All but the most ostrich-like of conservatives recognize that their movement is at its lowest ebb in more than three decades. Democrats control the presidency and both chambers of Congress, and the polarization of the two major parties has rendered conservatives more isolated and irrelevant to policymaking than in their previous stints in the minority. Democrats are using their majorities to pass sweeping changes in public policy that will reshape the contours of the American state for decades to come, and it hardly matters whether these changes are impelled by the exigencies of crisis, pre-existing ideology or some of both. Whatever its engine, the upward ratchet of American state-building, which conservatives thought they had stopped, has suddenly sprung back to life.
Looking forward, the picture darkens. Two thirds of younger voters supported Obama in 2008, and if the past is any indication, these voters will maintain their political preferences into adulthood. Combining this trend with a profound weakness among ethnic minorities and unmarried women, Republicans are likely to become weaker still in the great expanses beyond their Southern firewall. And in the South, Obama’s victories in North Carolina and Virginia suggest that the more cosmopolitan Southern states are far from safe for the GOP. Worst of all, conservative politicians and the movement’s intelligentsia seem incapable of finding a plausible path out of their current doldrums. Most resist any reassessment of the nostrums they have peddled for the past three decades. Even as the world around them calls their orthodoxies into question, conservative ideas seem set in stone.
These challenges have led some Republicans to look back to the Reagan presidency for inspiration. While the presidencies of Bush the elder and younger and the era of Republican control of Congress now seem tarnished at best, the Reagan presidency shines on as an inspiring example of what a popular, ambitious, optimistic and reforming conservatism would look like. And indeed, a good argument can be made that our current era holds many similarities to what Steven Hayward calls the “Age of Reagan.” The difference is that President Obama is the one who resembles Reagan while the Republicans look increasingly like the hapless Democrats of the 1980s. It’s Obama who is the avatar of change, Obama who has captured the rhetoric of renewal, Obama who epitomizes a new “can do” tone—and above all, Obama who symbolizes the American capacity for reinvention.
An observer with an even darker perspective might look across the Atlantic for parallels, seeing Obama in the role of Margaret Thatcher and the Republicans as the Michael Foot-era Labour Party. A more recent example is that of Britain’s Conservative Party, which took a dozen years to transform itself into a plausible alternative to the Labour government. One could cite plenty of other examples, but the point is already clear enough: Successful political parties in Western electoral democracies typically owe their accomplishments less to their own virtues than to the vices of their opponents.
To avoid replicating these and other depressing precedents, Republican conservatives may need to look farther back in time for inspiration. Precisely because he looks so far back and is so unorthodox in his choices of what counts as conservative, Patrick Allitt’s recent book, The Conservatives, provides intriguing clues for what a reinvigorated Republican Party might look like. If Republicans are to avoid a protracted period in the wilderness, they would do well to pay close attention to his lively and at times surprising history of American conservatism.
The Age of Reagan…
Steven Hayward’s The Age of Reagan is, without intending any insult, a partisan history. Hayward, a fellow at both the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Research Institute, is a movement man through and through. His book is laced with the convictions and resentments that have characterized conservatism since its rise from the ashes in the 1950s. Hayward’s account of the Reagan presidency spends as much time settling old scores with liberals as it does recalling what he sees as Reagan’s greatness.
Nonetheless it is, perhaps perversely, Hayward’s resentments that make his book so valuable. Much of his account of the Reagan era touches on standard conservative points: The media hated Reagan and treated him unfairly; he was far more intelligent and well-briefed than was widely believed at the time; the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a shrewd gambit; his diplomacy was more carefully calibrated than his enemies recognized; supply-side economics, despite its logical frailty, was the only plausible answer to the economic maladies produced by liberalism…so goes the familiar list. These positions have become close to movement orthodoxy in recent years, and whether readers agree or disagree with these claims is likely to be driven more by their ideological tastes than their historical judgment.
That said, and several minor errors of fact or interpretation aside, Hayward is persuasive in making the case that the Democratic Party—and the Left globally—was in terrible shape in the 1980s. He wins his retroactive debates because he deserves to. Democrats were intellectually exhausted—an organizational logroll claiming to be a great party, incapable of responsible governance or even strategic opportunism. They proved unable to adjust to a public whose priorities and perceptions had left it behind. Unable to locate the source of their own decline by looking in the mirror, Democrats lashed out at Reagan with what looks in retrospect like genuine desperation.
