(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series, affords our readers the opportunity to join Professor George Carey as he examines the place of traditional conservatism in our present day by pondering what can be accomplished via the political process, despite the power of the president and his allegiances. —Alyssa M. Barnes, Editorial Assistant)
Winston Elliott inquired whether I would like to update an article I wrote for Modern Age in 2005, “The Future of Conservatism.” I have gladly accepted his invitation since it allows me to emphasize and expand upon certain of its central points that I believe deserve our close attention, as well as to express my views on an issue that seems to be of some interest to The Imaginative Conservative readers, namely, the relationship between traditional conservatives and our major political parties.
Turning to the article, I believe that my account of how the evolution of our party system and presidential supremacy are intertwined is essentially sound. Clearly, I find this development very dangerous. I should have pointed out that in this process presidential powers will always rachet up; that is, an incoming president will assume whatever advances in presidential power were made by his predecessor. In turn, an incumbent will strive to accrue new powers that can be passed on. We have seen this process take place in the first Obama administration. [See on this point Gene Healy’s recent e-book, False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency. See also my extensive The Imaginative Conservative review of Healy’s first work, The Cult of the Presidency, for an overview of the growth and powers of the modern presidency.]
The underlying concern in my essay is related to the dominance of the presidency in our system today. Several developments highlighted my concern, but key among them was the fact that Bush II was able, in a very short period of time, to utterly transform the Republican Party. Circa 2000, traditional conservatives were pretty much in step with the party on two crucial issues: fiscal responsibility and a realistic foreign policy that eschewed Wilsonianism, that is, the notion that America bore a special responsibility to make the world “safe for democracy.” But on these two very fundamental issues, the party did an about face. Not only this, but its thinking on these issues came to closely resemble that of some mainstream Democrats. Understandably, I was puzzled: How or why did it come to pass in such short order? What is more, and something I still don’t quite fathom, Bush II and his administration after abandoning these basic policies came to be widely regarded by the chattering class as “conservative,” some (as I point out) even regarding it as the “most conservative” administration in our history. From my point of view as a traditional (or paleo) conservative, everything was turned inside out without so much as a “by your leave.”
But, to pick up where I left off in the article, I realized that Bush II’s capacity to bring about such a radical and abrupt change was only a manifestation of the enormous power that has accrued to the presidency. There are, it seems to me, at least two reasons—reasons, for that matter, that would apply to any president of either party who chose to follow the same course—for Bush II’s success. The first I mention in the article, but the point can be made more forcefully and clearly by bringing John C. Calhoun’s thought into play. In his Disquisition, Calhoun points out that the mere existence of government will divide society into two parts: a majority and minority. Why so? Individuals will seek to control government because it dispenses “honors” and “emoluments,” which are, he goes on to remark, far from insubstantial. To fulfill its primary responsibilities, he observes, “large establishments are necessary:” on the military side, “fortifications, fleets, armories, arsenals, magazines, arms of all descriptions, with well-trained forces;” on the civil, “a host of employees, agents, and officers—of whom many must be vested with high and responsible trusts, and occupy exalted stations, accompanied with much influence and patronage.” “The whole united,” he believes, “must necessarily place under the control of government an amount of honors and emoluments, sufficient to excite profoundly the ambition of the aspiring and the cupidity of the avaricious.” Consequently, coalitions will form to vie for control of government, eventually coalescing into a majority and minority, each seeking its piece of the pie.
Now Calhoun was writing in the mid-1800s. Clearly, control of the national government today—and many states governments as well—carries with it far greater rewards than Calhoun perhaps could envision. Because we are the wealthiest nation in the world, strenuously pursing imperial objectives—the prize of winning, of controlling the honors and emoluments—may well be without parallel in history. Given the powers of the presidency today, Calhoun’s account stands in need of only slight modification: Just capturing the presidency now assures control over a major portion of whatever honors and emoluments government can bestow, which may well account for the fact that some two billion dollars was spent in the last presidential campaign. In any event, barring a scandal of enormous proportions, a party will reflexively follow its president in order to avoid dissension within its ranks—or, more generally, anything that would weaken its chances of securing success in the future—in order to share in the bounty, even if this means fundamentally changing the party’s orientation. This consideration helps to explain why, for instance, congressional Democrats seem totally oblivious to Obama’s lofty, but unfilled, promises of the 2008 campaign, and accept his embrace and expansion of Bush II’s national security policies.
