Conservative writer Ben Domenech asks: “What is the Republican Party for, anyway?” He says that on the top three issues that have engaged the conservative imagination of late — the Iran nuclear deal, Planned Parenthood’s savagery, and funding the Export-Import Bank — the GOP has choked. Domenech:
Taken together, the stance of the Senate Republican caucus on these three issues reveal the utter failure of post-Cold War fusionism. The Senate Republicans have in the space of a few short months dramatically undercut their ability to be considered serious on national security, fiscal conservative, and social conservative priorities. And for what? What is worth cutting all three flimsy legs of the stool shorter? Surely it has to be something worthwhile – avoiding a government shutdown, or repealing Obamacare? Surely it must be about achieving some greater legislative goal or laying the groundwork for taking the White House in 2016?
Well, actually, the aim is to pass a Highway Bill. It is a thousand page tax and pork-laden monstrosity which does not deserve to pass in the first place, and whose failure would be greeted as a positive development for any fiscal conservative. For conservatives, the Highway Bill is a bad thing that could be the vehicle for something politically useful. For Republicans, this is not the case. The passage of a Planned Parenthood defunding amendment would set up a direct conflict with the White House over the issue, and undercut McConnell’s priority of passing a Highway Bill with an Ex-Im resurrection attached to it – two things that are not a priority at all for Republican voters, mind you, but for the corporatist constituency the Republican Party actually serves, are near the top of the list.
And that is why the Republican Party exists.
Read the whole thing. Even though I don’t share all of Domenech’s views — I am less skeptical of the Iran deal than he is — it’s important, and I think it’s important because, as Domenech says, it reveals the failure of fusionism. Fusionism is the term used to describe the postwar Republican coalition of social conservatives, economic libertarians, and foreign-policy hawks. Domenech indicates that it’s dead, or at least dying.
Is it? I suspect so, but I think it still has legs because there’s nothing to compete with it. As a social conservative, I often find the party’s economic libertarians, and even its hawks, advocate policies that undermine my core conservative principles. Alas, there aren’t enough social conservatives like me, voters who resist economic libertarianism and foreign-policy hawkishness on conservative grounds, to make a difference. To be clear, the GOP can take us for granted because most social conservatives, in my view, already agree with the Republicans on foreign policy and economics. Worse, from a social-conservative point of view, the Democrats are so much worse on the issues that we care about most — especially, these days, religious liberty — that many of us feel compelled to vote GOP as the lesser of two evils. We know that the Republican Party cannot be counted on to do the right thing, but we also know that the Democratic Party can be counted on to do the wrong thing.
Domenech asks: what happens when the GOP doesn’t serve the interests of anyone in the coalition? What happens when the GOP seems to exist only for itself?
Unlike Domenech, I am not in the thick of Republican politics, and haven’t been for a while. As regular readers know, I’m far more interested in building conservative cultural resistance than in politics. I believe that politics are important, but I also believe that culture is more important than politics. The Benedict Option is not about quitting politics, but about putting far more of our attention, as Christian conservatives, into thickening our habits and community bonds, and building institutions. I usually vote Republican in national elections not because I have faith in the GOP, but because the alternative would be worse.
That said, when I read columns like Domenech’s, it makes me think that the Republican Party is like a church whose congregation really doesn’t believe anymore, but who keeps showing up on Sunday for lack of anything better to do.
Maybe Democrats see their own party like this too. I don’t know.
I’d like to poll the room on this, with this restriction: if you are a liberal or a Democratic voter, please keep your detailed opinions about the GOP to yourself; likewise, if you are a conservative or Republican voter, don’t waste our time with extended commentary on the evils of the Democrats. Stay focused on the way you think and feel about the party that ostensibly represents people like you, or at least usually gets your vote.
