SYNDICATED COLUMN: Republicans, Not Conservatives, Are In Trouble

A Philosophy Without a Party

* Conservatives betrayed by GOP
* Traditional conservatism still popular
* Rigid laissez faire dogma rejected by voters

Conservatives think the election results prove that conservatism is in trouble. Actually, conservatism is fine. It’s the Republican Party that’s in trouble.

To be sure, the GOP got killed in Congress. But the presidential results aren’t nearly as alarming. The difference between Bush’s “big win” in 2004 (51 percent of the popular vote) and McCain’s “stunning defeat” in 2008 (46 percent) was that 2.5 percent of the electorate changed their minds. Besides, it remains to be seen, says Montclair State University political science and law professor Brigid Harrison, whether the “high level of young voters, African-Americans, highly educated white voters and a disproportionate amount of women forming a new kind of coalition” will come together in future elections to support Democratic candidates more typical than Obama.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s posit that Obama represents a dramatic political realignment and repudiation of the Republican Party. Certainly, Republicans do face massive demographic challenges, mainly as an influx of Latino immigration and naturalization turns places like Arizona, Colorado and California’s Orange County from red to blue. The GOP may well have to get used to losing. But that doesn’t mean conservatives do.

In the United States, conservatism is a philosophy without a party. Take Ronald Reagan, considered the patron saint of late 20th century conservatism. Coupled with extravagant military spending, Reagan’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations increased the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion, transforming the U.S. into the world’s biggest debtor nation. Under Reagan, William Voegeli wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 2007, “government did nothing but expand. In 1981, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 1989 it spent $1.144 trillion. Factoring out inflation, that was an increase of 19% in real spending. Republicans never expected that Reagan would leave office with a ‘federal establishment’ one-fifth larger than when he arrived.”

George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” but conservatism was as absent from his governance as compassion. He has increased the federal deficit from $3.3 to $5.9 trillion. Add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—estimated at $2.4 trillion as of 2007—and he will have put the country a staggering $5 trillion deeper into the hole. He hired 180,000 federal employees for a new cabinet-level department, Homeland Security, all to make you take off your shoes at the airport.

Conservative? Not these guys.

For the sake of my long-suffering conservative friends as well as the country, it’s time to unravel the conflation of conservatism and the Republican Party.

Why do I care? Simple: America needs conservatives—real conservatives. Deficit hawks, America Firsters and get-that-dang-guvmint-outta-my-bizness types are essential watchdogs of fiscal responsibility and personal freedom. Moreover, ideological diversity sparks intellectual innovation.

Traditional conservatism—to state the obvious, is there truly any other kind?—is, despite its flaws, an philosophy attractive to those who value the ideal of rugged individualism. Most recently articulated by Barry Goldwater after he retired from the Senate, conservatism is centered around small government, particularly on the federal level; its size, scope, and powers are kept to a minimum in order to reduce infringement upon personal liberty, keep taxes low, and thus encourage investment and free enterprise. Fiscal responsibility is the order of the day. Budgets must be balanced. Deficits are anathema.

Conservatives believe that free markets create opportunities for hard-working people to succeed. They won’t help you get ahead, but they’ll keep nosy bureaucrats out of your hair while you’re figuring out how to do it on your own. It’s a bit Darwinian, but consider the advantages: you’re free to do whatever you want in your personal life. As Goldwater said when asked about gays in the military: “You don’t need to be straight to fight and die for your country, you just need to shoot straight.”

If Bush had been a conservative, he wouldn’t have cut taxes without reducing spending. He would have been an isolationist. As Pat Buchanan says, America Firsters don’t rush off to invade countries like Afghanistan and Iraq that pose no threat to the United States. Bush certainly wouldn’t have authorized NSA’s domestic spying program, gotten rid of habeas corpus, or infringed states rights by taking control of the National Guard away from state governors.

Conservatism is far more appealing to the average American than the bastardized form that has driven Republican policy for more than half a century. In 2008 voters rejected neoconservatism, an arrogant brand of “exceptionalism” dedicated to preemptive warfare, defending Israel, and empire building at the expense of all else.

