Monday, November 10, 2008

Whither the GOP?

As you can imagine, Republicans are busy licking their wounds and trying to figure out what is in their future after further losses in Congress and Obama's victory. There is much talk of a return to "first principles", such as this by Jeff Flake:

I suggest that we return to first principles. At the top of that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans.

Of course, it's not the level of spending that gets the most attention; it's the manner in which the spending is allocated. The proliferation of earmarks is largely a product of the Gingrich-DeLay years, and it's no surprise that some of the most ardent practitioners were earmarked by the voters for retirement yesterday. Few Americans will take seriously Republican speeches on limited government if we Republicans can't wean ourselves from this insidious practice. But if we can go clean, it will offer a stark contrast to the Democrats, who, after two years in training, already have their own earmark favor factory running at full tilt.

Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" may be on the discount rack this year, but the free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we've inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to overstay its welcome and force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not the recipe for economic recovery.

This sort of talk is popular now, understandably so. Republicans accurately perceive that their approach to governing-tar Democrats, spend like crazy, cut taxes, start wars, and let the economy tank-has been rejected by a majority of voters. The solution naturally appears to be a return to principles that many Americans can admire and respect that are nonetheless opposed to Democratic principles. What's lacking in these retrospectives of course is any explanation for how the Republicans got to where they are in the first place; what led them to abandon the principles that their party supposedly embodies? An explanation lies in this column by John W. Dean, former counsel to Richard Nixon and author of Conservatives Without Conscience, on why Republican rule is dangerous:

Republicans rule, rather than govern, when they are in power by imposing their authoritarian conservative philosophy on everyone, as their answer for everything. This works for them because their interest is in power, and in what it can do for those who think as they do. Ruling, of course, must be distinguished from governing, which is a more nuanced process that entails give-and-take and the kind of compromises that are often necessary to find a consensus and solutions that will best serve the interests of all Americans.

Republicans' authoritarian rule can also be characterized by its striking incivility and intolerance toward those who do not view the world as Republicans do. Their insufferable attitude is not dangerous in itself, but it is employed to accomplish what they want, which it to take care of themselves and those who work to keep them in power.

Authoritarian conservatives are primarily anti-government, except where they believe the government can be useful to impose moral or social order (for example, with respect to matters like abortion, prayer in schools, or prohibiting sexually-explicit information from public view). Similarly, Republicans' limited-government attitude does not apply regarding national security, where they feel there can never be too much government activity - nor are the rights and liberties of individuals respected when national security is involved. Authoritarian Republicans do oppose the government interfering with markets and the economy, however -- and generally oppose the government's doing anything to help anyone they feel should be able to help themselves.

What is wrong with being an authoritarian conservative? Well, if you want to take the country where they do, nothing. "They would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result," Altemeyer told me. "The problem is that these authoritarian followers are much more active than the rest of the country. They have the mentality of 'old-time religion' on a crusade, and they generously give money, time and effort to the cause. They proselytize; they lick stamps; they put pressure on loved ones; and they revel in being loyal to a cohesive group of like thinkers. And they are so submissive to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything they are told. They are not going to let up and they are not going to go away."

No they are not. In fact, the right-wing base of the party is now whole-heartedly rejecting the idea that there is any need for change, lashing out viciously at Party moderates who don't agree, and busy promoting Sarah Palin as their prime pick for President in 2012. They have no tolerance for dissent and their poor showing only causes them to further entrench themselves in the notion that what they really need is even more conservative (read, authoritarian) candidates and policies. And as we've learned from Bob Altemeyer (mentioned in Dean's article) authoritarians are not ones to accept evidence that is contrary to their peculiar notions, even evidence that the vast majority of Americans (including conservatives) reject their ideas and basic math which indicates that a party of 28%ers can't hope to win national elections.

Republican leadership can afford no such illusions, at least not if they wish to be elected. But still one must ask, how did things get to this point? And how is this turn of events to be avoided in the future, lest the GOP overplay it's hand again ten or twenty so years from now and find itself the victim of dramatic shifts of public opinion that leave it looking in from the outside? Quite simply 9/11, the event that served as the greatest boon the party, also produced the party's downfall. 

9/11 produced a political climate in the country where many Americans were willing to defer to the leadership of Bush and the GOP. 9/11 led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the climate of war and the fear of further terrorist attacks gave the Bush administration and a mostly servile Republican leadership the ability to operate absent restraint (a mostly irrelevant Democratic leadership also helped.) Without the check of a legitimate minority party (or where their opposition could be turned back by attacks on patriotism or appeals to the fears of voters) there was nothing to prevent the Bush administration from engaging in the worst aspects of authoritarian rule; ideology pervaded every element of the administration, policy decisions were made based on how it would benefit Republicans at the polls, foreign policy became strident and overtly nationalistic, and dissentors on all sides  had their patriotism (or at least their loyalty to Bush) questioned. 

That era is now at an end, but Republicans cannot hope to return to power without abandoning to some extent the party's authoritarian leanings. Conservatism attracts authoritarians to a far greater degree than does liberalism, but that doesn't mean that the Republican party must be in thrall to authoritarian followers and a leadership that would take advantage of them. Necessarily, this means a rejection of the desires of the right-wing base to simply re-engage in authoritarian politics with more vigor, by nominating someone like Sarah Palin in 2012. Conservatives should look to far more moderate politicians that are personally attracted to the ideals of limited government and traditional morals, not hypocrites and strident moralists. Coming back to power means winning back the voters that were turned off by excessive Republican vitriol and hypocrisy, and only by looking to personable and likeable candidates who are genuine representatives of conservative policies can they hope to provide attractive faces to voters. Absent dramatic events that tar the Democratic party in some manner, Republicans can hope to return to power only by engaging in the long slog of campaigning moderate, likeable candidates. 

Of course, I wouldn't expect a Republican to trust this analysis anymore than I was willing to listen to the "advice" of Republicans to Democrats over the last eight years. Of course, unlike your typical authoritarian Republican, I actually believe that a legitimate two-party system and a contest of ideas is good for the nation as a whole, and I'm willing to accept that the Republican must exist not only as a usefeul check on Democrats (who are also inclined to excesses, if not the most authoritarian of ones) but also as an alternative to voter who find Democratic policies wanting. As a result I'm actually not in favor of a decades of unrivalled Democratic governance, nor am I in favor of the Republican being reduced to a rump of itself former self that represents only the most conservative regions of our country. But whether or not the Republican party can serve as a viable alternative to the Democratic party, depends entirely upon the conservatives who are busy battling over the future of the party and the course that they elect to take. 

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