Remember when we were evil storm troopers marching in lockstep?
That was the accusation hurled at conservatives during the Bush Administration when the left was on the outside looking in. Republicans were foot soldiers! Rubber stampers for President Bush! There wasn’t a divergent thought among them. As late as 2009, political strategist Paul Begala was chortling over conservative homogeneity: “The Democratic Party has a wide diversity of opinion, like the Republican Party used to,” he said on CNN, adding, “This is a bid for the Republican Party now. It's all about purity. It's all about rigidity.”
These days, Begala has given up chortling over conservative homogeneity in favor of chortling over conservative diversity. “The country clubbers hate the Tea Partiers,” he wrote in a recent Daily Beast column, “the neocons hate the traditionalists, the libertarians distrust the religious right; this isn’t a political party, it’s Yugoslavia circa 1991.”
Somehow the GOP went from an imperialist empire to a failed Balkan state in three short years. All that remained consistent was its capacity for evil.
But Begala’s latter critique contains a kernel of truth. The conservative movement, the triumphant political force from 1980 and 2008, which elected three presidents and forced a fourth to triangulate, has become intellectually divided. Everything from foreign policy debates, to generational chasms over social issues, to questions of first principles have ripped conservatism open and exposed its innards. For all the trendy talk about “epistemic closure” and “the closing of the conservative mind,” disagreement among conservatives is very much alive.
Usually this is a good problem to have. Political movements that don’t occasionally look inwards risk becoming ideologically stale. You need to let the fresh air in once and a while. Debate among conservatives is normally a sign of strength, not weakness.
But these aren’t normal times. The biggest challenge facing conservatives is the biggest challenge facing the nation as a whole: the ballooning national debt. The left is utterly derelict, preferring to close its eyes and murmur neo-Keynesian nostrums to itself. The center is busy fetishizing compromise. So the right, which has kept the ideals of individual freedom and restrained government alive for decades, must act.
The state doesn’t shrink itself, after all. As economist Robert Higgs rightly theorized, government spending increases steadily during peacetime and exponentially during a time of crisis. To cut back a bureaucratic behemoth that grows by default is an enormous challenge for even the most cohesive political movement.
And conservatism isn’t cohesive right now. As Begala says, the right is dividing into factions and squabbling over everything from political theory to personal dramas.
In an ideal world, conservatives would fall back on their belief in fiscal sanity and respond mightily to the debt crisis. Instead, the bloc that most urgently acknowledges the debt crisis, the Tea Party, is being targeted by an entrenched moderate bloc. As Scott Rasmussen recently noted, Republicans in Washington have grown disdainful of their own voters. Gray-faced political hacks in the most insular, myopic city in America think they understand the world better than the base. Some of them don't even seem to acknowledge that the debt exists.
This divide is most visible in the House of Representatives. Republicans supposedly have a majority here, but those who support even the most basic measures of fiscal responsibility, such as paying for new legislation, are in the minority. John Boehner recently kicked several Tea Partiers out of committee positions. Now he’s cobbling together coalitions of moderate Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation. Even in the allegedly wild-eyed House, conservatives can’t come together to tackle the debt.
President Obama understands these divisions and is shrewdly exploiting them. His nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary sent conservative foreign policy idealists and realists to war. His endorsement of gay marriage last year lined up younger libertarians against older traditionalists. The resulting squabbles end up overshadowing the debt challenge we have to face. Which is exactly what Obama, the big spender, wants.
“A conservative,” Woodrow Wilson said, “is a man who sits and thinks, mostly sits.” He’s right to an extent, and that’s not a bad thing. The country would have been spared a lot of misery if Wilson spent more time sitting and thinking.
But right now the challenge is to act, and conservatives can only act if they're united and determined. Whatever the flaws of the Bush years, a little lockstep among congressional Republicans would go a long way. The House has the power of the purse. So link arms and use it.
GOP moderates are saying the opposite, demanding that conservatives abandon their ideological precepts and open their minds. Let’s play a thought game and concede every one of their points: there is epistemic closure, conservatives are increasingly insular, talk radio is having a deleterious effect on the movement, it’s tougher to be a moderate than it used to be, we all need to read more Edmund Burke, humility is in short supply, apostates are getting chucked from conservative think tanks.
As a young person staring down tens of trillions in debt, I’m having a hard time giving a damn.
Conservatives should be ascendant right now. Their concerns over big government have been vindicated. Their political opponents are a vapid president and a withering pack of octogenarians in the Democratic Senate. They're fresh, vibrant, and offering solutions to the biggest problem of our time.
The debt crisis is tailor-made to be solved by conservatives. And yet they're splintering, losing their focus, failing to get anything done. If modern conservatism can’t agree to cut spending, it won’t survive and it won’t deserve to.