Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservatism

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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Extremism in the Defense of Liberty Is No Virtue

One of the most famous political quotes of the last half-century comes to us courtesy of Barry Goldwater, who in his 1964 GOP acceptance speech said, “Let me remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

This quote has been on my mind of late, having been cited in a recent New York Times book review, in a National Affairs essay by Jonathan Rauch, and by my colleague Yuval Levin during a recent Heritage Foundation panel discussion he and I participated in. Levin said that many times in practical politics extremism in defense of liberty “is a vice. It is a very great vice. It is our vice.” That strikes me as quite right, and it’s important for conservatives to understand why it is right.

Before making my case, it’s important to acknowledge that we can all envision circumstances in which extreme measures can be justified. But they are rare, particularly in a republic like ours, where methods of persuasion are the usual (and much preferred) recourse. Nor would I deny that at certain points in our history extremists (like the abolitionists) made useful contributions to an important cause.

That said, my concern about those who endorse extremism is that it is by its very nature militant, a break with the kind of moderation that is essential for a free society. Extremism, of course, characterized the French Revolution, which (unlike the American Revolution) so unnerved Edmund Burke. It leads to dogmatism and distorted thinking, to viewing politics in apocalyptic terms.

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One of the most famous political quotes of the last half-century comes to us courtesy of Barry Goldwater, who in his 1964 GOP acceptance speech said, “Let me remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

This quote has been on my mind of late, having been cited in a recent New York Times book review, in a National Affairs essay by Jonathan Rauch, and by my colleague Yuval Levin during a recent Heritage Foundation panel discussion he and I participated in. Levin said that many times in practical politics extremism in defense of liberty “is a vice. It is a very great vice. It is our vice.” That strikes me as quite right, and it’s important for conservatives to understand why it is right.

Before making my case, it’s important to acknowledge that we can all envision circumstances in which extreme measures can be justified. But they are rare, particularly in a republic like ours, where methods of persuasion are the usual (and much preferred) recourse. Nor would I deny that at certain points in our history extremists (like the abolitionists) made useful contributions to an important cause.

That said, my concern about those who endorse extremism is that it is by its very nature militant, a break with the kind of moderation that is essential for a free society. Extremism, of course, characterized the French Revolution, which (unlike the American Revolution) so unnerved Edmund Burke. It leads to dogmatism and distorted thinking, to viewing politics in apocalyptic terms.

Those who hold extreme views tend to favor immoderate, uncompromising, and even fanatical methods. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the antonyms of extremism is “conservative.” Extremism, therefore, cannot reliably serve the ends of conservatism–and using extremist measures to advance social stability and ordered liberty borders on being oxymoronic. Self-command, composure, and temperateness in the pursuit of justice can, in fact, be a virtue. And extremism in the defense of liberty can easily backfire.

All of which explains why I am a good deal more sympathetic to what Leo Strauss wrote in his essay Liberal Education and Responsibility (which can be found in this volume): “Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.”

To be sure, moderation itself is not enough to make politics meaningful. There is an indispensable role for those who are deeply committed to a cause, for passionate activists and polemicists. (For my part, no one could reasonably claim that I have not been critical, and at times harshly critical, of the current occupant of the Oval Office.) But Goldwater’s endorsement of extremism is, I think, a dangerous temptation for precisely the people who are most inclined to be active in politics. I would add that in America, as Goldwater himself found out, there has never been much of an appetite for extremism. Americans seem to have an instinctive aversion to it. Indeed, on the evidence of the American Revolution, they preferred that even their revolutionary leaders be, in the main, prudent, percipient, and judicious. James Madison was hardly anyone’s idea of a fanatic, nor are the Federalist Papers fierce and bellicose in either tone or substance.    

So at a time when more radical impulses seem to be making inroads in our politics, it seems to me to be important to reclaim conservatism, which recoils from extremism of any sort and from any side.

