For conservatives who want to regain that support, and for Republicans who want a chance to govern, a crucial first step is to see the inadequacy of the oppositional and negative approach to the question of the government's purpose and role. It is inadequate not simply because it fails to give Republicans enough to offer voters. It is inadequate because it does not amount to a conservative vision -- on historical, philosophical, or practical grounds.
Michael Gerson (a Washington Post columnist) and Peter Wehner (a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center)--both have served in prior Republican Administrations--posted a lengthy article several weeks ago discussing the current tactics and strategies of conservative governing. While I didn't agree with many of their observations, the commentary was not without many strong points and sound advice to their fellow conservatives. [All quotes in this article are from that piece.]
Particularly among libertarians and some of those conservatives who identify with the Tea Party movement, government overreach has found its mirror image in fierce anti-government fervor.
That impulse is itself nothing new on the American right; what is different today is both its intensity and its widening appeal within conservative ranks. It involves a rhetorical zeal and indiscipline in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating. It is justified by an apocalyptic narrative of American life: We are fast approaching a point of no return at which we stand to lose our basic liberties and our national character.
That far-right extremists and Tea Party members have developed a noticeable strain of paranoia and conspiracy-laden fears about the President's agenda is not exactly news. This response to changes over which the base feels powerless to stem or control has been a defining feature of right-wing behavior for decades. So in that regard, the fervor demonstrated is par for the course (not that it's justified).
But as with most behaviors--Left or Right--founded on unyielding ideologies, there are consequences. This blind, extremist-inspired headlong dash down the path of "no government, ever" thinking has real-world implications, and no immunity is granted to those huddling under the same ideological umbrella. "No government" is not an answer to the challenges we face. Call me stubborn, but I've never found the appeal in any let's-make-things-worse strategies.
Unwarranted paranoia stoked by a media wing whose first priority is not honesty or integrity doesn't help us address our economic, environmental, or cultural concerns. It's not a blessing for the political disputes, either. Ratings spikes and revenue dollars rolling in are obvious "benefits" to the war being waged between Left and Right, but those numbers don't exist in a vacuum, and the benefits they may afford some don't extend outward to help the rest of us.
They translate into more intense polarization and partisanship, for one thing. Compromise and negotiation--long the hallmarks of an intelligent, forward-thinking, and wise political process designed for and guided by the notion of acting for the common good--have now become tantamount to treason. Too many of the extremists have become completely dislodged from reason and reality. Too many others are still paying attention to them.
Many will (unfortunately) be surprised to find out that their narrow-minded adherence to a governing philosophy they have badly misconstrued is actually not a good thing for any of us. As Gerson and Wehner rightfully point out:
The federalist founders were indeed wary of the concentration of power in the federal government. At the same time, however, they did not -- unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution -- view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. Indeed, the most influential of the founders scorned such a view, referring to the 'imbecility' of a weak central government (in the form of the Articles of Confederation) compared to a relatively strong central government (which is what the Constitution created). In their view, government, properly understood and properly framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the 'public good.'
I'm not convinced that many--if any--of the wild-eyed extremists have the capacity to appreciate the short- and long-term recklessness of their behaviors and statements. But I do still have an abundant faith in the millions of conservative voters who are keeping a safe distance from the wildest pursuits of their so-called leaders. It will be up to them to steer the Republican ship back in the direction of paths where the common good and national well-being are the goals.
We could pursue many worse objectives than that one.
(This is adapted from an upcoming post of mine, part of a current series on political ideology. First one here.)