Think of the Children. Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children.
Liberals have long thought Ronald Reagan and the GOP of that era as made up of nothing but selfish jerks. I don’t think that ever was the case- Reagan in many ways offered a conservative version of the common good; that Republicans were more than just people serving interests, but working together as part of a greater whole.
That drive and belief of being your brother’s keeper seems to be absent from today’s GOP. Ross Douthat offers a stinging response to the cynical farm bill that passed yesterday:
Political parties don’t exist because of political visions, and don’t need them to survive. They exist because they represent interests, and they can represent those interests reasonably effectively — especially in a system that empowers minority parties — without an overarching vision of the common good. This is true for all the visions that have animated the G.O.P. in the past, and might animate it in the future — from Reagan’s three-legged stool to Bush’s compassionate conservatism to libertarian populism, reform conservatism and other contemporary animals. The party has profited and can profit, politically and intellectually, from adopting such ideological self-conceptions, but it doesn’t need them in order to elect members, influence policy and hold some kind of power.
But without a vision of the common good, a party is basically just a faction, seeking only the interests of its constituents, with no sense of its responsibilities to the country as a whole. And the Obama-era Republican Party’s worst tendency has been toward just this sort of factionalism: Not an ideological extremism, exactly, but rather a vision of government that you might call “small government for thee, but not for me,” in which conservatism is just constituent services for the most reliable Republican groups and voters.
This is what produced the party’s unfortunate Mediscare tactics during the 2009 health care debate, and it’s what produced yesterday’s egregious farm bill vote. It should go without saying that America’s agriculture policy has always been a terrible, stupid, counterproductive exercise in self-dealing cronyism. But when House Republicans severed the traditional connection, arbitrary but politically effective, between farm subsidies and food stamps, it briefly seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to put libertarian populist principle into practice, by separating both outlays in order to trim or reform both separately. But no — instead they were just making it easier for the party’s congressmen to vote for a bloated, awful big government program that benefits mostly-Republican states and interest groups, knowing that they weren’t also voting for something that pays out to the (mostly-Democratic) poor as well.
I agree with Douthat, one doesn’t need a vision to win elections. That said, people tend to vote not simply for their interests but for some grant corporate vision. The Republicans lost last November for many reasons, but one of them is that they don’t have a vision of the common good. When they can find it, and I believe they can if they try, the GOP will give folks a reason to pull the lever for them.
But of course, they have to give a damn and right now, they don’t.