Ramesh Ponnuru & Rich Lowry posted an essay over at National Review analyzing the fallout from this whole sordid government shutdown business. The essay is full of a number of well-timed common sense tactical observations. Summing it up, Lowry & Ponnuru strongly denounce the blind insistence upon ideological purity that leads to much strutting and fretting upon the media stage, but inevitably ends like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This essay is the sort of thing that conservatives are strangely somehow in great need of today. Over recent years, it has not been exactly clear just how many conservatives there are for whom the word “tactical” is included in their vocabulary.
It is quite refreshing that Lowry & Ponnuru do not mince words. The problem is basic: there is a kind of politics that ought to have no place in conservatism. Furthermore, this insight is not new. The government shutdown was only the most recent instance of what keeps happening when one particular faction of the Republican Party controls the leadership:
“[The government shutdown] was the latest and most consequential expression of an apocalyptic conservative politics. It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.” [emphasis added]
Thus, strategically, the insistence upon ideological purity is one of the best plans for guaranteed failure. In the real world, refusal to compromise nets zero results. It also strips away all those who would have agreed with a primary position, merely because they aren’t interested in taking such a position all the way to its nth-most extreme. This shrinks what often is already a minority, burns bridges, and encourages the desertion of many natural allies from the ranks.
“An emphasis on purity — even when defined essentially by matters of style and attitude rather than policy views — has too often kept such allies out of power. It has led Republican primary voters on several occasions to choose candidates who lost races that mainstream conservatives would likely have won. William F. Buckley Jr. said that conservatives should support the rightwardmost viable candidate, with viability understood to include the ability to make the case for conservatism in a way voters will find compelling. For the purists, viability is an unacceptable compromise. Which leads us to such candidates as Sharron Angle ... National Review joined the purists in supporting Richard Mourdock in Indiana, too, and that turned out to be a mistake. Too many conservatives have not admitted it or drawn appropriate conclusions.”
Don't forget both Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck (who all but gift-wrapped Senate seats for the Democrats). If conservatives are not careful, the 2014 elections (traditionally favorable to the party outside the White House) may cause more harm than good. There is evidence that has been piling up over the years that Tea Party candidates who win in the primaries very often give up elections to the Democrats even in districts that have Republican majorities. This can only mean that there is something defective about certain types of candidates. (There are many who learned this long ago in elementary school.)
Lowry & Ponnuru’s warnings here are timely and much needed. There is currently a strategic problem among conservative leadership, and recent failure has been based upon some fundamentally false assumptions:
“The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.” [emphasis added]
editor-in-chief of RedState.com, Erick Erickson, tore into National Review for even making this argument in the first place. Unlike more traditional online conservative writers (see Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher or Alan Jacobs), Erickson appears to represent a new and popular brand of “conservative” that is currently more trendy these days over at CNN and FoxNews. RedState.com was launched in 2004. Erickson is also a radio talk-show host not known for temperance at, as Buckley used to say, “the rhetorical or bombastic level.” To see the rather disconcerting nature of his rhetoric, all you have to do is listen to Erickson actually talk for a couple minutes anywhere on the news or on youtube.
Mr. Erickson’s counterpoints to Lowry & Ponnuru's essay demonstrate a profound unfamiliarity with traditional conservative thought. He attempts to back up his first point by referring to Buckley’s 1955 mission statement for National Review, noting that Buckley “did not mention winning elections” and that, instead, Buckley encouraged “standing athwart history yelling stop.” First, it is not entirely clear if Mr. Erickson understands that Buckley’s language was intended to be taken metaphorically rather than literally. As one continues to read Mr. Erickson, one comes away from his writing with the distinct impression that actually “yelling stop” may be one of his preferred methods of debate over at RedState.com. Secondly, reading his attempt to argue that it is meaningful that Buckley did not mention winning elections in one notable column, one can only conclude either (a) that Mr. Erickson has not really read much of Buckley, or (b) that he decided to deliberately ignore what Buckley actually did say about winning elections.
