September 19, 2004


A New GOP? (James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvol, Fall 2004, Public Interest)

The midterm elections of 2002 brought the Republican party to the high point of its political strength in the modern era. For the first time since 1954, Republicans held the presidency as well as a majority in both the House and the Senate. President George W. Bush had led his party to gains in both houses of Congress, an unusual achievement for an incumbent party in a midterm election, and this victory seemed to provide him, for a moment at least, with the popular mandate he failed to win in the 2000 election. Republicans also had the edge in the states, with a majority of governors and control of slightly more state legislative chambers.

The GOP had clearly come a long way since 1980, when Democrats dominated at the national and state levels. Except for the presidency, where the GOP had fared well since 1952, the Republican party of that era looked like — and, more importantly, acted like — a permanent minority. But the electorate’s perception of failure in Democratic leadership under President Jimmy Carter, both domestically and internationally, opened the door to a Republican revival. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 as an apostle of national optimism and renewed resolve in foreign affairs started a slow-moving electoral wave, punctuated by a powerful surge in 1994, in favor of Republicans. As shown in Table 1, the Republican party during this period has managed to achieve at least parity with the Democrats, if not a slight advantage, and by most accounts Republicans have done more than Democrats to set the agenda of American politics. Two of the major accomplishments of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare reform, were in fact “Republican” measures.

Will Republicans be able to maintain and consolidate their current position, or has the party now reached a peak from which its support will begin to ebb? Electoral analysts generally approach this question by studying voter groups and demographic trends. This method may be effective up to a point, but it ignores the impact of major events—those famous “tides in the affairs of men” — that can determine a party’s fortunes. A moment of this kind is now at hand. President Bush has identified the Republican party with a distinct foreign policy, which he has justified by recourse to certain fixed and universal principles — namely that, in his words, “liberty is the design of nature” and that “freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind.” Not since Lincoln has the putative head of the Republican party so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right. This has led his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, to brand the Bush administration the most “ideological” of recent times. Victory for President Bush in November will surely vindicate his policies and principles. Defeat will mean, at a minimum, a curtailment of the Bush foreign policy, and will also likely bring an end to his understanding of the Republican party. [...]

President Bush has justified his foreign policy by appealing to the universality of democracy and human rights. One might characterize this approach as “neo-natural right.” It holds that there is a structure or order to human beings and their affairs, and standards that can be both known and used to guide political action. On this point, the recent references to Leo Strauss are not without relevance, insofar as Strauss sought in the 1950s to reopen the question of natural right. He did so at a time when, as he observed, American intellectuals were coming increasingly under the thrall of the historicist idea that all human thought is nothing but the accidental product of its time, and that all conceptions of right are equally arbitrary. For Strauss, the lack of a firm foundation made liberal democracy vulnerable to challenges from other systems — at the time, chiefly communism. Strauss by no means addressed this concern only to Republicans or conservatives, many of whom were deeply suspicious of appeals to natural right — which they associated with liberalism. Indeed, one of the first to pick up on Strauss’s work was the great Progressive thinker Walter Lippmann, who called in 1955 for a renewal of the conception of natural right. Such a renewal, Lippmann almost certainly thought, would find its place in the Democratic party.

But, as it happened, this was not to be. In the post-Vietnam period of the Cold War, foundational principles instead found a home in the Republican party. There were, of course, many sources for the Republicans’ aversion to communism — religious, economic, and cultural sources — but certainly in the case of President Reagan the principle of natural right was foremost. He set this principle in stark opposition not only to the Communists’ own official ideology, but also to the relativism of many liberal thinkers in the West, who were unwilling to condemn communism. President Bush has presented his foreign policy doctrine as the successor to Reaganism. Just as Reagan broke with a realist détente, which he thought failed to rally the American populace and led to appeasement, so Bush has tried to rally opposition against a “détentist” policy toward Islamic terrorism.

The Republican party is certainly no monolith when it comes to foundational thinking. Two other strands exist within the party. Traditionalist conservatives espouse a position, going back to Edmund Burke, that is suspicious of claims of natural right, which they insist lead to rationalist excesses. Against such principles, traditionalists offer the integrity of American culture, and in some measure of all cultures as such. Libertarians, who represent the other view, are also mistrustful of rational and universal principles. In their view, true rationality is found only in the “invisible hand” of the market — in individuals pursuing their own goals or interests. Libertarians disapprove of grand politics and strategy as versions of social planning. It is from these two sources that some of the strongest criticisms of the Bush administration have originated.

But the most important source of opposition to “neo-natural right” is found in the Democratic party, although it is no simple matter to say exactly what that opposition is. Liberal intellectuals generally oppose foundational principles, at least in the strong sense. No major politician will, of course, deny or renounce them — that would be politically suicidal — but Democratic thinkers cringe when they hear this kind of talk. They deplore it as imprudent and absolutist. If liberals stopped here, their views would be little different from those of traditional conservatives and realists. In fact, some Democrats have taken recently to extolling the merits of realism. But Democrats generally go on to embrace lofty appeals to such things as human rights, human dignity, and the sanctity of the environment. Except in the current context, where some worry that expressing such views might somehow lend support to the Republicans’ position, Democratic thinkers are usually most comfortable when contrasting their devotion to such high ideals with the self-interested concerns of conservatives.

