Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Conservatism Going Forward

Well over two decades ago I was at an event where I heard Og Mandino speak. I had read his short book The Greatest Salesman in the World and had admired some of his wit and wisdom.

During his speech Mandino dropped the old corny joke: Q- How do you know when a politician is lying? A- When his lips are moving. This is such a worn gag that the crowd’s response was muted. Then Mandino added, “But I always vote for conservative politicians because I like conservative lies more than I like liberal lies.” The crowd laughed, but I thought at the time it was a pretty cynical remark.

Yesterday I read about Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) being indicted “on charges he hid hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from one of his state's largest corporations.” As an appropriator, Stevens has steered loads of federal taxpayer dollars to his friends and his state. He is famous for sponsoring the bridge to nowhere that became the symbol of earmarking corruption. Stevens’ problems have been known for some time. What surprised me most is that it took this long for some kind of official action to occur.

As I read the breaking news yesterday, I thought, “There’s one more episode in the GOP’s congressional scandal-a-thon.” This could be turned into a seemingly never ending serial. Lest you think I’m bagging on the GOP alone, you’d have to be ignorant or myopically partisan not to understand that corruption is truly the most significant bipartisan element of Congress.

Still, there’s no denying that most of the recent congressional ethics problems have been squarely in the GOP court. In June ProPublica reported that 21 legislators from the last congress are under investigation for corruption. Of those, only four are Democrats. That list doesn’t even include Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) because his ethics case has been completed.

Of course, Washington is a partisan place. It was fully expected when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress last year that they would ambitiously go after any Republican ethics issues while being less thorough on similar Democratic problems. But even allowing for this kind of skew, the GOP is clearly winning the corruption campaign in Washington right now — not in a good way — with some 7% of their members in congress being officially impacted. No telling how many are involved in run-of-the-mill business-as-usual corruption that sees no official action.

As I drove to work this morning, I was shocked to realize that I have slowly come to adopt Mandino’s cynical comment. I find it difficult to trust anything any politician says. But I tend to vote conservative because I at least somewhat like the conservative rhetoric.

The Sutherland Institute’s Paul Mero says that we should be careful not to equate the GOP with conservatism. The conservative movement struggled within the Republican Party for years until it wrested control of the party leadership with the Reagan revolution. A second wave came with the 1994 Republican revolution.

This movement soon peaked, however. To maintain control of Congress, the GOP increasingly turned to the spending and influence peddling practices for which they had for decades criticized their Democratic opponents. Many Republicans called themselves conservative while acting otherwise (and many still do). This, along with the unpopularity of the Iraq War, unsurprisingly resulted in the GOP losing both houses of Congress in 2006.

Looking at how things have turned out, conservatives need to face the stark reality that the conservative movement isn’t sufficiently strong to hold the GOP, let alone the nation. There is no question that majorities of Americans agree with many conservative principles — in principle, if not in practice.

Conservatives also need to look at their ranks and realize that they are really a group of diverse factions. There are actually only a very few defining issues upon which most people in the coalition can agree. Yet many conservatives talk like there is broad agreement on various issues outside of this narrow realm.

This interview with conservative activist Grover Norquist might help explain just how much diversity exists among the conservative coalition. It also gives some insight as to how such a coalition should act to be effective.

All these things should be pondered as conservatives honestly consider the future of the movement. Perhaps it would then be clear to them why they weren’t able to come up with a feasible presidential candidate this time around. Sitting around pining for the Reagan glory days (while forgetting the challenges of those days) is hardly a positive way forward.


Jeremy said...

This post is a great description of the current situation for conservatives and Republicans.

I'm libertarian enough that I'm skeptical when institutional conservatives like Norquist refer to themselves as "Leave us alone" conservatives. They don't really want government leaving us alone...they just want us left alone economically. Gillespie did a pretty good job in this interview drawing Mr. Norquist out on a variety of issues and I came away liking him a lot more. Maybe a coalition is possible.

I hope it is. In local Utah politics the Democratic party has been correct choice for libertarian minded people. There isn't a national party for libertarians other than the capital "L" Libertarians who are just too wacky for me. If Republicans became truly interested in small government that really began to leave people and businesses alone I think I'd be willing to come back around.

Charles D said...

I am reminded of the old adage, "power corrupts". Historically, any political party that enjoys unchallenged power for a long period becomes corrupt. The lure of easy money and favors from those with business before the Congress is simply too enticing to ignore.

With the advent of electronic media, campaigning has become more and more expensive every year. As a result, anyone seeking a House seat needs to raise well over $1 million to be competitive. That kind of money can't be raised from small donations by ordinary citizens. A "serious" candidate needs to either suck up to a number of very wealthy donors, or to special interest groups with lots of money to spend. Either way provides a introduction to the non-stop fundraising that characterizes our legislators.

If we want Republicans or Democrats or conservatives or liberals to be true to their ideals or to serve the needs of their constituents, we have to figure out how to eliminate the need for big money in elections. Of course, the legislators who can pass such legislation are sitting in Congress because of those big money interests, so not much chance of change.

Scott Hinrichs said...

One of the reasons that you don't have a party that represents libertarian-minded people is that libertarianism doesn't see government as a worthwhile path to achieve its goals. Thus, the Libertarian Party is full of fringe folks while most libertarians are working in other arenas.

DL has some good points. To achieve political goals a group must amass sufficient power to do so. Once amassed, though, there is an omnipresent urge to do whatever is needed to keep that power, even if it means counteracting your supposed principles.

I am reminded of the song "Wrapped Around Your Finger" by The Police. "It will turn your face to alabaster when you find your servant is your master." And a cruel master it is.

FA Hayek said that libertarian-minded people are never in the majority. Thus, they must take allies where they can get them. However, they must be careful not to promise permanent alliances nor go any further with any given ally than their common cause takes them. That necessarily makes for a continually changing scene of strange bedfellows. Hayek also said that achieving libertarian ends politically happens more by fluke than plan.

Charles D said...

It seems that Hayek is saying do whatever is necessary to get in power because we "libertarians" are in the minority. It then is pretty obvious that a libertarian in power would be no less likely do whatever is necessary to retain it.

If we view our political landscape as a struggle between rigid ideologies that must not be compromised, we play into the hands of those who care nothing for ideology but everything for money and power. (This is, by the way, a criticism of the left as well as the right. ) Democracy requires the ability to put aside one's ideological principles and compromising with others to serve the interests of the nation as a whole. One cannot do that while demonizing one's opponents, or demanding ideological purity of one's friends.