2016: The GOP Rapture Cometh
I’ve long suggested that the ebb and flow of political parties in the United States is best understood by viewing the two major parties as potent, but cyclical, marriages of convenience amongst cultural and economic interest groups masquerading as political philosophies or ideologies. At root, these parties must of course be united by a common agenda at any given time; to be successful, they must also be capable of pulling the core elements of this agenda into a coherent narrative capable of motivating coalition members to get out to the polls.
This narrative inevitably attracts new groups whose primary interests are consistent with the core narrative but may or may not be consistent with the secondary and tertiary interests of other elements of the coalition (or vice versa). The problem is that eventually the party succeeds in enacting key elements of its agenda, with secondary or tertiary interests becoming primary, even though those interests may not be consistent with the narrative, and in any event are inevitably hostile to at least some other groups in the coalition; in other words, the narrative that held the coalition together becomes incoherent. With the party now lacking a coherent narrative, the agenda positions that make it through effectively become the narrative; everything becomes a matter of “principle,” but as I like to say “have too many principles and you soon have none,” and such a party becomes incapable of good governance. Unable to agree on a positive agenda, the coalition starts to decay, and must resort to a negative agenda, with its ability to motivate its core groups to the polls contingent upon its ability to push a narrative of fear.
This is inevitably just a band-aid – rare indeed is the core party group content with “status quo” as a long-term goal, and only slightly less rare is the potential core voter willing to put up with being the target of a fear-based narrative. At some point, the remaining portions of the party’s core groups must necessarily realize how little they continue to have in common, and the party must tear itself asunder in order to be reborn as a party again capable of competent national governance (an example here may be the Democrats’ decision to adopt a civil rights platform in 1960 and 1964 despite the knowledge that it would destroy the party’s southern dominance).
For the Republican Party, I believe that moment is finally – mercifully – almost upon us, evidenced by the escalating war of words between Chris Christie and Rand Paul last week. At some point I expect social conservatives will find someone to join the fray as well; regardless, we’re seeing the beginnings of a genuine battle for the future of the Republican Party, with neither group fitting so easily on the single-dimension conservative vs. moderate/extremists vs. squishes axis that has largely defined the GOP over the last 20 years or so.
The die-hard movement conservatism that sought to maintain unity between these factions of the “three-legged stool” long after it had served its purpose through rigid dogma finds itself increasingly marginalized and incapable of influencing debate, having rendered itself a laughingstock after years of promoting the Michelle Bachmanns, Steve Kings, Sarah Palins, and Newt Gingriches of the world. Who now is the flag-bearer for the seat of the “three-legged stool” that movement conservatism always purported to be? Ted Cruz, whose favorability rating is lukewarm even in quintessentially red Texas?
Although the media is likely to portray any battle between Christie and Paul* as one between the “centrist’ Christie and the “extreme right-winger” Paul, such portrayals will be inaccurate – neither Christie nor many of his supporters are truly centrists, and neither Paul nor many of his supporters are orthodox Limbaugh-ites. Instead, real and genuine ideological cleavages exist here.
The “Furious Institutionalist”
On the one hand, Christie is in some ways the true Republican heir to Abraham Lincoln – and, given his views on civil liberties and our capacity to wage war, this is true of both the good and the bad- despite hailing from the
only state non-border state [Ed. note – thanks to Scarlet Number for pointing out this error] to vote for McClellan. In other respects, of course, he’s more comparable to a Republican Bill Clinton. Regardless,this week’s excellent New York Magazine profile depicts him as a “furious institutionalist” unafraid to attack other politicians for a lack of principle, which seems like an appropriate definition of his ideology.
This “furious institutionalism,” a variety of traditional small “c” conservatism, is a governing philosophy that emphasizes stability and security above all else. That which is unstable must in the long run be reformed to become stable in the long run; that which threatens stability and predictability must be rooted out and destroyed. To Christie and presumably many of his supporters, liberty can exist only within stable institutions, which must be allowed to do their jobs. It is perhaps the case that this renders him susceptible to being viewed as the “voice of the establishment,” but if so, in him the establishment has found a voice capable of connecting with the masses. What does this ideology imply as a matter of policy?
