Filed under: Conservatism
In the whither-the-GOP conversation, it’s often remarked that today’s Republican Party has reached a state of ideological rigidity that traps it just as the Democratic Party was trapped in the late 1970s and 1980s. And that’s true. But then it’s also often said, as Ross Douthat did yesterday, that the GOP has become ideologically rigid in the same way that Democrats were a generation ago:
The Reagan-era wave of Republican policy innovation — embodied, among others, by the late Jack Kemp — has calcified in much the same way that liberalism calcified a generation ago.
But that’s actually not true. Liberalism was trapped in the late 1970s and 1980s not by a single ideologically rigid formula, but by a rigid commitment to a thousand different, often unrelated interest group platforms. These platforms were usually expressed in outraged moralistic terms drawn from a common liberal vocabulary even though they often had nothing to do with each other. The Democrats were pinned down like Gulliver by a million tiny commitments: the Teamsters, blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, teachers, Jews, feminists, Amtrak, the Sierra Club, opponents of intervention in Nicaragua, the nuclear freeze movement, and on and on — all had their individual planks in the party platform, and all required a ritualistic demonstration of obeisance from every candidate. Democratic political speeches became long, tedious laundry lists of incoherent moralistic vows to deliver comically specific programs to micro-splinters of constituencies. I remember visiting colleges in 1986 and watching a Brown campus improv group, not very funny, do a sketch in which a young woman activist demanded that everyone join her campaign to help get penguins out of Nicaraguan grain elevators, and this seemed a fair lampoon of the tenor of the times on the Left. The Democrats and the Left suffered from a big-tent sort of calcification; they were immobilized by diversity.
In contrast, conservatives and the GOP are calcified in their narrowness. The only things left in their program are cutting taxes and…actually I think that’s it, with a bit of defending torture and fighting gay marriage thrown in. They’re losing everyone but white males, and they’re losing everywhere but the South. They’re trapped because anything they do to reach out threatens to lose them more of the one constituency they’re still winning. The problems are different, and in some senses opposite. The Democrats wrenched themselves out of immobility by publicly repudiating some of those rigid commitments — chiefly to poor blacks and to labor — to show that the party was able to compromise in order to move and win. It was a Sister Souljah strategy. But Republicans are looking at a different dynamic, and it’s not clear that pulling a Sister Souljah on Rush Limbaugh, say, is what they need. I’m not sure quite what they need, but it’s not really going to mirror what the Democrats did in the early ’90s to win.
2 Comments so far
Leave a comment