The “conservative movement” in America is struggling to understand its most important setback in a generation, in part because its worldview takes for granted that what has happened simply cannot be real. In today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about the growing rift between the conservative “Traditionalists” and the “Reformers”. He suggests the traditionalists, who say their losses come from not clinging firmly enough to the tax-cutting, slash government, immigration-crackdown agenda, will prevail in coming years, due to institutional entrenchment.
This may be, but it will be disastrous for the conservative cause and the Republican party, generally. It has been theorized that coming decades will see a sea change in electoral politics, with one or both of the current “major parties” losing dominance and giving ground to third parties with more specific, pro-active agendas. The Green party could steal ground from the Democrats, as it did in 2000, on a more permanent basis, if the party is not watchful, but could also gain middle ground from the Republicans. And the Libertarian party is a constant threat to the Republican party’s Constitutional-conservative standing.
The Green party has done a great deal to educate the Democrats, in reforming party structure and greening their political agenda: the Democratic party has benefited from a Green-style decentralized organization, grass-roots online recruiting, and working sustainability into its economic and social platforms. A new firmness rooted in principled liberalism has allowed the Democrats to simultaneously preach the need for progressive reforms, while working to reach them from the political center. This has overwhelmed the Republican party’s efforts to expand what Tom DeLay hoped would be a “permanent majority”.
Now, we have a Republican party that is weaker and more fractious than at any time since the Watergate era. Hard-line conservative “traditionalists”, as David Brooks calls them, refuse to accept that their relentless and too-often hypocritical pursuit of a theoretical conservative Utopia has brought this misfortune to their party. There is an astounding amount of wishful thinking taking place, among conservative Republicans who now argue that the party needs to reject economic stimulus, reject aiding the middle class, propose massive new unaffordable tax cuts for big business, build a wall on the Mexican border, and prosecute illegal immigrants.
It is “wishful thinking”, because the country views not one of those issues as anywhere near a relevant priority, and the demographic makeup of the nation means that cowtowing to that increasingly narrow nativist base will absolutely constrict the party’s electoral math. It will be increasingly difficult to win elections with such an agenda. There are moderates, including Brooks, who argue this very point, but who lament the absence of major moderate-conservative think tanks and political institutions capable of crafting a new generation of pragmatist conservative leadership.
Absent that pragmatist centrist conservatism, the pragmatist centrist progressivism of Barack Obama will reshape the political landscape, and attendant discourse, for a generation to come. Even the most conservative ideologues acknowledge this election is a 1932, a 1960, a 1980, all over again, the starting point for a transformative era in which the entire political culture could be shifted, or will shift in response to the will of the people. This is a hard political reality, in which the greening, decentralization and deliberative climate clearly favors Obama-style Democrats.
Are there Obama-style Republicans out there? Not yet. There is no one Republican phenomenon who has demonstrated such a broad grasp of the spiritual urges of this moment in the nation’s history, and no up-and-comer who has shown such deft capabilities in harnessing online media to reach out to potential voters. Obama, building on the DFA movement, and backed by literally millions of online supporters, activists and donors, will continue to build his majority during this term in office, absent some catastrophic policy miscalculation.
In the United Kingdom, with public support for Tony Blair crashing due to his support for the war in Iraq and for Pres. Bush, the Conservative party lost its third straight election to Blair’s Labour party. The polling was so dismal that in the run-up to the vote, the Conservatives took stock, made a bold decision, and voted out their venerable party leadership in favor of the young “conservationist-conservative” David Cameron. Cameron made the race much closer, and there was some talk he could oust Blair; he is now the favorite to win the next election, against Blair’s replacement, Gordon Brown.
Cameron’s secret was to first grasp what had changed in the British political landscape to make Blair’s 3rd victory nearly a foregone conclusion. He lectured his own party about its refusal to live in the 21st century, and crafted a new course for conservatism, including a passionate move to take the fore on environmental issues, on human rights, on economic fairness and social justice. He turned a host of liberal ideas into conservative ideas, proclaiming the great principled pursuit of a more just world, under the history of British conservatism. His flexibility and his youth won him favor with moderates.