When asked who are the best types of candidates that a conservative should support, Buckley replied: “The wisest choice would be the one who would win. No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest. I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win. If you could convince me that Barry Goldwater could win, I’d vote for him.” (And, apparently at least someone over at RedState.com has heard of this rule before.)
The Goldwater example is, in fact, instructive. While Goldwater did garner the support of Buckley and National Review in the mid-1960s, the interesting story is how he was able to do so. At the time, supporting Goldwater was a matter of controversy over at National Review. William Rusher and Brent Bozell were among the first to support him. On the other hand, James Burnham and Buckley’s sister, Priscilla, did not and warned against the consequences of supporting him. But Goldwater eventually gained the support of both Buckley and Russell Kirk before the Republican Primary by initially agreeing with them to distance himself from members of the John Birch Society. This agreement, however, did not last very long. Carl T. Bogus explains:
“In the end - and to his undoing - it was Barry Goldwater who accommodated himself to the John Birch Society. Some of his advisers begged him not to do it. Nevertheless, when he accepted his party’s nomination for president in July 1964, Goldwater stood before the Republican National Convention and declared, ‘I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’ Cheers shook the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Goldwater had to wait more than forty seconds before he could deliver the companion line: ‘And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!’ The audience leaped to its feet. Everyone understood that Goldwater had just said that the John Birch Society was okay by him. Richard Nixon, who had introduced Goldwater, grabbed his wife Pat’s arm to keep her from rising with the crowd ...”
This was ultimately disappointing for the crowd at National Review. Goldwater had disregarded the advice of both Buckley and Kirk, and this disregard contributed to his loss of the 1964 election. Burnham’s warnings about Goldwater had ultimately proved to be correct. Reflecting on this later, Buckley wrote bemusedly that “Goldwater had learned too late the lesson that one must guard against any use of a word which, for many, amounted to a call to immoral ends ... It was so in 1964 with the word ‘extremism.’ It could not be hygienically used in any affirmative context.”
Also, when asked, during another conversation about Goldwater, about which “failures of the conservative movement in the past ten to twenty years” most distressed him, Buckley answered that he understood the conservative argument against voting for Goldwater. However: “In any case, that was not by any means my idea of the great disappointment of the sixties. That was the failure, on the whole, to verbalize more broadly, more convincingly, the conservative view of things. The conservative critique has been very well made, but it hasn’t got through with sufficient force to the opinion makers. It is still hard as hell to find a young conservative with writing talent. That distresses me deeply.”
“The defunding campaign was the legislative equivalent of the hopelessly ill-suited candidate — and, like many of those candidates, it drew support from people who see politics primarily in terms of purity, confrontation, and willpower. The contrast to the Democrats’ behavior in 2009 and 2010 is instructive. They were willing to muscle through a health-care bill even though the public opposed it, and even though some of them realized it would cost them seats. Republicans should have a similar commitment to better causes. But they should also note that Democrats used this maneuver only when they had the votes — large majorities in both houses of Congress, control of the White House — to pull it off. They did not take a large political risk while having no plausible way to gain a policy victory to show for the potential costs.”
But Erickson dismisses National Review’s point here with contempt: “Now, instead of standing athwart history yelling stop, National Review spends 3,591 words to tell conservatives to stop fighting until they win ... I await the well-fed editors apologizing for the Goldwater candidacy. At this point, it is only a matter of time.” Making cheap shots like this ignores the lessons that conservatives learned from the Goldwater candidacy. For our purposes, the whole point is that the Goldwater campaign went off the rails, turning towards precisely the type of uncompromising rhetoric that Erickson supports.
“The truth,” argues Erickson, “is that Obamacare is deeply destructive and an assault on individual liberty. It should be fought by all means, with or without a Senate majority or White House. The fight should not depend on electoral outcomes and should not be delayed pending reinforcements, many of whom will flee the field once elected.” But that’s just the problem, who wins the fight does depend on electoral outcomes. The reality is that conservatives have to return back to convincing the public of their positions or they will never advance any further conservative objectives. But Erickson doesn’t care:
“The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal ...” But hungering for a fight isn’t enough. Mere opposition, without even the a minimal plan for success, will never reverse anything. Drawing a proper distinction between fighting now and living to fight another day is not making peace with the philosophical consequences of the New Deal.