The oddity is the source for their ideals, which are not derived from any stated foundation, but which take on the aspect of right insofar as they are thought to represent an evolving consensus or a narrative of progress. This may explain the importance ascribed by liberals to the opinions of intellectuals from abroad, or to collective votes in the United Nations. For Democrats, a minimal consensus among thinkers from Berlin to Berkeley is the substitute for a foundation. If such a consensus is absent, it is a sure sign that America has gone off course. For Democrats, the 1990s was the golden era of evolving consensus and the model for idealistic anti-foundationalism.

It is now the case — and Democrats acknowledge this point even more than Republicans — that the Republican Party is the “radical” or “revolutionary” party, with a political project grounded on a clear foundation. Indeed, the Republican party is perhaps the last remaining party in a major democratic country with such an underpinning. The Democrats, by contrast, are the “conservative” party, seeking a return to normalcy. In this sense, at least, the November election presents us with a choice, not an echo.

Of course, the most delightful aspect of the Democrats retreat into consensualism as the basis for "rights" is that if there is no such consensus there are no such rights. While that is a terribly dangerous thing generally, leading to everything from the really not too tyrannical tyranny of the majority to Nazism and Stalinism, it also means that--at least for the nonce--they've no intellectual basis for opposing the Bush Revolution. It's easy enough to tar John Kerry as incoherent, but where is there a more coherent voice on the Left explaining their positions any better? There is none, because there can be none. They've lost hold of the bright red thread.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2004 11:41 PM

It's not necessary for there to be a God-given "right" to freedom, to allow the US to forcibly promote it.
Results are enough. Whether humans were created to be democratic capitalists or not, those systems provide benefits unparalleled by any other political or economic system.
Therefore, those are the systems that all people should use.

Further, to any non-religious nation,society, or peoples, the mere fact that the US are powerful enought to force other nations and peoples to emulate them is proof of their rightness.

Posted by: Michael "Theseus" Herdegen at September 20, 2004 2:24 AM

I think there is a basic misconception.

The US does not wish the rest of the world to emulate them.

The US "merely" wishes that those parts of the world that believe that it is their manifest destiny to hijack airliners (e.g.,) and fly them into American buildings, killing thousands, would find other ways to amuse themselves. And the US believes that one decent way to do this is to reduce their susceptibility to extreme, murderous forms of totalitarianism by inculcating some kind of feel for participatory democracy.

About this, the US may be wrong, however, and may have to resort to other measures.

(You see, there are these WMD floating around. They're very available, and those who don't mind dying as long as they kill Americans, it may be assumed, are itching to get their hands on them and then deploy them. It may be assumed. Of course, the only legal, i.e., UN-sanctioned, recourse may well be to wait until such a thing were to happen. Following which, Americans will no doubt be ecstatic, or at least greatly encouraged, to learn that "the whole world is America now.")

Posted by: Barry Meislin at September 20, 2004 4:50 AM


But those systems won't endure unless properly Founded, as witness Europe.

Posted by: oj at September 20, 2004 7:26 AM


The gist of the article is the religious foundation for individual self-managemet on a broad scale. "Enforcing freedom.." as you say, is something better off avoided wherever possible. Without the basic framework of "God-given" rights to build upon, we might all be looking for prospective rights issued by Karl Marx instead.

Posted by: Tom C, Stamford,Ct. at September 20, 2004 9:31 AM

What they've lost is Moral Superiority -- but their Vietnam choice should never have given them such moral high in the "first place" (since 1971).


They have chosen Peace AND Genocide, over Fighting Evil in War, including killing and killing innocents.

Sudan will show, again (Rwanda, Cambodia) the moral bankruptcy of the UN and the EU.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at September 20, 2004 12:12 PM


Most Americans are indeed well content to allow Africa and the Middle East to wallow in their own filth, as long as they leave the US out of it, but there is also a strong proselytizing streak to American democracy.
During the Cold War, it was official US policy to preach the benefits of democracy and capitalism to the world.
After all, if one person strikes it rich, isn't it rather mean-spirited, perhaps even evil, if she doesn't tell her sisters how she did it ?

If America gets nuked by terrorists, the whole world will be America, and I don't mean figuratively. The morons who claim that the US is currently accumulating an "empire" will get to see what an Empire really looks like.


Rome seems to have done alright, and they didn't have any intrinsic rights to freedom. In fact, you champion their system of slavery, no ?

Tom C.:

When possible, yes.
However, the collapse of the USSR provides the US with a window of opportunity, where they are clearly the most powerful force on Earth, and before any other nation or group of nations arises to effectively oppose them.
With no effective opposition, and a vast amount of wealth to draw upon, America has a wonderful and historically rare opportunity to increase world happiness on the cheap, or to decrease the amount of evil in the world, if you prefer.

Tom Grey:

Also, the moral bankruptcy of the US, if nothing effective gets done, right ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 21, 2004 1:49 AM