- An active foreign policy, and a complete lack of tolerance for anything or anyone that purports to threaten the United States’ stability or the stability of its interests abroad. As we have seen in the last week, Christie appears to have staked out a position as an unabashed supporter of heavy defense spending.
- A faith that existing institutions must be enabled to achieve their missions with few hindrances. This worldview is most obviously apparent in Christie’s belief – and that of many like him – that the NSA’s surveillance programs are essential and appropriate, indeed beyond reproach.
- A high regard for traditional cultural norms, but simultaneously a strong disdain for the destabilizing culture wars – the United States is one nation, and the culture wars undermine that commonality. Here, Christie’s social conservative streak on issues like same sex marriage and abortion demonstrates that he is very much a traditionalist; but as his cosmopolitanism on immigration and religious pluralism shows, he is also no culture warrior. In effect, cultural change is to be viewed skeptically, and government should and must follow the culture rather than seeking to force the culture to follow it as long as all have a say in shaping that culture.
- A hawkish view of “fiscal responsibility.” Government must be empowered to do well that which it has traditionally sought to do; assurances must be given that services can and will be paid for, while that – only that – which cannot be paid for in the long run should be cut. Where government has historically made commitments to protect or assist its citizens, those commitments must be honored, as Christie has made clear through his policies and speeches in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
- New government ventures should be viewed with skepticism, with an eye towards how they will effect existing priorities. See, e.g., Christie’s – correct, IMHO – spiking of the ARC project and his – incorrect, IMHO – refusal to adopt PPACA’s insurance exchanges in NJ.
- Those who undermine government’s ability to perform its traditional duties as well as possible are viewed as the enemy; those who do not are potential allies. Public sector unions stand in the way of efficient, adaptive government and thus stand out for special treatment (ditto for that matter those who would place limits on the NSA’s ability to do its job). By contrast, private sector unions may make government’s job easier, and are worth courting (also, here).
At root, Christie is a forward-looking optimist who seems to love his country – and his state – not only for what it was or should be, but also for what it currently is. Regardless, in his outspoken support of the security state, his opposition to abortion rights and gay rights, his unapologetic hostility to public sector unions, and his skepticism of new government ventures, far from being a moderate “squish,” Christie is a prototypical conservative Republican. But in his use of empathy for his constituents, his preference for seeking to make existing programs more effective rather than seeking to eliminate them, his clear distaste for economic libertarianism, his willingness to support private sector unions, and his contempt for the culture wars, he is neither a “squish” nor a prototypical movement conservative Republican, but rather something else entirely. More importantly for purposes of this post, though, this fundamentally optimistic institutionalism, or small “c” conservatism, that Christie seeks to practice is coherent, and capable of forming the basis for a new political coalition.
Rand Paul is in many ways the antithesis of Chris Christie, the heir to Robert Taft,and the epitome of the Old Right. Despite being almost as willing as Christie to depart from movement conservative orthodoxy, he is viewed in the media as every bit as extreme as the media considers Christie to be a centrist or a squishy moderate. Of course, his departures from conservative orthodoxy are where Christie is the most orthodox, and his most orthodox positions are areas where Christie is at his least orthodox. At root, Paul is a declinist, perhaps even a reactionary, who seems to love his country for what he believes it once was as much or more than what it currently is (and sometimes, it’s even hard to disagree with this sentiment).
- In some ways, Paul’s states-rights-based paleoconservatism actually has a greater tendency towards squishiness than Christie. Where Christie has repeatedly sounded the standard conservative opposition to same sex marriage, including vehement opposition to Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Windsor, Paul initially praised Kennedy’s opinion while simultaneously declining to state his position on same sex marriage (using the typical squishy language that Republicans need to be able to “agree to disagree” with each other on the issue). He then walked this back slightly a few days later by throwing out the generic platitude that he is “for traditional marriage.”