Erickson’s contempt contrasts sharply with National Review’s respect for the more energetic elements with in the Tea Party movement. Lowry & Ponnuru are happy to point out that the “groups that pushed defunding play an important role in galvanizing grassroots sentiment. The insistence on conservative rigor can exercise a welcome influence in fights like the one over the farm bill, in which inertia and self-serving Republican politics are at their worst and many of the same groups that supported defunding urged a better, more reformist course. Their willingness to go out and fight is indispensable.” And yet, a willingness for a fight alone isn’t enough. Effective politics means picking and choosing your battles. Some fights are unrealistic in a government specifically designed so as not to be shaped by sheer brute power.
So how exactly is it that have we stopped caring about reality?
“Conservative groups that have internalized the apocalyptic view of politics believe the most effective model for gaining ground is simply pressuring Republicans to be more confrontational. The first step of the defunding strategy was not to persuade most Republicans that it was a good idea; it was to force them to go along with it whether or not they agreed. So the defunders prevented the majority of House Republicans, who disagreed, from being able to follow a different approach, and threatened to run primary opponents against some of them. Then they began to insist that Republicans who remained critical were dishonorably breaking the party’s (coerced) unity.”
In fact, there is a whole other story here about how Ted Cruz and Rand Paul pushed past the more realistic options for working out real compromise that other conservatives like Paul Ryan were negotiating for. Instead, when Republican leadership caved and stumbled, Paul Ryan was ignored and the “defunders thus filled a vacuum — but filled it badly. And they did not supply what the leaders most woefully lacked. Neither group has promoted a free-market health-care plan of the kind that would have to be part of any plausible strategy to replace Obamacare.”
“There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were ‘defeatists.’ Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.”
The only way that conservatives will enact legislation to reform health care, to reform the budget, to put in place a reasonable plan to decrease the debt, and to stop the incredible recent exponential growth of government spending, will be to put such legislation up to a vote. Need we really explain this any further? (To win a vote, you submit your legislation to a vote after you have collected enough votes to win. Refusing to do anything as blackmail in order to force the other side to give in accomplishes nothing. The refusing-to-do-anything-strategy has historically helped one political party to enact exactly no legislative reform whatsoever.)
Scott Johnson wrote that “Erickson’s response illustrates one of the phenomena that Lowry and Ponnuru decry in Cruz’s leadership.” It almost appears as if Erickson doesn’t care if the conservatives win. If the point is to find a public spotlight in which to demonstrate one’s ideological purity, then Ted Cruz and the defunders’ strategy was successful. If the point is to eventually change Obamacare and/or replace it with a plan that is at least somewhat designed to account for Economic 101, then Erickson is not helping.
Not only is he not helping, but, considering the press coverage Erickson has been able to attract, he might as well be working against conservatives. The news of the last week has been of the “house divided against itself cannot stand” variety. MSNBC was happy to report that the “ideological civil war inside the Republican Party is well underway.” Jonathan S. Tobin, at Commentary Magazine, enthusiastically explains that: “Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement.”
This is not what conservatives need right now, but Tobin may not be that far off from the truth. If enough conservatives are not paying attention, they will allow electable candidates to be replaced by mere core-base-pleasing unelectable candidates. The Democrats will then increase their majority in the Senate and even threaten a considerable number of seats in the House.
“It’s too soon to know for sure, but right now I’m starting to think that those inclined to pooh-pooh the chances for a genuine split are wrong. If that portion of the conservative base listens to Cruz and Erickson they are going to spend much of the next year trying to exact revenge on the senator’s critics. And if that means helping to knock off genuine conservatives like McConnell who will almost certainly be replaced in the Senate not by more Cruz clones but by liberal Democrats, they think it’s no great loss because such people are more interested in purifying the GOP than in beating the Democrats ... This drama will be played out in many states next year in the midterm elections, but it will come to a head in 2016 when a single formidable moderate conservative may possibly be opposed by a split field of right-wingers in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.”
