Some weeks ago I was asked my thoughts about the way forward for the conservative movement. I felt a little like I had been asked to provide a proof for Einstein’s general relativity and then handed a napkin and a crayon.
I mentioned the obvious “base-vs-establishment” split, but could not see an obvious way forward. If anything, the divide continues to grow wider. Both sides are at some fault, and I would be hard pressed to say which is more blameworthy. However, the flaws of the base are fairly well known and understood, so I will be focusing more on the “establishment”.
The authority of the “establishment” is predicated on two assumptions. Firstly, that they know what they are doing, and secondly, that the base will get at least some of what they want by deferring at times to the party leadership. This is the essence of the unwritten compact among Republicans.
Both legs of this platform have been thrown into serious question in the last few election cycles. The McCain and Romney campaigns epitomize the failures of the party, both technical and ideological. Our last two standard bearers did not understand the philosophy underlying the conservative movement, and then when pressed had no chance of adequately conveying or defending it. Steve Schmidt should have his proverbial license to campaign revoked. There are many more examples than these, which are merely the most prominent.
The transactional leg of the compact is no less suspect. Pennsylvania Republicans, despite controlling both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, have been unable or unwilling to take even small steps toward privatizing our Soviet-style liquor stores, nor have they been able to mitigate the certain fiscal doom of the looming pension crisis. Federally, Republican leadership recently capitulated on the debt ceiling hike without getting so much as the re-naming of a post office in return. (Please note, I have argued for having fights on appropriation bills and continuing resolutions, not the debt ceiling. Nevertheless, the swift and unconditional surrender was a little unsettling.)
The “establishment” relies on a model of the electorate that assumes voters (1) have consistent policy preferences that (2) are logically consistent and unidimensional and (3) that voters cast their votes according to which party or politician best satisfies these policy preferences. It’s an interesting model, one that has served academics and political practitioners for decades. But like all models — even the useful ones — it is wrong. It also happens to be least applicable where practitioners would most like to apply it — with the “swing”/”centrist” voter. The major problem with this seductively simplistic model is the general and perpetual prescription of retreat on all substantive issues.
The base, understandably irritated with the strategy of perpetual retreat and burned by a few too many failures of the transactional leg of the compact, has become allergic to compromise on any issue. Simply, to the extent that the base ever trusted the establishment, the base doesn’t trust them any more at all.
It doesn’t help matters that the establishment has declared open war against the Tea Party. To be fair, the feeling is often mutual, but party leaders “misunderestimate” the intensity and resolve of the base. Attacking or delegitimizing certain elements of the base/Tea Party (-even deservedly-) does not make the party leadership any more attractive. Democratic pollster Pat Caddell threw up a flag prior to the 2010 elections that America was in a “Pre-Revolutionary” state. Among Republican base voters, this feeling has not subsided. Tens of thousands of Connecticut gun owners have seemingly scoffed at the state requirement to register their weapons. (And why should they, when registration seems to lead to police abuse and eventual confiscation of weapons.) Those Connecticut –Connecticut– gun owners are surely not all tea partiers. And yet, they have shown a clear disregard for state control. This is not how a healthy democracy functions.
The base, much to its detriment, seems not to comprehend that the electorate is against us. Frankly, it is a little incomprehensible to me that Obama was re-elected, and yet here we are. The general electorate was never particularly well-informed or sophisticated, but seems much less so in recent years. Correspondingly, there has been an increase in “liberal” political identification amidst the massive disruption and likely collapse of Obamacare, the biggest liberal project in several generations.
The common ground may be what the base wishes to do, but can’t seem to, and what the establishment may be somewhat better equipped to do, but won’t, and that is to fight the basic linguistic and cultural assumptions that have crept into the swing-voter’s mind. Maybe once in a while somebody should explain the difference between “insurance” and pre-payment for service. Or explain that “access” is not equivalent to “subsidy” (birth control), and lack of subsidy is not equivalent to a “ban” (embryonic stem cell research). When debating Democrats, have our candidates ask, “and then what will happen?”, per Thomas Sowell’s Applied Economics. Explain that the Democrats would rather that the poor were poorer when it comes to “inequality”. And once in a blue moon, explain that the economy is not a zero sum game.
But as things stand now, there’s just no trust to be found for Republican leadership. Until some modicum of trust can be re-established, hostilities will persist.