Friday, July 18, 2008

Lack of Exceptions Hurt the Conservative Movement

William Voegeli of the conservative Claremont Institute puts it rather bluntly in this WSJ article. American conservatives were on the wrong side of the civil rights issue.

Bruce Bartlett notes in this WSJ op-ed that since the founding of the Republican Party, it has the best record of the two major parties on civil rights. But let’s be honest. During that past 154 years the faces of the two parties and of the conservative movement have changed. The GOP has not been consistently chiefly conservative, nor have conservatives always been chiefly Republicans. Today’s GOP taking credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is a stretch into ancient history.

Voegeli uses the writings and utterings of Bill Buckley — the founder of the modern conservative movement — to prove his case. Buckley and his fellow conservatives constantly championed the causes of federalism and limited government. They even used these principles to denounce the evils of employing federal overreach to resolve the problems of legally institutionalized segregation and racism, particularly in the South.

Please note that federalism as currently used in conservative circles means the devolution of government power to the states, getting back to the federal government exercising only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Some detractors refer to this as “states rights;” a phrase that was used throughout the conflict over slavery as a euphemism for supporting slavery.

While Buckley and other conservatives asserted that they had no problem with ending institutionalized white preference, they stood on principle, boldly affirming that the only way this could be accomplished without trampling on the Constitution was to allow it to occur through natural societal evolution. Segregation would eventually end on its own, they assured.

Voegeli writes, “To the urgent insistence that ending segregation justified the government in doing whatever it had to do, conservatives responded by calling for the indefinite reliance on other people's patience.” Besides, conservatives listed a whole list of problems that would most assuredly arise if institutionalized segregation were ended by government fiat.

Conservatives were wrong. While we like to think of ourselves as far more enlightened than our progenitors, there is little evidence that segregation would be much better today than in 1960 had federal action not occurred. The forecast social upheaval as the result of federal action also didn’t last. Most conservatives today not only admit that federal action was required, but view this action with pride.

But if conservatives were wrong about using federal intervention to end segregation and its immediate ramifications, they were also right about where it would lead. When it came to civil rights, conservatives “had no starting point”, but liberals “had no stopping point.” Buckley saw early on where these excesses would lead. Indeed, some of these excesses have been liberalism’s greatest gift to the conservative movement.

Having captured the moral high ground by employing federal power to quash segregation, liberals have assumed that this can be translated to just about any issue. There is no logical limit to what can and should be accomplished by centralized political power. Moreover, the morality of civil rights is borrowed as justification for this.

Conservatives are left having to look like the dour faced accountant wearing a green eye shade, trying to remind Americans that there is a cost to every brick of the socialist program. It’s a message that Americans that are used to having what they want when they want it find hard to listen to. Still, it would mean a lot more to voters if the GOP, which has been the bastion of conservatism since the 70s, hadn’t spent recent years working against the its own cherished ideals of federalism and limited government.

The tale Voegeli weaves presents two conclusions. 1) There are occasions when problems can only reasonably be solved by employing federal power. 2) There are pretty strict limitations to what the federal government can and should do.

Each side likes one of these concepts but hates the other. Actually, for many that brand themselves as conservatives, point #2 simply boils down to a disagreement with liberals over which facets of life the federal government should control. They have no problem employing the force of government to abridge liberty, as long as their policies are favored.

So perhaps a bigger problem for the conservative movement is that few Americans today seem to buy off on the idea of limited government. Buckley and other conservatives once drew the line of limited government so firmly that there was no room for necessary exceptions. Now that this has proven to be too limited, liberals believe the principle is void while conservatives can’t tell the difference between the rule and the exception.

Thus, today’s GOP looks like Democrat-lite. And the party old bulls are fighting like made to keep it that way (see Kimberley Strassel article). Some of the same people that once worked to bring about a permanent GOP majority are working hard to maintain a permanent GOP minority.

This begs the question: does anybody out there really know what it means to be conservative anymore? Does anyone really care?


Anonymous said...

The answer to both of your questions is: we do (the Sutherland Institute.)

At least, we certainly care and we try to define conservatism.

Yours is a great post. Very thoughtful and, I think, instinctively correct. With the death of Buckley, I too have wondered where conservatism has gone...I wonder why we insist on confusing the Republican Party with conservatism.

Sutherland has a "Defining Conservatism Series" on its web site. I would invite you to take a look.

Again, nice post.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks, Paul. Here is a link to the institute.

Jettboy said...

Well, I think Liberalism won over Conservatism. That made Conservative principles obsolete. Once the political cat was out of the bag, there was no putting it back. All that Conservatives had left was issues. As a Conservative, I honestly feel I am fighting against a tide that will drowned the United States in its own freedom.

For a brief moment I thought that Conservatism (issues based) had a chance to make a comeback. Now I recognize it might have been the calm before the storm. Too many Liberals control too many propaganda producers.

Charles D said...

Does the argument between conservatives and liberals boil "down to a disagreement...over which facets of life the federal government should control. They have no problem employing the force of government to abridge liberty, as long as their policies are favored."

We now see a "conservative" administration that has done more to give the federal government control over the lives of citizens and abridge their liberty than any in our history. So either the Bush Administration is not conservative or liberal, or the assertion I quoted above is simply wrong.

We need to ask different questions. Does government abridge liberty when it uses its revenue to provide a better life for its people? That has not been the American experience. When the government has used its power to abridge the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights, it has almost always been defended on national security grounds. The government asserts it is keeping us free by taking away our rights.

If we look at the democracies that have fallen into tyranny, what we find are societies and economies with great inequality of wealth, income and opportunity. Ultimately that inequality cannot be sustained through democratic means. Our nation is falling into that trap, and real conservatives should join liberals and progressives in demanding that our liberties be protected and that the Constitutional checks and balances that have preserved our freedom be restored.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The Bush administration is conservative in some ways, particularly on some social issues, but it is quite liberal in other ways. How can anyone describe the expansion of federal control over education and the expansion of Medicare when the program is already on faulty financial footing as conservative initiatives?

Like GOP legislators that call themselves conservatives but somehow think that porkbarrel earmarks define conservatism (like Sen. Bennett R-UT), the Bush administration thinks that giving taxpayer money to churches can be classed as a conservative initiative.

I appreciate the fact that people of different political stripes can agree that "our liberties [need to] be protected and that the Constitutional checks and balances that have preserved our freedom [must be] be restored."

Cameron said...

"Does government abridge liberty when it uses its revenue to provide..."

That's the problem DL, the government doesn't have "revenue". At least not in terms of what the word actually means in the real world.

And yes, too much providing by the government does abridge liberty.

Charles D said...

As citizens, we permit our government to tax us in order to pay for the benefits we wish to receive from it. In theory, if we the people want the government to provide say, free health care to all, then we elect representatives who will vote for this program and the taxes needed to pay for it.

What we have had over the last 30 years is serious reductions in Federal taxes overall coupled with massive and unnecessary increases in government spending (Medicare drug coverage, military outsourcing and no-bid contracts, etc.) That has driven us into huge deficits and a situation where day-to-day operations are paid for with credit.

That's not a conservative policy by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a progressive policy. It is out and out corruption. The corruption can continue because many voters and the corporate media are reflexively against all tax increases, against all reductions in military spending, and do not want the key remaining social programs (Social Security and Medicare) to be weakened.

Frank Staheli said...

The Constitution is definitely not perfect, but I think we still need to work within its confines. A Constitutional Amendment could have solved the problem as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 didn't seem to have.

In one way, I agree with Buckley, but at the same time, I don't think Conservatives have "evangelized" enough for fixing these kinds of poignant issues, so that most people only seem to "remember" that conservatives opposed fixing them.

The similarity between the Democrats and Republicans, on a federal level, has been wafer thin for about 75 years. From a general populace perspective, Republicans are trying now to keep up with the Democrats in "voting themselves largess from the public treasury."

It will all come falling down like a house of cards if we don't remedy it soon.