the big tent
So one thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how dissident conservatives – of either the reformist or the paleo stripe (or those reformopaleo hybrid types) – dialogue with movement conservatives and with each other, and how, in the long run, it’s going to be a truce – not a victory for either group – that eventually rebuilds the conservative coalition. This is the flaw with both the dissident and movement approaches, which seek to either demonize one another (I’m guilty of this, I admit) or ignore one another, or make claims to purity that essentially negate any possibility of a meaningful coalition, leaving the door open for the Democrats to come in and clean up.
When you set out to build a coalition, even though sometimes a purge is necessary, what is equally or perhaps even more important is bringing in disparate groups to work together for a larger goal. The two party system is not so different than a parliamentary system in this respect – even though it’s only two parties, they are hardly ever homogeneous groups. Competing visions exist within the larger whole, and that’s the way it has always been. Sometimes strong and charismatic leaders like Reagan or perhaps even Obama can really truly unite these groups, but often this unity is tenuous at best. And unless conservatives want to see a complete Democratic take-over – spanning decades – they’d be wise to start building a bigger tent.
Now, the Democrats are hardly a unified party at the moment, but conservatives shouldn’t bet on that lasting. Right now Democrats may be coasting on the unpopularity of the last President and the inability of conservatives to offer much of an alternative both to the Bush (or Reagan) vision of America or to the America that Obama proposes. And it’s true that this is not really the genius of anything the Democrats are doing, really, but rather what conservatives are not doing, and especially the conservative movement’s inability to communicate properly with the American people. The Democrats have Obama, and without him I’d say they stand a much less likely chance of holding on to power unless, of course, Obama cultivates a strong following within the Democratic leadership. We’re only half a year in to the new administration, and so far that hasn’t happened, but the day is early. In four years, if he is as skilled a politician as he seems to be, Obama will have remade the party in his own image, and that’s dangerous for conservatives.
So the question becomes – is there a point in forming a new conservative coalition? Can the realists and paleos stomach the more hawkish elements of movement conservatism and vice versa? Can reformers stand a chance of presenting a practical, appealing conservatism when the supposed “base” is still so caught up in old movement memes? And is there enough of a distance between said reformers and their liberal opponents to appeal to the base? Is the distance between reformers and movement types more a matter of taste than policy – or do the ideologues in talk radio etc. really represent a sort of inertia for conservatism? Very few ideas beyond obstructionism have emerged from the movement in the past six months. I understand that strategy but is it enough? Is it enough to denounce Obama as a socialist without providing a really compelling case for an alternative?
I don’t think so.
And I think the depth to which both parties have sunk into the pockets of powerful corporate interests remains a real stumbling block for a viable alternative conservatism (or progressivism for that matter) to really mature. It also makes, for conservatives especially, regaining a foothold in fiscal conservatism very difficult, though that above almost all else, I believe, is what stands a chance at reuniting conservatives in opposition to the Democratic agenda. That’s a steep hill to climb, though, given the fiscal disaster of the past eight years.
So I don’t know. There’s some who want to do away with the two-party system in order to achieve somehow more purity, or better ideological niches (i.e. Republicans aren’t real conservatives so let’s start the Conservative Party which will be pure or the Social Conservative Party because that Conservative Party doesn’t represent true values voters…etc.).
I think that the two party system makes more sense though, and that coalitions within the parties are a better option since in the end, a five or six party system would just be one in which smaller parties formed coalitions together anyways. Little would change in any practical sense. And right now, though I’ve been supportive of measures to increase health coverage for Americans and though I’ve been critical of attempts to subsidize private schools with government money (more on this later by the way) I am finding that more and more the projected budget deficits, and the potential returns from these proposals, are making me very nervous, and the need for smart conservative alternatives is becoming more pressing. The words “regulatory capture” keep nudging their way into my thoughts on all of these issues – from Waxman-Markey to whatever probably awful health care bill we get.
While I support spending measures on certain big ticket items like mass transit, or on fundamental societal needs like education, other expensive measures like government take-over of the auto-industry, or the ridiculous cap and trade indulgences are absolutely the actions of irresponsible government. And many of these areas of necessary government involvement could be handled at a local level rather than reliant on the beneficence of the federal government. Fiscal sanity minus ideological stubbornness could be a good first step in regaining public trust.
Conor is exactly right. And this is precisely what the movement needs – ideological differences be damned. It is sort of incredible how much rests in how we interact and dialogue with one another. As Conor writes:
It is helpful to see an author concede, qualify and reassert. I now possess a better understanding of his argument, the matters he cares most about emphasizing, and the parts of his foreign policy posture that persuade me to re-examine my own. Everyone involved in this exchange is better for it—almost as if forceful disagreement among open-minded, intellectually honest people leads at least toward a better understanding of where disagreements lie, and often toward a clearer understanding of the world.
Of course, this could have gone another way. Matt might have decided against offering any criticism of Reihan due to the fact that both are on Team American Scene. Reihan could have responded to Daniel by sanctimoniously lamenting that he is anti-freedom, and dismissed Freddie as unworthy of a substantive response because he is a liberal, and therefore evil. All the while, folks in the comments section could have cheered Reihan on by aiming juvenile insults at his critics and impugning their motives.