The Republican party now faces this same crisis: where in the UK “Thatcherite” economic policies had vastly expanded income inequality and led to the entrenchment of socio-economic pathologies, undermining the middle class, in the US, the ecstatic deregulation of the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies did much the same, undermining in fundamental ways that diffuse system of principles and opportunities that would enable what’s commonly called “the American dream”. This is now an inescapable historical reality, and the Republican “traditionalist” wing will have to come to terms with it.
If the GOP continues to behave as if none of that fallout had taken place, it will continue to appear out of touch and dubious to moderate and independent voters. If it continues to seek a ban-immigrant approach to border security and immigration, it will continue to appear dangerous and hostile to the children of recent immigrants and to millions of naturalized US citizens. If it continues to behave as if rich and poor should have the exact same tax burden and no capital gains should be taxed, it will continue to be seen as contrary to the expansion of the middle class and risky for the economy.
Not all party leaders are blind to this reality, though institutions likely to force the direction of the party in coming years may be. As Adam Nagourney reports:
These struggles come as the party prepares for a broad ideological battle, in particular over how much to emphasize social issues like opposition to abortion rights and gay rights. Party leaders said the focus on those issues had constricted the party’s appeal to moderate and independent voters more interested in jobs, health care, education and other issues that touch their lives in more concrete ways.
“We can’t be obsessed with issues that are not the issues that are important to American voters,” said Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman and a likely candidate for national party leader.
Now is the time for the rise of genuine moderates across the conservative landscape to take a leading role in reshaping the future of the Republican party. If this process is choked off by hard-line traditionalists who refuse to open their worldview to suit the actual world and the goals that will improve our collective lot, those moderates will lead by vacating the party, following the political winds to the place where pragmatist centrism not only appeals, but is understood, practiced and put to work.
In the year 2000, 51.3% of the “voting age population” cast a vote for president. The Bush-Cheney ticket won 47.87% of those voters. That means the Republican presidential ticket won just under 24.56% of the voting age population’s support, including a large number of independent voters. In 2004, Bush’s support went up, but so did opposition to Bush and his policies. In 2008, we have now seen a dramatic decrease in overall Republican party registrations, and the New York Times reports that only 22% of US counties voted “more Republican” than in ’04.
With Pres. Bush’s approval rating at 20% and the pre-election polling showing only 9% of Americans thought the country was “on the right track” —both record low figures—, the continued decline of the Republican party could open real terrain for a viable third-party to enter the “major party” game. There is no such party at present, but the Democrats can make a curious claim for the right to dominate both the right and left of the political center: the nation has largely been shaped by the 62 years of Democratic dominance, from 1932 to 1994, and it is they who seek to conserve and to better that system.
“Conservatives” in America have become increasingly radical in their “reformist” urges, wanting to “eliminate” government programs, “slash” taxes —i.e. redistribute wealth— and “roll back” expansions of the meaning of Constitutional rights. This puts them firmly outside the center and requires them to craft a rhetoric and an agenda that appears conservative while actually proposing sweeping alterations to the nation’s way of doing business. They have in recent years demonstrated a startling inability to do this and as such have forfeited credibility on an historic scale.
A coalition Green-Libertarian party could win favor among a broad spectrum of independents, and also illustrate decisively the degree to which true conservatism and true environmentalism are —far from being anathema— quite closely intertwined. Such a coalition would also exploit the social-justice deficit perceived to now be integral to the Republican party platform, further diminishing the party’s centrist appeal.
While any Green-inclusive coalition could also reduce Democratic party appeal, it would more likely serve as the only true centrist alternative, if it were made to be part of a moderate conservative centrism, in a political landscape where the Democrats have solidified a hold on the middle ground. A hard-line “traditionalist” Republican party could see itself relegated to the edges of the political center if any viable alternative were to gain ground in the Congress.
David Brooks projects the following:
In short, the Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats. Then, finally, some new Reformist donors and organizers will emerge. They will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again.
This is likely true, and the party will likely recover, and not be pushed from the two-party tug-of-war, but it will be saved only if it overcomes the urge to take refuge in the woolly ideology of a denialist right. The nation is steeped in a time of multifaceted crisis. The waves are coming in through the front door. There can be little patience for political leaders who choose to grandstand against those who seek to save us from the flood. The pragmatist center will define this moment in history, and those who flee to the fringe will likely be required to remain there.