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Our Talmudic American Conservatism

One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

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One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

The imbalance is not new: more than half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had a legal training. But a legalistic approach to politics is no longer serving America well. Today’s budget wars are deeply political. They reflect unresolved debates that divide the country: over equality and redistribution, risk-taking and safety nets, and the role of government itself. Seen through foreign eyes, the current dysfunction within Congress is at once distinctively American and recognisable as a political crisis within a grand coalition: in essence the Tea Party is walking out on other members of the Republican alliance, whom you might call the Business Party, the National Security Party and the Christian Values Party. But too often, these budget battles are being fought with legal arguments about precedent and legitimacy, advanced by politicians trained in the adversarial, prove-me-wrong traditions of American law.

I sympathize somewhat with the sentiment that the role of emotion, rhetoric, and social solidarity cannot be completely removed from politics. But let me step in here to defend the law (and the lawyers). This country has a special relationship with its founding documents, in which they are treated almost as revelation. It’s no surprise that the historian Pauline Maier titled her book on the development of the Declaration of Independence American Scripture.

Yet it’s not a religious document, only one that is treated with religious reverence. I’m reminded of the scene in the West Wing when the (Democratic) president’s speechwriter is furious to discover that a man whose reputation he had long defended was actually a Cold War turncoat who worked for the Soviets decades before. “This country is an idea,” he says angrily. “And one that’s lit the whole world for two centuries.”

It was Daniel J. Boorstin’s contention that this idea of America stood in place for any real post-independence philosophical and ideological development. I discussed Boorstin’s idea of American “givenness” back in April, and referenced a COMMENTARY essay he wrote on the topic in 1953, which was based on a book he was about to publish called The Genius of American Politics. He explained “givenness” in the essay as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.”

In the book, Boorstin elaborates and explains that this lack of a need for new ideological theorizing is partially responsible for the form that our historical review tends to take: through massive biographies of the Founders, in which we seek to understand our secular American saints rather than write our own ever-changing scripture. Boorstin writes:

Political theory has been little studied in the United States. For example, departments of political science in many of our universities show more interest in almost anything else than in political theory. This, too, can be explained in part by the limitations imposed by the “preformation” point of view. If our nation in the beginning was actually founded on an adequate and sufficiently explicit theory revealed at one time, later theorists can have only the minor task of exegesis, of explaining the sacred texts. Constitutional history can, and in many ways has, become a substitute for political theory.

What this is, in its own peculiarly American way, is an essentially talmudic approach to American law. As we see from Pauline Maier’s characterization of the Declaration of Independence, that document was a kind of dogmatic explication of God-given laws. The Constitution and amendments that followed it served as the oral law to the Declaration’s written law, a practical guide to guard and fulfill inarguable principles.

America’s Jews, then, are well positioned to understand exactly what the Economist complains of. Orthodox Judaism has halakhic guidelines preventing certain actions that would be sanctioned by a plain reading of the Torah so as to guard against transgressing biblical laws. As I discussed in my post yesterday, the amendments to the Constitution were largely to prevent a situation in which tyranny could develop. They are not a “break glass in case of emergency” last resort in the event that tyranny shows up. They err on the side of caution and seek to rule out actions that might seem on the surface to be in accord with America’s founding ideals but which could put the country on a slippery slope.

“This is our kind of conservatism,” Boorstin wrote, by which he meant a temperamentally conservative outlook rather than an ideologically conservative outlook. But the Economist and numerous others–many more today than when Boorstin wrote those words–see this is as so much hypochondria. It is not intended to be neurotic, and when employed by conservatives today it is not intended to be bullying–though when applied by ideological conservatives who are not also temperamental conservatives it can certainly come across that way.

It is simply intended to be faithful to an idea. Because this country is an idea, and it is one that has lit the whole world for two centuries.

