Politics & Policy

Quo Vadis, GOP?

How a conservative can love government.

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.


Conservatives do have something to say about this. Our British cohorts, as Brooks notes, are expressing it: “They want voters to think of the Tories as the party of society while Labor is the party of the state. They want the country to see the Tories as the party of decentralized organic networks and the Laborites as the party of top-down mechanistic control.” But the “Conservative Revival” that Brooks has discovered in the Anglo motherland is new only in expression, not in principle or practice. Conservatives have always believed in bottom-up self-government, not top-down, state-imposed administration.

Conservatives do not hate government. We never have. We love life when it is well-governed. We respect the flag, our country, and traditional authority. We like a world where rules are observed and regulations are respected. We revere the order of the church. We respect the lines on the playing field and we stop at traffic lights. We want things to work. We want trains to run on time. We want our lives to be ordered. We want our lives to be governed — just not by others. We want our lives governed by the face we see in the mirror. We want our lives governed by ourselves.

Liberals, similarly, do not love government. What they love is power, especially when it is concentrated in the state and they have their hands on it. Whether that power actually governs anything is immaterial. Yes, they believe in a large and growing public sector. But liberalism’s antique, industrial-age imperative that all authority must be top-down and emanate from the public sector has established a colossal record of failure. The big old machine is broken. Liberalism doesn’t “govern” anything these days.

Liberalism doesn’t govern spending — it is out of control in Washington. Liberalism doesn’t govern education — our public schools are a painful wreck. Liberalism doesn’t govern health care, which has been isolated from the marketplace. Liberalism doesn’t govern energy. Liberalism doesn’t govern drugs, crime, a decaying infrastructure, or a lackluster economy. Liberalism doesn’t govern our culture — it is unwinding. Liberalism doesn’t govern retirement — Social Security is a deception and a plan for bankruptcy. Pick anything, anything Washington has been tasked to govern — and Washington has proven unable to administer it.

The industrial world’s outdated approach, with government as a mechanistic god directing a static and centralized policy factory, cranking out programs the way Ford used to crank out cars — this is what government used to be, not what government is going to be.

What liberals believe governs nothing. What liberals believe does not work. What post-modern conservatives believe, however, does work. The evidence is all around us in the successful embrace of capitalism now lifting nations around the planet. In fact, the language of the Internet, the communications age, and the environmental and civil-rights movements describe post-modern conservatism with perfection and grace.

What we believe in is people-driven, choice-filled, dynamic, flexible, equal-opportunity self-government. We should call it organic government. Want to know what your government is going to look like 20 years from now? Ask your children. They will say it will look a lot less like General Motors and a lot more like MySpace. The Internet is an education for us all, a place where people self-organize and govern themselves with maximum freedom. In its reflection, we can see more than the future of technology and communications; we can see the promise of democracy.

Conservatives believe that we govern our society more often, and better, through the private sector than through the public sector. We govern our lives in our churches, communities, bowling leagues, and neighborhoods. We govern our most altruistic impulses through charities. The PTA governs. The Chamber of Commerce governs. Facebook governs. The Invisible Hand governs.


Conservatives need to abandon the old debate in which we ask voters to choose between big government in Washington or nothing. We will not do well in the political marketplace if our sales pitch is “we have zero to sell,” or if, with no product of our own, Republicans remain faux Democrats, selling lower-calorie versions of liberal failure. We need a new dynamic in which we offer a choice between old, lazy, big government in Washington and new, energetic, private-sector self-government in the real world.

Sure, conservatives believe we should have a department of education, bigger and better than ever. But instead of its being a big bureaucracy in Washington, we believe the department of education should be found at the end of every American driveway. Even Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, supports school vouchers in D.C., saluting “moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and other guardians in my community” who are “working to make the right choices for their children.” That is our kind of government.

In his victory speech after the North Carolina primary, Barack Obama echoed Bill Clinton by saying, “Government can’t solve all our problems — and we don’t expect it to” (at which point the applause in his Democratic audience noticeably dimmed). He went on to say, “That’s how we’ve always changed this country — not from the top down, but from the bottom up.” OK, Senator Obama, where do you want the education money? Do you want in the hands of parents, bringing change from the bottom up? Or in the hands of education bureaucrats and trickle-down government in Washington?

That is Barack Obama’s opportunity, as it is ours. If Obama seizes it, wins the election, and transforms Washington — moving government to the thriving, innovative, problem-solving private sector from the decaying, old, industrial public sector — he and his party can snatch the future and govern America for the next 25 years. Conservatives may want to get there first.

Conservatives do have solutions. Our answer is not “no government”; our answer is a government that is more natural. Choice and diversity, if entrusted to people, require — and create — economic freedom. Conservatives need to learn the language of the environmental and civil-rights movements, not only because it is more marketable, but also because it more accurately reflects the organic liberty and self-government we cherish.

Our theme, our brand, our identity? How about this: Republicans are the not the party of a decaying, old, static, industrial-age, top-down government in Washington. We are the communications-age party of genuinely democratic, dynamic government — of, for, and by real people. We want to get money and power out of Washington and into the hands of the people — not because we want no government, but because we believe people who live in liberty create the best government when they are trusted to govern themselves. Ours is a purpose-driven populism, determined to change Washington, because if we do that, Americans can achieve anything in the world.

Fellow conservatives, let’s learn to say it: We need more government, lots of it, but we need the kind that actually works: Bottom-up self-government by a mature people. And we need that government in our hands — because it is not natural, efficient, or beneficial to leave something so powerful in the hands of anyone else.

– Alex Castellanos is a Republican media consultant residing in Alexandria, Virginia.


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