Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservatism

Why Bigger Government Does Not Equal More Services

The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

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The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

For example, during the controversy over Cliven Bundy, the New York Times’s Josh Barro was one of the commentators who sought to use the issue to make the point that limited-government conservatism, and especially libertarianism, can be explained by race. Here’s Barro:

A 2011 National Journal poll found that 42 percent of white respondents agreed with the statement, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Just 17 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Asians and 25 percent of Hispanics agreed. In 2011 and 2012, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Asian-Americans and fully 75 percent of Hispanic-Americans say they prefer a bigger government providing more services over a smaller one providing fewer services, compared with just 41 percent of the general population.

An obvious problem is the wording of each question. The first question he uses offers two choices: government is either the problem or the solution. The lack of nuance–and, plainly, honesty–helps Barro’s argument but does a great disservice to his readers (though in fairness it’s not as though Barro himself wrote the survey question). The second question is the one that reappears in the Third Way survey.

The truth of the matter is that government has become unmanageably large in many ways, undermining the idea that a larger government necessarily results in more services.

A good resource for those who want the more accurate picture is Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody, which takes aim at the reasons government has, on important issues, ground to a halt. Howard opens with the story of the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the channel that connects New York Harbor to the port of Newark, the largest on the East Coast. The bridge, however, isn’t high enough to accommodate ships built to use the widened Panama Canal, set to be completed next year.

So what’s the solution? Howard notes that the government agency in charge decided the choices were either build a new bridge or dig a tunnel, each costing more than $4 billion. Then a new idea presented itself: raise the existing bridge roadway, at a cost of $1 billion, saving $3 billion. The resolution was “like a miracle.” And it went nowhere. The full story is worth reading and incredibly convoluted (which is Howard’s point), but here’s the gist:

Building anything important in America requires layers of approvals from multiple levels of government—in this project, forty-seven permits from nineteen different governmental entities. Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise, like a game of who can find the most complications. Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing. “The process is aimed not at trying to solve problems,” Ms. Papageorgis observed, “but trying to find problems. You can’t get in trouble by saying no.” With any large project, something might go wrong. More studies are done.

The story of the Bayonne Bridge, and others like it–Howard’s book makes for sobering but important reading–is that the larger government got the more it cost while providing fewer services. Howard writes about school systems paralyzed by regulations, the culture of corruption fostered by the inability to navigate all the red tape, the resulting “involuntary noncompliance,” and the government’s erosion of civil society while then failing to provide the services whose responsibility was transferred from the private sphere to the public sector.

Larger government doesn’t just erode freedom. At a certain point, it begins providing fewer services than it did before it ballooned beyond manageability. Howard shows that often the only way around the most absurd bureaucratic extremism is public shaming. That should be applied to the survey questions designed to enable such bad governance as well.

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Rubio and the Modernization of the GOP

For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

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For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

On Tuesday the junior senator from Florida focused his attention on retirement security. In a speech at the National Press Club, Rubio offered a plan to open up to more Americans the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) offered to every member of Congress and federal employee. The TSP allows federal employees to save pre-tax money for their retirement with fees lower than most private defined-contribution plans. Senator Rubio proposed that all Americans who do not have access to employer-sponsored plan be given the option of enrolling, which would boost Americans’ savings and help to supplement Social Security income.

“The twisted irony is that members of Congress – who are employees of the citizens of the United States – have access to a superior savings plan, while many of their employers – the American people – are often left with access to no plan at all,” Rubio said during his speech.

Other proposals include eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax for all individuals who have reached retirement age; eliminating the Retirement Earnings Test that can take away some Social Security benefits for recipients who continue to work (eliminating the RET would raise employment among early retirees); reducing the growth of benefits for upper income seniors; raising the retirement age for younger workers; and transitioning Medicare to a premium support system, which would give seniors a fixed amount of money to use for purchasing health insurance from either Medicare or a private provider.

There are several notable things about Senator Rubio’s speech. (I should say that in my position as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center I met with Senator Rubio and several policy experts prior to the speech and reacted favorably to an early draft of it.) The first is the educative quality of the address, laying out the case for reform in a calm, reasonable, and empirical way. The second is an admirable candor, with Rubio saying, “While [economic] growth is essential, growth alone will not be enough.” A third thing to note about the speech is that Senator Rubio spoke about wanting to strengthen and save, not uproot and eliminate, programs like Social Security and Medicare. He spoke in personal terms about the role those programs have played in the lives of his parents. Fourth, he attempted to put opponents of reform on the defensive, saying, “Anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about Social Security and Medicare is in favor of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare.”

Fifth and finally, Senator Rubio put a frame around this issue that is quite important. He explained that the retirement system we have in place does not line up with the needs and realities of our post-industrial economy. 

“In this new century, most people will live longer and voluntarily work longer,” Rubio said. “And many people will change jobs countless times, often in business for themselves or working for companies that do not offer retirement savings plans or pensions. Therefore, our retirement programs must be modernized and restructured to address the new economy that is here to stay.”

What Senator Rubio is doing, then, is putting the Republican Party on the side of modernization and reform in contrast to reactionary liberalism, which is sclerotic and brittle, out of ideas and out of energy. This is precisely what needs to happen if the GOP hopes to become the majority party in America. Senator Rubio–energetic, engaging, interested in ideas, and cheerful rather than resentful–is among the most persuasive advocates for his party.

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A Cheerful Conservative

Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

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Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

Third, Kristol warned the right against “equat[ing] conservatism with a desperate, defensive commitment to the status quo.” The danger facing conservatism was risk-averseness and a “feebleness of the imagination,” with conservatism being seen as “a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the Left are tidied up.”

“Unless conservatives can legitimate their claim to office with a persuasive assertion of the claim to be the future, theirs is a lost cause,” Kristol wrote in 1982. “As between no claim to the future and a fraudulent claim, the latter will always prevail in an ideological age.” 

Fourth, Kristol offered a corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism. He had faith in common people, just not that much faith in them. He understood, as the Founders did, the danger of a citizenry corrupting itself.

A fifth quality of Irving Kristol’s that conservatism today would be wise to replicate is what his friend Charles Krauthammer called “his extraordinary equanimity.”

