On Conservative Cannibalism
July 4, 2011 9 Comments
A friendly fellow blogger has suggested that I am not a true conservative, primarily because I support the right of women to get legal abortions and the right of gays to marry. Now this is a fascinating discussion.
Definitions always matter — and sometimes they have enormous consequences. Not that I personally mind never being invited to true believer parties. I know I am conservative and I know why. And I’m tremendous at entertaining myself.
When I was counsel to Senator Peter Fitzgerald, as conservative a senator as it is possible to elect in the blue state of Illinois (when he retired, Barack Obama won his seat), I was tasked with drafting and promoting his Mutual Fund Reform Act at the height of the mutual fund scandal in 2004. Senator Fitzgerald felt passionately about this issue. He believed more balanced and less conflicted governance, and more careful oversight, of mutual funds — the retirement nest egg, the college fund, the buffer against hard times of tens of millions of Americans who didn’t generally understand financial markets — was a perfectly appropriate project for the federal government.
This was obviously not ideological conservatism. This was not knee-jerk opposition to “government.” This was grounded conservatism. This was commitment to ensuring fair private markets. This is why there is a Securities and Exchange Commission (which ultimately promulgated, by regulation, most of the provisions of the Mutual Fund Reform Act, and thereby protected millions of Americans against what had been easy predations).
The bill never came up for a vote but it attracted bipartisan support. Five Republicans, including John McCain, and seven Democrats co-sponsored the bill. When I spoke with a particular chief of staff for a conservative Republican senator, and pointed to the Republicans supporting the bill, he asked dismissively, “what Republicans?”
I didn’t have a response because I was speechless, not a common experience for me at the time. I had always been vaguely aware of ideological gradients and litmus tests. I had simply dismissed them as frankly silly. In my view, Republicans generally (but not always) did better than Democrats as legislators, regulators, judges and executives, and therefore making the Republican Party as big a tent as possible so that more Republicans could get elected and appointed was obvious. That there could be a serious contrary notion, that ideological purity truly commanded any serious attention, boggled my mind. At the time.
“Ideological purity” disgusts me. Actually, both words independently disgust me, and their combination is an abomination.
Both the left and the right do it. Committed leftists routinely harangue manifest liberals for being insufficiently liberal, and committed right-wingers routinely harangue manifest conservatives for being insufficiently conservative. And both groups should be committed. At the same institution. In the same room. Until they acquire mental health.
Actual governance is never ideology, and certainly never purity. It is a painstaking project of consensus. Conservatives are properly conservative, and liberals are properly liberals, because they view policy proposals through a certain lens, and question, with facts, whether the policy proposal in fact achieves its desired ends, or produces negative unintended consequences. Actual governance dwells in the details.
With obvious conspicuous exceptions, liberals are more pragmatic than conservatives. There is such a thing, for example, as “RINO” (Republicans in Name Only), but no such thing as “DINO.” There can be Republicans at the highest level of governance questioning the right of other elected Republicans to claim the status of “Republican” — but Democrats would never dream of such an absurdity.
And this is why, despite a daunting advantage of self-identified conservatives in this country (including 25% in the Democratic Party), conservatives struggle electorally. They eat themselves. Better to be pure, better to be ideological paragons, than acquire the instruments of governance. And that is absurd.
I have defended the Tea Party, and conservatives generally, against cynical charges of racism, and I have defended the Tea Party against ridiculous comparisons to historically extreme right-wing movements in America — both fantasies of the left intended to discredit conservatism generally.
But I have also criticized the Tea Party for promoting ideological purity over conservatism itself, for taking a giddy and naive pleasure in taking down establishment conservatives because they were allegedly not conservative enough (whereupon Democrats won). This is how conservatism dies in America.
If I am not conservative, then conservatism is dying. If I, and so many like me, am not acknowledged as conservative, then conservatism defines itself into a very bleak box, and, despite its numbers, becomes an ironic historical footnote.
I am confident this will not happen. I am confident that conservatism includes (simply includes, not “is defined by”) people who do not believe government has any business forbidding a woman’s right to abortion or a person’s choice of gender in marriage. Mind you, being conservative, I believe these issues should be determined by legislatures, not courts. I oppose judicial fiat of both abortion and gay marriage rights, and I support legislative initiatives to achieve either.
And so I still think of myself as conservative. And I think it important that people like me aren’t eaten. For the sake of conservatism.