheless winning the presidency in November at something like 40:60. He’s fighting an uphill battle because of Bush, the war, his age, and Obama’s enormous personal charm and charisma. Despite many conservatives’ distaste for him, McCain will run under the conservative banner and sell soft versions of all three pieces of the movement. The fear of further losses under Obama will motivate an enormous number of people but McCain will need some help from external events for that to be enough this go-round.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. LaurenceB says:

    That was a very good post.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think the two major parties have similar problems and they both can be summarized by the aphorism “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Knowing one big thing has been a strength for each of the parties but it’s not really enough to govern with.

    For 30 years the Republican Party’s “one big thing” has been to cut taxes. Thirty years ago it was a pretty good idea. Today and especially in the manifest absence of the will to cut spending commensurately it’s an idea that makes for bad governance (although it will never lose its populist appeal).

  3. Bithead says:

    All that said, I’d put the odds at John McCain nonetheless winning the presidency in November at something like 40:60. He’s fighting an uphill battle because of Bush, the war, his age, and Obama’s enormous personal charm and charisma.

    I would counter that McCain is facing an uphill battle because of himself, James.

  4. Bithead says:

    Sorry for the second hit;
    I should also say that part of the problem with any such discussion as between Drum and Goldberg, is that they’re both trying to hit a moving target. THe Republican party has been moving left since Reagan, and thereby they’re both working on dated positinoal attributes, which were distorted on both their POV’s, particularly Drum’s.

  5. Wayne says:

    The biggest problem with the GOP is that blew it when they had a chance to Govern. Admittedly they didn’t have a super majority in the Senate. Regardless they didn’t govern as conservatives but as Democrats light. The reason they gain control resulted from high conservative turn-out and low turn-out was their downfall.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I hate to point out that Illinois passed school prayer last year. But it took the Democrats to throw out the Republicans in order for that to happen which is somewhat telling.

    Social conservatives have gotten small gains, are stymied by the courts which have become more conservative; but perhaps their greatest gain was forcing Democrats to come up with their own family friendly/ values arguments.

  7. James Joyner says:

    I would counter that McCain is facing an uphill battle because of himself, James.

    In terms of exciting the most rabid parts of the base, maybe. But he’s polling 15 points or more ahead of the generic Republican candidate in the head-to-head with Obama.

  8. Our Paul says:

    James or sight administrator:

    The following was “blocked” as spam:

    I am going to take a bite out of this apple:

    “Cutting the top marginal rate from 90 to 70 to 35 all make sense. It’s hard to morally justify confiscating the lion’s share of a person’s income, regardless of their ability to pay.”

    Pardon my bold, but it strikes me that simple reflection, by even the most parsimonious individual, would question the word confiscation, and certainly wonder about the designation of “lion’s share”. Just a few random thoughts:

    Why should capital gains tax be set at 15% ? It only benefits the most wealthy individuals, while the rest of the members of the great unwashed are hit with a higher tax rate?

    Sorry, we are not talking about 35%. Wealth generation is not coming from only from salary, it’s coming from “benefits”, “bonuses”, and “options”. Many of these are hidden away as free goodies in the tax code.

    Finally:

    “Cutting the top marginal rate from 90 to 70 to 35 all make sense.”

    Hallo, the data is beyond argument. From the first days of the Reagan Administration, to the present, the National Debt has been climbing. It is just simply dishonest to argue that tax cuts that benefited mainly the wealthy 5% of the population “makes sense”, when one of its major effects was to dramatically increase the debt which 100% of the population must service, and ultimately pay. Data and simplified graphs of the national debt can be found here and here.

  9. Telstar401 says:

    Great post, but I’d quibble about just one part of it. You wrote…

    Modern American conservatism is a strange coalition between social conservatives motivated by a fear that they’re losing the cultural wars, national security hawks of various stripes, and economic libertarians. With the right standard bearer and set of external circumstances, that’s a winning message at the presidential level.

    I’m a center-right independent, but voting Republican has become utterly unthinkable to me on the national level. Put simply, I believe the social conservatives are the most malignant and reactionary force in American politics, and to the extent that they continue to exert such a strong influence on the GOP establishment, I want nothing at to do with Republicanism. Likewise, though I’m pretty hawkish on defense, the GOP has become so obsessed with militarism that their credibility — and worse, their foreign policy competence — has been fatally compromised.

    Indeed, to the extent that McCain has positioned himself to appeal more to social conservatives and the militarist wing of the GOP, my enthusiasm for him has waned considerably. I voted for him in the 2000 GOP primary. There is absolutely no way I will vote for him in November. And that, I think, encapsulates the GOP’s presidential problem in a nutshell.

  10. James Joyner says:

    I’d quibble about just one part of it

    I’m not sure you’re quibbling about the argument so much as saying you don’t like what the GOP has become. While, as Bill Clinton pointed out, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” we know that the Republicans won in 2004, 2000, 1992, 1988, 1980, 1972, and 1968 with that combination while losing only in 1976, 1992, and 1996 in that span. (And, yes, 2000 was really close but so was 1976.)

    It may be that 2004 was the last stand and the GOP needs a new message. But we don’t know that yet.

  11. Telstar401 says:

    Point taken!

    Yes, my quibble was about the extent to which that will prove a winning (or resonant) combination going forward, given how massively discredited it has become. But of course you’re correct — it was highly effective in the past.

    At the risk of lapsing into solipsism, I suspect the challenge for both parties will be to capture the allegiance of voters who are socially tolerant, pro-defense, and comfortable with free-market economics. They’re the folks who will be up for grabs in the years ahead.

    As they say in the newsroom… “time will tell.”

  12. libarbarian says:

    Modern American conservatism is a strange coalition between social conservatives motivated by a fear that they’re losing the cultural wars, national security hawks of various stripes, and economic libertarians. With the right standard bearer and set of external circumstances, that’s a winning message at the presidential level.

    The tripod is the most unstable political structure and triumverates rarely last as long as this one has. Still, its not surprising that the social cons and national security hawks have pulled closer together and away from the libertarians. Both the former naturally agree on issues such as immigration, foreign policy & the GWOT (including a shared enthusiasm for in-your-face expressions of American supremacy), and limiting what can be considered “the private sphere” in the interests greater good as they see it.

    Now the problem is that, while these two combined make up more than half of the Conservative coalition, the movement still needs all three legs to stand. While the libertarians are a minority in the Conservative movement, the other two are still not big enough to carry elections on their own.

    The bigger problem is that they think that they are and so feel little inclination to make nice with the more libertarian-minded people when they disagree with them. Instead, they have driven many of them away. I dont think it will stop soon and I dont see a bright near-term future for them either.

  13. sam says:

    With apologies to Kierkegaard:

    Concepts Political parties, like individuals, have their histories and are just as incapable of withstanding the ravages of time as are individuals. But in and through all this they retain a kind of homesickness for the scenes of their childhood.

  14. In terms of exciting the most rabid parts of the base, maybe. But he’s polling 15 points or more ahead of the generic Republican candidate in the head-to-head with Obama.

    But like you said, what exactly is a generic Republican?

  15. Bithead says:

    In terms of exciting the most rabid parts of the base, maybe. But he’s polling 15 points or more ahead of the generic Republican candidate in the head-to-head with Obama.

    I suggest a goodly portion of that is on pure name recognition.