His temperament was marked by a total lack of rancor. Angst, bitterness and anguish were alien to him. That, of course, made him unusual among the fraternity of conservatives because we believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes us cranky. But not Irving. Never Irving. He retained steadiness, serenity and grace that expressed themselves in a courtliness couched in a calm quiet humor.

When you think about some of the leading figures on the right today, words like “steadiness” and “serenity,” “grace” and “calm quiet humor” are not ones that immediately come to mind. Instead the tone and approach we often hear can best be described as apocalyptic, brittle, angry, and embittered. This approach to politics, by the way, was not simply stylistic; it was rooted in a deep understanding of conservatism itself. Kristol believed conservatism was “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” It’s approach to the world, he wrote, “is more ‘rabbinic’ than ‘prophetic.’”

It also would help for conservatism to embody a kind of cheerfulness that was a hallmark of Kristol. As his writings show, he was deeply realistic. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat things. In fact, he described himself as “cheerfully pessimistic.” But one sensed that deep down, the needle leaned a bit more in the direction of cheerfulness than pessimism.

In any event, as long as I’ve been alive (and well before I was born) there have been people on the right issuing dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West; people who worn about impending tyranny and America’s march toward Gomorrah. I’m all for cursing the darkness when necessary, and have done a bit of it myself now and then. But that cast of mind, without any leavening agent, can lead to despair and radicalism. Those attitudes were unknown to Irving Kristol. He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could. And my how he did.  

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GOP Task: From Oppositional to Governing Conservatism

“Of a sudden,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” 

Senator Moynihan’s statement suggested two things: liberalism was exhausted and conservatives took advantage of the opening by offering an agenda that matched the challenges of that moment: high inflation and interest rates, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, “stagflation,” a hollowed out military and Soviet advances all over the world.

Today, once again, liberalism is out of steam. As they watch their unwieldy health-care law sputter and disappoint, liberals don’t have much else to turn to. Their own top priorities tend to be unpopular, and both their ideology and their political coalition constrain them from speaking to the public’s main concerns—economic stagnation and the middle-class squeeze. The president ran for re-election on remarkably little policy substance, and now offers even less. Who could say what his governing vision consists of? 

Not surprisingly, he has witnessed a major collapse in his public support, especially among independents, which in most polls now disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Even more are angry about the way things are going in Washington. And public confidence in government is near historic lows. So the moment is ripe for the GOP, at the national level, to offer the public a real alternative.

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“Of a sudden,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” 

Senator Moynihan’s statement suggested two things: liberalism was exhausted and conservatives took advantage of the opening by offering an agenda that matched the challenges of that moment: high inflation and interest rates, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, “stagflation,” a hollowed out military and Soviet advances all over the world.

Today, once again, liberalism is out of steam. As they watch their unwieldy health-care law sputter and disappoint, liberals don’t have much else to turn to. Their own top priorities tend to be unpopular, and both their ideology and their political coalition constrain them from speaking to the public’s main concerns—economic stagnation and the middle-class squeeze. The president ran for re-election on remarkably little policy substance, and now offers even less. Who could say what his governing vision consists of? 

Not surprisingly, he has witnessed a major collapse in his public support, especially among independents, which in most polls now disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Even more are angry about the way things are going in Washington. And public confidence in government is near historic lows. So the moment is ripe for the GOP, at the national level, to offer the public a real alternative.

Whether it will, of course, remains an open question. But recent months have offered some encouraging signs. Republicans already showed some real leadership in the president’s first term by offering a serious, market-oriented Medicare-reform proposal—produced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and backed by essentially every Republican in Congress.

Earlier this year, Senators Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Orrin Hatch followed up with a health-care proposal that would cover as many people as the Affordable Care Act without the taxes, mandates, and burdensome regulations and at a far lower cost by empowering consumers. Another ambitious health-reform bill is now co-sponsored by a majority of House Republicans.

Mr. Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio (among others) have proposed serious reforms to help sustain the safety net for the poor by re-orienting it toward work and opportunity. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Senator Mike Lee have each proposed a major tax reform plan—and a combination of the two could well make for a winning Republican tax agenda. Other prominent proposals have included reforms of higher-education policy to increase options and lower costs, and reforms of transportation policy, the criminal-justice system, unemployment assistance, and more.

It is still fashionable in some circles to call Republicans the “Party of No,” but when has there been such a flurry of concrete policy proposals from an opposition party in Congress?

Even these proposals, of course, are only a start. They have yet to gain broad support, or to be brought together into a coherent conservative agenda. But they are suitable for such an effort, and they offer plausible, targeted, market-friendly approaches in precisely the areas that most trouble voters, and where Democrats have been failing most decisively.

A party that controls one-half of one-third of the federal government can’t hope to see its agenda become law at this point, and high profile confrontations with the Obama administration – such as the government shutdown last October – have mostly ended disastrously. But what the Republican Party can do is gradually build a new internal consensus around a policy agenda of conservative reforms that appeal to a broad base of voters, and which Republican candidates and the party’s next presidential nominee can then run on.

To approach the success of Republicans of past eras, those of this generation must again show how their ideas will improve the lives of American families in concrete ways by applying timeless American principles to a new set of American challenges. Today’s GOP has not done nearly enough of that.

The Republican Party can be the party of the 21st century by showing itself able and willing to reform public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century – many of which are now antiquated and out of touch not only with the needs of our time but the expectations of Americans in an age of constant innovation and endless choices.

It can own the future by showing the public how limited government can also be effective government. It can succeed, in other words, by embodying not just an oppositional conservatism but also a governing conservatism.

It’s not yet clear if the party is ready to follow this path. But it is worth noting even modest signs of hope.

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Another RINO Attack on Ted Cruz

David Brooks is at it again. In his New York Times column today, Brooks once more went after Ted Cruz, writing:

Senator Ted Cruz has not yet reached the point where he can make policy, rather than just make political trouble. But there are already disquieting signs that he is looking out for Ted Cruz — even if that sets back the causes he claims to be serving.

This is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a card-carrying member of The Establishment, a neo-statist and a RINO, a person who regularly appears on Meet the Press and The News Hour.

