That the GOP is experiencing an identity crisis is self-evident. Over the last few months the Party cannibalized herself as one candidate after another tripped over his feet trying to climb on top of her shaky political pedestal. No one can convincingly say what Republican voters were looking for, but we must infer they’ve pretty much found it in John McCain. Yet there is restiveness in the so-called Conservative sector, once hailed as the core ideological constituency of the Right but now finding itself marginalized to the peripheries of the Republican Party whose political headquarters are being rebuilt Leftwards.
Most Conservative icons have criticized the Arizona senator’s controversial Conservative credentials, but some have gone as far as to boycott the Party over his nomination, thus translating the Conservative tantrum into a highly leveraged ultimatum. So Conservatives indeed feel betrayed by the GOP’s leadership, but have they ever scrutinized their faithfulness to their own principles? Most importantly, have they ever coherently articulated what Conservative principles represent? …Can they?
The notion of a true Conservative is farcically reinvented ad nauseum by the latest self-proclaimed specimen, the same way that “change” has become a politically prostituted mantra for the Left, devoid of any substance or pretense thereof. Yet change can ultimately mean anything to Leftist “revolutionaries” preaching overhaul for the sake of overhaul: nothing ideologically uncomfortable about it. While the Party of perpetual “progressive” reform need not be bothered with the intricacies of well-defined “change,” conserving for the sake of conservation just doesn’t fly as well. The future is necessarily open-ended, but anyone invested in preserving valuable aspects of a supposedly cherished past, ought to be able to coherently pinpoint what is worth preserving (or even restoring, if the past is remote enough) and fluently articulate why.
The Conservative movement has lost its conceptual anchor into the essence of America’s greatness and is now consumed with merely conserving the Conservative movement. The future has historically been unkind to reactionaries; hence Conservatives’ recent fall from relevance should come as no surprise.
Vague platitudes of a Conservative golden era are ludicrous. There was never such a thing as a glorious way of life Americans ought to have preserved like an insect captured in the amber of history. Allusions to morally airbrushed “good old days” founded in sound “Judeo-Christian” values are nothing but blurred second-hand collective hallucinations of a generation disastrously failing to grasp modern-day ideological challenges. Before ever being entitled to a dominant voice in this country’s future, Conservatives must sever their romantic attachment to this idealized fabricated past.
American traditions and lifestyles always have and always will be in a vector of flux and experimentation toward modernity. However, the political recipe for human flourishing and sustained prosperity is timeless. America’s founders lucidly articulated it throughout the Founding Documents and embedded it in the early American institutions. This philosophical prescription for maximal individual liberty and limited government has transcended centuries as America’s fundamental nature.
The fathers of Modern American Conservatism—Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and William Buckley Jr.—are now all dead. Instead of bemoaning their loss as tragically irreplaceable and praying in vain for a second coming, Conservatives better adjust their intellectual rear-view mirror until the founders of the American Nation come into clear sharp focus. Ironic corruption of language notwithstanding, it is Liberalism, as it is classically understood, that Conservatives better get in the business of conserving, and in so doing, shed some ideological dead-weight of their own.
The inane treatment of Judeo-Christianity as a proxy for Western Civilization should be first to go. Tying the moral foundations of the American Nation with cultural archetypes of prehistoric Biblical Jews, or with those of devout Europeans emulating them is beyond preposterous. The dogmatic authoritarianism inherent in Judeo-Christianity and its ubiquitous tradition of framing Man as a wretched sinful creature fallen from grace since birth, are antithetical to a societal infrastructure built around individual freedom and dignity.
Judeo-Christianity provides no coherent moral justification for why humankind deserves freedom. The Bible presents men and women as fundamentally unequal and incorrigibly flawed, offhandedly condones slavery, and offers absolute monarchy as the sacrosanct form of government prescribed by God.
The reference to the Creator in the Declaration of Independence by the Deist Thomas Jefferson was appropriate in so far as it further legitimized the proverbial self-evident truths through divine pedigree. Free enterprise is not the coincidental result of collective utility maximization by enlightened social engineers. It is rather the inescapable byproduct of the enshrinement of individual rights, which are inalienable and morally absolute, and which deserve philosophical protection as such. The loose mention of a non-denominational Creator served as a rhetorical shield to the indisputability of natural rights, through appealing to Colonialists’ lowest common philosophical denominator. But nothing in the founding documents insinuates individual rights to be derivatives of religious dogma.
The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. —John Adams
Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. —James Madison
Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than on our opinions in physics and geometry… The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. —Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson casually defines the protection of citizens and their property from aggression to be the only legitimate domain of government intervention. Such negative rights retain their internal consistency even when scaled up for large complex communities and are always straight-forward to enforce.
