Here is another statement from Rules for Radicals: “We are always moral and our enemies always immoral.” The issue is never the issue. The issue is always the immorality of the opposition, of conservatives and Republicans. If they are perceived as immoral and indecent, their policies and arguments can be dismissed, and even those constituencies that are non-political or “low-information” can be mobilized to do battle against an evil party. In 1996 Senator Bob Dole — a moderate Republican and deal-maker — ran for president against the incumbent, Bill Clinton. At the time, Dick Morris was Clinton’s political adviser. As they were heading into the election campaign, Clinton — a centrist Democrat — told Morris, “You have to understand, Dick, Bob Dole is evil.” That is how even centrist Democrats view the political battle.
Because Democrats and progressives regard politics as a battle of good versus evil, their focus is not on policies that work and ideas that make sense, but on what will make their party win. Demonizing the opposition is one answer; unity is another. If we are divided, we will fail, and that means evil will triumph.
They have a saying that expresses this attitude: “We are on the right side of history.” President Obama placed a carpet in the Oval Office on which these words are inscribed: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice
. That’s their
justice, their cause. The issues are never the issues; the issue is always what will bring power to those who are on the right side of history, because their cause — not any particular policy or tactic — is enlightened and just. This intoxicating belief is the key not only to the power of the party but to the sense of individual achievement and self-worth of its members, as soldiers in a moral cause.
The coalition of the Right is extremely diverse and at present lacks a unifying idea. Conservatives do not speak from the same page generally, or march in lockstep; their divisions are open for all to see, and for their opponents to exploit. The conservative media is frequently at odds with the Republican party, and the Republican party is often at odds with itself. The Tea Party has emerged and flourished because of dissatisfaction with the way Republicans conduct themselves in conflicts with their progressive opponents. To be sure, on the other side, there is also a progressive grassroots faction that has significant disagreements with the Democratic party. But when it comes to election time, when it comes to who gets the power, the progressive grassroots fall into line. They do it for the good of the larger cause. To be on the right side of history.
In contrast, conservatives are not averse to sitting on their hands at election time, or even voting for the other camp. Why do conservatives do this? Because they think elections are about particular policies, and they don’t see the larger cause. Republicans do not frame their broader political cause as a moral crusade, and do not project a unifying idea. Consequently, their focus is on policies and tactical issues. This inevitably promotes divisions in the ranks of Republican officeholders and frequently puts them at odds with their political base. As previously noted, the schism over whether to defund Obamacare or keep the government solvent was purely tactical, since all Republicans and conservatives oppose Obamacare. Yet by most accounts the fallout from the division was serious enough to pose a threat to the GOP’s electoral chances in 2014, when a defeat would make Obamacare a permanent feature of the nation’s life.
If policy and tactics were Democrats’ main concerns too, they would be as divided as Republicans. The fact that Democrats are united behind the ill-conceived, unpopular, and unworkable Obamacare legislation is a prime example of what happens when a policy is regarded as a pillar of the transformative cause. The troops bury their doubts and give it unanimous support because they understand that it is essential to the progressive dream.
Here is the bottom line: If conservatives continue to ignore the fact that their opponents approach politics as a religious war, if they fail to organize their own resistance as a moral cause, they will eventually lose the war and everything that depends on it.
Naturally, the first reaction of conservatives to this advice will be to reject it. Conservatives do not want to behave like leftists, who see politics and government as a means for transforming the world and the people in it. Temperamentally, conservatives are cautious because they know that the problems the world faces are caused by human beings, not by the social institutions that progressives plan to change. Social institutions reflect who we are far more than they shape what we will be. Therefore, all political “solutions” are imperfect; all will fall far short of their goals; all will require constant reforms to fix the additional problems they create. The legislative pillars of the progressive future — Social Security and Medicare — are already bankrupt, while the welfare state has created more — and worse — poverty than it was designed to cure.
Conservatives are realists who believe in the constitutional skepticism that guided the Founders. They know that human nature — not society — is the insurmountable obstacle to equality and justice, and that a democracy works only through compromise and respect. Democrats pay lip service to this wisdom but don’t really believe it. There is no compromising utopian goals, and they will accept no lasting modus vivendi with those who oppose these goals.
Fortunately, the objections of conservatives are not an obstacle to getting behind a unifying idea. The conservative cause already has a moral core; it is just not currently a political theme, the way equality is for Democrats and progressives. But it can be made into one.
Conservatism is by nature a defensive posture. It is about protecting the constitutional system created by the Founders. But the creation of this constitutional arrangement was a revolutionary act. It provided a political framework to maximize individual freedom and allow citizens to exercise their talents and enjoy the best possible lives. What conservatism is about is freedom, and this is its natural unifying idea.