11.12.08 6:27 AM ET
The GOP Must Change or Die
The Republican party must acknowledge the women's movement and accept science. Or it will go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs.
One can hope that the post-election debate on the future of Republicanism will point the way to a viable fact-based prudential party. But it will be difficult to achieve, since the conservative movement has stuck to George W. Bush like a limpet on all his discredited policies: Iraq, banning abortion, the block on stem cell research, income tax cuts for the wealthy, attaching Social Security to the Stock Market (!), repatriating 12 million illegal immigrants instead of offering them a road to citizenship (“amnesty”). All of these have been losers.
A major —perhaps insoluble —problem conservatives face is that the aggressive “social conservatism” of the Republican base and its activists does not appeal to moderates and independent voters.
The model for the revival of the Republican party should be the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.
It is no good conservatives trying to revive Ronald Reagan, for whom I used to write speeches. Historians may rate Reagan as a near-great president. But our problems now are different from the ones he addressed. And “supply-side economics” is now widely recognized as nonsense. Let me try to advise them on how to rediscover a Republican party that is both viable and electable.
First, the Republican party must distance itself from evangelicalism as the policy preferences of evangelicals have only minority support. In 2000, Bush received 70 percent of the white evangelical vote, this becoming the indispensable base of the Bush Republican party.
America separates church and state by constitutional right: people can worship as they please in church, synagogue or mosque, which often have differing policy views. But public policy must be justified by fact and result, not by one or another religious doctrine.
Second, science today, empirically based, has great authority because of its manifold achievements, from the interior of the molecule and the human cell to the age of the universe (13.7 billion years). Therefore science also has cultural authority.
No administration has been so comprehensively hostile to science as the Bush administration. It has cut funding for research and development, manipulated data on global warming, and exaggerated uncertainties about climate change so that millions of Americans think global warming and its causes are matters of opinion.
Bush blocked federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and advocated teaching intelligent design along with evolution. Teaching intelligent design? Where? Biology class? Not since the 1920s has evolution been a subject of political controversy. Astonishing. Now it is controversial again because we are in what historians describe as the third evangelical awakening.
Third, both Bushism and movement conservatism forgot the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who understood abstract (republican) theory as the basis for revolution in France, but also understood historical force of social change, as in the famous passage from Thoughts on French Affairs (1791), celebrated by Matthew Arnold:
If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will grow that way...and those who persist in opposing it will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself than the mere designs of men.
That certainly could apply to the profoundest revolution of all time, the long revolution for women’s equality in the modern Western world. In America we can date the beginning of the women’s revolution to Fanny Wright’s Course of Popular Lectures (1820), which advocated women’s suffrage, free public education, more liberal divorce rules, and birth control. There in 1820 began the long journey to women’s equality. In Planned Parenthood vs. Casey the Court sustained Roe and observed that the availability of abortion allowed women to “participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation.”
Fourth, Burke and Leo Strauss are the indispensable conservative political philosophers and should guide the leaders of any form of modern conservatism. But the immediate paradigm for the revival of the Republican party should be the successful presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. I doubt Eisenhower studied much political philosophy at West Point, but he was a fact-based prudent realist, as any successful general must be: matching means with ends, making risk calculations, etc.
In 1953 Eisenhower ended the Korean war with a nuclear threat against Beijing, built the nuclear-powered navy and brought forward the unstoppable Polaris missile, initiated the U-2 spy-plane flights, began to build the interstate highway system, and also balanced the budget three times. He certainly would not have trapped an American army in Mesopotamia. He was practical, solid, and surely a near-great president.
In a recent poll, 98 percent of historians rated George W. Bush the worst president in American history. Bushism was a disaster, and the conservative movement that backed him in everything is now dead.
Movement conservatism, RIP. The common sense Republican party will rise again. It must. Or it will go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs.
Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College. He wrote for the National Review for more than three decades, where he was senior editor. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, and for Richard Nixon.