The Corner

Conservatism, Ideas & the GOP

David Brooks has a column synthesizing a lot of the new “liberal-tarian” stuff with his long simmering desire to turn conservatism into the idea-bank for a new TR style Progressive-ish Republican Party. It’s behind Time-select of course, but it’s still generating a lot of chatter. Beinart and I are going to chatter about it in fact in our next taping (And, he’s toast, because I’ve gotten a haircut!).

Anyway, Ross Douthat has some thoughts on it (and all the relevant links, I’m pressed for time this morning), mostly in regard to Sullivan’s “fisking” of Brooks. Pains me as it does to say it, I’m more in the Sullivan camp than the Brooks or Douthat/Salam camps. I’ll have more thoughts later, but here’s the thing that bugs me about a lot of this sort of discussion. Everyone confuses what the Republican Party needs to do with what conservatives need to believe.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the two need not go together. For example, the new prescription drug entitlement seemed at the time like a no-brainer for Republicans but a philosophical dilemma for conservatives. That sort of dynamic is inherent to GOP-conservative tensions.

Ross writes that both Sullivan and Brooks “are aware that conservatism needs to be for something more than just supply-side economics.” (Let’s leave aside that “supply-side economics” is a term that should be laid to rest, having done its job over a quarter of a century ago). Sitting still, just beneath the surface, in this thought is the idea that conservatives need to have popular ideas, winning ideas, clever ideas in order to win the battle of ideas.

Now, obviously, I agree with this to a certain extent and I can think of areas where I agree with it entirely. But in order to demonstrate my point let me be a stick in the mud and say I disagree with this entirely. The Republican Party is in the business of winning elections. That’s what it does. That’s why it’s so frustrating to conservatives and libertarians, that’s why Republican pols often see them as doe-eyed utopians.

The conservative movement is not primarily nor even really secondarily about winning elections. Conservatives are about winning arguments or, if you prefer, winning hearts and minds. The Republican Party can be a useful tool in this regard, but it’s an unwieldy and ultimately unreliable one. Personally, I think the GOP and conservatism have become too intertwined. This is good when it makes the GOP more conservative, but it’s bad when it makes conservatism more like a political party.

Where is it written that conservatives have to have new popular ideas? If we can’t make our existing ideas popular, is it really so terrible that conservatism become unpopular? Or does conservatism have to become a de facto political party of its own, constantly churning out new ideas that will get swing voters to call themselves “conservatives” not by converting them to conservatism, but by converting conservatism into some rightwing progressive agenda? This seems like a brand of me-too conservatism. See? People who call themselves conservatives can really be progressives too! Indeed, ever since his national greatness days, I occasionally find in Brooks a desire to keep riding the label “conservative” while quietly switching horses to something very different.

By all means conservatism needs to change because reality changes. But conservatives are the last people in the world who should be terrified at the idea that our ideas are momentarily unpopular. As Charles Peguy observed: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.”

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