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Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare

Despair is a contagion that can kill a political movement. As Pete Wehner brilliantly noted here earlier today in his piece about the Tea Party mindset, the apocalyptic view of the ObamaCare defunding fight has led many conservatives to take an all-or-nothing position that sees greater value in going down fighting for a lost cause than continuing the patient, incremental struggle toward eventual victory. Since they see nothing but darkness ahead, treating the debate about how to combat the liberal agenda has become one in which anyone who preaches compromise on any point or even patience is a traitor. As George Will admirably put in his column in Friday’s Washington Post, the Tea Partiers seem to have something in common with their foe President Obama: a disdain for politics that respects the intent of the Framers to restrain factions via divided government with checks and balances. James Madison would view Obama’s notion of imposing his views on Congress and the nation with horror. But he would have had the same reaction to the notion that the House of Representatives could do the same to the Senate and the executive branch.

That’s the ideological framework for the disagreement between the Tea Party and those on the right who believe they are in danger of crashing the Republican Party and the chances of conservatives stopping Obama’s agenda in the long run. Yet the tactical mistake they are making isn’t that ObamaCare is bad. They are right about that. Where they are wrong is the assumption that losing today’s fight about health care means an inevitable descent into socialized medicine and the ultimate death of American freedom. In fact, the implementation of ObamaCare over the coming months and years is not the end of the battle. And that is why Tea Partiers need not only to stop trying to shoot their allies but to keep their power dry for the coming rounds of combat over the issue that will be just as, if not more important than the fight that just ended.

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Despair is a contagion that can kill a political movement. As Pete Wehner brilliantly noted here earlier today in his piece about the Tea Party mindset, the apocalyptic view of the ObamaCare defunding fight has led many conservatives to take an all-or-nothing position that sees greater value in going down fighting for a lost cause than continuing the patient, incremental struggle toward eventual victory. Since they see nothing but darkness ahead, treating the debate about how to combat the liberal agenda has become one in which anyone who preaches compromise on any point or even patience is a traitor. As George Will admirably put in his column in Friday’s Washington Post, the Tea Partiers seem to have something in common with their foe President Obama: a disdain for politics that respects the intent of the Framers to restrain factions via divided government with checks and balances. James Madison would view Obama’s notion of imposing his views on Congress and the nation with horror. But he would have had the same reaction to the notion that the House of Representatives could do the same to the Senate and the executive branch.

That’s the ideological framework for the disagreement between the Tea Party and those on the right who believe they are in danger of crashing the Republican Party and the chances of conservatives stopping Obama’s agenda in the long run. Yet the tactical mistake they are making isn’t that ObamaCare is bad. They are right about that. Where they are wrong is the assumption that losing today’s fight about health care means an inevitable descent into socialized medicine and the ultimate death of American freedom. In fact, the implementation of ObamaCare over the coming months and years is not the end of the battle. And that is why Tea Partiers need not only to stop trying to shoot their allies but to keep their power dry for the coming rounds of combat over the issue that will be just as, if not more important than the fight that just ended.

It should be remembered that as bad as ObamaCare is, it was actually a hybrid plan based on something that was promoted in the 1990s by, of all places, the Heritage Foundation, as a way to get more people covered by insurance without creating a socialized medicine scheme. It was mistake but it was also the inspiration for Massachusetts’ foray into the same topic under Mitt Romney a few years later. To note this is not to defend the concept (which I continue to oppose) or to mock the good people at Heritage who have now changed their minds about the idea (everyone’s entitled to a mistake and to change their mind). Rather it is to point out that for liberals, ObamaCare was a foot in the door rather than an end in of itself. Their goal remains a single-payer system. ObamaCare will raise health care costs rather than lower them, take away choices from Americans as well as many of their jobs and hurt the economy. But it is just the first step toward measures that will truly be a step away from freedom that conservatives fear. As such, the real battle for liberty is the one that is ahead of us, not the one just concluded.

In the coming years, conservatives must be ready to do two things.

One is to hold the Democrats accountable for the failures and the costs of the scheme they shoved down the throats of the American people on a partisan vote in 2010. The problem with the so-called Affordable Care Act is not just a bunch of computer glitches. It is a structural monstrosity whose ill-considered features will continue to be exacerbated by governmental incompetence. Instead of assuming that once in place it cannot be revoked — the conceit that is at the heart of liberal confidence about their ability to prevail in coming debates — they should have more confidence in the American people. If conservatives truly believe that it is a bad idea and will hurt the country, then they shouldn’t take it for granted that Americans will not have the sense to get rid of it after it has proved a failure.

