Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Party Time

Last night I dined with several very fine young men, students of Georgetown who find themselves surrounded by ascendant liberalism and who were seeking together to defend what seems defensible in conservatism. Much of the conversation centered on what can be done to improve the fortunes of the Republican party, that Party that has seemed to embody the antithesis of liberalism during their formative years. Their concerns mirrored the belief of their elders: indeed, what has happened over the past half-century is an ever-greater identification of a certain definition of conservatism (the "fusionism" achieved by Buckley and others) and the Republican party.

I was quietly observant for much of that conversation, lost a bit in my own reflections whether this belief of the easy identification of conservatism and the Republican Party was something that could be redressed, or whether it had become so deeply formative amongst a younger generation that it was all but impervious to reconsideration. In spite of the evidence of the past eight years - the example offered by that purported savior of conservatism, the true heir of Reagan, George W. Bush who encouraged financial profligacy at home and Wilsonian foreign policy abroad, who abrogated the Constitution and socialized major parts of American industry - still there is a belief across the land that the Republican party is somehow fundamentally conservative. And, at the same time there is the belief that the Democratic party is incontestably liberal, in spite of the calls by Jimmy Carter to reduce American reliance on foreign oil as long ago as 1979 (a call ridiculed by Reagan and his supporters), Clinton's fiscal responsibility, and even the actual reduction in the number of abortions during the Clinton years.

In truth, neither party is nor can be a pure expression of ideology in the American electoral system. This is actually a good thing - it is a major contributor to the American resistance to ideology - but it can sometimes be ignored or wished away during election season, when ideology becomes more evident (exacerbated by our Primary system) and reified above all in symbolic politics. It has been made worse - much worse - by the contemporary emphasis on policy-making through the Courts (liberal bear a particular responsibility here), that institution through which ideology can be most coherently advanced. Conservatives have themselves in turn concentrated on achieving victories in the Courts, and to do so have increasingly adopted their own forms of ideological reasoning in order to get a hearing within a legal system that only recognizes a such reasoning. Many of our conservatives today speak like Kantians rather than like Burkeans or Chestertonians. Certainly there are ideological tendencies and major policy differences between the parties, but what this most recent election has made possible - and what I hope will occur - is the possibility of at least modestly disassociating conservative commitments from easy identification with the Republican party. Many have become lazy, or simply habituated, into thinking that they are the same, but enough evidence can be gathered from recent political history to suggest that conservative ends are alternatively pursued and betrayed by both Parties. Those who maintain a deeper philosophical and theological allegiance to certain conservative beliefs should be wary of this close identification with one party, and even the dangerous ideological belief that one's goals can be achieved through a political program. Frankly, the truth is that the conservative view is likely to be a permanent minority voice in modernity, and thus must maintain the capacity to be poised in opposition, and to work - where possible - with the dominant forces. This means developing the difficult capacity to be somewhat apart, yet avoid complete disengagement.

These concerns have been very well-expressed in a recent essay by John Haldane of St. Andrews, who has written a cautionary note to his American colleagues on the website "Public Discourse." I recommend it, particularly the following passage:

It has been a mistake for moral conservatives to associate their concerns with opposition to one candidate and one party. Not only has the previous administration proved itself unworthy, but the state of the Republican party continues to be divided over values such that, had it won the White House and Congressional elections, it would not have delivered a range of policies that would have addressed moral concerns about the conduct of war, the management of markets, the securing of marriage, or the protection of the unborn.

While it would be wrong to abandon the political parties, it would be equally mistaken to side with one of them. The fact is that elections will always be fought and decided on a range of issues and the balance will sometimes favour one side, then another. Social conservatives who look to politics should be seeking to work within both parties, and in the case of the Democrats, seeking to return them to a historical position that was once more in line with Christian moral values and Catholic social teaching than was that of the Republicans.

There is also a further reason to be wary of confusing moral concerns with the fortunes of a political party. Those within a chosen party whose primary interest is pursuing electoral victory may prove fiercer enemies of one’s moral position than political opponents in other parties.


Social conservatives should understand that in American politics - and all modern politics, really - they will never have a true "party." Particularly in modernity, a time shaped to repudiate many of the basic commitments of conservatives (indeed, a time that gave rise to the peculiar beast called "conservatism") there will always be a degree of political homelessness. Conservatives should aim to achieve some political ends, but understand that those aims will always be partially or imperfectly reflected in the commitments of all modern parties, and should seek, where possible, to reinforce or extend those commitments where they can be found. There is an odd willfulness on the part of many so-called conservatives to damn every action and word of Obama even as they excuse the actions of Bush. This reflects, in my mind, the sad reality that the Will to Power has deeply infiltrated itself within some thoughtful people who ought rightly to be the greatest opponents of that Nietzschean ambition.

1 comment:

Irish Hoya said...

Obviously there is much to lament about the state and inadequacy of the Republican Party. Any conservative look at the calculating pragmatism and lack of first principles, and see how far it has drifted from 'Burke and Chesterton' (to the extent it ever was aligned with them). Similarly, I think, leftists of all stripes may be confused at Obama's decision to keep Robert Gates on board, and lament the fact that their president does not share the values of Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, as they had hoped.

However, even acknowledging the weaknesses and strength that exists in both parties, I think it would ultimately be a mistake to declare a 'pox on both their houses' and decide that there are no important distinctions between the parties. If nothing else, one political party has in its very platform, a dedication to protect the rights of the unborn. One party has been relentless in its support of abortion on demand. The Freedom of Choice Act is just another piece of legislation that, if enacted, will contribute to the slow moral decay of our society, forcing among other things, Catholic doctors to choose between their faith and their profession

The point you make is correct; we should not tie ourselves down so strongly that we cannot support Conservative initiatives and instincts proposed by either party. To pervert the term, we should act as a 'little battalion', flexible enough to build coalitions with those who we see fit, regardless of affiliation. But so too should we be wary of aligning ourselves with a party so callous to the rights of the least among us. The GOP, with all its warts, is still stronger on this all too important account, and it may be due a modicum of loyalty for it.