Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Time to think

Sometime during the first semester of my sophomore year of college, my roommate caught me typing away at a not very good essay titled, if memory serves, “Time to Dump the GOP?”. Several months and many hackneyed attempts later, the prospect of displaying my little monstrosities in a small corner of the Internet proved alluring, and “Thoughts and Ideas” was born.

Many things have changed since then, mostly for the better. The scribblings now approach, if not lucidity, at least readability; and the topics covered, if terribly repetitive, at least strive to be substantial. My affinity for the GOP, meanwhile, no longer exists. The question I once posed can now be answered in a resounding affirmative. After eight years of Bush and a much bigger government, it seems inarguable that conservatives were not advancing their causes in supporting republicans. That the democrats are bad is not sufficient to prove that their ostensible opponents are good. Or, to put it a different way, comparing a defensive end to a nose tackle doesn't prove that the end is a little fellow. For a conservative, whatever he is, the republicans must be judged on their allegiance to the tenants of conservatism, whatever those happen to be.

Now that the democrats are ascendant, we've had to suffer a slue of pieces that either: 1) bemoan that fact and seek to give suggestions as to how the republicans can recapture power; or 2) gleefully insist that the election proved the supremacy of the current party du jour. This is to be expected, but both conclusions are too simplistic and should thus be rejected. The first, insofar as it may give cause for introspection, is more forgivable; but too often the assessment focuses mainly on the various trivialities that didn't so much change the race as they acted as symbols for it. Joe the plumber springs insensibly to mind. The reasons for the rout of the republicans are not to be found in a cursory summary of the campaign, nor even from a study of the Bush years, but can only be gleaned from a thorough examination of the historical record. I have no such inclination—though I could offer some guesses.

The second conclusion should be resisted far more strenuously. Given the insular two-party system, it is unreasonable to insist that the sole explanation for any extensive electoral change is to be found in the benevolence of the beneficiaries. Sometimes, perhaps often, a party may ride into power almost solely out of disgust for the opposition. People being fickle, eventually the republicans or their equivalent will again be swept into power, ushering in another batch of overwrought editorials.

As a libertarian, I know of no savanna in the political wilderness in which I wander. I nonetheless welcome any estranged republicans; may the desert treat you well as it has me. The essential lesson to be learned here, so far as I can tell, is that political power is ephemeral. One may seek it, and it only, but if one wishes to have loyalty to any principles, at some point, power must be forfeited in their defense. It is thus of the utmost importance that one examine which principles are worth sacrificing in the all-consuming pursuit of power, and those for which one will not trade a thing in the world.

The problem is not just that such an examination is unlikely to be made by the populace, nor even their leaders. It is that conservatism, so-called, has become so utterly divorced from the realm of ideas that only a select few will be able to begin making their way back. Specifically, the party seems content to babble incessantly in the hopes of conjuring up “the next Reagan”. But like Joe the plumber, Reagan has become a symbol for a half-mythical conservative past. At this point, the poor president has become a tired cliché, beaten to death by talk show hosts and pundits. Repeating his witticisms is amusing, but hardly edifying. If there is anything to be gained from Reagan, it will require diligent and critical study of the man's thought and his record. Paeans to conservative saints are unlikely to prove propitious to those who don't share the faith.

The GOP might be better served by letting The Gipper lie. Conservatism extends back much further than 1980, and it also draws from deeper waters. Keeping platitudes always at the ready might be a good trick for a caller to a talk show, but a principled defense, say, of limited government, requires a solid philosophical foundation, not to be found on an Internet quotations page.

It is difficult to defend a party that only seems to have found an opposition to government spending when their own filthy hands no longer write the checks. It isn't hard to discern, after all, that a seven hundred billion dollar “stimulus” will tend to increase the size of government. One cannot escape the conclusion that they have absolutely no idea what role government should play in our society. It just might be time they figured that out.