I ask because I share what I take to be Domenech’s frustration and exhaustion with the conservative party, but there is no practical alternative when it comes to election day. (I imagine more than a few liberals feel this way about the liberal party.) I may vote Republican, but I have no passion — none — for the Republican Party, or for conservative politics. All the passion, intellectual and otherwise, that I used to devote to conventional politics is going into a different kind of politics: what Vaclav Havel called “anti-political politics.” Vaclav Belohradsky writes:
Let us now return to the expression “antipolitical politics.” This expression is only legitimate when it refers to an effort to change a regime in a situation where issues have emerged that cannot be solved through a change of government within the framework of the old rules of the game, within the old “world view.” And that is why politics then finds itself under pressure from suprapolitical categories: culture attains the decisive position in society and the engaged individual forces the politician out of the game. Such antipolitical politics, such expulsion of politics by culture, is only legitimate with the proviso that the players involved do not wish to govern, but merely be a creative part of the regime. A regime defines the framework of government, but in itself is a suprapolitical category, because it actually indicates what is good and what is evil, what is human and what is inhuman, what is natural to us and what is alien. If any government wished to be the embodiment of good, humanity and that which what is most natural to us, then no opposition against it could be legitimate because it would represent the fight for the inhuman, evil, and alien. Democracy, on the other hand, means that good, humanism, and whatever is natural to humans cannot be brought to light in any other way than through disputation within the framework of what is common to us all. A judge’s decision or an artist’s criticism reflect detachment with respect to governance as such: neither a judge nor a writer should want to govern; rather, they should be part of the process of forming a regime, contributing to the definition of what we share. Let us summarize: the expression “apolitical politics” refers to the struggle for a regime, criticism of the rules of the game, the way we see the world and its parts. The bearers of “antipolitical politics” tend to be intellectuals and artists. These critics of “political politics” or “mere politics” do not wish to govern themselves, however. Thus the moment must arrive when the regime has been established, becoming the set of shared rules of the game and thus opening space for “political politics,” for political action, competition for power among political parties which do not offer good and humanism, but “only” solutions to various problems of collective existence.
If I’m understanding this correctly, it means a conditional — not total — withdrawal from politics as usual. Antipolitical politics means that one has given up on the possibility of decisive, effective action within the present political order, because the “old world view” now informing both the Democratic and the Republican parties is not sufficient to solve the problems facing us. (Obergefell makes that clear, but it is by no means the only sign that America has crossed a Rubicon.) But we are not entitled to surrender in the face of the crises, but rather we choose to operate politically within the “rules of the game” that we reject in principle, but recognize in fact. We do not care so much about changing politicians and parties, but about changing the deeper cultural framework in which our “normal” politics take place.
From a religious point of view, we as Christians recognize that we have long since ceased to have the opportunity to Christianize the public square, but rather, if we continue to believe that the “game” is being played by rules and by players who are essentially Christian (even if the players aren’t believers), we create the conditions by which our Christianity becomes secularized … and ultimately ceases to exist.
The Benedict Option is a form of anti-political politics. It does not require withdrawal and separatism, but rather a radical reconsideration of what politics means to Christians in a secular liberal society that is decisively post-Christian. I can think of no clearer statement of the Christian role in a non-Christian society than the second-century Letter to Diognetus:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. [Emphasis mine. — RD]
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
This is to be a creative minority within an increasingly hostile majority. To live in the world, but not to be of it. The Benedict Option, as I conceive of it, is about strengthening our sense of ourselves as strangers in a strange land, and strengthening our commitment to live as such, while at the same time doing what we can to be a blessing to the commons. Here is a paradox of the Benedict Option: in order to fulfill our “divinely appointed function, from which [we are] not permitted to excuse [ourselves],” we have to create — or rediscover — ways of thinking and living, individually and in common, that will mark us as distinct. To be faithful Christians has always meant being “opposed to the world and its enjoyments,” but now and going forward, it will also mean being hated by the world. The Benedict Option requires training in the life of the spirit, such that we will be able to receive that hatred as “the gift of life.”
Hard stuff. Voting Republican might — might — be the only reasonable thing for us to do in terms of regular politics. But it is the very least we can do.
Anyway, if any of you want to comment on the exhaustion of the political parties, please remember my rule about sticking to your own party.