Second, they must prepare for the next round of political combat on the issue that will not be merely more attempts to repeal ObamaCare but the inevitable effort from the left to expand it toward the single payer model that they really want. That is especially true since liberals will dishonestly blame ObamaCare’s failures on it being a halfway measure rather than on the faults at the heart of the concept.

Doing so successfully will involve not only providing reasonable arguments against the leftist agenda but coming up with alternatives that will create a safety net for those not covered by insurance but who really need it. Above all, it will require a functioning political force that is able to work within the Madisonian construct rather than a band of zealots on a glorious if ultimately unsuccessful kamikaze mission. If conservatives spend the next year attempting to purge their ranks of those who didn’t ride along enthusiastically on Ted Cruz’s charge of the Light Brigade, they will be ensuring that the Republican Party won’t be able to stop the liberal’s next move.

History did not end this past week. Nor did the conservative movement. In many ways, the real challenge for conservatives isn’t just stopping ObamaCare but, as I wrote last month in an essay for the Intercollegiate Review, rescuing the cause of freedom from despair. The struggle to defend the Constitution they care so much about depends on them dropping their pessimism, resuming the obligation to pursue Madisonian political compromise and taking heart for the struggles that are ahead of them.

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Compromise and the American Constitution

In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
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In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
 The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery. And so compromises were made in terms of representation (the South wanted slaves counted as full persons in order to increase their representation in Congress; eventually slaves were considered three-fifths of a person); in terms of delaying the prohibition on the importation of slaves (until the year 1808); and in dealing with escaped slaves (those who fled to non-slave states would be returned to their masters if caught).

Slavery was a moral obscenity–but in the words of Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the more enlightened founders hoped is that the Constitution would put in place the elements to end slavery. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” 

In her splendid book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

I understand that among conservatives these days the idea of compromise is out of favor. And for understandable reasons: In Barack Obama the right is facing an unusually rigid and dogmatic individual, one who is himself averse to compromise and is intentionally polarizing. (Polarizing the electorate turned out to be his only ticket to reelection.)  

But perhaps because compromise as a concept is so unpopular these days–at least if my recent correspondence and conversations with those on the right is any indication–it is important that those of us who are conservative remind ourselves of its virtues. To point out that compromise is not always synonymous with weakness. That our problems, as significant as they are, pale in comparison to what the founders faced. And that compromise still belongs, in the words of Rauch, in the “constitutional pantheon.” Even the Obama presidency, as frustrating as it might be, cannot undo the marvelous handiwork and enduring insights of James Madison.

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Conservatives and the Quest for Political Purification

For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

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For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

What a shame all this melodrama is a mirage, a farce, a game.

The choice is not, and never has been, between those willing to defund ObamaCare and those willing to fund it. That supposed choice is in fact an illusion. To defund the ACA would require the House and Senate to pass new legislation, which Barack Obama would have to sign. And no one, not even Senators Cruz, Paul, Lee and Rubio, believes the president would do that. 

All the posturing that’s being done to present this as a battle between Intrepid Republicans versus the Surrender Caucus is nothing more than political theater.

It also appears that Captain Courageous himself, Ted Cruz, and some of his colleagues are now engaging—at least for now—in a premature surrender. House Republicans are incensed at Cruz for going wobbly on the filibuster he once seemed to favor, putting all the responsibility back on the House.

“For weeks, House Republicans have said the prospects of passing a defund bill in the Senate are grim, and Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rubio have responded by saying nothing is impossible if we fight hard enough. Now they are getting exactly what they asked for, and they issue a press release conceding defeat and refusing to join the fight they demanded in every TV appearance. It’s time they put their money where their mouths are, and do something other than talk,” a House GOP leadership aide told National Review. And Representative Sean Duffy took to Twitter, saying, “House agrees to send ‪#CR to Senate that defunds Obamacare. ‪@SenTedCruz & ‪@SenMikeLee refuse to fight. Wave white flag and surrender.”