Social Conservatives seeking to use government to legislate morality to the masses have been poisoning the well for too long by destroying the consistency of negative rights, thus opening the door to government co-optation by demagogues with various agendas and malignant vested interests from all sides of the political spectrum. Their religiously inspired diatribes against full American freedoms continue to alienate people in droves, particularly because most Americans today are rightfully oversensitive regarding matters of conscience, religion, social institutions, and private behavior.
Until it extirpates this reactionary faction, the Conservative movement’s defense of free markets is hopelessly doomed to intellectual impotence. Economic self-reliance through free proud enterprise on the one hand, but moral paternalism in matters confined to the bedroom or uterus on the other hand, are ideologically irreconcilable positions both of which sound hypocritical when preached by the same voice.
Judeo-Christian values are neither sufficient nor even necessary components of Americanism. Conservatives with a mental blind spot to this reality often try to justify the institutionalization of Judeo-Christianity by deeming it to be the only absolute ideological shelter for freedom. Plato alone has spoken with more clarity and conviction about absolute transcendental values such as Justice and Goodness, than there can be found throughout the entire Bible. Natural Law has enjoyed a fertile tradition in Western Philosophy, originated by Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, carried out by the Stoics, and augmented by many great thinkers up to the present day.
Not only is the firm binding of natural law with religion not dictated by any philosophical necessity, it is also a strategically self-defeating position for Conservatives to take in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds. I cannot think of a more dangerous proposition for the future of American institutions than the prospect that their desirability and justification depend on the dubious existence of Abraham’s God.
Didn’t Conservatives get the memo? Organized religion is dying at a head-spinning rate not only in this country but across the entire Western world. The proverbial writing on the wall could be seen for decades but reality checks for Social Conservatives come with a time lag. The Religious Right has been running on very tenacious fumes against the demographic tide of events thanks in part to the politically convenient tendency of its base to vote as a block on pet issues. The levels of bi-partisan pandering Social Conservatives have enjoyed in the past are no longer sustainable.
Religion never provided a particularly satisfying map of reality for its subscribers, its main redeeming quality being community building. Churchgoing used to be an essential social event for millions of interaction-starved Americans. It is no longer so. With new lanes being added to the information highway, increasing opportunities for remote social networking, and free access to scientific materials, the Church cannot compete with the sophisticated social outlets Americans can afford today.
That is not to say the new generation is ready to live without dogma, but modern outlets for mysticism cannot be so blunt. The religionists’ children are rejecting their parents’ stale Judeo-Christianity only to fall prey to “secular” new-age religions. These new cultural bubbles can be harder to burst than organized religions because proud “secularists” aren’t self-aware of their own mysticism and violently resist being called out on it. Reality escape-routes unmarked by 6,000-year-old Earths and Noah’s Arks are necessarily and conveniently more elusive.
If religion ever was the opiate of the masses, the “secular” Left is crack cocaine for the ideologically-vulnerable apostates of organized religion. New generations are laughing Judeo-Christian superstitions out of the cultural scene but are also rejecting economic freedom and limited government by association. The Religious Right nearly drowned the baby in the filthy bathwater, and the “secular” Left is ready to throw both out altogether.
Many thumbs sticking in the wind are becoming increasingly sensitive to the “spiritual hunger” aspect of the Zeitgeist. Al Gore and Barack Obama are already successfully exploiting it to bootstrap their own glamorous personality cults. Feminism, radical environmentalism, animal rights, anti-globalization, anti-Americanism, global-warming hysteria, and all-encompassing Statism, are all very much in vogue.
Such developments should attune Conservatives to the cultural necessities of our times: Americans are experimenting with many templates of morality, but they would rather succumb to nihilism or moral relativism than return to the “caves.” Judeo-Christianity is going to die and unless Conservatives genuinely reform their movement to develop enticing modern ideological propositions, the Left will undoubtedly win by default and civilization will succumb to the void.
The name Conservatism should be second to go. Its taxonomic subtleties don’t scale well across long periods, as the ideological reference-point can be easily lost with such a term that doesn’t directly address what it is conserving, but only that it is conserving it. This inherent vaguery is a potential melting crack pot for multidenominational reactionaries. The mental associations are not sexy either in a world where Saudi Arabia can claim conservative as a label.
Liberalism may be a suitable replacement, though I am not convinced enough Conservatives can be de-programmed to call themselves Liberals. It would certainly be an interesting exercise in ideological self-assertion, forcing a public fight over what true classical Liberalism stands for and who deserves to call oneself a Liberal. Putting the Left on the defensive would allow today’s Conservatives to define the boundaries for tomorrow’s battles.