There is a second, far less understandable but conceivably more important, factor that contributes to the president’s capacity to shape the party. I don’t know what to call this factor other than blind, unquestioning party allegiance. Now this phenomenon is really most telling with respect to the politically attentive, i.e., those in each party who do pay attention to politics, since it is not unreasonable to assume that these individuals are joined to the party because of its position on major issues or its general orientation. A sense of what I’m talking about can be gleaned from an article by Bruce Bartlett who, after the Republicans used unscrupulous tactics to ram through Medicare Part D—a drug prescription plan that entailed many trillions of unfunded liability—rightfully concluded that Bush had abandoned conservative principles, i.e., the principle of fiscal responsibility that had been a trademark of the Republican party. [See this article]
One might have imagined that Bartlett’s book, The Impostor, detailing the full dimensions of Bush II’s fiscal irresponsibility would at least have caused some consternation within the ranks of the Republican party’s politically attentive members, especially given Bartlett’s conservative/libertarian background and his service in previous Republican administrations. But, alas, it’s Bartlett who lost his job with a Republican think tank; it’s Bartlett who is persona non grata in certain “conservative” media circles, principally The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
On a far smaller scale, I have had experiences similar to Bartlett’s. While aware of Bush II’s irresponsible spending, my major concern revolved around the Iraq War and the deception practiced by the administration to gain support for launching this senseless, costly, and catastrophic war. Among other things, I wondered how Republicans could buy into Bush II’s brand of American exceptionalism that sanctioned “preventive” wars. In expressing this view at the Philadelphia Society, a bastion of Republicanism, I was treated as one out of step with the party—by some even as a left-wing liberal. Not an insubstantial number in the Philadelphia Society shared my concerns but, remarkably in my view, they still constituted a distinct minority. Like Bartlett, I was baffled by this state of affairs since Bush II’s foreign policy, just as his Medicare Part D program, betrayed long standing Republican and conservative principles. (Perhaps I should not have been baffled; subsequently, I learned that only a very small minority at a Washington CPAC Conference knew of Kirk, Nisbet, Nock, or their writings.)
Maybe there is better explanation for this phenomenon, but for now I have settled on blind party allegiance which, even for the politically knowledgeable comes down to, in effect, backing whatever the President of their party does. This support, I hasten to add, may be indirect; that is, perhaps a President will, on occasion, displease a significant portion of the party faithful. When this happens, excuses may be offered, or the President’s action will be downplayed or even ignored, or, inter alia, the President will be excused by pointing to the ruinous policies of the opposing party, as well as the calamity that awaits should it win the presidency. By no means are these practices the exclusive province of Republicans. Any number of bloggers, Glenn Greenwald perhaps the most prominent, point out that those Democrats most critical of Bush II for his security policies are deathly silent when Obama adopts them and even initiates harsher ones. Sadly, the lesson one learns quickly from our contemporary politics is that hypocrisy abounds in unprecedented proportions and that there are precious few politicians on either side of the aisle who are principled.
These considerations bring me around to the matter of political parties and conservatism. While I did not mention this in the article, I think any reader would understand that I was writing from the same perspective as Bartlett; that is, as a conservative who, not without reservations, had come to find a reasonably comfortable place in the Republican party. I must note the connection that traditionalist commentators in discussing their place in the political landscape always seem to have the Republican party in the back of their mind; that is, more frequently than not in such appraisals, the fate of traditional conservatism is tied to the fortunes of the Republican party. I was no exception in this regard, but I did urge that we disassociate from the political parties. In other words, given what I considered to be the betrayal of the Republican party, I concluded that traditional conservatives “should never swear undying allegiance to either political party.”
This is one point on which my thinking has broadened considerably, my conclusion now resting upon firm theoretical and practical considerations. To begin with, I can rightfully be accused of naïveté in expressing my dismay over the Republican party abandoning its long standing principles. Indeed, I had forgotten that which I knew all too well, namely, as virtually all textbooks on American political parties are quick to point out, our parties are not formed around “agreement on principle,” as Burke would have it. Rather, most modern definitions stress that our parties are simply organizations “that seek to control the personnel and policy of government,” an understanding that takes us right back to Calhoun. And given this modern definition, why should anyone be at all surprised when the Republican party reverses course. Such behavior is thoroughly in keeping with the nature of the beast. (Note in this connection as well, the post-2012 election analyses of the Republican party focus, not on matters of broad principle, but on how the party, by pandering to this or that group, might regain an electoral majority.)
What I don’t think many traditionalists understand is that in the American political context, a Burkean based conservatism cannot be true to itself if it is aligned permanently with either of our political parties. The most obvious considerations bear out this conclusion. On what basis can loyalty to an organization, lacking any abiding principles and seeking nothing more than electoral victory, be justified?