Hayward’s evidence for these claims is—even for this instinctual if not always orthodox liberal—ample. Rather than soberly considering whether Reagan’s 1980 victory could be laid at their own feet, many liberals chose instead to blame it on a rising spirit of fascism or, when they were being more generous, McCarthyism. Liberals took the bait of Reagan’s charisma, resorting to genuinely unproductive ad hominem attacks. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, for example, was driven to claim that the country was the victim of demonic possession:
The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, their leadership was far from equal to the task of performing the exorcism that Reagan’s control of the White House called for. Faced with a President who was unusually skilled at explaining his views to the public, the Democratic Party chose as its representative a Cambridge pol whose main political talent was the backroom splitting of political spoils. At a time when the American public was becoming ever more suburban and the memory of the high tide of liberalism grew ever fuzzier in the public mind, O’Neill and the party he led seemed like aliens from another time and place.
Beyond poorly chosen leaders, American liberalism had become frozen conceptually in place, unable to respond to Reagan’s assaults by communicating a broad public philosophy to compete with Reagan’s conservatism. The 1984 presidential campaign revealed this pathology in its starkest terms. Hayward quotes a Mondale speechwriter who concluded, “We had a hell of a time putting down on paper what this campaign was going to be all about.” The Democratic Party had become little more than the sum of its component interest groups, each of which exercised an effective veto over party policy. This made it impossible for the Democratic nominee to exercise any strategic opportunism or creativity.
The best the party could come up with to explain itself to the nation was the idea of “fairness”, summed up in New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s eloquent defense of the Democrats as the instrument of society’s losers. This articulation spoke to the worldview of the party’s strongest supporters but had little to offer the large segments of American society who did not feel themselves to be losers. When presented with a genuinely big idea—namely comprehensive tax reform, which put meat on the idea of fairness and would have allowed the Democrats to compete on the Republicans’ favored terrain of tax policy—Mondale punted. In lieu of throwing his lot in with tax reform, Mondale came out for income tax increases that kept the structure of the tax code in place. He ignored even Bill Clinton’s suggestion that the additional revenue be put in a trust fund for deficit reduction, which Hayward rightly observes showed the “shrewdness that became evident a decade later.”
As out of touch as the Democrats had become on domestic policy, they were just as bad at foreign affairs. Many liberals—even as hawkish a domestic policy liberal as Daniel Patrick Moynihan—opposed Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, despite the fact that the country was becoming something of an arms depot for communist insurgents throughout Latin America. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, liberal Democrats had a difficult time recognizing communists as anything other than plucky nationalists. Most did not go as far as George McGovern, who said that if he had to choose between the Contras and the Sandinistas, “with the interests of both Nicaragua and the United States in mind, I would go with the Sandinistas.” But there were relatively few liberals at the time who recognized the degree to which the Sandinista leadership was made up of authentic, Castroite communists.
Democratic obtuseness on foreign policy extended to the nation’s relationship with the Soviet Union, in particular in the area of arms control. To read Hayward’s account of this era is to be reminded of how enthralled even sensible moderate Democrats like Al Gore had become with the ritual of U.S.-Soviet “summitry”, and how possessed they had become by an irrational fear of nuclear weapons. In retrospect, Reagan’s advocacy of SDI now looks strategically brilliant (despite the fact that the science behind the program was, as Thatcher told Reagan at the time, sheer lunacy), even from the narrow perspective of arms control. Soviet sources now show that the leaders of the USSR were frightened out of their wits by SDI, to the point that they were willing to make major compromises to limit SDI even in relatively minor ways. The Democrats ultimately failed to recognize that it was precisely U.S. strength, including a willingness to deploy Pershing-2 and cruise missiles in Europe, that got the Soviets to give up on the possibility of nuclear superiority and accept the INF and START treaties.
For Republicans seeking strategic guidance from history, then, The Age of Reagan is just a hurtful tease. Republicans today resemble Reagan’s enemies, not in terms of ideas, but in terms of political acumen and insight. It’s the Republicans who are now faced with a charismatic President whose political skills drive them to acts of political desperation and paranoia. Like Mondale and Tip O’Neill, most Republicans seem unable to adapt their political philosophy to changed conditions, to imagine that conservatism could be something other than the commitments accumulated over decades in power.