The stance on abortion must also go, and I don’t care about the order in which it does. There are intelligent arguments on both sides of the fence, but in so far as the anti-abortion cause is religiously inspired, it is lost. What is worse, Conservatives are earning compounded surpluses in the hypocrisy department with shady political maneuvers. Nowhere does the Constitution address the issue of abortion, therefore the Tenth Amendment spells doom for universal anti-abortion activists.
Lacking the kind of demographic muscles needed to erect a Constitutional Amendment for their pet issue, Social Conservatives have repeatedly tried to pressure the Supreme Court as a backdoor toward their ends. Conservatives who spiritedly call out Democrats on their big-government insinuations that flagrantly violate the Tenth Amendment need to look in the mirror first. There will never be popular support for an anti-abortion amendment, and such political middle-ground is clearly unsustainable. Abortion is an unfortunate issue for Conservatives to tarnish their reputation as committed defenders of the Constitution.
Indeed, the sanctity of life is a moral topic deserving great political attention. Just as there may genuinely remain environmental issues to be dealt with collectively after, but not until, full property rights are conferred and enforced, there may remain hues of uncertainty to be settled politically (preferably at the state level), as to when an embryo becomes a fetus and when a fetus becomes a person. However, this issue is hardly worth political priority until full Constitutional rights are restored for non-uterus-bound citizens, or at least a general contraception/early-abortion alternative is secured for all women. In any case, no cause is worth the corruption of Constitutional channels.
The Conservative position on immigration is also overdue for a makeover. The need for secure borders is a forgone assumption, but most other problems and solutions are open-ended and politically challenging. Under current arrangements, illegal immigrants largely subsidize a thoroughly corrupt Mexican government, thus indirectly supporting a vicious cycle: destructive socialist policies keep Mexico’s economy paralyzed–in turn further promoting more employment-seeking adventures across the border.
America has invaluable leverage for pressuring Mexico’s government to reform. Here the proverbial stick is not as effective as a politically-engineered carrot. Offering realistic guest-worker programs contingent upon Mexico meeting well-defined milestones could spark an economic renaissance in Mexico and greatly discount economic despair as a motive for illegal immigration. Only the cream of the crop of today’s Conservatives could devise a coherent platform of concentrated classically liberal measures for Mexico.
Other pro-capitalist templates for combating the roots of illegal immigration are available. Undocumented workers are attractive to American employers because as a source of labor, they exhibit none of the problematic rigidities of the domestic labor pool: they don’t unionize, are not owed social security or other benefits (though millions of undocumented workers pay payroll taxes), absorb below-minimum-wage positions, cannot sue the employer over work-related damages, and provide much needed overall labor liquidity. Undocumented workers are meeting a demand which only a free labor market could satisfy by itself. Domestic reforms dismantling labor’s internal barriers are not only very American per se, but would also essentially dissolve the comparative advantage illegal immigrants currently enjoy.
Such proactive solutions require leadership of a level currently unknown in the Republican mainstream. Even if immigration reform were successfully implemented, it would not be more than a patch-up solution. Establishing a principle of citizenship is the only final answer.
The Constitution outlines an implosion-proof political structure that leaves virtually no channels for economic parasitism by any groups or individuals. To an American it isn’t supposed to matter much who her fellow citizens are, their culture, customs, race, or language, because the only way they can legitimately affect her is through voluntary trade and cooperation, which are mutually beneficial by definition. The corruption of American institutions through collectivist meddling in general and welfare statism in particular, turns every American into a partial slave to his fellow citizens. It is not fashionable to resent such arrangement, but who wants the collective pool of burden to grow!
Nativist immigration policies chronologically coincide with the rise of the Welfare State, but this is more than a coincidence. Aspiring Americans get the short end of the stick, which is regretful because Americanism by choice is nobler than merely by birth. Immigrating to America is itself a highly entrepreneurial act and the Right ought to welcome the many millions of worthy aspiring Americans from across the world.
The Left has astutely cultivated the victimization, destructive subsidization, and exploitation of every under-class into a politically lucrative enterprise. When Democrats screech out for unconditional amnesty for the twelve million illegal aliens, don’t think they mean it! The Left needs this permanent under-class to remain such, but these outbursts earn sympathy from minorities and force Republicans into the ugly nativist role, a role which many have displayed great natural talent for.
Republicans cannot afford to be the anti-immigration Party, and no, insincerely squealing against “only anti-illegal immigration” will not cut it if they are clearly unwilling to propose any practical channels for foreigners to legally settle into the country. Until these rhetorical attitudes are drastically revamped, the Left will win over new Americans by default.
