I feel like doing a thumb-sucker on the state of the Republican party today. I was musing yesterday in my head about the need for the establishment and Tea Party elements of the GOP to work together to accomplish positive goals, rather than becoming embroiled in a civil war. It wasn’t long before my mind grew resistant to the idea of cooperating with certain types of establishment people, though. That then led me to distinguish between the types I can see working with, and those I can’t.
The people I don’t mind working with are those who believe that constitutional government is a good goal — but who believe that, realistically, the country is not yet ready to go as far as it should. These people argue that we should accomplish what we can, recognize what we can’t accomplish . . . and attempt to persuade people to come around to our point of view on issues where we currently can’t achieve all we would like.
The people I have a problem with are those who are contemptuous of Tea Party ideals. Who laugh derisively at the very idea that we should revert to constitutional government. Whose rhetoric is the rhetoric of Big Government and Statism. This includes Republicans in government who seek out Tea Party votes, but (like Thad Cochran) appeal to voters by touting their ability to bring home government benefits.
The problem, of course, is distinguishing between the two. Let me provide a couple of examples of pieces I have read lately by pundits who appear to fall into the latter category.
Let’s start with Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, who penned a piece recently titled The tea party risks scaring away voters:
The movement has developed a characteristic tone and approach. It is often apocalyptic. The torch of liberty sputters. The country is on the verge of tyranny. Yet, without apparent cognitive dissonance, the movement’s goals are often utopian. The nation’s problems can be solved by passing 10 amendments to the Constitution or by impeaching the president. And those who don’t share a preference for maximal (sometimes delusional) solutions — those who talk of incrementalism or compromise — are granted particular scorn.
The tea party temperament is often accompanied by an easily reducible political theory. “The word ‘education,’ ” McDaniel has argued, “is not in the Constitution. Because the word is not in the Constitution, it’s none of their [the federal government’s] business.” Neither are the phrases “health care,” “retirement assistance,” “disaster relief,” “food safety” or “cancer research.” And there goes much of the modern state.
These habits of mind — desperation, utopianism, purifying zeal and ideological simplicity — have had their uses throughout history. But they can’t be called conservative. This is one theme of a careful, instructive essay by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers in National Affairs that ought to be required beach reading for conservatives. The authors describe the attributes of the conservative temperament — humility, an appreciation for what is worthy in our society, a preference for incremental reform, a distrust of abstraction — and contrast them with the “misguided radicals of the left and right.”
That last paragraph makes Gerson sound like a Burkean conservative: willing to seek smaller government, but preferring incremental approaches. That’s not the type of conservative I am, but I can try to work with people like that — especially when they make it clear that their ideals are substantially the same as mine, but their path for getting there is simply more pragmatic.
I understand that point of view. I have held that point of view. I am not contemptuous of it.
But look at the second paragraph in the quote above. There, Gerson seems to actively accept “the modern state” in its current form — including, as I interpret his phraseology, a substantial federal role in topics such as “retirement assistance” and even “health care” (!). When he says: “And there goes much of the modern state” my reaction is: “you’re damned right!” But when Gerson says “And there goes much of the modern state” he is saying, as I read his words, that people who want to dismantle the “modern state” are radical and extremist.
For people like Gerson, things like Social Security, Medicare, the Education Department, ObamaCare, and the rest of the apparatus of the giant state — all these things are a given. No matter how precipitously they were imposed on us, people like Gerson are worried about doing away with them too hastily, if at all. Better to tinker with them around the margins. But let’s not have any of this crazy talk about how the so-called “Constitution” doesn’t provide a role for federal government interfering in such areas. That sort of talk is Simplistic — why, it’s even Scary.
I can’t work with someone who talks like that. I can’t work with someone who, for example, believes that a federal role in health care is “conservative.” To me, that person’s philosophy is pernicious. In some ways, it’s more insidious than the leftist philosophy — because it poses as “conservative” and therefore as a way of thinking that I have to tolerate.
Well, I don’t. Such a philosophy is the philosophy of the political enemy. When I say “the political enemy,” I want it to be clear: I do not mean mortal enemy in the sense that Al Qaeda is the “enemy.” But my political enemy is a real opponent. His way of thinking is something that I need to fight with every ounce of energy in my body. I’ll fight it with every ethical means at my disposal. Those means include attempts to persuade — but I will recognize that, more often, persuasion won’t work, and such philosophies must simply be crushed.
But I’d like to think that Gerson does not represent a large part of the Republican party. I’d like to think that many people on the right believe in the ultimate goal of limited constitutional government, and that their main disagreement is over how much we can accomplish, and how quickly it needs to be accomplished.
I can work with people who disagree with me on such issues. And I invite them to work with people like me. Where there are disagreements, let’s air them, respectfully.
But people like Michael Gerson, whether they call themselves “conservative” or not, are the political enemy. And I think those of us who love liberty — all of us — need to identify the enemy for what they are . . . and stamp them out.