Except that the paragraph I cited comes not from David Brooks, who in truth is one of the most thoughtful and interesting columnists in America, but from Thomas Sowell, one of the most influential intellectuals within conservatism, a man revered by the right, and a friend of the aims and animating principles of the Tea Party. Which makes it a bit harder to dismiss Sowell as easily as it is to dismiss some other (conservative) critics of Ted Cruz. 

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David Brooks is at it again. In his New York Times column today, Brooks once more went after Ted Cruz, writing:

Senator Ted Cruz has not yet reached the point where he can make policy, rather than just make political trouble. But there are already disquieting signs that he is looking out for Ted Cruz — even if that sets back the causes he claims to be serving.

This is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a card-carrying member of The Establishment, a neo-statist and a RINO, a person who regularly appears on Meet the Press and The News Hour.

Except that the paragraph I cited comes not from David Brooks, who in truth is one of the most thoughtful and interesting columnists in America, but from Thomas Sowell, one of the most influential intellectuals within conservatism, a man revered by the right, and a friend of the aims and animating principles of the Tea Party. Which makes it a bit harder to dismiss Sowell as easily as it is to dismiss some other (conservative) critics of Ted Cruz. 

There’s a deeper point to be made here, which is that so often these days substantive arguments aren’t really engaged. It’s so much easier (and intellectually less taxing) to try to dismiss those whom you disagree with rather than actually answering their critiques. 

That is a fairly common practice on the left, but it happens on the right as well. Think about some of the conservatives who often resort to this kind of thing. X person’s argument shouldn’t be listened to because he’s not one of us. He’s not part of The Movement. He doesn’t pass The Purity Test. (A few individuals on the right, including one with an evening talk radio program, have sought to discredit George Will’s conservative bone fides by pointing out that Will wrote favorable columns like this about Howard Baker 35 years ago. The work of Prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith never ends.)

This is the kind of mindset that would eventually allow you to fit the number of people in a political movement in a phone booth. Fortunately this attitude is not dominant and, while it remains vocal, one senses it’s losing steam. For one thing, it’s not terribly conservative. For another, the excommunication fires eventually burn out. Because pretty soon there’s no one left to expel.

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More on Social Justice

Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

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Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

As I argued in my original post, we all agree that social injustice exists; it make sense, therefore, to believe social justice does as well. Why wouldn’t taking a stand against state-enforced apartheid or Uganda’s harsh anti-gay laws or North Korea’s persecution of Christians qualify as standing up for social justice–that is, insisting that a society’s laws and institutions be more just? When Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa, he was not only defending individual rights (though he was surely doing that); he was also saying it was a transparent violation of the moral ideals of a just and good society, something that sets socially and culturally pernicious norms and expectations. I certainly don’t see how advocating social justice in these terms takes us further down the road to serfdom.

2. Mirengoff writes, “The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice.” Agreed. But that’s true of compassion, decency, fairness, equality, the public good, freedom, and even justice itself. Any phrase is subject to abuse; that doesn’t mean the phrase is itself meaningless.

Stephen Douglas used the concept of “popular sovereignty” to defend the expansion of slavery. George Wallace used the concept of “states’ rights” to enforce racial segregation. And the left has appropriated the words “choice” and “liberty” to justify allowing abortions at any point in pregnancy for any reason. Does that mean we should give up on these concepts or cede them to the left? I would say no, that it is better to rescue them.

3. This discussion is reminiscent of the debate about whether conservatives should use the word “compassion” in the context of politics and political philosophy. Some on the right strongly believe that compassion has virtually no role in a conservative governing agenda because it can lead to all sorts of mischief. Others felt like using the phrase “compassionate conservatism” was an insult, since conservatism didn’t need the modifier. And still others believe compassion is what liberals care about, so leave it to them.

My view has long been that conservatives ought to claim the term, since conservatism, in concrete ways, improves the lives of our fellow citizens, including and often especially the poor and most vulnerable members of society. For example, during the welfare debate in the mid-1990s, I argued conservatives should make it clear that our approach was far more compassionate to the poor. (It turned out it was.)

Conservatives, rather than denigrating the ideas of compassion and social justice, should embrace them and show how conservatism properly understood actually advances them.

4. Mirengoff writes, “When [a laudable charitable project] travels under the banner of social justice, it gains extra moral authority that it does not deserve.” But the left already uses the term “social justice” with some effectiveness precisely because it does carry moral authority.

It’s a term that many people are instinctively (and I think correctly) drawn to. Rather than conservatives being seen as the enemies of social justice, I would suggest they be seen as its authentic champions. Why not counteract what Mirengoff calls “false advertising” with true advertising?

The differences Mirengoff and I have are more about semantics than about ends; but in politics and political philosophy, semantics matter. 

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Conservatives and Culture

Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

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Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

Indeed, as everyone knows, the most glaring lack of diversity in liberal media and cultural institutions is lack of intellectual and ideological diversity. The right produces plenty of talent, but the left’s rigid orthodoxy and enforced groupthink too rarely take the risk of exposing their audience to a dissenting view.

But the larger obstacle to the construction of conservative cultural institutions is that conservatives are so often by nature averse to the infusion of partisan politics into every facet of private life that would be required. Take each of the institutions Ruffini mentions.

Harvard: this is a stand-in for liberal academia overall, but it’s a good example since it retains its high status even as it basically gives its students A’s just for showing up. How does a place like Harvard become what it is today, when it once had such prestige and promise? Easy: the politicization of education by liberals who don’t want their students to be challenged. Do conservatives even want their own version of that? Should they? I don’t think they should, and I don’t they really do either. I think they yearn for the influence such institutions have, but greatly—and appropriately—disapprove of what it takes to get there.

New York Times: this is a stand-in for the liberal mainstream media, especially since the Times itself is going through such a crisis of credibility right now. But Ruffini already answered this one when he spoke of National Review’s ace political reporter Robert Costa going to the Washington Post. Conservative alternatives are too easily defined as such. More importantly, the Times mostly bellows groupthink and has allowed its bias not only to seep into its news reporting, but to become its news reporting. Why would conservatives want to foist another such institution on the country?

Hollywood: Here again we recently got a good look at how this operates. Actress Maria Conchita Alonso lost work because she supported a Republican. This new Hollywood blacklist is seemingly getting government sanction by federal authorities targeting any other nonconformists.

Blacklists, propaganda, the politicization of education—this is what it took for liberals to succeed in dominating cultural institutions. Which brings me to the last example: Silicon Valley. Ruffini answers this question with a sharp observation later in his discussion, when he writes:

If there are = numbers of smart righties as smart lefties, where do they go. On the right, they go into business. On the left, into politics

And thank goodness for that! Of course we want smart conservatives going into politics, and there are plenty. But it’s the sign of a healthy outlook when Americans are driven to the private sector instead of lusting after power. We are a nation with a government, as the saying goes, not the other way around.

It may be politically marginalizing to the right that conservatives believe in the need for a society outside the suffocating bureaucracy of the federal government, while leftists don’t. But the fact that conservatives believe in a life outside of partisan politics is healthy both for the conservative movement and the country on the whole. It’s a worthy, if frustratingly disempowering, sacrifice.

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“Principle Had Made Its Painful Peace with Circumstance”

“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

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“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

The danger facing those who are active in politics is leaning too much toward one at the expense of the other. The result can be people who become ideologues devoted to abstract principles without taking into account actual circumstances (and vilify those who do). Still others will embrace compromise for its own sake, with no sense of what is trying to be achieved when it comes to justice and the ends of government. For principled politicians to make painful peace with circumstances, to shape a far-from-yielding world in a moral direction, is among the hardest balances to strike and the most impressive things to achieve. (None faced more difficult challenges, or met them as well, as did Lincoln.)

It’s perhaps worth noting that this task is made harder, not easier, by those who insist on elevating every debate, and even tactical differences, into an existential struggle between liberty and tyranny. Who have convinced themselves that the road to victory begins with excommunicating the non-pure–the heretics and apostates–in their midst. These voices are loud, often intemperate, and hardly conservative.

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Both Obama and the GOP Badly Damaged

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

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The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the Republican Party is in a very precarious situation. In the fall of 2013, for example, in the wake of the government shutdown, the GOP recorded the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking this question in 1992. Which means Republicans have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to win back the confidence of most Americans.

Different people recommend different solutions. Some will argue that the GOP has been too easy on the president and that its rhetoric hasn’t been sufficiently anti-government. They will argue that those on the right need to amp up their declamations against Mr. Obama, invoking words like “Marxist,” “coup,” and “tyranny” to describe him. The key to making the GOP more popular is for it to become more strident, the language more apocalyptic. People in this camp think the government shutdown was an impressive victory for the conservative cause and backfired only because of a failure of nerve by Republicans. They believe the contemporary politicians whom Republicans should pattern themselves after are Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. 

Readers of this site know that I’m of a different view, that the leaders of the GOP and the conservative movement, while leveling very tough criticisms at the president, also need to carry themselves with a degree of grace and winsomeness. They need to be less agitated and more agreeable, in possession of strong convictions and moderate temperaments. They need to demonstrate a genuine interest in justice and those living in the shadows of society. And they need to propose far-reaching conservative reforms that constitute an actual governing vision, one that matches the challenges of this moment.

Which is why the recent health-care plan put forward by Senators Burr, Coburn, and Hatch is so encouraging. An alternative to the Affordable Care Act, It would cover pre-existing conditions, provide universal coverage, reform Medicaid, and promote medical liability reform and market-oriented policies. (Among the specific proposals is to extend a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance to all Americans below 300 percent of the poverty level who don’t have health coverage from a large employer.) No piece of legislation is perfect, and neither is this one. But I agree with those who consider it to be the most impressive conservative health-care plan yet put forward by Republican lawmakers.

There are, then, several currents of thought that exist in the modern GOP. The debate isn’t between those who are conservative and those who are not so much as it’s between those who have some important disagreements over what constitutes authentic conservatism. The debate involves differences in tone and style and divergent interpretations of the federalist Founders and the Constitution, the role of government, and the conservative tradition. 

It’s a fascinating debate, really, and at times quite a spirited one. Whichever side prevails will go some distance toward determining the future of conservatism and the country.

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Mike Lee Makes It Interesting

There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

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There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

The Utah senator combines the grassroots bona fides of other Tea Partiers with an energetic reform agenda–the latter being arguably more significant as the right seeks to find its way out of the wilderness. Ross Douthat, long a proponent of reform conservatism, notes that high-profile support for reform, such as that of Paul Ryan, has mostly gone nowhere, and adds:

Which is why the most consequential recent development for the G.O.P. might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.

The first is Mike Lee, the junior Senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: in the last six months, his office has proposed a new family-friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.

The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal antipoverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.

The juxtaposition is noteworthy, because Rubio gave last year’s “official” GOP SOTU response despite rising to stardom as a Tea Party favorite, while Lee will give this year’s Tea Party response despite falling out of favor with some libertarians by advocating a community-minded conservatism with a focus on civil society.

Lee, then, has a foot in each camp. His hope is probably that he can blend the borders and blur the distinctions. What he’s more likely to find is that American conservatism was and remains a coalitional enterprise, and that he may not be granted the dual citizenship–Tea Partier and Establishmentarian–he seeks but rather be forced to choose.

That choice can be ignored at the moment because he is not considered an immediate prospective presidential candidate, which frees him up to shun either label and instead embrace reform. He also may combine elements of each in his response to the response to the SOTU. That means, strangely enough, that a vehicle established specifically for the purpose of elevating dissent within the ranks could be utilized to promote unity and consensus. That’s classic opposition-party behavior, of course, but Lee is clearly expecting–and planning for–a return to conservative governance.

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Being More Than the Opposition Party

In Politico, Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, is quoted saying this:

It’s incumbent upon us now, I think there’s a window opening, where we become not the opposition party, but the alternative party. Which means we have an obligation to come forward with agendas and plans for how we would govern if we were in the majority in Washington. It’s starting to open.

That is, I think, precisely the right attitude for Republicans to have. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that Republicans can’t do well, even very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections simply by opposing the president’s agenda. Mr. Obama is, after all, highly unpopular these days. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is toxic. And if historical trends hold, Democrats will suffer significant losses (the mid-term elections for the party of a president in his second term are usually awful).

Still, Republicans need to be bolder in offering up a governing agenda, for several reasons. First, voters tend to be future-oriented and want to know that a political party has a program that will improve their lives in a practical way.

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In Politico, Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, is quoted saying this:

It’s incumbent upon us now, I think there’s a window opening, where we become not the opposition party, but the alternative party. Which means we have an obligation to come forward with agendas and plans for how we would govern if we were in the majority in Washington. It’s starting to open.

That is, I think, precisely the right attitude for Republicans to have. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that Republicans can’t do well, even very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections simply by opposing the president’s agenda. Mr. Obama is, after all, highly unpopular these days. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is toxic. And if historical trends hold, Democrats will suffer significant losses (the mid-term elections for the party of a president in his second term are usually awful).

Still, Republicans need to be bolder in offering up a governing agenda, for several reasons. First, voters tend to be future-oriented and want to know that a political party has a program that will improve their lives in a practical way.

Second, an oppositional mindset that may work in a mid-term might not work nearly as well in a presidential election (see the results of the 2010 mid-term elections v. the 2012 presidential election). If Republicans hope to reclaim the White House, then a lot of work needs to be done when it comes to winning the trust of the public on governing matters.

Third, the GOP, fairly or not, has a reputation as being too ideological, too reflexively anti-government, the Party of No. Presenting a compelling and intellectually serious agenda–one that deals with wage stagnation, the loss of blue-collar jobs and the lack of social mobility, rising poverty and exploding health-care and college costs, the collapse of the culture of marriage and reforms of the tax code, education, energy, and our immigration system–can help overcome that problem. (As a side note, and as I’ve pointed out before, it’s no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.) 

Fourth, a great political party should be eager to offer a governing agenda. Not to sound too high-minded about it, but presumably the reason Republicans want to win elections is to govern; and the reason they want to govern is they believe their ideas are better; and the reason they believe their ideas are better is they will promote prosperity, human flourishing and what the Founders referred to as “the public good.”

In the 1980s, one of the Republican Party’s main sources of attraction to younger conservatives like myself was its growing reputation for intellectual seriousness. “Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

As it was then, so it should be again.

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Discussing the Future of Conservatism

This morning I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss “The Future of Conservatism.”

The interview covered a lot of ground, including what I deem to be the proper conservative outlook toward government and topics like the Federalist founders and Lincoln, the Tea Party, Pope Francis, the poor and poverty, democratic capitalism, income inequality, taxes and economic growth, the 2012 election and America’s shifting demographics, Reagan and Thatcher, the Bush years, and the Obama presidency. The host, Peter Slen, demonstrated the professionalism and fairness that is synonymous with C-SPAN. For those interested, they can view the interview here.

This morning I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss “The Future of Conservatism.”

The interview covered a lot of ground, including what I deem to be the proper conservative outlook toward government and topics like the Federalist founders and Lincoln, the Tea Party, Pope Francis, the poor and poverty, democratic capitalism, income inequality, taxes and economic growth, the 2012 election and America’s shifting demographics, Reagan and Thatcher, the Bush years, and the Obama presidency. The host, Peter Slen, demonstrated the professionalism and fairness that is synonymous with C-SPAN. For those interested, they can view the interview here.

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A Conservative Vision of Government

Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

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Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

We point out that the Federalist founders, unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution, did not view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. In their view, government, properly understood and framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the “public good.” The most important framers and explicators of the Constitution–Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and others–believed the national government had to have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens’ needs as those needs were expressed through representative government. (“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”) They would have little toleration, we write,

for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity — who fail to differentiate between conserving the system by adapting it to changing circumstances and undermining the system by breaking with its fundamental aims and outlook.

We devote a section of the essay to law and character, arguing that by definition laws shape habits, values, and sensibilities–not every law, not all the time, but enough to play a decisive role in the formation of our national character and the individual characters of our citizens.

The last section of our piece argues that the real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. Conservatives, we say, “should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms.” 

The essay concludes this way:

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government. 

All this leads us to a final reason why conservatives should be engaged in the reform of government. The reputation of government is an important national asset — and an irreplaceable source of national pride. Government overreach by the left has degraded that asset. Today’s hemorrhaging of trust in public institutions, if left to run its course, will only further degrade it. Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?

Thinking of government as a precious national institution in need of care and reform does not come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. Given the damage that our government is doing to our society, it is easy to understand their anger and frustration. But that is precisely why, especially now, conservatives must make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again be proud of. 

Our essay, then, is an attempt to lay out a vision of conservatism that is philosophically sound and politically popular. But judge for yourself.

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No, Mike Lee Is Not a Collectivist

A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

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A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

First, let’s be clear about one thing.  The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For more than two hundred years, the United States – through trial and error, through good times and bad – has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world. The United States has become so wealthy that it is easy to forget that, as Michael Novak once noted, most affluent Americans can actually remember when their own families were poor.

Upward mobility has never been easy. It has always and everywhere required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the norm. From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty – we were winning. The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.

To that, Brook and Simpson have this to say:

Really? American colonists fought the most powerful nation on earth as a precursor to a mid-20th century welfare program? Would it be too much to expect a simple “you did build that” from a senator put in office by the Tea Party? Apparently so. …

Sen. Lee no doubt views himself as a champion of America’s founding principles. But how do his views really differ from President Obama’s? They both think America’s defining purpose is its ability to solve big social problems. They both think America’s wealth comes from some group — “community and cooperation” in the senator’s view and “one nation and one people” in the president’s. Their only dispute seems to be about how we should distribute it. Lee opposes government enforced charity and cooperation. But if you concede that wealth, success, and prosperity come from “community and cooperation” rather than individual initiative, why shouldn’t government force us to “give back”? The government would never stand by while some people stole property from others. If we really think groups produced the nation’s wealth, then it is groups that own that wealth and government should “redistribute” it. “We’re all in this together,” under Sen. Lee’s view, becomes just a conservative version of “you didn’t build that.”