Full circle back to the current election…
The brief taste of political relevance Conservatives enjoyed with Reagan may be ironically preventing them from moving forward. Their movement seems tragically chained to the past by a delusion of bygone grandeur. For many, the Reagan administration symbolized the triumph of unadulterated Conservative principles, a golden era they nostalgically evoke the return of, a glorious legacy not to be compromised. Having once had it their way, the prospect of ideological reformation is now an unpalatable concession, akin to selling out.
I don’t think most Conservatives have an appreciation for the unrepeatable constellation of historic factors, all the odd stars perfectly aligning to momentarily propel their movement into prominence in the 1980s. As powerful as Reagan’s appeal was, the 1980 election was equal parts a rejection of Nixon and Carter’s destructive Statism. Even the supposedly untainted Conservative principles implemented during the Reagan years were largely divergent elements cobbled together in an unstable mandate. Those times will be no more because they can be no more. “True Conservative” principles are too ideologically explosive for any Republican executive to handle consistently (e.g. the failed Contract with America). Something’s got to give. Unless they are content with perpetual scraps from their own Party (i.e McCain), Conservatives need to challenge the nation to get excited about freedom, individualism, entrepreneurship, the dignity of self-reliance, and the future.
Instead Conservatives have chosen to overextend their electoral reach with a stubborn bluff from which their movement can only emerge bankrupt. The tantrum is unsatisfiable because their demands are helplessly incoherent. They won’t get their cake and are politically starving no matter how obnoxiously they want to both have it and eat it: low taxes but swelling deficits, individual freedoms but moral paternalism, limited government but virtuous intervention, a strong military but the equivalent of suicide in the battle of ideas, attacking terrorists overseas but refusing to coherently communicate how and why.
Amidst resentment and overall stupefaction, the GOP’s ideological foundations are cracking louder and louder as the presidential election approaches. One thing is clear in this mess: The GOP is haphazardly dragging her dirty political consciousness further to the Left with her candidate choice, despite sparkling friction from the Conservative base.
Judging by the relatively far-fetched and often unrelated or even contradictory explanations presented over the course of the nomination race, I suspect that even pundits are just as confused as everyone else by what’s happening. Some rightfully emphasize that none of the more ideologically appealing candidates were interesting or inspiring; others contend that the leadership has fallen out of touch with the base over core issues, and cite the Republican record on spending in recent years to corroborate their case.
This macro-scale shift to the Left cannot be blamed on any renegade political actor usurping the electoral spotlight. Unhappy Conservatives are giving too much credit for the Republican fallout to John McCain, the reheated electoral left-over from the 2000 campaign. The nodes on the cause-effect chain can be elusive to trace, but we must not get this pivotal issue backwards: The shift to the Left has already happened in America, the witnessed reflection into politics being a mere manifestation of this deeper sadder reality.
Eight years of vacant leadership, blurred sense of purpose, and compromised half-measures by the Bush administration have left America confused, disheartened, and hyperpolarized. Republicans simultaneously slammed on both the gas and the brakes of their political machine through very curvy terrain.
A politically expedient immigration plan was unconvincingly presented and quickly swept under the carpet. The administration halfheartedly fought Democrats over spending, only to outdo them with reckless Republican deficits, thus absurdly equivocating the principles behind the otherwise greatly beneficial tax cuts.
George W. Bush sleepwalked through his ambitious mandate in the Middle East, unwilling or unable to communicate to the nation the strategic purpose of the fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond, failing to defend the many successes, and refusing to provide assertive counter-narratives to the “Bush lied, people died” hysterics. Unchallenged, the Left has monopolized nearly all communication channels assessing the progress of American foreign policy and has compoundingly invested its political comeback in the debasement of America’s efforts abroad in general, and in the framing of Iraq’s war as a meaningless failure in particular.
And now a giant sore economic boil is imminently bursting, leaving many intelligent and well-meaning Americans confused, vulnerable, and in many cases helpless, from their last taste of this politically constipated Republican rule. The themes running through Barack Obama’s campaign are evidence to how attuned the vanguard Left is to this moral void. Soothing tales of collectivist utopias are creeping into the nation’s cultural subconsciousness through the widening cracks of the Republican status-quo.
America is the world’s highest-philosophical-maintenance institutional experiment, but many of her traditional defenders are unworthy of today’s challenges. The problem is that the Right doesn’t know what it is fighting for. Freedom isn’t free, but until freedom is even properly understood, let alone defended, America’s future is in urgent jeopardy.