Future of the GOP

02.21.13

What Comes After the Tea Party?

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The Claremont Review of Books has been hosting an interesting discussion of new books by Geoffrey Kabaservice and me that deal with the past and the future of the Republican party. 

The discussion has been led by Claremont's own William Voegeli. I added a second comment to the discussion today. You can read the whole of the prior discussion here.

The text of my latest comment follows:

William Voegeli ends his most recent entry in this discussion with this taunt: "The question of what Republican moderates stand for is no clearer today than it was during their mid-20th century heyday, or their long subsequent decline."

It's in the nature of things that people of more extreme views will accuse the less extreme of lacking principles. That was the charge that the militant students of the SDS threw at their liberal professors in the 1960s, and it's the charge that Tea Party conservatives reprise today.

Yet from my point of view, Tea Party conservatism is not defined by its super-abundance of principle. What, after all, were Sarah Palin's principles? No, the militant conservatism ascendant today is defined by these five very different qualities:

1) Affect. Tea Party conservatism values confrontation as an end in itself. It doesn't much care whether the confrontation is likely to yield successful results. It doesn't much bother to develop plans to bring confrontations to successful conclusions. The more often it loses (Obamacare, fiscal cliff, debt ceiling), the more determined it becomes to apply the same doomed tactics one more time. It would rather lose everything than negotiate something. Affect is all; results, nothing.

2) "Epistemic closure." That phrase is maybe too highfalutin, but it's too famous to dispense with. Whether it's the post-truth journalism of the pranksters at Breitbart.com or the nearly unanimous insistence of right-leaning economists during the steepest deflation of the 1930s that the real danger was inflation, Tea Party conservatism has a serious difficulty acknowledging facts and realities.

3) Apocalyptic despair. The day after the November 2012 vote, Rush Limbaugh explained the result to his large audience: "We've lost our country." These words expressed something more than the usual hard feelings after an election defeat. The Tea Party since its inception has been gripped by the fear that the Republic and the Constitution have arrived at a "tipping point" (to use Paul Ryan's phrase) after which it's all one steep hopeless tumble to socialist tyranny.

4) Attachment to the carcasses of dead policies. More than a century ago, the Marquess of Salisbury described this habit as the "commonest error in politics," and never has it been more common than now. With one exception (which I'll get to in the next paragraph) the policy repertoire of the Tea Party contains not a single idea less than 30 years old. Some of those ideas were relevant once, but have little application to contemporary conditions: e.g., cuts in marginal tax rates to spur productivity growth. Some of those ideas were always bad: the balanced budget amendment; the gold standard. None of them offer any service at all to a country mired in the worst employment crisis in 80 years.

5) Generational self-interest. As mentioned, post-2008 hard-right conservatives did rally around one new idea: the Ryan plan praised above by William Voegeli. And what was the Ryan plan? Simply this: a plan to load almost all the burden of fiscal adjustment onto Americans under age 55, while largely exempting Americans over age 55. Even beyond the Ryan plan, the Tea Party championed causes dear to the hearts of retirees and near-retirees. Remember, the issue that launched the Tea Party in the summer of 2009 was...opposition to Medicare cuts for current beneficiaries. That's a strange rallying cry for a purportedly limited government movement. Once you begin to think of the Tea Party as a vehicle for advancing the economic interests of the old against the young, though, a lot of otherwise mysterious behaviors suddenly begin to make sense.

Voegeli charges that Geoffrey Kabaservice and I propose only that Republicans dwindle into Democrats-lite.

"The niche occupied by such moderates in the political ecosystem was to moderate, but never threaten, the New Deal paradigm. The moderation consisted of purging liberalism in operation of inefficiencies, corruptions, and blunders to which it was prone, but which did not detract from it being fundamentally admirable and certainly benign.The way forward for Republicans, in this view, is to become more similar to rather than dissimilar from modern Democrats, both politically and substantively."

I'd say this is bad political science and worse history. It would be every bit as plausible to say that Democrats have dwindled into Republicans-lite: championing price competition against New Deal style price regulation; sympathetic to business concerns; skeptical of unions. "Fundamentally admirable and certainly benign" is the way most Democrats nowadays think of free markets. There's not a Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan among them.

But that is a lesser point. The more important point is: Times change. Conditions change. Problems change. Nobody—not Democrats, not Republicans—thinks we should continue to regulate the interest rate paid on checking accounts, as we did from 1933 until 1986. Nobody—not Republicans, not Democrats—thinks that the unemployed should be left to fend for themselves, as was the case in most states before 1935. Within the context of our present politics—a politics in which market-minded people have won, not lost, most of the major arguments since 1975—we need a party of the center-right that can advocate private initiative, reasonable taxation, and sustainable government in ways that make sense to contemporary voters: without despair, without rage, without resentment, and without reliance on pseudo-facts and pretend information. We need a center-right that does not blame the voters for its own mistakes of head and heart. We need a center-right that is culturally modern, environmentally responsible, and economically inclusive. There's the "finale" we should be seeking after the broken crockery from the Tea Party tantrum is cleared away.