This seems to me way off the mark. In fact, Brook and Simpson are appropriating the left’s rhetoric on Citizens United and related First Amendment cases, such as the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. Liberals dismiss the notion of corporate personhood with the claim that “corporations aren’t people.” But that’s not what the argument is about. The question is: when people assemble in a group in order to better project their voices above the din, do they retain their constitutional rights or not?

The conservative case, which is patently correct once you put the question into practice, is that yes: individuals retain their constitutional rights even when they gather. Indeed, Lee spells that out in his speech, when he says:

We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks of people and information and opportunity. What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth – to depend not simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.

Lee here is pointing out a key difference between right and left: institutions of the right are made up of individuals who choose to organize a certain way. Institutions of the left are really rolled into one institution: government. And its participation is based on coercion. When the government spends money, it’s spending money it took by force of law from one person and giving it to another. The institutions of civil society do not strip citizens of their choice, of their individual liberty.

That voluntary gathering doesn’t make them collectivist. Brook and Simpson argue that this is another version of “you didn’t build that.” But that strikes me as exactly the opposite of the case. You still “built that,” even if the you is plural. Further, the institutions of civil society serve as key protectors of individual liberty. If there is nothing between the government and the people, there is less to prevent every facet of private life from becoming the government’s business. Mike Lee understands that there is strength in numbers, but that’s a far cry from coercive collective action.

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Burke, Paine, and the Politics of This Era

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is the author of a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. It explores the origins of the right-left divide by focusing on Burke and Paine’s dramatically opposing views. 

For example, in his chapter titled “Choice and Obligation,” Levin points out that Burke, unlike Paine, believed a “politics of choice” begins in error. “As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth – the family, the station, and the nation he is born into – exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that the newborn has, of course, done nothing to earn.”

Levin then writes this:

Just as Paine’s understanding of rights and choice sits at the heart of his political thought, so this vision of obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding forms the very core of Edmund Burke’s moral and political philosophy. Almost everything else flows out of it. To understand the human situation this way – as existing in a web of embedded obligations flowing out of our natural and social circumstances and setting the form of our lives and the shape of our society – is implicitly to deny Enlightenment liberalism’s emphasis on choice. But this view of binding obligations also tries to ground a theory of human relations in human life as we find it, rather than in an internally consistent but highly abstract set of ideal principles.

Many of our most important human relationships and circumstances, then, are not a matter of choice. “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact,” according to Burke. They are based on prior and even compulsory obligations.

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My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is the author of a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. It explores the origins of the right-left divide by focusing on Burke and Paine’s dramatically opposing views. 

For example, in his chapter titled “Choice and Obligation,” Levin points out that Burke, unlike Paine, believed a “politics of choice” begins in error. “As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth – the family, the station, and the nation he is born into – exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that the newborn has, of course, done nothing to earn.”

Levin then writes this:

Just as Paine’s understanding of rights and choice sits at the heart of his political thought, so this vision of obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding forms the very core of Edmund Burke’s moral and political philosophy. Almost everything else flows out of it. To understand the human situation this way – as existing in a web of embedded obligations flowing out of our natural and social circumstances and setting the form of our lives and the shape of our society – is implicitly to deny Enlightenment liberalism’s emphasis on choice. But this view of binding obligations also tries to ground a theory of human relations in human life as we find it, rather than in an internally consistent but highly abstract set of ideal principles.

Many of our most important human relationships and circumstances, then, are not a matter of choice. “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact,” according to Burke. They are based on prior and even compulsory obligations.

Related to this is the importance of restraint in a free society. “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,” is how Burke famously put it. Precisely how society ought to balance liberty and restraint is a matter of prudence, not principle. “The calculus of prudence aims not to maximize choice,” according to Levin, “but to meet the true wants of the people, as these emerge from the complex and layered society that Burke describes.”

Which leads to a final point about Burke’s effort to define liberty in a particular way–a liberty that is “not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is assured by the equality of restraint…. This kind of liberty is indeed but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.” Burke, in reflecting on the French Revolution, described liberty without wisdom and virtue as “the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” (The French Revolution horrified Burke, of course, while Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of it.)

Burke’s perspective is clearly a challenge to many ways of modern thinking, where virtually any constraint on choice, freedom, and individualism are viewed as oppressive and unjust. Even within conservatism one can tell how far we have drifted away from some of Burke’s most basic attitudes.

Many on the right speak about liberty as an unqualified good, with hardly (if ever) a mention of the dangers of “selfish liberty” and the importance of reciprocal obligations, the role politics plays in reinforcing our common bonds and the role the state plays in reinforcing the common good. There is a fuller and richer conservative tradition, as embodied by Burke, that’s worth reclaiming.  

In this elegantly written and engaging book, Yuval Levin explains why the disagreements between Burke and Paine have helped to define the politics of this era, why “political events are always tied up with political ideas,” and why reflecting on the deep, permanent questions of human life and human society still matters.

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Returning Politics to Its Rightful Place in American Life

While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

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While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

There’s much wisdom in these observations. For Kennedy and liberals in general, politics is the means through which idealism is pursued. Conservatives tend to be somewhat resistant to that outlook, believing politics is the way we should solve public problems–but believing as well that idealism should be pursued much more in our private lives, outside of the political arena.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean politics can’t take on special significance at particular moments in time. And it isn’t to downgrade the importance of politics in the least. But it is to say that when politics is done right and well, it allows the space for a free people to pursue excellence.

And of course the more grandeur and utopian hopes we invest in politics, the more likely it is that people will turn against it, as politics and government fail to produce the wonders and miracles we’re told to expect. For more, see Obama, Barack (2008), and promises like these.

One of the chief contributions of conservatism is to help people to understand the limitations of politics, to place more modest expectations on it, and to return politics in its rightful place in American society.  

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The Conservative Moment

Often in politics one moment sets up another. For example, the violence, disorder, and campus unrest in 1967-1968 opened the way for Richard Nixon’s first presidential win. Watergate created the conditions that allowed Jimmy Carter to emerge victorious in 1976. Mr. Carter’s incompetence led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 by offering a contrast to Newt Gingrich, who by then was viewed as polarizing and unpopular. And the difficulties in Iraq helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.

