We seek to identify the people and ideas that will lead the Republican Party back out of the wilderness. Topics include core conservatism, potential national leaders, constituencies that that the GOP must reach and the messages that will reach them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Conservative Mind: Does It Still Exist?

The first thing a party in defeat does is trash the losers. You don't see a lot of love out there for John McCain.

The next thing is to start talking about the need for "ideas." Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr., at a GOP governors' meeting this week in Miami, said, "Everyone wants to talk about personalities . . . But for us it's: Where are the ideas? Then the personalities and the names are going to come from those ideas over the next couple of years." (Read the whole story here)

Good question, depending on what Huntsman means by "ideas." If he's just talking (like most politicians) about policy proposals, then the party has plenty of those. Some are old, like school vouchers, but some are relatively fresh, like the various market-based health-care reforms in McCain's platform this year. And I have no doubt that conservative policy shops such as the Heritage Foundation will crank out more of these in coming months and years. Some of them will be geniunely interesting to the few people who follow such things. But none of them will produce the shift in public attitudes that Republicans need to create a governing majority once again.

For that to happen, a different breed of "ideas" -- or maybe just one big idea -- is needed. These are the ideas that transcend policy specifics and exist apart from the day-to-day problem-solving and dealmaking that politicians do. These ideas don't come out of think tanks. They emerge from universities, literary circles and other corners of American life that conservatives (and identified Republicans in particular) have almost completely abandoned. Among all the academic disciplines, for instance, only in economics is conservative thinking still represented, and it is no longer dominant. The humanities and social sciences are lost to conservatism for at least this generation, and the physical sciences (for now) mostly apolitical, as they should be.

So what are conservative ideas, and why is it important that they re-enter the intelligentsia? The first part of that question has been debated for decades. You can find the wide-ranging points of view in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, Jerry Z. Muller's Conservatism and William F. Buckley's anthology Have You Ever Seen A Dream Walking? (the latter apparently out of print, but hopefully available at a good library). If I can pull out a few common threads in these and other books on American conservative thought, it's that conservatism is rooted in these ideas (big, big ideas):

  • Individual liberty, especially as set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Individual responsibility (a tougher sell politically) for the outcomes of one's life. That is, a conservative doesn't think the world owes you a living even if, as Democrats like to say, you "work hard and play by the rules."
  • An acceptance of some inequality of outcomes, at least to the extent that it reflects the inequalities of individual ability, drive, willingness to take risks, etc.
  • A government with clearly -- and constitutionally -- defined limits to its power,.
  • A right to property that puts the burden on governments to prove why they should take any of it, through taxes or other means.
  • On social issues, a respect for tradition (as in marriage, say) and a suspicion of innovators. As with property, the burden of proof is on the innovators to say why a long-standing tradition should be changed. This idea goes back to the man whom conservatives of all stripes still seem to accept as a common ancestor, Edmund Burke.
  • In economics, a belief that the actions of myriad individual actors (businesses and consumers) in the marketplace will always be wiser than the attempts by politicians and bureaucrats, fewer in number if higher in their view of their own intellects, to control economic activity. At least in America, there is not such thing as a conservative socialist,. On markets that cross national borders, conservatives do have some differences, which leads to the next point.
  • Country first. This is a very American conservative idea, springing from the historical reality that the U.S. grew to a great nation in happy isolation from Europe's crowded, violent, dysfunctional family of nations. As an answer to the Old World and its corruptions (now joined by the corruptions of the Third World), America as seen by conservatives should never submit to the rule of others. If it engages abroad, it must do so as a leader, not a follower. Conservatives differ mainly on how much America should involve abroad, especially when war is involved. But they share a distrust of anything, like the U.N. of liberal fantasies, that smacks of "world government."

There's more in this rich tradition of thought. But for now I'll leave these few ideas out there to ponder, along with the question: How many of today's Republican politicians could do a decent job of explaining, much less defending, these fundamentals? Another way of putting the question is to ask if you heard these points raised, in more than sound-bite form, in the past campaign. At least Barack Obama showed some skill at throwing big ideas around, in the style of a smart grad student who has mastered the basic academic lingo but has nothing original to add. The leading Republican lights (maybe not the best word) didn't seem willing or able to get beyond slogans and present an extended argument. Maybe this is extension of George W. Bush's style, which was usually to say what he was going to do, like the no-nonsense CEO he was, and then repeat the message over and over. It might also be a holdover from way that campaigns are fought now -- less by trying to persuade the undecided than with bringing as many of your true-believers as possible to the polls. This worked well for the GOP in 2000 and 2004. Unfortunately, the Democrats learned how to do the same in 2008.

Maybe what the Republicans need most right now is not a few bright new faces and new policies, but a big book or two. It takes a book to lay out a case from fundamentals -- and to counter GOP's reputation as "the stupid party." A good book or two also could re-connect the party with young readers who are bright, intellectually restless, maybe reading Ayn Rand and wondering if that's all there is. Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative did that trick in the early 60s. Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind 25 years later popularized conservative ideas on the fate of culture and academia. If nothing else, a book like that would reaffirm the existence of a Conservative Mind.

1 comment:

Katie said...

You mention that conservatives like individual liberty, especially that set forth in the Dec. of Independence. Is that as opposed to the Bill of Rights?