14 February 2008

The "action" politics of the Republican Party

Many Republicans are concerned by the rather leftward direction – or simply “less conservative” – move in Republican Party as evidenced by the success of John McCain. The Republican Party, so the story goes, is abandoning conservatism, or perhaps conservatives. The language used in discussing this event is much like the language used in discussions of religious heresy. John McCain, Mike Huckabee and their ilk are heretics with respect to party ideology. Conservatism is to the Republican Party what the Nicene Creed is to orthodox Christians. Deny conservatism, and you’re a heretic.

The problem is that this has been going on since almost immediately after President Reagan left office. It was not very obvious during the first Bush administration, but it certainly became obvious under the present President Bush. The first clue was his reference to a “compassionate” conservatism, which irritated ideological conservatives, who are inclined to see conservatism as inherently compassionate. Clearly, “compassionate” conservatism sees a larger role for government in meeting human needs, a role that flies in the face of conservative belief that smaller government is one of the best safeguards of liberty. The government preferred by the “compassionate” conservative is not necessarily a small one. Then there are President Bush’s cozy ties with Mexico’s National Action Party; and certain similarities between the NAP and Bush’s polices can give us a clue. Internationally, the NAP is associated with the Christian Democracy movement, which, though slightly right of center is not conservative in the classical (i.e., Reagan-conservative) sense of the term. For example, Christian Democracy generally prefers the social market to the free market.

What chiefly characterizes “action” politics is the concept of taking necessary action as dictated by exigent circumstances, rather than the simple application of one’s ideological principles. An “action” oriented party is not committed to any ideology (although, in the case of Mexico, the National Action Party generally tends to lean to the right). What this means is that both leftist as well as rightist policies will be considered in the formulation of the party’s agenda. Sounds a bit like John McCain (a member, like Arnold Schwartzenegger, of the Main Street Republican Partnership), doesn’t it? It also sounds a bit like the President. I doubt it is coincidental that the two most “action” oriented politicians (i.e., most willing to reach across the aisle and embrace leftist policies) are from states which border Mexico, which has had two NAP presidents in a row.

I don’t mean anything conspiratorial. While it is generally labeled a “conservative” party, the Republican Party has in the past taken a certain “action” oriented approach in regard to a range of issues. Frankly, I think any conservative approach the party has ever taken has been rooted in pragmatism, including its largely free-market approach to economics: in general, it works. The Republican Party took an anti-slavery position in the years preceding the Civil War, but, while there were no doubt people morally opposed to slavery, the Party’s position on slavery could well have been due to pragmatic considerations. The Party’s platform at its inception was largely devoted to the issue of modernization of the entire nation, North and South. Slavery, because it facilitated the preservation in the South of the “old ways” was just unacceptable. Even if slavery were not immoral, it had to go if only to make “progress” possible. The Party’s first successful presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, took a very pragmatic attitude toward emancipation of slaves that, in modern parlance, could be called very “action” oriented: if he could preserve the union without freeing the slaves then he’d not do so; if it took freeing the slaves to preserve the union, then he’d do so. We know what he ended up doing. We don’t all of us know why. Whatever action – whether it be classified as leftist or rightist – will preserve the nation is what action politics requires. So if, as in the 1970s the nation is experiencing stagflation, you just freeze wages and prices, like Nixon did (the same man who took the final action moving the U.S. off the gold standard; the same man who declared, “We are all Keynesians now”; the same man who once said he wished people would stop worrying about moral problems and start working on the problems which really afflicted the nation – a conservative?).

So today, if there is a national health care crisis, even if one opposes “universal” healthcare, one might favor Mitt Romney’s mandatory health insurance plan. If there is a crisis, it must be averted. If it can be averted by the operation of a free market, then so be it. But if it requires government action rather than the market forces which conservatives prefer, then that is what action politics will consider. I just don’t think the history of the party will support the notion that it has been committed to the principles of conservatism, depending, of course, on the type of conservatism we are talking about. The Party has been pragmatic almost since its inception.

I don’t think the conservative move of the party under Reagan’s leadership was primarily ideological in nature. That right-ward move was also pragmatic and action oriented, not the result of ideological commitment. Yes, there are committed conservatives in the party; but they have never struck me as constituting a majority of the party membership. The Republican Party has, since Reagan, been a rather loose coalition of pragmatic, action politicians and ideologically conservative politicians. What motivates action politics is bare national survival, whatever that may require. What motivates conservatives is the conviction that conservative principles, consistently applied, will ensure the survival of the nation. For action politicians, if it appears that conservative principles are appropriate to the situation, then those principles will be applied. If conservative principles appear unlikely to work, then they will be discarded in favor of more liberal policies. Whatever works.

For action politicians, ideological commitments are like appetizers or deserts: nice if you can afford to indulge them; but a steady diet may be injurious to the nation’s long-term health. The present move away from (or perhaps simply a continuation of) the pragmatic, action oriented approach it has really always favored.

This leaves conservatives with two choices. They can recognize the action politics which has really been the dominant approach in the party virtually since its birth and remain, arguing daily the superiority of conservative principles in responding to crises. If they do so they must understand that application of those principles will wax and wane; and they will have to live with it, celebrating when those principles are translated into policy, working harder when they are not. Or, if they want a truly conservative party, then they will have to found such a party. That may sound like a good idea, but it really isn’t: conservatives are not of the same stripe. Some are cultural, liberal, social, neo-, paleo-, even libertarian. What they may find is that instead of a single conservative party challenging Democrats and Republicans for state and national leadership, we may end up with several different conservative parties challenging Democrats, Republicans, and each other, of course – and getting nothing for their efforts, except a stronger Democrat Party.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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