November 10, 2012

TIPTOEING UP TO AN INSIGHT:

The Election and the Right (Yuval Levin, November 8, 2012, National Review)
 
The Democratic Party is mostly an incoherent amalgam of interest groups, most of which are vying for benefits for themselves and their members at the expense of other Americans. This kind of party is why America's founders worried about partisanship and were, at least at first, eager to avoid a party system. It is a bunch of factions more than a party. The basic distinction between a faction and a proper party--a distinction proposed by Edmund Burke, among the first positive proponents of parties in the Anglo-American tradition--is that a faction seeks power over the whole for its own advantage while a party seeks power to advance its own vision of the good of the whole. "A party," Burke wrote, "is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavor the national interest upon some principle in which they are all agreed."
 
Some of today's Democrats do advance such a view of the good of the whole--a progressive view by which the national interest is served by replacing traditional mediating institutions with the more rational and technocratic public institutions of the welfare state, replacing what they take to be a stifling combination of moral collectivism and economic individualism with what they take to be a liberating combination of moral individualism and economic collectivism. It is this view that conservatives call "the Left" and which we oppose and resist. But the Democrats are not united by this view and are by no means all agreed in it. The party's electoral strength is not a function of its commitment to this view or of the public's acceptance of it. Its electoral strength is a function of a coalition of special-interest groups that provide both voters and activists in return for the party protecting their interests at the expense of those of other Americans when it is in power.
 
The Republican Party has its own interest groups too, of course. It has often been too protective of big business, above all. But interest groups of this sort in Republican politics play nothing like the role they have in Democratic politics. The Republican Party, for good and bad, is much more of a real party--largely united and moved (and increasingly so) by a complicated and often contradictory but at bottom very coherent worldview we call conservatism which, to vastly overgeneralize, argues for traditional morality, free enterprise, and a robust national defense. The party's electoral strength is without question a function of this view and of the public's acceptance of it (or lack thereof). Its electoral fate therefore depends on its ability to lay out this vision of American life (at least in part translated into concrete policy) for voters in an appealing way and to persuade them of its virtues and its value to them and their country.
 
This can of course involve explaining to specific groups why a more conservative government would be better for them in particular, but it generally should not mean offering certain groups benefits or protections at the expense of others for the sake of their votes. I do think there are some parts of our society that deserve special consideration and special treatment. I would favor a tax code designed to be more supportive of middle-class parents, for instance--but that's because I think it would be good for America, strengthening us where we are weak and helping to redress the mistreatment of families in our current tax code. I favor benefits and protections for the poor and the vulnerable, provided they are designed to encourage independence and to lift people out of poverty wherever possible. But those are, at least as I understand them, outgrowths of a broader conservative worldview--they are my conservatism applied to specific instances, and I think they should be persuasive to everyone, not just to people in the groups that might benefit, because I think they would be good for the country. I don't think I would change my mind about them if an election went poorly, though I might change which of them I emphasize in response to the needs of the moment or I might change the way I argue about them to try to be more persuasive to one kind of fellow American or another.
 
There is much legitimate room for debate among conservatives about immigration, for instance. I probably fall on the less restrictionist end of that spectrum on the right. But I would not suggest that the Republican Party should move my way because there are more Hispanic voters in the country. I think it should move my way because I think that way is right for our country, and it's my job to persuade other people of that.
 
And that, at the end of the day, is the challenge for conservatives in the wake of this election. The argument that any individual (and therefore party) should just change substantive positions (especially on crucially important issues) because there is more of one kind of voter or another than there used to be is just not a serious argument. It suggests that the substance of our politics is nothing more than cynical electioneering. Republicans tend not to believe that, and even those who do could never hope to compete with Democrats on that front. They should instead offer the country an applied conservatism.
 
The job of conservatism, and to the extent that it is a conservative party then also the job of the Republican Party, is to lay out its vision before voters in an attractive and serious way, to show them how it builds on America's strengths to address America's weaknesses, how it enables human thriving, how it could be applied to the particular problems we face today in ways that would help solve those problems, and why it is good for each and all of us Americans. That means we need to speak to a coherent and appealing understanding of American life today, and that we need to translate our ideas into very concrete policy particulars that would advance them.

It is, of course, the case that the GOP is the party of traditional morality (Christianity) and American values.  So for it to have become so closely identified with the hatred of immigrants is not only antithetical to its principles and purposes but is to some significant degree self-delegitimizing.  Indeed, the notion enunciated here, that opposition to immigration is a "substantive position," is particularly embarrassing from someone like Mr. Levin, who knows better.

Posted by at November 10, 2012 8:58 AM
  
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