An important comment on the Rump post:
1) What is your definition of neo-conservatism?
I’ve heard it used more as an epithet for any disliked Republican idea than as a precise term. The best guess I can gather from your post is that you use it to refer to the Republican version of the visceral reactions to immigration, social change, and high taxes, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what you meant. If you could explain your view of neo-conservatism as opposed to conservatism, it would make your post a lot more clear.
2) What would you say is different between the Republican ideology currently versus that of 1994?
I ask this question because you seem to be making the assertion that the modern Republican party cannot be a majority party, but the opening of your post seems to be addressing Republicans since the 1980s, and you never created a clear distinction within the party’s last 30 years.
3) What is the alternative?
You end by criticizing Republicans as being too conservative to succeed in the near future. If changes were possible, what would you say must be done to improve the party?
1) Neoconservatism, from my previous post: involves “a free-markets, socially conservative, American Founding-loving ideology.” I’m not saying these things are bad. I’m saying there was a crystallizing of several items into one political/thought system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, bringing together the reactions against the welfare state and the 1970s poor economy, anti-Communism, the rise of the new evangelicalism, the increasingly politicized anti-abortion movement, and more. While some of these were in the Republican platform/coalition before, they were not necessarily connected in the minds of voters. The visceral reactions against high taxes, immigration, and social change are all very old, and end up being expressed in various political ways (and many times are not articulately expressed at all) – but again, I’m not saying these are necessarily bad. I’m saying they were not part of a comprehensive political ideology. The Republican Party itself was a coalition of possibly unrelated groups and ideas, bouyed like the Democrats by hereditary voters who “inherited” there parents’ voting habits. What I am saying is that the neoconservative system of thinking politically was able to bring all of these issues to the level of being important in people’s minds. Having done that, there are now lots of people who have identified with this system of thinking, and are as opposed to new taxes as they are to abortion as they are to soft foreign policy. Perhaps, most importantly, it became believed that all these must be fought on the national level. Again, I am not demeaning this – I just think this is how it went down.
2) The Republican executive control of 1980-92 (and they probably would’ve won in 1992 if it weren’t for Perot), and the 1994 Congressional and following 90s elections, were the result partly of this comprehensive political ideology taking root, and partly from the decay of the Democratic coalition. The more socialistic Democrats lost any legitimacy with the fall of communism, which was therefore perceived as the triumph of freedom, including free markets; the Democrats lost many of its pro-life members; and the explosion of urban problems and violence in the 1970s were not getting better. If Republican victory was the result of not only its own strengthening position, it was also the weakening of its opponent. In other words, the Republican coalition involved disaffected people who were not committed to their ideology, but were opposing the Democrats. In American politics, both parties have been anchored by hardcore true believers of some kind (though I obviously think the Republican core has a more comprehensive and rooted ideological system), and a number of people in the middle who can be persuaded. The Republican core has been anti-Communist before, as well as simply owning the hereditary votes; now it is neoconservatism that holds the line. Part of earlier Republican victory had to do with disaffection from the Democrats. Republicans now carry the weight, though, of perceived failures of the Bush administration – I think it will take years to move past that public image.
3) I don’t think at all that the Republicans are too conservative to succeed. My comment on electoral success was off-hand, and I am willing to be disproven. However, there is at this point the continuing baggage of George Bush that will not go away quickly. It is possible for his image to rehabilitate if Iraq goes well, but there were so many people blaming him for eveything this past decade, that I don’t think they can change this thought quickly.
From the standpoint of practical politics, it is assumed that the Republicans have to change to win. Maybe, maybe not. Some of it will just take time. However, I don’t think the party will be able to change, because so many people now have an articulated system of political and social critique and a vast amount of literature to reinforce it, which socially justifies their visceral reaction, and places it within the context of a broader system of picturing the world around them. This sounds bad, but I am actually supportive of gut reactions – not that intuition or prejudice is always right, but that it is biased toward social order, which I think should inform our politics. It is a helpful starting point, not an end point.
If you’re still reading, I suppose I find important solutions not so much in Republican reascendency, per se, but in (1) effectively countering destructive Democratic positions, and (2) finding humane solutions to social problems. These are not always the same. Both, however, may involve local rather than federal activity, or social rather than government activity. As such, the solution may be an effective decoupling of neoconservative ideology from national politics, per se. This is already true to an extent, but it needs to involve motivation for and social recognition of local and non-governmental activity.
Second, neoconservative ideology is so committed against government activity at the national level, that they cannot conceive of it at the local level. However, effective solutions exist in manipulating zoning laws and building codes, and in public funding of public places, such as parks and outdoor markets. New Urbanism is not an obviously neoconservative solution, but it is a humane and conservatively-rooted solution, in some ways.
Ultimately, the Republican party is a necessary vehicle for countering the Democratic party, and it would have to gain power if negative Democratic policies are going to be stopped. However, I would hope for neoconservative ideology to shift away from its commitment to the Republican party – not to be open to the Democrats, but to draw itself away from politics, sometimes. An effective movement has a more articulate voice when it has results; and when conservatives say the social results won’t come from government activity, there has to be some kind of linked to some kind of positive results.
This is a starting point. Let me know your thoughts.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.