Like the liberals of the 1980s, conservatives seem to have lost their intuitive feel for the country they seek to lead. Whereas liberals once saw every attempt to reconsider the programs of the past to be the second coming of Herbert Hoover, conservatives today instinctively respond to the possibility of positive government action with cries of socialism, a term that has almost no resonance for most Americans under the age of forty. In foreign policy, they are the mirror image of the “San Francisco Democrats”: Faced with difficult problems such as the U.S. relationship with the Middle East, they appear incapable of conceiving a strategy other than direct confrontation. Republicans, in short, have become their own worst enemies.
In and Out of the Doldrums
Why do parties out of power repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot? First, when their numbers suddenly dwindle, formerly majority parties are left to the mercies of their true believers. The leadership becomes dominated by those most sincerely connected to the party’s core groups, and those with electorates quite distant from the national median. With fewer and fewer leaders drawn from swing states, the party loses its feel for reaching beyond its base.
Second, the experience of governing with a stable majority creates a leadership cadre used to squeezing the most out of their existing base of support. This eats away at the skills of political entrepreneurship: the habit of looking for cracks in their adversaries’ coalitions, a nose for new issues and changes in voters’ preferences. Third, a generation of politicians socialized during an earlier era develops habits that become self-defeating in the face of demographic change or shifts in dominant issues.
Fourth, the core coalition partners of the party resist changes that, while having the potential to make the party stronger, threaten their power inside the party or its commitment to their issues. Fifth, the party becomes locked in destructive competition between its dominant faction and reformers, and these battles draw energy away from combat with the governing party into internecine and frequently fierce conflict with their own side. Voters see this internal conflict and conclude that the minority party does not have its act together and therefore cannot be trusted with power.
Sixth, the reformers in the party are vulnerable to accusations of being unprincipled and of overstating the party’s weakness. The dominant faction thus can, with various degrees of plausibility, claim that the party can hold on to the old orthodoxy and return to power when voters finally “come to their senses.”
All of these forces make the party more brittle, less adaptable and less able to exploit the mistakes and weaknesses of the dominant party. There are, in Mancur Olson’s phrase, big bills left on the sidewalk, but the party in the wilderness is unable or unwilling to pick them up.
Eventually, most minority parties in two-party systems break this cycle. The process typically takes a long time, however, during which the majority party has the freedom to enact much of its agenda. What causes the minority party to get out of the doldrums?
Almost without exception, it is continual negative feedback from the ballot box that breaks the pathology down. The British Labour Party lost in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 before it metamorphosed into “New Labour”, and the Tories had to suffer similar defeats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 before they were willing to hand over the reigns to the “modern, compassionate Conservative” David Cameron. The Democrats lost in 1980, 1984 and 1988 before they took a chance on the “New Democrat” Bill Clinton. These long periods out of power sapped the dominant faction of its legitimacy and put paid to its claims that its fortunes were the consequence of ephemeral forces or personalities.
But that alone is not enough. A second critical factor is generational change. A new cadre of politicians rises to positions that allow them to challenge the dominant faction. This new generation creates its own parallel institutions, permitting future leaders to generate new ideas, cultivate new activists and maneuver for power. A tipping point occurs when significant parts of the “old guard” throw in their lot with the reformers. Once the minority party has passed the baton of leadership over to its reformist faction, it can take advantage of the mistakes and overreach of the majority party. And then the cycle of party rise and fall begins anew.
Should Republicans be heartened by the recognition that their current, dolorous state is unlikely to last forever? Hardly, since the history of British and American parties suggests that it could be a decade or even two before Republicans can effectively challenge the Democrats. An awareness of the mechanisms of political cycles, however, gives politicians the ability to arrest them. The vital question that Republicans will face over the next few years, then, is how long it will take to recognize the fairly predictable narrative they inhabit and take action to alter the ending.
Some of what Republicans need to do to limit their time in the minority to a minimum is organizational. Reformists must create strong parallel institutions, which will allow them to present convincing evidence of the party’s long-term problems, to deflect the energies of activists away from fruitless attacks on the Democrats, and to channel those energies toward the development of alternative governing and electoral strategies.
It is even more important, however, for conservative Republicans to recognize that the Age of Reagan is over, and that for the party to become a dynamic, creative force, it must look for other sources of inspiration. Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History is the book that many reformers will turn to in the next few years, as they seek a new grounding for conservatism.