- Despite this squishiness, Paul’s paleoconservatism, with its emphasis on declinism, actively relishes the culture wars. On the same day as he expressed agreement with the opinion in Windsor, Paul openly accepted comparisons between same sex marriage and polygamy or bestiality. He has also added his voice to the chorus of cultural conservatives who insist that there is a “liberal elitist” led War on Christianity in the United States, and is the lead sponsor of an intentionally quixotic bill to define fetal personhood.
- Most obviously, in Paul’s paleoconservatism, rollbacks of civil liberties and an aggressive foreign policy, far from securing what is good about the United States of America, are a significant contributor to its decline.
- Where Christie seems to focus on doing what the government already does, but with the belief that it can and should be done better, Paul’s paleoconservatism demands that the focus be on what government should not be doing at all, with the belief that it should stop doing such things entirely or at minimum do them a lot less. As such, when it comes to questions of government spending, Paul is as orthodox a conservative as one can find.
- This is also true of Paul’s views of private sector labor unions, whom he presumably blames for a good portion of the nation’s perceived decline; as mentioned above, Christie has actively and successfully courted such unions even as he has actively and successfully weakened public sector unions.
- Additionally, Paul’s paleoconservative, declinist, narrative provides the basis for another stark contrast with conservative orthodoxy – his refusal to exempt defense spending from that which the federal government ought not be doing all that much.
Despite the perceived rigidity of Paul’s paleoconservatism, it provides far more flexibility with which to craft policy and build coalitions than existing conservative orthodoxy even if less flexibility on the whole than Christie’s institutionalism. Paul’s suspicion of defense spending is demonstrative here, as it allows Paul to be more orthodox than Christie on tax cuts while still purporting to be serious about cutting the budget deficit, even if Christie is ultimately still likely to be the more credible deficit hawk. And therein lies the reason Paul’s narrative has the potential to be a viable foundation for a political party in the short run – while granting Paul less flexibility on individual issues than Christie’s ideology to grow a coalition, it still grants far more flexibility than existing conservative dogma even as it has more appeal to the existing conservative base than Christie’s narrative due to that base’s increasingly pessimistic outlook. Despite perceptions, Paul has been every bit as willing to form cross-party relationships as Christie. Where Christie has cultivated cross-party relationships with the likes of Cory Booker, Bill Clinton, and even our current President on various economic and effective government questions, Paul has forged his own cross-party relationships on issues where he deviates from movement conservative orthodoxy, working with the likes of dedicated liberals like Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, and Sherrod Brown on civil liberties and some foreign policy questions, as well as with Patrick Leahy on anti-mandatory minimum legislation.
Will Institutionalism or Paleoconservatism Prevail?
Paul’s paleoconservative declinism is not without its long-term political shortcomings, though: its willingness to participate in the culture wars leaves it lacking in empathy and too off-putting to a lot of groups that have abandoned the Republican Party over the years, a problem exacerbated by its reactionary tendency to idealize the Confederacy and question the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. It is little coincidence that, despite the aforementioned collaborations with some of the most liberal members of the Senate, relatively few of his deviations from conservative orthodoxy have garnered the support of enough Democrats to be successful. For his narrative to be a viable basis for a political coalition in the long-run, Paul will need to win the nomination, but suffer a Goldwater-esque massacre in the general election that forces it to drop its culture war narratives and become more optimistic and less reactionary.
Christie’s narrative, by contrast, has loads of possibility for long-term political viability – there is quite a lot of flexibility in a narrative that focuses on doing what government already does, but doing it better; as such, there are very few groups that this narrative lacks the ability to eventually reach. It is thus no coincidence that Christie has been highly successful at getting what he wants from Democrats here in New Jersey. On the other hand, this narrative’s ability to win out in a primary in 2016 is highly limited by the fact that it is almost entirely at odds with the fairly pessimistic outlook that seems to have taken hold of much of the GOP’s base.
Regardless, as long as one of these two bannermen wins the nomination in 2016, the nihilism that has all too frequently characterized the GOP these last few years should finally be lifted, replaced by a narrative actually capable of governing.
*How odd that the two most dynamic contenders for a major party’s Presidential nomination are a firsty-firsty and a lasty-firsty.