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“Try a Little Tenderness”

by Mark Thompson

I alluded this morning to the idea that the great failure of conservatism (and, for that matter, libertarianism) over the last eight years has been the failure of the Republican ‘base’ and so-called ‘movement conservatives’ to adopt the ‘compassion’ that President Bush ran on in 2000.  This bears further explanation. 

Over the last few months, there has been much finger-pointing as to which particular sect of the old GOP coalition is to blame for the policy failures of the last 8 years and the electoral failures of the last 2 years.  As I suggested (inartfully, I think) in my previous stint here at Upturned Earth, I think these accusations are deeply misplaced – the problems have not been caused by religious conservatives or adherence to free market beliefs, but instead by a sort of “talk radio” dogmatism in which any given issue becomes a litmus test for whether one is a “true” conservative or Republican. 

This dogmatism has become terribly pervasive, dominating the party infrastructure and including many of the most prominent faces of conservatism both online and on the air.  It is a dogmatism that is in some ways pushed by a wide variety of conservatives – free market conservatives and libertarians, religious conservatives, and defense conservatives.  And yet it is also a dogmatism with which large elements of each of those groups take significant umbrage. 

In and of itself, though, a little dogmatism is not necessarily a unique hindrance to a political party or movement’s electability or even its legislative agenda – political dogma has existed for at least as long as political parties have existed, and without some of it political parties cannot distinguish themselves from their competitors. 

Instead, the problem with this particular form of dogma is its all-around meanness.  Under this dogmatism, dissenters of any stripe are treated as the enemy, regardless of whether the dissenter’s general viewpoint could be described as “conservative,” and regardless of the dissenter’s political affiliation.  Wide nets are cast to stereotype anyone who may be adversely affected by implementation of one of the dogma’s tenets.  Where a particular tenet relies on a particular fact, and a suggestion is made that the fact is inaccurate, the personal loyalties of the questioner are called into question – even if the fact is demonstrably wrong. 

This meanness has several effects.  The first effect is that it stifles internal debate, effectively preventing new ideas from emerging in response to new events and facts.  But this is the least damaging effect, as even under the best of circumstances it is quite rare for a party to undergo significant changes in policy preferences in a short period of time.

The second effect is electoral.  It is, after all, extremely difficult to vote for a party when, for instance:

  • That party’s guiding lights, rather than make principled arguments for various “anti-terrorism” policies, insist on labeling your religion as “Islamofascism”; 
  • Rather than make principled arguments* for stronger restrictions on immigration, you and your family are portrayed as foreign invaders seeking to destroy the country from within because of the Mexican flag hanging on your balcony – even as nothing is said about the Italian or Irish flag hanging on your neighbor’s balcony
  • Rather than make principled arguments against gay marriage, you are accused of wanting to destroy your country’s traditions because you want legal recognition of your relationship.
  • Those same guiding lights proudly promote, rather than simply defend, the use of words and phrases with a well-known role in oppressing you or your ancestors. 
  • Rather than make principled arguments against an auto bailout, you and your friends are accused of bleeding the American people dry
  • Rather than make principled arguments for the use of force and/or for restrictions on civil liberties, you are accused of being a “Defeatocrat” or wanting to “let the terrorists win.”
  • And so forth.

Succinctly, it is difficult to win votes from people when you effectively deny their basic humanity through your rhetoric – even if they may agree with you on other policy issues.

But even this second effect is not the most troubling, long-term, for the future of the Republican Party. Thanks to the entrenchment of our two-party system and the up and down nature of world and economic events, there will inevitably come a time when the voters are so angry at the Democrats that they either vote the Republicans back into office or stay home in such droves as to allow the Republican dogmatic “base” to win the election by default.  Besides, a principled conservative or libertarian cares less about whether Republicans are in power than they do about whether they can build a consensus around conservative or libertarian ideals that results in actual policymaking.

And that leads to the most troubling effect, which we have sadly seen play out on occasion the last few years.  The meanness inherent in this dogmatism, which again pervades the GOP infrastructure and is obvious in most public faces of “movement conservatism,” drastically undermines any ability to build a national consensus behind conservative or libertarian policy preferences.  By delivering such prominent, mean rants that deny the personhood of those who would disagree with the GOP “base,” this dogmatism ensures that rational and cogent arguments for or against a policy will not reach those that would otherwise be persuadable.  Not only is a person whose humanity is denied unlikely to consider voting for the party that denies their humanity, that person is unlikely to actually listen to the arguments made on any given policy by that party.  And so, when President Bush sought to reform Social Security, few were willing to so much as give him the time of day; the same thing with McCain’s health care proposal and any number of other proposals towards which the public is not already favorably disposed.

And that, to me, is the central problem with conservatism both today and in the recent past.  By allowing so many of its spokespeople to consistently portray any number of groups as essentially traitors to their country, those spokespeople guaranteed that no one would be willing to listen when conservatives actually tried to reach out to those groups on other issues.  Simply put, they did everything they could to ignore Madison’s plea for a society with ever-shifting factions, and instead helped create a culture with only two permanent factions: “us” and “them.”

*I’m actually no longer certain that there are non-xenophobic arguments for more immigration restriction, but that is a story for another day.

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