Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why the Tea Party Can't Govern

Daniel McCarthy provides historical context for the inability of the Tea Party to govern in The American Conservative.

Something is seriously wrong with conservatism. Since Ronald Reagan’s last year in office, Republicans have only twice won a majority of votes cast for president—both times with a George Bush atop the ticket. And neither Bush was a conservative. For 25 years, something has prevented conservatives from winning the White House and prevented the Republicans who do win from governing as conservatives. What could it be?

The Tea Party has an answer: RINOs—liberal Republicans in Name Only—have sabotaged the right, most recently in October when they collaborated with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown. Once RINOs are extinct, true Tea Party conservatives like Ted Cruz will prevail. They will close down the federal bureaucracy and stop Washington from borrowing a penny more until Obamacare is defunded and the welfare state brought to heel. If this is extremism, it’s what Barry Goldwater called extremism in defense of liberty.

The virtue of the Tea Party is that it has shaken up a Republican Party that under Bush had become a failure on every level: in foreign policy, in responding to a changing culture, in preserving prosperity. Some of the new leaders and new ideas the Tea Party encourages are among the most promising developments on the right in a generation.

But the vices of the Tea Party are just as real, and Senator Cruz exemplifies them. His foreign policy is characterized by reflexive, if partisan, nationalism… The Texas senator’s domestic policies, meanwhile, are the same ones the right has championed since the 1970s. Indeed, Cruz represents a brand of conservatism that belongs to that era.

The new conservatism of the 1970s was strikingly populist: the religious right, the anti-tax movement, and neo-nationalism mobilized voters as the conservatism of the 1950s never could. This New Right, as it came to be called, not only propelled Reagan to victory in 1980 but that same November ended the Senate careers of liberal leaders Frank Church and George McGovern. The Tea Party today can be forgiven for thinking that this rebuilt conservative movement—evangelical, anti-tax, and proudly American—offers a timeless formula for success.

Each time the populist wave returns, it falls a little farther from the shore. But what is receding is not conservatism, it’s the 1970s version of the American right: the coalition of fundamentalists, anti-tax activists, and nationalists. And the reason this tide continues to retreat is not only demographic: populist conservatism has never outgrown the conditions of the era in which it was born—it’s still fighting the battles of 1980.

What they were against was always more clear than how they could create an alternative—a modern alternative, not simply a return to an idealized past. Because the emphasis was on negation rather than a creative agenda, the question of what compromises power must make with imperfect reality could be avoided. In “principle,” divorced from practice, one can outlaw every abortion without exception and send homosexuals back to the closet. Religious right activists thus radicalize one another and continually refine their ideology—then demand professions of principle from candidates.

What is true of Christian conservatives is true as well of the libertarians and economic conservatives. A legalistic and strictly negative conception of principle prevents them from discussing such things as the minimum wage, income inequality, and unemployment with any flexibility—any libertarian who attempts to do so risks being outflanked by some more “principled” ideologue who insists that only by liquidating the banking system will we see unemployment vanish before our eyes.

The tendency throughout the right is for the extreme view to crowd out all others because the criteria of debate were set long ago by conditions of opposition, not governing. From the Moral Majority to the Tea Party, a right forged in opposition offers only images of a mythic past in place of present economic and cultural realities. Instead of a modern conservatism competing against what is in fact a creaky liberalism—whose corporate cronyism and cultural atomism have engendered wide dissatisfaction—we have only the conservatism of what was versus the liberalism of what is.

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