Kevin Drum also informs us that “Moderate Republicans are no longer a real force. For better or worse, right wingers finally have the party they've always wanted — or at least as much of it as any faction is ever likely to get in real life.” When prudence and moderation are signs of ideological treason, then both tactics and rhetoric are only going to grow more and more extreme. National Review is simply asking conservatives to be cautious and to start thinking about this.
Drum remembers that when “Democrats went through this kind of introspection in the 80s, the DLC, for better or worse, drove a conversation that included lots of painfully concrete ideas. That produced plenty of noxious infighting, but it also produced results. The same thing could happen in conservative circles. It would be fascinating to see National Review start to play the same kind of role on the right. That's unlikely, I suppose, but one way or another, they need to choose up sides. It's easy and obvious to say that Republicans need to win electoral victories if they want to promote the conservative cause. The bigger question is what Republicans need to do in order to win those victories. Tackling that question in a forthright way will make NR a lot more enemies, but it might, eventually, also produce some actual electoral victories.”
from the comments that they post on the article’s webpage. Mr. Erickson’s diatribe against National Review has so far garnered many supporting comments such as the following:
- “Either you choose principles as a foundation and suffer the slings and arrow of public sentiment, or you become a weathervane of political expediency, bending with the winds to survive, but never actually changing the direction of anything else.”
- “Had the NR come out early in support of a true conservative like Santorum or Bachmann, there's no telling how many minds could have been changed going into the 12 election.”
- “I have had it with the New World Order, statist, progressive Bush family and hope they stop trying to ‘globalize’ this country.”
- “I want to get us to the promised land. God bless Red State for overtaking NR as the true voice of conservatism.”
- “The only common ground the Democrats want is on the edge of a cliff, so they can push us off and presumably come tumbling after. To bargain with them is a death pact.”
- “Moderates wouldn't be bad allies, if they could just learn to take directions.”
- “The zombies know but one direction and they can not do anything but walk ahead bite, kill and consume their prey.”
- “It will take time (40 yrs. or 400) and constant struggle but we will reach the "promised land" because conservatism promotes a life God wants us to live.”
Of course, not all the comments were positive. After a few commenters dared to disagree with Mr. Erickson, one of his supporters commented: “This is a great post! What amazes me though is that it seems Redstate.com has becoming a hangout for the GOP establishment types based on many comments I see. So sad. What happened here at Redstate Erick???” To which Mr. Erickson responded: “It's crap and makes it easier for people to troll in bad faith. We're working to change it.”
In the face of so much unreason and one-sidedness, it is difficult to find much more to say. “Scorn prudence,” Lowry & Ponnuru warn us, “and you can justify any course of action so long as you approve its ends.” Even, it necessarily follows, courses of action destined for utter and complete failure.
I can only assume that Mr. Erickson and his readers have neither read nor profited by the conservative tradition of prudence and moderation long advocated for by the best of conservative thinkers in political history. At this point, I can only plead with all conservatives to re-read and re-think through admonitions and warnings like the following:
“If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.”
“So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”
“In classic and Christian ethics the first of the moral virtues is sophia or prudentia, because without adequate understanding of the structure of society, including the conditio humana, moral action with rational co-ordination of means and ends is hardly possible. In the Gnostic dream world, on the other hand, non-recognition of reality is the first principle.”
“But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad after-effects. It causes pride, either individual or collective, and pride brings its own doom.”
“Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.”
David Foster Wallace:
“It’s known that the vastly increased popularity of talk radio over the past decade coincides with the growth and mobilization of the GOP’s right wing, with the proliferation of partisan media, with the alliance of neoconservatism and evangelical Christianity, and with what seems like the overnight disappearance of restraint, tolerance, and civility - even a pretense of mutual respect - in US political discourse.”
