The myth of an impure GOP; the purity mess and Reagan
Two superb articles by Jonah Goldberg of National Review on the state of the GOP, thought they were worth sharing
Its hard for a lot of people, particularly on the right, to recognize that the conservative movements problems are mostly problems of success. But the Republican partys problems are much more recognizable as the problems of failure, including the failure to recognize the limits of that movements 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 Buckleys 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, its 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.
Thats hardly the case anymore. While theres 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. Its 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, its 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, its 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 Rockefellers minion Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate. When the forebears of todays tea partiers threatened to stay home or bolt the party in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater proclaimed, Lets grow up, conservatives!
Its still good advice. Its not that the GOP isnt conservative enough, its that it isnt 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 arent 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 its 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. Im 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, whats the point? If its 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 didnt have room for in the column itself.
Theres a lot of nostalgia on the right for Reagan. Im 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 Reagans credibility.
Thats not a slight against todays GOP politicians, its the result of Reagans 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. Todays Republicans dont 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.
Thats 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 Romneys commitment to the cause of severe conservatism.
For the record, I dont 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 shouldnt be Republicans. But when it comes to tactics, Im 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 its where I want to go too, Im 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. ]