There will be plenty of twists and turns ahead, so we’ll have to see how this all plays out. (Mr. Cruz may have to move forward on a filibuster just to save face.) But it does raise the question: How did this silly idea become all the rage?

For some the answer has to do with pent up fury in need of an outlet, and the effort to defund the ACA is that outlet. It also appeals to those who find it satisfying to turn every debate into an apocalyptic clash. And even if Republicans fail, at least they “fought the good fight.” (Ronald Reagan referred to people of this mindset as those who enjoyed “going off the cliff with all flags flying.”)

But there’s also a tendency among some on the right—not all, certainly, but some—to go in search of heretics. They seek to purify the conservative movement—to eliminate from it the defilement, the debasement, and the corruption they see all around them—and they bring to this task an almost religious zeal. They are the Keepers of the Tablets. And they are in a near constant state of agitation. Living in an imperfect world while demanding perfection (or your version of perfection) from others can be hard. 

This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies. Such things have always been with us; and some of the uncontained passions and anger will eventually burn out. The question is how much damage will be done in the process. 

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Stop and Frisk vs. Gun Control

Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

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Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

He closes the column on a similar note:

In fact, stop-and-frisk is not a tremendous success but a tremendous failure, because such stops turn up contraband only 2 percent of the time. In other words: 98 times out of 100 the officer’s suspicion is unjustified.

If any other program had a 98 percent failure rate, conservatives would hold it up as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with big government. That they’re so eager to defend a failing program when it happens to target minorities makes their professed concern for “the most vulnerable” ring a trifle hollow.

There are a few important points here in response. First, the point of stop and frisk is not ultimately to confiscate guns, and thus its success should not be measured by a target at which it most certainly is not aiming. That is not to say gun confiscation is irrelevant to stop and frisk. But the tactic is not a guessing game to locate guns; it is an evidence-based procedure to prevent crime.

To the extent that there is some form of gun control involved, there is a crucial difference: the police are seeking to control the use of illegal guns, not the possession of legal guns. One can, therefore, support both stop and frisk and a robust respect for the Second Amendment. Yet it is the Fourth Amendment that seems to trouble Hinkle more anyway, and here we get into the thorny issue of profiling. Hinkle writes:

By the same token, just because most perpetrators in New York are black or Hispanic does not mean most blacks or Hispanics are perpetrators. After all, most homicides are committed with guns – but that does not mean most gun owners commit homicide.

Quite right. Then Hinkle adds:

The NYPD’s defenders also contend the police did not stop and frisk minorities at random; they stopped those who acted suspiciously. This is true only if you consider perfectly normal behavior suspicious.

This again omits a crucial aspect of the tactic. “Suspicious” behavior doesn’t mean someone looks like they’re about to commit a crime, however that would look. It also includes people who match the descriptions of suspects. This was something Scheindlin and the press learned when those subjected to the stop and frisk tactic began testifying, ostensibly for the plaintiffs. When they told their stories, a different picture began to emerge, as the New York Times reported in April:

One man was stopped and frisked because of his expensive red leather jacket — similar to one that a murder suspect was wearing in a wanted poster. Another man was stopped after a woman complained to the police that he was following her. Still another was stopped by officers who had watched him jostle the door of a home, trying to get in.

This is basic police work. Take the second case, for example: a woman complained to police that a certain man was following her. The police stopped the man to question him. Hinkle’s grading system rates that stop a “failure” because the man presumably didn’t have an illegal gun on him. Scheindlin made similar mistakes in her finding, which is one reason the city is challenging the ruling.

There is one point on which both conservatives and libertarians can agree: that a tactic is successful or effective doesn’t make it constitutional. Hinkle is right to warn of the slippery slope such a mindset would lead to, and conservatives shouldn’t be hostile toward such reminders. But sometimes it’s worth pointing that libertarians should avoid the reverse fallacy, and remember that just because something is effective doesn’t mean it’s authoritarian or abusive.

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