“The virtue of political moderation is often mistaken for a compromise with virtue, a softening of belief, a diluting of passion, a weakening of will, even an outright vice. But those are examples not of political moderation but of the failure to achieve it. Moderation in politics is not a retreat from the fullness of life but an embrace of it. Political moderation is called into action by the awareness of the variety of enduring moral and political principles; the substantial limits on what we can know and how effectively and justly we can act; the range of legitimate individual interests; the multiplicity of valuable human undertakings and ends; and the quest to discern a common good in light of which we can make moral distinctions and establish political priorities ... Nevertheless, the virtue of political moderation will always serve as an inviting target for demagogues who seek to exploit the passion for purity in politics.”
In his book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, historian George H. Nash discussed how Buckley’s coalition consciously made itself broad enough to incorporate alliances between different conservative schools of thought in order to accomplish the goals they held in common. This “fusionism” was what made their success possible.
“Perhaps they had tired of factional feuding: more likely they were increasingly cognizant of the need to avoid either quixotic antistatism or morose authoritarianism if their movement was to capture national power and respect ... If ‘fusion’ implied practical collaboration with others who angles of vision did not coincide with one’s own, most conservatives were clearly fusionists in this sense by the mid-1960s or even earlier.”
This is what modern conservatives still need today. Nash notes that this “fusionism” included the rejection of any ideologically closed systems. “Moreover, [Frank] Meyer and other conservatives never tried of stressing that conservatism was not an ideology, complete with sacred tests or a Fourteen Points. It was part of the wisdom and genius of conservatism that it did not try to encapsulate all its beliefs in a handbook of doctrines.”
It is difficult to stress just how very important this is. Reuters reports that Paul “Ryan will be his party's leader on the budget negotiating panel that
sprang from [October]'s deal to end a federal government shutdown and
avert a potential default.” If the conservatives in the Republican Party follow examples of intelligent leadership that men like Ryan have already proved they are able to provide, then a compromise between both parties will be likely. Some limits will be able to be set. Limits that are not set can then become further issues of debate for the upcoming elections. That is one of the advantages of compromises. It frames further concrete plans of reform for public attention.
We must not denounce or show contempt for those like Lowry & Ponnuru who call for serious evaluation of the possible. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. We must not support those like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Erick Erickson whenever they call for extreme absolute positions of no compromise. Doing that exhibits a casual disdain of even the possibility of victory. Willful ignorance, pretense or grandstanding will not persuade anyone over to the other side. Instead, conservatives need to appeal to reason. They need to explain in concrete terms the alternatives that they have to offer and why such alternatives will help us. And then, they need to produce electable candidates who will back these concrete alternatives.
For any conservatives who can't be bothered to read history books anymore, Steven Spielberg's recent film, Lincoln, provides us with an instructive historical lesson on the limits of ideological purity. The abolitionists existed and strove energetically for almost an entire century without accomplishing concrete goals in the real world. This had something to do with their absolute uncompromising demands for everything all at once. They remained so ideologically pure that they were stuck fighting a constant rearguard action. In the meantime, the number of slaves in America increased rapidly. It took a prudent and careful compromising mastermind like Lincoln to abolish slavery in the real world. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he was willing to head in the right direction only by taking one small step at a time.
Absolute repeal of the Affordable Care Act will never happen without enough votes. Absolute defunding of the Affordable Care Act will never happen without enough votes. As a matter of fact, even a partial and moderate repeal is highly unlikely without winning a rather important election in 2016. However, real compromises hammered out in order to begin the decrease of the National Debt, to begin to privatize a few portions of the Healthcare System, budget cuts and entitlement reform (a little here and a little there) - all these things are possible with a conservative leadership that is willing to do something other meeting matters of ideological satisfaction.
Conservatives need not bother themselves about fighting some internal civil war within their own house just yet. As vocal as he may be, I'm not convinced that Erickson represents a great enough number to obstruct real conservative objectives at every turn. But, if we are not yet a house divided, we certainly do seem to have some real house cleaning that needs to be done. It may just be that the recent exhibition that Cruz and his adherents just made of themselves last month will serve to wake up enough conservatives to the exigencies of political strategy. The first order of business will include gently pushing aside those demagogues who try to exploit that passion for purity that can only spectacularly fail as a corollary to neglecting the virtues of prudence and moderation.