Something similar may be taking place with ObamaCare.

The Affordable Care Act is the personification of liberalism in terms of its centralization of power, its coercive elements, its nearly unlimited faith in technocratic solutions, and its absolute confidence that the effects of a massive restructuring of our health-care system could be controlled.

The multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare may well lead to a more widespread appreciation for certain conservative truths, including the virtues of limited government, the law of unintended consequences, and the fact that change can often lead to disruption. Juxtaposing the glorious things the president said the Affordable Care Act would achieve with its mounting problems is a useful reminder that the world is enormously complicated and the ability of government to carefully order and arrange the pieces of that world is really quite limited.

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Often in politics one moment sets up another. For example, the violence, disorder, and campus unrest in 1967-1968 opened the way for Richard Nixon’s first presidential win. Watergate created the conditions that allowed Jimmy Carter to emerge victorious in 1976. Mr. Carter’s incompetence led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 by offering a contrast to Newt Gingrich, who by then was viewed as polarizing and unpopular. And the difficulties in Iraq helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.

Something similar may be taking place with ObamaCare.

The Affordable Care Act is the personification of liberalism in terms of its centralization of power, its coercive elements, its nearly unlimited faith in technocratic solutions, and its absolute confidence that the effects of a massive restructuring of our health-care system could be controlled.

The multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare may well lead to a more widespread appreciation for certain conservative truths, including the virtues of limited government, the law of unintended consequences, and the fact that change can often lead to disruption. Juxtaposing the glorious things the president said the Affordable Care Act would achieve with its mounting problems is a useful reminder that the world is enormously complicated and the ability of government to carefully order and arrange the pieces of that world is really quite limited.

The Obama presidency, before it’s through, will likely cause the American people to be a bit more dubious about the next person who comes along and promises to heal the planet, remake the world, and slow the rise of the oceans; who campaigns on incantations and inspires a cult of personality; and who believes his mere touch is enough to transform things for the better. The Obama presidency may also deepen the public’s appreciation for prudent reforms, actual achievements and what George Will once called (in referring to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels) the “charisma of competence.”

Barack Obama is the avatar of progressivism. His failure, and most especially the failure of his signature domestic achievement, is producing a legacy of disillusionment and damaged lives. Americans will look to an alternative. Which means a new conservative moment awaits. It’s now up to conservatives to provide the governing vision that will allow them to seize it. 

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What Christie Can Teach the Rest of the GOP

Governor Chris Christie’s landslide victory in New Jersey–in which he won by more than 20 percentage points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000; carried more than half of the Hispanic vote (51 percent) and 21 percent of the African-American vote; won 57 percent of the female vote and 63 percent of the male vote; won every education level and income group; and won nearly a third of the Democratic vote (32 percent) and more than 60 percent of independents (66 percent) and moderates (61 percent)–instantly makes him the early favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination.

With that in mind, it might be worth examining two aspects of his victory speech.

Right at the outset of his speech, Governor Christie framed things this way: “The people of New Jersey four years ago were downhearted and dispirited. They didn’t believe that government could work for them anymore.” 

He went on to say this:

In fact, what they thought was that government was just there to take from them but not to give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them. Well, four years later, we stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in, yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people who elected you.

The New Jersey governor’s message was not relentlessly anti-government; he is a man who speaks about limited and effective government. That’s an important distinction–and one more Republicans and conservatives need to make. Read More

Governor Chris Christie’s landslide victory in New Jersey–in which he won by more than 20 percentage points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000; carried more than half of the Hispanic vote (51 percent) and 21 percent of the African-American vote; won 57 percent of the female vote and 63 percent of the male vote; won every education level and income group; and won nearly a third of the Democratic vote (32 percent) and more than 60 percent of independents (66 percent) and moderates (61 percent)–instantly makes him the early favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination.

With that in mind, it might be worth examining two aspects of his victory speech.

Right at the outset of his speech, Governor Christie framed things this way: “The people of New Jersey four years ago were downhearted and dispirited. They didn’t believe that government could work for them anymore.” 

He went on to say this:

In fact, what they thought was that government was just there to take from them but not to give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them. Well, four years later, we stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in, yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people who elected you.

The New Jersey governor’s message was not relentlessly anti-government; he is a man who speaks about limited and effective government. That’s an important distinction–and one more Republicans and conservatives need to make.

Thirty years ago Irving Kristol wrote, “[The Republican Party] has failed to understand that the idea of limited government is not contradictory to the idea of energetic government or (what comes to the same thing) responsive government.” As it was then, so it remains today.

Governor Christie also spoke in Kempian terms about outreach to non-traditional voters:

And while we may not always agree, we show up everywhere. We just don’t show up in the places that vote for us a lot, we show up in the places that vote for us a little. We don’t just show up in the places where we’re comfortable, we show up in the places where we’re uncomfortable.

Because when you lead, you need to be there. You need to show up, you need to listen and then you need to act. And you don’t just show up six months before an election, you show up four years before one. And you just don’t take no for an answer the first time no has happened. You keep going back and trying more. Because when I was elected four years ago, I wasn’t elected just by the people who voted for me. I was the governor of all the people.

This is a useful corrective to those Republicans and conservatives who believe the success of the party lies in winning larger and larger percentages of a shrinking percentage of the electorate (white voters); who appear inclined to write off large swaths of voters; and who view more and more Americans as “takers,” as dependent on the welfare state and therefore permanently in the camp of the Democratic Party.

Governor Christie showed that the Republican/conservative message, when framed the right way and backed up with genuine achievements, can do pretty well–and in some instances extremely well–in non-traditional demographic groups.

I’m certainly not ready at this stage to say who I believe ought to be the GOP nominee. For one thing, there are plenty of talented and intelligent people who might run. For another, you never know in advance how well, or how poorly, a person will do when running for president. It’s a challenge unlike any other, and (as Rick Perry found out in 2012) being a successful governor doesn’t mean you’re suited to run for higher office.

That said, Governor Christie radiates confidence and competence. He is a commanding presence and possesses considerable skills, a record of achievement, and a smashing reelection victory (in a blue state) to his credit. Republicans would be fools not to look to him and learn from him, to take what worked for him in the Garden State and apply it elsewhere in America. 

