The Republican party is a having an identity crisis, a full-blown public meltdown, complete with teenage existential angst. Erik Erikson, the psychologist who coined the term, described an “identity crisis” as the absence of a set of constant social, philosophical, or religious values to guide human action in a constantly changing environment. That pretty much describes today’s Republicans, who have no clue who they are, where they are going, or why — a serious impairment if you presume to lead a conga line, and much more so for the most powerful nation on earth.
Republicans can’t seem to express an organizing principle these days, and almost everyone with a computer to type on has noticed. David Brooks writes in the New York Times that the British have at last declared their independence from us: American conservatives, he notes, have lost the leadership of the conservative movement to them. Tom Davis, a former leader of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, writes, “the Republican brand is in the trash can.” The New Yorker headlines, “The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans run out of ideas?” Most painful of all, the elegant Peggy Noonan, who is to conservative composition what Fred Astaire was to dance, says the Republican party, including its conservative leadership, has “squandered the hard-built paternity of 40 years” because we are no longer serious about leadership, policy, or ideas.Perhaps it’s time to lie on the couch, acknowledge our fears, and ask, “What do Republicans believe?” Every descendant of Goldwater knows that our crisis of character is real. Late in the evening, through the mists of our memories of the 1980s, we confess it: American conservative thought ran out of gas after Ronald Reagan. Perhaps we were exhausted, and allowably so, after routing the Soviet Union and rescuing Western civilization.Success on such a scale is dangerous, since few people have the character to survive great accomplishment. Yet Republicans of the Reagan era suffered a second success. After dispatching the hammer-and-sickle crowd, conservatives won the ideological debate on the home front as well. January 23, 1996, was the date of liberalism’s surrender. When Bill Clinton declared in his State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over,” Clinton not only killed liberalism’s organizing doctrine, he also buried the remaining distinction between Democrats and Republicans.Our success left conservatives staggering aimlessly in the ideological desert, smashed with victory, wondering, “If the era of big government is over, then exactly what era are we in?” But liberals knew that Clinton’s rejection of industrial-age statism was done with a wink and a nod, and they paid him little mind. Today they are still offering voters seductive-sounding solutions, undeterred that their retinue of lazy, industrial-age programs, centralized in the nation’s capital, is destined, once again, to fail.Yet what have post-Reagan conservatives offered to meet the challenges of managing an economy or organizing a society? As Brooks notes, conservatives have fallen silent, acquiescent to the trend toward bigger, grander public-sector authority. George Packer throws another shovel of dirt onto the GOP grave in The New Yorker. “Among Republicans,” he writes, “there is no energy, no fresh thinking, no ability to capture the concerns and feelings of millions of people.” Republicans, he means to say, are no more than a nagging warning label on the American polity, a rusty sign on the fence that says “Beware: Big Government Here.”Brooks goes further. He says the next generation of conservatives must learn to compromise individual freedom and “use government to foster dense social bonds.” “Individual freedoms,” he says, quoting David Cameron, leader of Britain’s Conservatives, “count for little if society is disintegrating.” This is where Brooks and Cameron have it exactly backwards. Freedom is not incompatible with governing; in fact, the old-fashioned freedoms that conservatives have long cherished may usher in the most effective government that is within the power of man to create. It’s just a matter of redefining what “government” is and who practices it.