Home/Daniel Larison/The Good News

The Good News

What’s gone wrong with the GOP? Let me start by quoting a friend who is both gay and conservative (yes, I know several such): “I’m for low taxes, strong defense and limited government. Why doesn’t the Republican party want me?”

There’s a two-part answer to that question and neither half is good news. The first is that today’s GOP doesn’t really want gays — and it yearns to supervise everybody else’s bedroom and reproductive behavior as well as (implicitly, at least) their relationship to God.  ~Chester Finn

To Sullivan, this is “calling it like it is,” which means in Sullivanese, “calling it in a way that I, Sullivan, approve of.”  A small problem: it gets “today’s GOP” horrendously wrong on at least two of the three points of this “first part” that is supposed to give an answer to Chester “Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay” Finn’s gay friend. 

A party that wants to supervise everyone’s bedroom, whether figuratively or literally, does not exist in this country.  Search high and low, you will not find it.  (Apropos of nothing, I am reminded here of the old, rather stale joke that Democrats keep the blinds open when no one wants to see what’s going on, while Republicans close the blinds when there is nothing to see.)  There are many conservatives and Republicans who think that state sodomy laws should have been kept on the books, and there are probably some who would like to see them brought back into force (count me in), but “today’s GOP” is, if anything, more hostile to those people in its ranks than ever before.  This is not a compliment, by any means, but it is the reality. 

Likewise, while there are a great many pro-life conservatives who refuse to let infanticide be justified under the cover of “reproductive behavior,” there is a fairly limited constituency for “supervising” everyone’s “reproductive behavior” in the sense of regulating everyone’s sex lives.  There are virtually no conservatives I know of who think that this is really the government‘s business, much as they may deplore everything else about the current state of sexual mores and certainly do condemn sexual immortality wherever they find it. 

Finally, there is simply the lie that “today’s GOP” wants to supervise everyone’s relationship to God.  There has not been a more religiously indifferentist GOP since the rise of the Religious Right than there is today.  Some may view this as progress (I do not), but this fantasy that a party that is currently strongly entertaining the prospect of possibly nominating either John McCain or Rudy Giuliani for President is a party desperate to make everyone get right with God is simply delusional and, I dare say, self-serving for those who are not terribly interested in God.  It is a party on the fast-track to a secular, “pragmatic” politics that will leave its religious and social conservative supporters cold.  It is interested in many things, but its members’ relationship with God is not really one of them.  Again, this is not praiseworthy, but it is the reality. 

Romney may be upended in the primaries by his Mormonism, but this will be a clear case of the party’s base rejecting someone actively pushed by establishment forces and official party propaganda, er, opinion organs; “today’s GOP” wants to be ever more the big tent.  The lesson they had drawn in 2000 and which they have drawn yet again in 2006 was that inclusivity should be the core principle.  That is what the party machinery and leadership want.  Whether the people who traditionally associate with the party leadership want the same thing is another question. 

All of this has been obscured by stories about Rove’s “base strategy,” which implies a narrow sectarian focus driven by fanatics (or whatever it is people think the base of the GOP is), when the “base strategy” was designed to mobilise “the base” to show up at the polls while offering them virtually nothing in terms of practical policy proposals.  Mobilisation was achieved mainly through whipping up fear of the demonic left and the Islamofascist. 

If the GOP has no positive agenda today, this is not new.  It has not had one to speak of for six years beyond Clintonesque tailored policy proposals that appealed to all of 2% of the population and offended no major constituency enough to create a problem.  The “faith-based” initiative!  Funding for combating AIDS in Africa!  Partial privatisation of Social Security was the big exception and the big (failed) gamble.  This strategy was fairly successful, and in normal years could lead to victory, but it was not enough to overcome massive discontent in the rest of the population. 

It had the disadvantage of giving “moderate” Republicans the impression of much greater religious conservative strength in the coalition than actually existed, which is now serving to fragment the coalition by lending credibility to fantastical stories of religious conservative influence that have no merit whatever.  Now the David Brookses of the world and the suburbanites are apparently departing from the big tent, because they have come to believe that it is a Pentecostal revival tent, when it is actually something much more like a circus tent, in which the Ringmaster keeps the religious conservatives locked in their cages.

Some of the rest of Mr. Finn’s indictment of the GOP has much more substance to it: the abandonment of limited government principles (I hear Ross grinding his teeth); the new preference for centralised, federal policies on all manner of things conservatives used to leave to local and state governments (No Child Left Behind being cited, correctly, as a major example of this betrayal).

I agree with Mr. Finn that the immigration policy “schism” is deplorable, but only because the Senate hamstrung a perfectly good opportunity for a border security and enforcement bill with a lot of misguided amnesty-lite.  The lack of consensus about immigration has been a killer.  The “nativism” of the fairly popular proposal to secure the border and check illegal immigration is not the great problem of our time.  Mr. Finn’s following statements sum up why the GOP may well have no future in this country:

Let the Democrats be split by anti-immigrant trade unions and job-wary blacks. Let the GOP say “Welcome. Play by the rules — before and after you come — and we’ll find a way to make you legal.”

Leave aside for the moment that Mr. Finn is apparently unaware that the “trade unions” have long since sold out this country for the sake of new immigrant membership.  His idea is folly.  He is saying, in other words, break the rules, but then “play by the rules” (whatever this means), and we will ignore the rules you have broken so that you will (possibly) vote for us.  The immigrants will say, “Hey, thanks,” and then vote for the other side anyway as they always do.  If the Democrats had two brain cells among them, they would seize the high ground on combating illegal immigration, Harold Ford-style, and send the GOP into electoral oblivion for the next generation.  To heed Mr. Finn on this point is very simply electoral doom for the GOP.

Then Mr. Finn offers this piece of wisdom:

Third, some of the party’s environmental positions are embarrassing, above all its denial of the global-warming problem and all that it portends.  How can the U.S. deal energetically with such enormous warmers as China and India if it doesn’t first acknowledge that the icecaps are melting and human activity is at least partly responsible?

Supposing that we grant that human activity is partly responsible, which is at least conceivable, and even supposing that we grant that climate change is a real “problem” and not a recurring event in the history of the earth to which we will adjust gradually as it changes gradually, do we think that this will have any impact on India or China?  What concrete measures might we take to show our acknowledgement of these realities (if they are what he says they are)?  Approve Kyoto, perhaps?  To what end?  If the most egregious “warmers,” as he puts it, are outside of any convention, what good would any such measure do?  In other words, what might conservatives and the GOP do significantly differently that would have any impact on the worst polluting nations in the world?  Further, if human activity is not the primary cause of climate change, what would action on climate change accomplish that would not impose tremendous costs on all modernised and developing societies?  It is true that conservatives could do better than the usual indifferentism they show on many conservation questions, but I continue to remain a skeptic on climate change enthusiasms and the presumption that climate change is either so rapid or so destructive as the prophets proclaim.

Mr. Finn is correct, however, that the GOP and the movement are on “autopilot.”  Given his suggestions in this article, I am not inclined to hand the controls over to him or those of like mind with him, but it is undoubtedly the case that some attempt must be made at providing something like a coherent flight plan that does not involve, as the current course does, flying into the side of a mountain.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment