The myth of an impure GOP; the purity mess and Reagan

xmacroxmacro Posts: 3,402
Two superb articles by Jonah Goldberg of National Review on the state of the GOP, thought they were worth sharing

It’s hard for a lot of people, particularly on the right, to recognize that the conservative movement’s problems are mostly problems of success. But the Republican party’s problems are much more recognizable as the problems of failure, including the failure to recognize the limits of that movement’s success.

American conservatism began as a kind of intellectual hobbyists’ group with little hope of changing the broader society. Albert Jay Nock, the cape-wearing libertarian intellectual — he called himself a “philosophical anarchist” — who inspired a very young William F. Buckley Jr., argued that political change was impossible because the masses were rubes, goons, fools, or sheep, victims of the eternal tendency of the powerful to exploit the powerless.

Buckley, who rightly admired Nock for many things, rightly disagreed on this point. Buckley trusted the people more than the intellectuals. Moreover, as Buckley’s friend Richard Weaver said, “ideas have consequences,” and, consequently, it is possible to rally the public to your cause. It took time. In an age when conservative books make millions, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it once was to get a right-of-center book published. Henry L. Regnery, the founder of the publishing house that bears his name, started his venture to break the wall of groupthink censorship surrounding the publishing industry. With a few exceptions, Regnery was the only game in town for decades.

That’s hardly the case anymore. While there’s a higher bar for conservative authors at mainstream publishers (which remain overwhelmingly liberal), profit tends to trump ideology.

And publishing is a lagging indicator. In cable news, think tanks, talk radio, and, of course, the Internet, conservatives have at least rough parity with, and often superiority to, liberals. It’s only in the legacy institutions — newspapers, the broadcast networks, and most especially academia and Hollywood — that conservatism is still largely frozen out. Nonetheless, conservatism is a mass-market enterprise these days, for good and for ill.

The good is obvious. The ill is less understood. For starters, the movement has an unhealthy share of hucksters eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal with little concern for the real political success that can come only with persuading the unconverted.

A conservative journalist or activist can now make a decent living while never once bothering to persuade a liberal. Telling people only what they want to hear has become a vocation. Worse, it’s possible to be a rank-and-file conservative without once being exposed to a good liberal argument. Many liberals lived in such an ideological cocoon for decades, which is one reason conservatives won so many arguments early on. Having the right emulate that echo chamber helps no one.

Ironically, the institution in which conservatives had their greatest success is the one most besieged by conservatives today: the Republican party. To listen to many grassroots conservatives, the GOP establishment is a cabal of weak-kneed sellouts who regularly light votive candles to a poster of liberal Republican icon Nelson Rockefeller.

This is not only not true, it’s a destructive myth. The Rockefeller Republicans were purged from the GOP decades ago. Their high-water mark was in 1960, when the Goldwater insurgency was temporarily crushed. Richard Nixon agreed to run on a platform all but dictated by Rockefeller and to tap Rockefeller’s minion Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate. When the forebears of today’s tea partiers threatened to stay home or bolt the party in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater proclaimed, “Let’s grow up, conservatives!”

It’s still good advice. It’s not that the GOP isn’t conservative enough, it’s that it isn’t tactically smart or persuasive enough to move the rest of the nation in a more conservative direction. Moreover, thanks in part to the myth that all that stands between conservatives and total victory is a philosophically pure GOP, party leaders suffer from a debilitating lack of trust — some of it well earned — from the rank and file.

But politics is about persuasion, and a party consumed by the need to prove its purity to its base is going to have a very hard time proving anything else to the rest of the country.


My column today is on what I think is the real problem facing the GOP. Its travails aren’t the result of being insufficiently conservative. Its troubles stem from it being insufficiently persuasive, not to its right flank but to the general public. In a sense it’s caught in a two-front war. It spends so much of its time trying to convince a deeply distrustful rank and file that it is conservative enough, it has little energy or maneuvering room to persuade the general public it is right. I’m for a more conservative and principled GOP, but only to the extent it can bring the rest of the country with it and/or pass legislation that advances the conservative cause. Otherwise, what’s the point? If it’s just a glorified debating society that agrees with itself but persuades no one else, the party will die and the country will be even worse off.

I expected to be pelted all morning with accusations of RINOism, but so far it seems to be very well-received, which is nice. Anyway, I wanted to address something I didn’t have room for in the column itself.

There’s a lot of nostalgia on the right for Reagan. I’m nostalgic for the guy too. But I think people forget a lot. Yes, he was great because he was principled and for what he accomplished. But he was also great and accomplished so much because he was a really good politician. There were people at the time who were far more pure than Reagan. But what separated Reagan from the pack were his political skills. He had the ability to keep most of the conservative rank-and-file loyal while still reaching out to the middle. That ability stemmed from years of trust built up with the conservative movement. And even so, Reagan was often viciously attacked by some conservatives, some of whom today wax nostalgic for the Reagan era. No Republican today has anywhere near Reagan’s credibility.

That’s not a slight against today’s GOP politicians, it’s the result of Reagan’s success.

Just think about it. Reagan came up when conservatism was a true intellectual and political insurrection. He had to prove himself over and over again. As an activist and as a governor, even as a Republican, he was constantly fighting in enemy territory. That he stuck to his guns proved his credibility and his conviction. Today’s Republicans don’t have anything like that sort of institutional opposition within the party. Conservatives run the party, period. And so the dynamic is entirely different. Reagan came up in an age when being the most conservative candidate in the primary was very often a liability. Today being the most conservative candidate is very often a boon.

