After returning to civilian life from my time in the U. S. Air Force, I was closely linked to the Republican Party. My major professor for the degree in economics and business administration was Republican. The lobbying I did in later life involved close work with Senator Howard Baker and Congressman Bill Brock, both Tennessee Republicans, with fewer dealings with the Democrat Senator Al Gore the elder . In the 1980s I was invited by Indiana Republican Governor Robert Orr to be available for a cabinet position, which I turned down. In total, my personal acquaintance with the Republican Party consisted of office-holders I admired greatly. I voted for not-so-admired Nixon once and became a Life Member of the Libertarian Party a couple of decades later.
President Reagan, former Democrat, said he didn’t leave the Dems, they left him. I have much the same feeling about my earlier Republican involvement. Whatever doctrines a voter believes is best with regard to economics, government involvement, defense, taxation, and immigration, all sides are obligated to be truthful and factual. We are also duty-bound to respect whatever system has been created for dealing with our differences unless we choose democratically to change that system. In other words, honor demands common decency and playing by the rules, which means we can fight each other all we wish on choices within the rules as long as we remain loyal to the rules themselves.
It is unlikely that the political integrity a modern democracy requires is possible without these characteristics in the voters as well as in elected officials. Voters say what they want in demeanor as well as in policy objectives. Unfortunately, voters are not the most stable groups, being given as they are to creating factions, showing little discipline, and having little investment in system integrity compared to transactional and self-serving decisions. That, however, calls for elected officials in their several carefully designed roles to be the adults in the room. Anyone familiar with the Senate or House—federal and state, and also city councils—would know, though, that expecting rational, reasoned behavior in those settings may be several bridges too far.
But let me get back to the party that claims to be owner and protector of conservatism. It is usual to speak of Republican and conservative as if they’re synonymous. A model of conservatism would weave together a consistent mix of positions on governmental philosophy, that is, fulfill the requirement to be a theory of government. That differs greatly from a political party invested in partisan hegemony and slick parliamentary moves and tactics of near warfare. It is possible for philosophical integrity to co-exist with a party that lacks tangible integrity, but a claim by the latter to be standard bearer for the former must be seen as invalid.
My inclination toward the Republican Party in my early years was due less, I think, to its applied behavior than to the appeal of conservative thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and National Review magazine editor William F. Buckley. I can remember being glued to my radio (as a fawning free marketeer) as Buckley argued against liberal Kenneth Galbraith’s motion, “The Market Is a Snare and a Delusion.” At that time, and to a great extent now, I was as entranced by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as I was with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Alfred Wegener’s plate tectonics, and other trailblazing insights (OK, so I was a bit nerdish).
My excuse for the foregoing diversion is to point out that it is not conservatism’s reputation that is damaged by our current national psychosis, but the party that pretends to be the champion of authentic conservative philosophy. Although I do, in fact, lean generally toward liberal philosophy, it is not so much because of a waning conceptual argument against conservatism as it is an outright disgust with the Republican Party and with individual Republican senators and congresspersons unwilling or unable to be true to the obligations of one-third of the American government.
Here is an excerpt from my post, “Batshit crazy, the stupid party,” March 15, 2016, written during pre-Trump days that now seem naïve in the extreme:
[“Batshit crazy” and “the stupid party”] were uttered not by Democrats, but by prominent Republicans (Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindal). Conservative author Matt K. Lewis said that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it has “lost its intellectual bearings.” The decay has been developing for years, so is by no means just in current debate behavior. As to that behavior, conservative historian Max Boot concluded the Trump surge “proves every bad thing Democrats have ever said about the GOP is basically true.”
Well, a proviso. I don’t think deterioration is unique to the Republican party, nor even the combination of the party and its tethered television outlet, Fox News. . . I don’t revere everything Pres. Obama has done, nor do I criticize everything Pres. Bush did. Somewhat allied with Lewis, however, I do consider that the Republican party has been in decline since possibly the 1960s and surely since the 1980s, with a further marked descent since 2000. It is not the first political party to get lots of mileage out of untruths. Democrat JFK won the presidency due in part to his damning, though inaccurate charge that that his predecessor, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, had allowed a terrifying missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the USSR.
But I have additional motivation with respect to the Republican party: I fear that the US without a competent opposition to Democrats is a less robust, less philosophically muscular country. However, to my great regret, the current Republican party has forfeited that role by increasingly allying itself with the influences of xenophobia, bigotry, paranoia, and anti-science. (On a given issue, I might agree or disagree with the Republican position.) I find small mindedness, short-term focus, careerism, fudging, and spinning, along with problems of agency in politicians of both parties. Each party condemns the other about actions for which it itself is guilty. For example, in recent years we’ve seen the reversal of which party is on which side of the Senate’s cloture rule.
Both parties stoop to intentionally misquoting opponents’ positions in their arguments. For years Republicans have kept up an incessant drum beat of lies about Obama’s Democratic administration despite their being simply untrue, such as Obama’s “apology tour” or Obamacare’s inclusion of death panels. Neither was true, but the drum beat was too energizing to sacrifice to mere truth. In my opinion, however, while I’d not proclaim the Democratic party blameless, for the past fifteen years Republican conduct has been the most shameful.
The events of 2019 present so many instances of shameful Republican behavior that many have left the party rather than be associated with its lack of integrity. Consider that in the last weeks, a dozen Republican Senators took the Senate’s role seriously in defying their autocratic president and—lo and behold—it’s news! OK, I suppose shedding their role as Trump’s lapdogs even a little bit deserves kudos, for it is more than we’ve seen for two years. Senator McConnell, as Leader, has been foremost in escalating partisanship into frank irresponsibility, but despite presidential threats, that doesn’t let other senators off the hook. The novel idea of senators actually following their individual best judgment about Yemen and Trump’s magic wall is marvelous, but far too little—rather like Paul Manafort’s whining for judicial sympathy after a lifetime of crime. Political courage among most of these defiant Republicans seems to be related to whether they face retirement in the 2020 election, though bringing that up spoils my begrudging compliment.
But wait. Is it that a handful of GOP senators unexpectedly read the Constitution and found that the Senate has a real role? Is it unfair that we expect senators to buck an unusually punitive president? Do we think they won’t consider that he’ll penalize unruly senators by shutting down military construction in their states? After all, he is known to be looking around for funding already made by Congress that can be raided to find funds for his wall. Most Republicans in the Senate (and House, for that matter) are more committed to avoiding Trump’s wrath than fulfilling their oaths of office. They may have gotten religion, but I suspect they just remembered their constituents’ desire for the jobs Trump controls but may deny to them as punishment for their senators’ use of their own minds.
Let’s see. I think here is where I remind us all that the United States Senate has been proudly called “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”
ah John, another eloquent piece for the few about the many. We have lost the ability to discern the difference between critical understanding and bullshit. With that lost, we seem to be drifting to a new world of “meaning making” that is politically correct in the political sense. Keep up the work. tom
Your reaction is always of value, so thanks for this note. Your point of distinguishing critical understanding from bullshit may or may not be earned, but is surely sought.