Republicans use pretzel logic to market themselves to conservatives. In 1988, Allan Ryskind, editor of Human Events, told The New York Times that Reagan had deliberately increased the deficit in order to starve future Democratic administrations of money. “It has certainly put a lid on the welfare state,” he said. “The Democrats have sort of trapped themselves because they’ve said this is all terrible and horrible and that closing the deficit should be the first priority. The fact that they’ve said the deficit is such a problem,” he added, “prevents them from proposing new spending programs.”

Of course, it would also prevent Republicans—who remained in power until 1993—from cutting taxes, a principal tenet of conservatism.

Bill Clinton disappointed the Democrats’ liberal base, rewarding their support by pushing through welfare reform, NAFTA and the WTO. But if liberals feel used by the Democrats, conservatives have been raped by the Republicans.

This isn’t to say that traditional conservatives don’t need to change, in several areas. One is their intellectual separation of government spending into two categories: non-military and military, the latter of which is untouchable. Spending is spending, whether it’s on welfare queens or Halliburton. Another area is laissez faire, one of the few places where conservatism intersects with Republicanism.

When times are good, most Americans favor a small government that stays out of their lives and leaves them be. When a hurricane strikes, however, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps dogma goes out the window. Similarly, government should run in the black during an economic boom. When people start losing their homes, however, they look to their government for help. Conservatives should think of themselves as firefighters. Most of the time, you never see them. Firefighters don’t break down your door with an ax unless there’s a fire. But you’re damned happy to see them when there is.

As much as Americans hate paying taxes, they hate do-nothing government more. (Besides, they’ve been burned so often on tax-cut promises that they no longer believe them.) One of the lessons of 2008 was that voters aren’t happy to let the marketplace work its magic if the world is falling apart.

A political party that stays out of people’s business while being nimble enough to jump into the fray during emergencies might just stand a chance. So might a conservative movement that refuses to vote for a party that repeatedly betrays them.



  • K I'm shocked that this column from Ted Rall. You said this better then almost anyone in the Republican Party. With the exception of Reagan not being a conservative, this should be required reading, especially among Rockefeller Republicans. Our party will continue to lose if it continues to run "moderates" like Dole and McCain.

  • Ted,

    Nice to see you coming in defense of conservatism along the lines of the Ron Paul candidacy, after having sided with the mainstream media when they were smearing them. You know, back when it mattered, and when it could represent a break from the duopoly.
    But keep telling yourself you're not a partisan, one day you'll believe it yourself.

  • It's also noteworthy that, in the section where you let your little socialist soul get carried away and malign "laissez faire", you sound oddly similar to Kid Kristol at the NYT, the neocon to end all neocons:

    "A hawkish foreign policy, social conservatism and middle-American populism aren’t the problems (my emphasis). […]I don’t pretend to know just what has to be done. But I suspect that free-marketers need to be less doctrinaire and less simple-mindedly utility-maximizing, and that they should depend less on abstract econometric models. […] If conservatives do some difficult re-thinking in the field of political economy, they can come back"

    Ah, but here's another similarity: Kristol too thinks Ron Paul is a "crackpot".

  • As someone who has a strong sympathy for paleoconservatives and was driven away from the Republican party by Bush's policy and tactics, I firmly say "AMEN" to Ted's column. It's worth noting that one candidate who drew large numbers of young people to his side, had numerous small contributions (including troops overseas) and was adept at using the internet to gain votes and network supporters was Ron Paul. (Incidentally, the Republican Party denied him speaking rights at the Convention…so he drew 12,000 people to his own convention.) Paul now plans to build a network of supporters to take over the Republican party, much like the Religious Right did.