That’s one reason the rank and file are right to be distrustful of many Republican politicians. When being conservative is a requirement for power, a lot of non-conservative politicians will be tempted to fake their conservatism in order to get power. See, for one of many examples, Charlie Crist. For similar reasons, you can hardly blame conservatives for being at least a little skeptical of Mitt Romney’s commitment to the cause of “severe” conservatism.

For the record, I don’t mind purity tests when it comes to strategy or vision. What I have a problem with are purity tests for tactics. What I mean is: I want the GOP to be a truly conservative party and dedicate itself to conservative ends, variously defined. Politicians philosophically opposed to that ambition probably shouldn’t be Republicans. But when it comes to tactics, I’m willing to cut the GOP some slack if I have faith that it shares my longterm goals. If they can convince me they know where they want to go, and it’s where I want to go too, I’m pretty flexible on how to get there.

So in all the talk about how we need “another Reagan” maybe we should keep in mind that another Reagan would be principled, but he would also be a real politician, with all of the foibles that implies. ]

Comments

  • beatnicbeatnic Posts: 4,133
    Thanks. Good reading.
  • webmostwebmost Dull-AwarePosts: 4,526 ✭✭✭✭✭
    This is very true.

    Sometimes I wish we had more parties. Start out by adding a Taxed Enough Already party, add a 99% party, divide off the Anti Abortion party from the one and the Atheists from the other. A whole gamut of parties from Black Panthers to Climate Hysteria to Skin Heads. No one should have to vote for the lesser of two evils. Neither should any party be empowered without having to compromise to form a coalition.

    Then I look at Greece, and say "Wait a minute... that don't work either.".

    But it would be satisfying to be able to vote for what you most believe in instead of choosing the lesser of evils.

    Unmitigated risk aversion is the new Puritanism; complete with witch hunts funny outfits and humorless preachers thundering doom. The Deity is Safety; Satan is a Lawyer; but the object is the same: to suck the life out of life and tell you how to live it.
  • VulchorVulchor FloridaPosts: 4,497 ✭✭✭
    If we "cant afford" four more years of Obama----how are we going afford another Reagan?
  • jthanatosjthanatos Posts: 1,564 ✭✭
    Vulchor:
    If we "cant afford" four more years of Obama----how are we going afford another Reagan?
    I can't find your quote in the above stories, or any mention of Obama...
  • raisindotraisindot BostonPosts: 1,308 ✭✭✭
    I'm neither a Republican nor a Conservative (and there's plenty about the Democratic party I hate), so I can't speak from the perspective of one.

    However, in looking back at the past election cycle, it seemed to me that Paul Ryan was the only one who stayed relatively clear of the demonizing and hate rhetoric that I think played a huge role in fueling the GOP's losses. He had a very expansive plan for cutting spending and reducing government. Even though philosophically I didn't agree with it, I admired him for being really the only person to come up with a solution that embodied genuine goals and outcomes and didn't at all sugarcoat the pain it was going to cause. It's still not clear to me why Boehner and company haven't come out and aggressively put Ryan's plan out as their opening salvo in the spending cut battle. The Republicans could gain a lot by coalescing around the plan as their solution for America. In the end, they won't get everything they want (as neither will the Democrats), but at least it would offer a starting point for rallying unity. If they get 30% of the most important things they want, they'll have some strong talking points for the next election cycle. Sure as hell beats the current stagnation.
  • VulchorVulchor FloridaPosts: 4,497 ✭✭✭
    jthanatos:
    Vulchor:
    If we "cant afford" four more years of Obama----how are we going afford another Reagan?
    I can't find your quote in the above stories, or any mention of Obama...
    Wasnt quoting above, was quoting a popular catchphrase being spouted about. And I mentioned Obama as many, and certainly the conservatives to which these articles were geared towards, share this sentiment but seem to reflect with a certain degree of mysticism on the years of our Teflon President.
  • VulchorVulchor FloridaPosts: 4,497 ✭✭✭
    raisindot:
    I'm neither a Republican nor a Conservative (and there's plenty about the Democratic party I hate), so I can't speak from the perspective of one.

    However, in looking back at the past election cycle, it seemed to me that Paul Ryan was the only one who stayed relatively clear of the demonizing and hate rhetoric that I think played a huge role in fueling the GOP's losses. He had a very expansive plan for cutting spending and reducing government. Even though philosophically I didn't agree with it, I admired him for being really the only person to come up with a solution that embodied genuine goals and outcomes and didn't at all sugarcoat the pain it was going to cause. It's still not clear to me why Boehner and company haven't come out and aggressively put Ryan's plan out as their opening salvo in the spending cut battle. The Republicans could gain a lot by coalescing around the plan as their solution for America. In the end, they won't get everything they want (as neither will the Democrats), but at least it would offer a starting point for rallying unity. If they get 30% of the most important things they want, they'll have some strong talking points for the next election cycle. Sure as hell beats the current stagnation.
    Dont totally agree with Ryan's ideas but you have a level headed approach to it that I wish more politicans did. Sadly, your ideas mean that politicans want real action to get done and would be willing to give some to get some-----I dont think either is true, at least not for most.
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