Allitt’s innovation is to disrupt the story that conservatives have increasingly told themselves about their movement’s history. Rather than starting with William F. Buckley and the founding of National Review, Allitt points to a genuine conservative tradition in America since the Founding. Of particular interest to reform-minded conservatives is Allitt’s careful discussion of the 19th-century Whigs and the Republican Party that built upon its ideas.
The Whigs were first and foremost enemies of Jacksonian democracy, but they also represented the positive legacy of Alexander Hamilton. They recognized that national power was dependent on industrialization and the financial system the latter required. Unlike the Jacksonians, who thought of national development largely in terms of territorial expansion, the Whigs were fervent believers in a vision of America that would grow “up” (through national investments in infrastructure) rather than simply “out.” They resisted populist interpretations of the democratic spirit, believing that strong constitutional restraints on power were necessary for decent government—including limits on executive power. This belief in formalities extended to their respect for the sovereignty of other nations, which manifested itself in opposition to the U.S.-Mexican War (among whose opponents was a young Abraham Lincoln) and to the annexation of Texas. The Whigs were nationalists, to be sure, seeing the nation “not as some temporary contractual agreement but as something venerable and eternal.” But they didn’t assume that American nationalism justified any and all uses of the nation’s armed forces (despite a penchant for nominating military heroes—William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and later Winfield Scott—as presidential candidates).
At the same time, the Whigs’ nationalism was far from provincial, for they understood the dangers generated by insularity and the populism that went with it. The Whigs recognized the importance of cities to a modern republic, seeing in them “centers of civilization, where wealth-generating industries could be sited, bringing prosperity to all.” They believed that the development of American civilization required the country’s elites to be in touch with the civilizational achievements of other nations. Indeed, they thought that “America could become fully civilized only by emulating what was best in British and European high culture.” Resisting the spirit of Jacksonian democracy also meant supporting the dignity of public service and the need for high, intensely moral standards of governmental conduct, a view expressed most eloquently by the party’s intellectual leaders, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. They saw in the party of Jackson a normalization of the spirit of corruption. They were democrats, to be sure, but democrats tempered by constitutional restraints and a commitment to “ennobling” democracy through moral standards and civilizational aspiration.
Could this “Whig conservatism” of pre-Civil War America provide the foundation for a reinvigorated conservatism today? The Whigs’ emphasis on “internal improvements” could provide the historical grounding for a Republican distinction between its support for great, transformative infrastructure projects and the undesirable advance of government transfer programs. The Whigs’ highly moralistic opposition to Jacksonian corruption could be called upon to inspire attacks on the Democrats’ cozy relationships with governmental provider interests. Republicans could combine these attacks with support for a strengthened civil service capable of checking democratic passions with the spirit of the national interest and effective government. A moralistic opposition to political corruption could become central to a Republican Party attempting to escape from its exurban crouch, recognizing the importance of cities to the greatness and creativity of the nation.
Republicans inspired by the Whigs could pull back from the Party’s temptation toward cheap cultural populism, which has cost it support among the nation’s more educated classes. A Whiggish Republicanism could also contrast its respect for constitutional formalism with Democratic anything-goes constitutionalism. This emphasis on constitutionalism would call into question the aggrandizement of the presidency, along with the Party’s more familiar critique of the imperial judiciary and policymaking by tort lawyers and state attorney generals.
Finally, a more Whiggish GOP would be robustly nationalist. Its nationalism would combine an openness to immigration with an invigorated emphasis on assimilation, through an insistence on the centrality of the English language and on the teaching of American history and citizenship in schools. Such a nationalism would be like that of the Whigs: more cosmopolitan in spirit; less likely to support unilateralism in foreign policy; more respectful of the need for subtlety in diplomatic relations; and more willing to learn from the governing experiences of other nations. It would make common cause with reforming conservatives such as David Cameron’s reinvigorated Conservative Party.
This is not the only direction that the Republican Party could take in seeking to raise itself up off the mat. But the scope of reassessment that the analogy to the Whigs suggests does point to the extent of the change the Party must go through if it is to avoid the long stint in the wilderness familiar to past minority parties. While the governing success of the Obama-led Democratic Party will certainly be an important element in determining the balance of party strength over the next decade or more, the Republican Party does not lack for agency in determining its own prospects. The success of those within the Party who recognize just how dismal its current prospects are will largely determine whether the GOP’s consignment to the wilderness is painfully long, or short and sweet.