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Michael Oakeshott and Modern Conservatism

In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

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In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

This in turn can set off a mental and epistemological chain reaction, one in which we find ourselves eschewing, in principle, compromise (which would have one directly at odds with the framers of the American Constitution, which was itself a product of extraordinary compromises); celebrate pugilism above prudence; and find a kind of psychic satisfaction in attacking and excommunicating the impure within one’s ranks. This drift toward unconservative habits of thought is precisely why conservatism needs the influence of Oakeshott, whom McClay says is best understood as a corrective thinker rather than a foundational one.

Of course most discussions of Oakeshott are bound to touch on the importance of disposition, the way we view ourselves and the world around us. Which leads me to another scholar who has written wonderfully on Oakeshott.

In her 1975 essay (which is reprinted in this collection) on Oakeshott–one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for 20th century British conservatism–the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.”

“The ‘conservative disposition,’” Himmelfarb wrote, “the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days.”

That is perhaps truer now than it has been in the past.

My impression is that among some on the right there is an increasing sense of around-the-clock agitation and desperation, which translates into shrillness and brittleness. One can sense, at least here and there, a spirit of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury.” It’s the feeling that conservatives are a persecuted minority, combined with a growing rage and weariness with what they perceive to be the multiplying failures all around us.

What is missing, I think, is the sense of enjoyment, of gratitude, of what one writer of Oakeshott, Elizabeth Corey, has called the “disposition of delight.” (In describing the attitude of what Oakeshott called the Rationalist, who is the antithesis of the conservative, Corey writes, “The Rationalist is constitutionally incapable of contentment with any present state of affairs, because everything always falls short of his ideal and therefore is constantly in need of improvement.”)

In saying all this I don’t mean to underestimate the challenges our country faces (though it needs to be said that we have certainly faced graver situations than we find ourselves in right now). My point is simply that the disposition and temperament we bring to the task matters quite a lot.

Conservatives would be wise to unlearn the art of discontent and replace it with an undercurrent of hope. This is, after all, America.

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The War on Rational Conservatism

What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

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What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

I think Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru were on to something when they wrote in their National Review essay that sent Erickson over the edge that the problem behind the angst on the right is despair. I touched on the same theme in an essay in the Intercollegiate Review published last month as part of its symposium on what’s the matter with conservatism, as well as in a blog post published here titled “Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare.” Frustrated by the Supreme Court’s illogical decision that affirmed ObamaCare’s constitutionality and by the results of the 2012 election, many conservatives have more or less given up on conventional politics. Right now all they are interested in is a fight, no matter how quixotic. And anyone who won’t charge over the cliff with them strikes such people as something far worse than a political foe.

In response, Erickson and others who have written about this topic ground their attacks on the so-called Republican “establishment” as being analogous to the situation in the 1950s when William F. Buckley founded the modern conservative movement as part of a protest against the way Republicans had become enablers of the Democrats’ liberal agenda. Regardless of the political facts of the day, they say the only rational response of conservatives to the situation is to take a principled stand much like Buckley’s famous declaration that the purpose of National Review was to “stand athwart history” and to yell “stop.” Those who won’t do that are no better than the Republicans who opposed Buckley. Even more important, they say that those who are more concerned with Republicans winning elections even at the cost of their souls than standing up for principle really are RINOs and traitors no matter what their positions on the issues might be.

But it bears repeating there is a big difference between the state of the Republican Party when Buckley was first yelling “stop” and today.

Buckley and his allies were justified in trying to radically change the nature of the GOP because many of its leaders weren’t “timid” conservatives who were afraid of challenging the legitimacy of liberal government. Nelson Rockefeller and much of the GOP establishment of that time really were liberals and were not shy about saying so. Buckley had no interest in electing more liberals even if they called themselves Republicans, but he also famously said conservatives should always back the most electable conservative, not the most right-wing candidate.

The battle that was waged over the soul of the GOP over the next quarter century after NR’s founding was fierce because there were real ideological differences at stake. By contrast, Cruz and Erickson’s targets are not merely fellow conservatives but among the most conservative individuals and outlets in the country. Their sin is not the genuine dispute about the virtue of the welfare state and big government that drove the internal arguments in the Republican Party in that era, but rather one of attitudes. The editors of NR as well as hard-core conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are not blasted for their beliefs as Nelson Rockefeller and Co. were but because they differ with Cruz on tactics.

What we are seeing here is nothing less than a call for a Leninist-style schism on the right in which NR and McConnell are treated as the Mensheviks to the Tea Party’s Bolsheviks. Anyone who won’t hue to the Cruz party line isn’t merely wrong but, as Erickson’s piece seems to indicate, worthy of being read out of the conservative movement and denounced as betrayers.

This makes sense only if you are of the mindset that anyone not willing to shut down the government is indistinguishable from Barack Obama no matter how conservative they might be. As such, what we are witnessing is not an attempt to convert the Republican Party into a gathering of conservatives—something a previous generation of conservatives accomplished under the leadership of Ronald Reagan—but a war on rational conservatism whose only end is the immolation of the movement the Gipper helped build.

What does this portend?

It’s too soon to know for sure, but right now I’m starting to think that those inclined to pooh-pooh the chances for a genuine split are wrong. If that portion of the conservative base listens to Cruz and Erickson they are going to spend much of the next year trying to exact revenge on the senator’s critics. And if that means helping to knock off genuine conservatives like McConnell who will almost certainly be replaced in the Senate not by more Cruz clones but by liberal Democrats, they think it’s no great loss because such people are more interested in purifying the GOP than in beating the Democrats. Assembling a national coalition that could enable conservatives to govern is a matter of complete indifference to them and they seem openly contemptuous of the necessity of gaining Republican majorities and a Republican president in order to advance the conservative agenda.

This drama will be played out in many states next year in the midterm elections, but it will come to a head in 2016 when a single formidable moderate conservative may possibly be opposed by a split field of right-wingers in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. If so, those today yelling about the betrayal of Cruz are likely to be louder and even more self-destructive. A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

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