Are traditionalists obliged to follow a party that has lost whatever moral bearings it possessed?
To look at the issue of party and traditional conservatism from another angle, it is obvious that traditionalists simply cannot shuck principle. What principles? Here I offer up two of the most fundamental. The traditionalist should be ever mindful of the burdens that are placed on the young and yet to be born, a stricture that certainly should serve to make fiscal responsibility a guiding principle for traditionalists. Likewise, traditionalists should be acutely aware that a decision to go to war is the most important and gravest decision that any country can make precisely because of its consequences which inevitably involve the deliberate infliction of evil. Moreover, they also know that for leaders to mislead or lie to gain popular support for a “preventive” war is criminal—that to be “just,” a preventive war must meet extremely stringent requirements that virtually preclude its undertaking. These observations, which relate directly to the most basic functions and responsibilities of a decent government are, as far as I can see, incontrovertible. And given the record of the Republican party, I see no reason why a traditionalist would want to be associated with it. Yes, the same can be said of the Democratic party, though, as I note above, traditionalists seem obsessed with the direction and health of the Republicans.
But, it is asked, can’t the traditionalists “reclaim” the Republican party, thereby bringing principle back into play? My answer would be “no.” Such a task is virtually impossible for two basic reasons, one very practical, the other involving our political culture. At the practical level, the major constituent parts of the party are simply too powerful to dislodge. The Neos, for instance, are in firm control of its foreign policy—witness Romney’s pandering to the extremists of the Likud party in his “mission” to Israel, as well as the supportive statements of leading Republican politicians. Indeed, this has been the case since almost the outset of Bush II’s administration. The Neos’ money, outlets, and prominence, backed up by the resources of “conservative” “think” tanks, virtually assures their continued predominance among Republicans on matters of foreign policy, interventions, and the like. Beyond this, a huge, probably insurmountable obstacle to any reclamation is the mindless constituency. Think in terms of that majority of Republicans who still believe that, as Bush II put it, our enemies hate us because of our freedom. Or think of the Christian evangelists who seek to hasten the Second Coming through war in the holy land—a heresy, plain and simple—or of the spokesmen and apologists in the media—Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Hannity, to mention only the most prominent. At this level, the party is effectively brain dead, beyond repair.
Despite its thoroughly deplorable state, I have no doubt that the Republican party will enjoy electoral successes down the line, even recapturing the presidency. I hasten to add, however, that it will never again be home to traditionalists. The odds are—and this brings me to the matter of our political culture which poses still another obstacle to reclaiming the Republican party—that it will indefinitely remain a party seriously wanting both morally and intellectually. (The same may be said of the Democrats.) Our political culture, best understood in Calhounian terms of gaining and retaining power and the enormous bounty associated with it in modern times, assures that the sensibilities of traditionalists will be trumped if they stand athwart the party’s primary goals.
What are these conservative sensibilities? An especially important one that immediately comes to mind—one from which stem many of the most important principles that have served to bind traditional conservatives—arises from Burke’s understanding of society as a “partnership” between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” This conception places a heavy responsibility, of course, on the living; they are not, inter alia, to ignore or squander their inherited capital, moral and otherwise, nor should they unnecessarily burden future generations. What seems evident is that despite their rhetoric, and save when it has coincided with their broader goals, neither party operates upon this Burkean understanding of society. Their very nature, as we have argued above, prevents them from doing so.
Where does this leave us? Traditionalists do have a role to play in the political arena. Clearly they should focus their political activity on those candidates, Republican or Democrat, who do show conservative sensibilities. The opportunity to do this seems best at the local and state levels, but wherever such candidates are found, they deserve our support. Then, too, to the extent possible (again, this most likely at the local or state levels), conservatives should lend their voice to debates on policies—perhaps, on occasion, even organizing for greater effectiveness. Perhaps, in these capacities, they may have a salutary, though limited, influence on our political environment.
But the thrust of what I have to say points up the futility of attaching to either political party in hopes of influencing the direction it takes, as well as the shame that cannot help but come our way from doing so. Instead of worrying about the trials and tribulations of the Republican party, for instance, we ought to repudiate it and move on. More importantly, if I am essentially correct, we ought to reorient our thinking about what we can accomplish through the political processes. We waste our time doing battle with entrenched and mindless party interests. As Bruce Frohnen and John Willson maintain, our time is better spent in striving to reinvigorate our intermediate institutions, particularly the church and family. I leave it to them to spell out how best we can do this, but I do think they point in the direction that traditional conservatism should take.