05 Nov 2008

Lessons From Across the Pond

Edward Wright, a British Conservative, has an interesting piece about the future direction of the Republican party here in the U.S., full of suggestions that the party leadership would do well to take to heart. There are many parallels between the defeat of the Tories in 1997, and what happened yesterday; both lost the trust of the public after economic turmoil, and both had spent too long drinking their own Kool-Aid while neglecting their stated reason for existing.

It is when parties deviate from their fundamental intellectual core that they suffer the most. The most important example of this in the current administration is public spending. Whilst tax cuts helped to keep the American economy growing their pre-requisite – low public spending – was ignored. It’s harder to demonise big government liberals when you have spent eight years turning a healthy budget surplus into a massive deficit, a deficit which represents a massive tax burden on future generations in the form of interest payments to Chinese bankers.

In Britain the ideological departure had serious underpinnings and serious consequences. The pragmatic conservatism of the previous 150 years was eschewed in exchange for the dynamic monetarism, privatisation and market liberalisation of the Thatcher revolution. To succeed once more the GOP must rediscover its own ideological core, an ideology that is found not in the anti-intellectual city-dweller baiting of Sarah Palin but in integrity in government, individual freedom and not just low taxes but low spending.

It is difficult, as a small-government Libertarian conservative, to find much of a silver lining in yesterday’s election; not only does it bring us dangerously close to one-party rule – just two Senate votes, at the time of writing, and that only if Senatorial filibuster rules are not changed – but it seems destined to lead to yet more government interventionism. About the only positive aspect of it that I can find, is that it might represent the death knell of the far-right, authoritarian “conservatives” that have monopolized the GOP brand for too long.

The ‘Evangelical Right’ should have always been the party’s fringe, not its core; by making it the latter, Republican leaders virtually guaranteed yesterday’s outcome sooner or later. The far-right just isn’t socially mainstream enough to form the core of a majority political party. That the strategy worked for as long as it did is remarkable, but – perhaps thankfully – it has found its limit.

The much-ballyhooed ‘silent majority’ was willing to nod along with social authoritarians – men and women who seemed more interested in what was going on in their neighbors’ bedrooms than in Wall Street boardrooms – so long as the economy was humming along and we were winning wars abroad. But once that ended, so too did the public’s tolerance for politicians who had built their careers obsessing over irrelevancies. And let’s be clear: to all but a hard core of religious conservatives, when Wall Street is melting down, concerns over fetuses and buggery are worse than irrelevant.

The question now is whether the Republican party will pull itself together in time to save the country from sliding disastrously far to the left. They have two years in which they must formulate a new message, or at least rediscover an old message that they seem to have forgotten, and take that message to the public, before mid-term elections. I sincerely hope that they can do it, because as bad as the two-party system is, a one-party system – which is what we’re looking at if the Republican party doesn’t adopt a ‘big tent’ platform very quickly – would be far worse.

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