(’76 Contributor) Sometimes it takes the perspective of decades and generations to see what is right in front of us politically. Consider this prescient passage from a well-known libertarian book published when the New Deal was first introduced:
“It is probably enough to observe here that in the nature of things the exercise of personal government, the control of a huge and growing bureaucracy, and the management of an enormous mass of subsidized voting-power, are as agreeable to one stripe of politician as they are to another. Presumably they interest a Republican or a Progressive as much as they do a Democrat, Communist, Farmer-Labourite, Socialist, or whatever a politician may, for electioneering purposes, see fit to call himself. This was demonstrated in the local campaigns of 1934 by the practical attitude of politicians who represented nominal opposition parties. It is now being further demonstrated by the derisible haste that the leaders of the official opposition are making towards what they call “reorganization” of their party. One may well be inattentive to their words; their actions, however, mean simply that the recent accretions of State power are here to stay, and that they are aware of it; and that, such being the case, they are preparing to dispose themselves most advantageously in a contest for their control and management. This is all that “reorganization” of the Republican party means, and all it is meant to mean; and this is in itself quite enough to show that any expectation of an essential change of regime through a change of party administration is illusory On the contrary, it is clear that whatever party-competition we shall see hereafter will be on the same terms as heretofore. It will be a competition for control and management, and it would naturally issue in still closer centralization, still further extension of the bureaucratic principle, and still larger concessions to subsidized voting-power.”
Now come back to the present and consider this quote from the February 3rd, 2014 edition of a hugely popular conservative radio talk show:
“The Republican establishment right now happens to believe that the game is over in terms of Big Government being involved in people’s lives. (…) Some intellectual Republican theorists, commentators, writers, journalists really believe that the debate over big and small government is over and that Big Government has won. And they believe that the vast majority of the American people want a Big Government. Therefore, the Republican establishment believes that their future success is tied to convincing Americans who want an active, involved government, that they are better at running such a government than the Democrats are.”
The two quotes are almost eighty years apart and yet they both eerily illustrate how little has changed in American politics over almost eight decades. They also implicitly throw down the same kind of political and institutional gauntlet to conservatives.
In their own idiosyncratic ways, both authors of the quotes, Albert Jay Nock in Our Enemy, the State in 1935 and Rush Limbaugh today, do indeed voice similar frustration with a Republican Party Establishment that has mostly kept the upper hand over their conservative rivals since the New Deal. Nock and Limbaugh have not been the only ones to complain. In the intervening years, libertarians and conservatives alike similarly excoriated Establishment figures for advocating “me-too Republicanism”, peddling an echo rather than a choice, as in the 1964 presidential election, or simply turning into insufferably liberal RINOs. Different times but same hand-wringing.
Is there then really no hope at all for conservatives apart from Reaganesque, Contract-with-America, or Tea Party hiatuses? Even Rush Limbaugh uncharacteristically sounded disillusioned when he explained, still on February 3rd, that the Republican Establishment “want to get rid of the conservative influence in the party, because the conservative influence, of course, is defined by the limited role of government as defined in our founding”.
What is to be done then? Ever since Ronald Reagan himself scotched the idea of a conservative third party in his 1975 CPAC speech, conservatives have faithfully focused on the complete philosophical and operational takeover of the Republican Party.
In the face of state electoral rules largely skewed in favour of the two mainstream parties, the strategy has been reasonable and pragmatic enough. The trouble is that the manoeuver has turned out to be a durably inconclusive tug-of-war with Republican liberals and moderates which has undeniably had the effect of ratcheting up Big Government regardless of party affiliations. Think No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, or ObamaCare.
Against the backdrop of cancelled health insurance plans, a stubbornly stagnant economy, American geopolitical self-doubt, and societal upheavals, the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential election hold out the prospect of a large-scale liberal/conservative realignment within the two-party system.
Will conservatives engineer that realignment, act on it whatever the consequences within the GOP, and thereby make it the new partisan paradigm in a country routinely described as center-right? Or will they stick, however querulously, to their uneasy alliance with Republican liberals and moderates, tacitly acknowledging in the process that conservatism is in the minority and that America has perhaps irrevocably been cut adrift from its original limited-government moorings after all? Here’s hoping that it won’t take conservatives another eighty years to come up with a definite answer.
Paoli is the nom de plume of a conservative political scientist who did graduate work in Colorado before taking up an academic post in his native France.