Whither the Republican Party?
June 16, 2014
The task will befall those like Kemp and Bennett who can make a case for limited government that is part and parcel of the case for civic responsibility.
The question “whither the Republican Party” contains a disquieting pun, discoverable, a la the deconstructoids, by bracketing the “h.” Still, looking at things in the most general, historical way, with the majority party now in control of everything, the chance of the opposition to revive itself is excellent. Add to this the very tough fiscal bind the Democrats find themselves in (high deficits versus an overwhelming urge to spend), which in turn creates a very tough political bind, the chances for Republicans in the next several years, look good.
Still, who knows? Perhaps Clinton will understand that he has a few months in which to leave the body of Remiro D’Orco (say the NEA?) lying in two pieces in front of the Rayburn building. Perhaps his waffling will be adroit, and maybe the economy is recovering. (The New York Times is already announcing the “Clinton (sic!) expansions.”)
Then too, the Republicans may make an unholy hash of their opportunities. If what liberal commentators are looking forward to really happens, i.e., if the Buchanan-Bush split defines the Republicans as a coalition of mutual loathing between the bland and the bloody-minded, and if, as in the past four years, the Kemps and the Bennetts can at best get a word in edgewise, even a Clinton failure may not help much.
So rather than predict what will happen in partisan politics (folly in any case), let me project what I think has been happening for a long time now and then say how I think the Republican Party ought to respond to it.
My text is, safely and appropriately, Tocqueville. In Volume II, Book II, chapter 8, after qualified and arms-length approbation of the democratic principle of “self-interest rightly understood,” he remarks:
…it remains to be seen how each man will understand his personal interest. If the members of a community, as they become more equal, become more ignorant and coarse, it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excess their selfishness may lead them; and no one can foretell into what disgrace and wretchedness they would plunge themselves, lest they should have to sacrifice something of their own well-being to the prosperity of their fellow creatures.
“More ignorant and coarse,” “stupid excess,” and “disgrace and wretchedness” do not seem inappropriate to an estimation of our society as depicted in the local papers. The following headlines, which might have come from a late and apocalyptic Walker Percy novel, in fact come from the November 29 Metro pages of The Columbus Dispatch: “Serial killer fears may spur hunters to shoot at humans;” “Police search for woman who may be key to cult, crime;” “Fight during basketball game led to teen’s shooting;” and “Son of cult leader appeals 1990 convictions.” Less lurid and in a sense perhaps more serious, was “Snuffling Powell’s street lights simple but some ask: Can this be for real?”
That is, a great deal seems to point to a gradually critical demoralization of American life over the past several decades which, alas, the Reagan years only partly limited and the Bush years speeded up (Bush’s moderation reminded me of that of Chancellor Bruening; it exasperated rather than tamed and it tended to produce its opposite). Political life has of course not been exempt either. Perhaps the most striking proof of that is paradoxically the Perot campaign for civic virtue with its demagogic vagueness, rhetoric of blame, conspiracy-mongering and anti-constitutional populism.
Gridlock among the branches of government, legislation by unvetoable omnibus bills, the incapacity of elected officials to put together a coherent budget, all show the problem within the government. The petty savagery of the Bork and Thomas hearings, the open bias of the political press in the recent campaign and, yes, the tone of the first evenings of the Republican convention, show the decay of political manners which betoken demoralization in the elites. The group rights mania, now extending into jury trials (cf. Andrew Dull’s piece in a recent New Republic), the unwillingness of juries to convict brutal police in one kind of case (Rodney King) or to convict brutal murderers in another (Yankel Rosenbaum), show locally what Japan bashing demonstrates nationally. And then there are the cities…. Meanwhile, the culture wars over PC, the socially constructed superiority of Shakespeare to comic books, the profundity of Madonna’s commercial pornography etc. ad nauseum, tell us that the traditional sources of ennoblement of the spirit are running either dry or toxic waste.
It seems to me that Clinton at best will check some of the demoralization at the price of speeding up perhaps even more dangerous parts of it. At best the fact of one responsible party will cheer us all up about the possibility of having an effect politically, either by throwing all the Democratic rascals out or giving them even greater majorities. And, if economically successful, it will perhaps check the most superficial forms of demoralization. (The early signs of Clinton’s “Gulliverization” by Congress makes even the good, much less the better, seem a pretty forlorn hope.)
But even at best, Clinton will have to continue to promote the group rights agenda with a vengeance. He will have to treat abortion as a fundamental right, i.e., (despite paper-thin denials) as an unquestionably okay thing. He will surely pander far more than Bush did to economic self-pity and jingoism. I strongly doubt that he is capable of reminding Americans what citizenship is supposed to mean except in the platitudinous terms which, if they penetrate, merely nauseate. He will do very little at root, I think, to check the self-righteous, nastily blaming, often half-guilty—and all the nastier for that—point scoring that American politics is increasingly becoming, i.e., its reduction to the self-indulgent political whining that characterizes those countries, many with a long and noble cultural tradition, which seem incapable of free government.
Neither the Bush or the Buchanan axes of the Republican party can, I think, rise to the occasion, since neither knows what it is. Much less will it help to go back to something like Robert Dole Republicanism, that “bearish subaltern’s faith” in limiting all the fuss.
The task will befall those like Kemp and Bennett who can make a cause for limited government that is part and parcel of the case for civic responsibility. As the Tsongas and Perot candidacies indicated, there is a strong element in American political life that wants to hear the bad news and be told to do something hard for the public good. But as yet, while it is marginally less coarse, it is not all that much less ignorant than its competition, as its attachment to Perot shows. It needs, for one thing, to be taught that, pace Admiral Stockdale, the deficit and even the economy are not the only issues that matter. Thus Republicans need first to diagnose in very lucid and persuasive ways, the evil of demoralization, its causes and its possible cures. The party should pick its stands carefully, for maximum impact. It should avoid the essentially symbolic bitter-end battles, whether it is an absolutist abortion-is-always-murder position or homosexual exclusion from the military. In one case there is a very strong political and moral case to be made against the ethical neutrality of abortion without raising the charge of murder; in the other, it is hard to see an effective and principled case once the blackmail threat to national security is lifted and romances among heterosexual troops are already doing whatever harm they can do to morale.
On the other hand, the Republican party should attack the group rights agenda head on, insisting on citizenship as the standards of rights and responsibility and national cohesion. It should push hard the individual empowerment case in housing and jobs but in clear connection with the case for civic responsibility. It should be the party of constitutionalism and deliberation; it should make the case against the neat, populist simplifications (like Perot’s national town meetings) which break down the forms of liberty. It should insist on individual responsibility, and above all should be the party that explains and warns against what has been called the “Third World” tendency of our politics and daily life.
A rhetoric that William Bennett comes closest to is likely to be politically useful and salutary as well. That is, problems with Republican positions should not be fuzzed over; the difficulty of choices should be stated clearly and the intelligence of the electorate assumed and challenged. The model should be a Democrat, former Mayor Ed Koch of New York, who treated his constituents as if they were like him, informal, street-smart, capable of humor and robust enough to take the truth.
I am by no means sure that such a Republican party would actually in the end make much difference to the increasing barbarism of American life. But I am also by no means sure that we won’t get by somehow anyway. As I am sure someone reading this is thinking, American was always a pretty unruly place and urban crime was no doubt worse in 1900 than today, etc. I am not even sure that such a Republican party would have an easier time getting elected in four years than a me-too Bush/Dole party. But I do think it would serve the public good in an increasingly frightening time for the nation.
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