    (Incidentally, while the Religious Right may be a big obstacle to this plan, it's worth noting that three points can be made to encourage their support:
    1. A government that stays out of religion can allow for a greater role for religion. If religion isn't seen as dependent on government, it will appear stronger. Further, if religion doesn't try and fight government, people will be more likely to side with religion. (Of course, this goes totally against many of the theocratic leaders…)
    2. If the government can support specific religions, as many people are trying to do, where can they stop? Will they decide against smaller sects and subsects? Better for government to stay out of religion, even if people miss out on the lucrative subsidies.
    3. Many Religious Conservatives consider themselves to be moral. However, throughout history, war has been shown to undermine morals, even if there are "rules" to said war. (The Marquis de Sade stated that his writings never would have gotten the attention they did had it not been for the Napoleonic wars dulling the people to violence. A similar argument was made for the Grand Guignol plays and the Roaring Twenties arising out of the uphevals of World War I.) If war undermines morals, one way to uphold morals is to keep from having wars.

    Finally, I'd like to put in a shameless plug and say that the Libertarian/Paleocon-run (but linking to numerous others, including Ted at times) is having a fundraising drive. They and Ted are among the few voices who are questioning the commitment of Obama to ending the war in Iraq and the wisdom of his sending more troops to Afghanistan. Check it out. You may be surprised at what you find there.

  • Incidentally, no classical Liberal ("libertarian", in American parlance) outlet I know of ever praised the past 20 years of US economic policy as the pinnacle of "laissez faire". Most of them, OTOH, despised both the Republicran and Democrat administrations for continually expanding the federal behemoth.

  • I think your first bullet point is backward. The GOP betrayed Conservatism, not the other way around. Very good article. And you're right, the kind of conservatism you're talking about is very Keynesian. It is also not entirely incompatible with 1) the democratic platform as it stands now, and 2) progressive policy that has it's head in the right place; what I would call 'prudent progressivism'

    Keep in mind that the Military Commissions Act, Patriot Act, DHS, and cutting taxes during a time of war are all progressive in the sense that they are unprecedented, cavalier, and hurried. Prudent progressivism says "yes, we move forward cautiously for the most part, but we expand the meaning of freedom to reflect realities."

    The reality that women and minorities are at a structural disadvantage? The reality that our environment is damaged and getting worse? The reality that greedy self-interest a stable economy does not make? The reality that the freedom to walk down a street free of police presence isn't freedom at all if you get mugged and raped in the process?

    People need to stop having the dichotomous whiny argument that the baby boomer generation discovered in college (because of course, they were the first to discover everything) and get real about what our priorities are and what policy leads to the outcomes we want.

    In THAT discussion, conservatism is often the right approach; caution is the default position, which is why it is popular amongst people, especially when the big scary world is going insane. We need the Republican party to rehibilitate from its flirtation with corporate fascism.

    Very good article, Ted.

  • Sorry Ted, my misread of your first bullet point, you're correct.

  • incitatus, admit it, Clinton was more conservative than Reagan.

    Sure, niether was ideal, but one was much much cloaser than the other.

  • conservative tendencies
    November 18, 2008 6:28 PM

    Bravo Ted. Maybe now the insufferable douchebag peanut gallery will start differentiating conservatives from neocons.

  • Quoth Aggie:
    "yes, we move forward cautiously for the most part, but we expand the meaning of freedom to reflect realities."

    That's one fine piece of doublethink, Aggie. O'Brien would be proud. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Only now he is our kinda boss. Echh…

  • Ted's right, we could use more Birch society wingnuts who hate "big government" (whatever that means) in the abstract. It's not an ideology without a party, it's an ideology without a sane following.

  • Incitatus, WHO the boss is, is less relevant than WHAT the boss does, and what outcomes are achieved. I don't understand how my statement about expanding the concept of freedom constitutes doublethink. Could you expand on that for me?

  • Ted, I think you are wrong. The GOP trully represents the philosophy of conservatives. Conservative philosophy was never "small goverment", nor small state. Conservatives (and I mean GOP electorate) have been consistently militaristic, pro big goverment (not on social issues but on civil liberties restriction issues, militar issues, interventionist issues etc…). Conservatives have used libertarian rethoric during the cold war cause it suited their porposes, but they never actually bought it: nor the politicians, nor the intelectuals and nor the electorate.

  • Aggie, I think deeming actions that diminish freedom as "expanding freedom" is surely doublethink Now, if you were talking about "expand equality", that's another matter altogether,
    Angelo, I have no love lost for Clinton or Reagan, or conservatism

  • Amen.

    The demographic represented by Regan, W., and friends should be called Taco Bell Conservatives. Their political philosophy has as much to do with fiscal responsibility and personal freedom as Taco Bell has to do with Mexican cuisine.

    Substitute mystery meat smothered in cheeses for no bid contracts smothered in Jesus and you have the GOP menu.

  • Ron Paul, like all conservatives, is a crackpot.

    He does not believe in public education, he voted against raising the minimum wage to 7.25 and he hates the idea of a healthcare system that is cheaper and more effective than the current one.

  • Angelo, you never struck me as someone who goes for political diversity, glad you proved me right.
    Public education is, of course, crap, be it in the US, Brazil, Sweden or Zimbabwe. Its just a difference in odour and consistence. The minimum wage keeps poor people out of jobs and from all I've read about Paul's ideas on healthcare, a subject he understands much more that you and me put together, he abhors both the current US system and the proposals by various socialist crackpots (oh wait, that's redundant).
    The Anon right above your comment nailed it though.

  • incitatus laments:
    "The minimum wage keeps poor people out of jobs and from all I've read about Paul's ideas on healthcare, a subject he understands much more that you and me put together, he abhors both the current US system and the proposals by various socialist crackpots .."

    I don't think it requires any sort of specialized training to recognize that a duplicate of almost any european system would be an improvement over the US healthcare system. Ditto for education and wages.

    Thinking you can improve a system by inserting profiteering middle men is of penultimate utter fucking stupidity, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone.

  • Yeah, and if Ron Paul were President we wouldn't need healthcare at all because he would heal us with his mind…

    Ron Paul had great stances; he also had no idea how to turn them into solvent policy.

    Angelo is absolutely right. One can make theoretical arguments to the contrary, but the statistical reality is pretty irrefutable.

    Incitatus, Ayn Rand was bat-shit crazy and she was wrong. That's never been more evident than now.

  • Incitatus, the concept of personal freedom is mischaracterized in current American public discourse. It's all about the individual being able to do what they want, but only in terms of rational economic theory.

    When I talk about personal freedom, I talk about the basic freedoms that come from living in a stable society. It is an expanded DISCUSSION of freedom to include the concept of being free from insecurity, hunger, fear, etc. This kind of freedom only comes from a stable society. The freedom to leave your house in the morning and assume it will still be there when you come back in the evening.

    I think people take these things for granted to the extent that they begin looting the public good because they don't recognize what goes into the basic freedoms. Liberty only matters if you have safety.

    Therefore, it's not doublethink at all, it's just framing of freedom in a broader social context: The freedom to take the risks you're willing to take, because you don't have to worry about basic necessities. That is what a social safetynet provides, it is putting the horse before the carriage and not vice versa, which is what I think modern market economics does.

  • I don't know why you people insist on the Ayn Rand angle, you know, Classical Liberalism had a long history before her kooky apparition.
    Angelo, making everything a "service" provided by the State is a sure way to make it more expensive and less efficient, for reasons and evidence that should be obvious to everyoby in the XX century.
    Aggie, beeing "free" from material wants is a noble aspiration, but has nothing to do with freedom per se. You might as well aspire to be free from heartbreak or sexual frustration.

  • incitatus fires back:
    Angelo, making everything a "service" provided by the State is a sure way to make it more expensive and less efficient

    consider these government entities:
    US Postal Service
    Bureau of Automotive Repair
    Department of the Interior
    US Geological Survey

    Who in the private world can offer these services more efficiently than the government?

  • Haha, you're a great comedian, Angelo

  • Incitatus:

    Our private healthcare system is the most inefficient in the world.

    World Health Organization Healthcare Cost Indicators

    even the french are more efficient than we are.

    thanks for playing.

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