Conservatives: Housebroken and Hating It

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(Preface: In college, the author read E.J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics and found it invaluable to understanding modern American politics. The below review of Dionne’s latest may be critical, but the author’s respect is no less diminished.)

In 1991, American journalist E.J. Dionne published an indispensable explanation of contemporary politics in Why Americans Hate Politics. Chronicling the collapse of the vaunted bipartisan Vital Center that had governed America since 1945, Dionne ably explained how conservative and liberal dissatisfaction fueled divergent political paths for the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. Dionne acknowledged the two ideologies produced compelling alternatives, but lamented how the ensuing political polarization only ended up introducing “false choices” that precluded opportunities for consensus on what constituted the public interest. Indeed, the title said it all; by the early Nineties were marked by rampant anti-incumbency and an unusually successful independent presidential runs by a maverick billionaire. By 1995, the near-Republican lock on the presidency had finally been broken and the entrenched Democratic majority in the Congress had been overturned. As an introduction to American politics, the title encapsulated a key attribute -- Dionne was even-handed in documenting the varying conservative and liberal strengths and weaknesses and the corresponding public frustration. Contrarily, Dionne has now published his latest assessment, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, and has concluded the false choice was actually conservatism’s fault alone. The question Dionne poses in the book is nominally nonpartisan -- how will Americans govern themselves -- but he couples the examination with a curious backhand to the conservative movement -- how will (e.g. should) the conservative movement reform itself? Dionne acknowledges he leans to the left and prefaces the discussion by asserting conservatism has his respect, but he lays the blame for the prevailing dysfunction at the inherent contradiction between conservative ideology and its voters. 

...Mr. Dionne, conservatives concur. In part...

The Path Taken

Dionne centers the contradiction between conservative ideology and its voters by revisiting the legacy and interpretation of its greatest messenger and electoral victor, Ronald Reagan. Dionne acknowledges Reagan articulated conservative ideology like few others and succeeded in crafting electoral majorities not achieved since. Conversely, Dionne also notes Reagan did not necessarily succeed in achieving the goals he so ably espoused. Reagan promised small government, but presided over its expansion. Reagan promised balanced budgets, but presided over historic deficits. 

Accordingly, for Dionne, invoking Reagan is a risky proposition because the comparison entails an evasion, deliberate or not, of this gap between rhetoric and achievement and has complicated an objective evaluation of worthy contemporaries and their contributions. 

Richard Nixon, defensibly Reagan’s conservative predecessor, is condemned as a closet liberal for his various accommodations of the liberal agenda. George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s immediate successor, is similarly denounced for his abandonment of his tax pledge. George W. Bush, purportedly the more Reaganesque of the two Bushes, is now deemed an apostate for expanding the Medicare entitlement and attempting to liberalize immigration. The failure of John McCain and Mitt Romney’s presidential bids are routinely attributed to their insufficient conservatism in the mold of Reagan. Dionne punctuates the point by citing American commentator Charles Krauthammer who summed up, “you can choose your Reagan.”

More consequentially, Dionne asserts the nostalgia precludes an overdue adaptation of conservatism.

Dionne acknowledges Newt Gingrich and Bush 43 made substantive attempts albeit with qualified success. In the early Nineties, Gingrich oversaw reductions in government spending, the end of welfare, and a reinvigorated federalism; Republicans would win the Congress and governorships, but they would not recapture the presidency. Later, Bush 43 would campaign on a “humbler” foreign policy and innovations in tackling poverty; Republicans would win the presidency and Congress, but this dominance was due in part to prevailing national security concerns and would prove just as fleeting. 

By the time Romney bid for the presidency, he was, as Dionne points out, barely able to overcome the appeals by Richard Santorum to socially conservative blue collars or John Huntsman to pro-business white collars (much less Ron Paul’s libertarian contingent). Romney was emblematic of its programmatic bankruptcy as well. Dionne marvels, as many did, how Romney disavowed his signature health care achievement as governor in order to win the nomination and instead campaigned on the umpteenth variation of a tax cut. Most regrettably, Romney cast the election as a contest between “takers” and “makers” and ignominiously dismissed forty-seven percent of the American population as irrelevant.

Accordingly, Reagan nostalgia has only accustomed conservative voters to intra-ideology disputes and, more fatefully, an inevitable disappointment on the part of conservative voters concerning the gap between conservative standard-bearers’ ability to pass these purity tests and their governing record.

Dionne is only partly correct, because, most importantly and elementarily, the historical circumstances were far different between Reagan, and Romney.

Returning to Why Americans Hate Politics, Dionne chronicled how the movement crystallized philosophically in the 1950s with William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer’s crafting of fusionist conservatism. The synthesis of libertarianism and traditionalism not only prompted American conservatives to famously stand athwart history and yell stop, but also provided the intellectual foundation for a generation of attractive alternatives to statist progressive liberalism.

However, the key was, as Dionne notes in Why Americans Hate Politics (but oddly not in Why the Right Went Wrong), anti-communism.

Without the readiness to unite in the face of enemy shared by both, libertarians and traditionalists may not have found common cause (or electoral success) solely countering the extravagance of the Great Society and the delirium of the counterculture. 

Without the totality of a geopolitical threat like communism to unite the two strands, many aspirants since Reagan have struggled to sustain the libertarian-traditionalist alliance -- to the frustration of many more conservative voters.

The Path Not Taken

Accordingly, this retrospective blind spot mars Dionne’s prescription for how conservatives might consider proceeding into the future. (Dionne good-humoredly recognizes conservatives are unlikely to heed the advice of a liberal.)

Dionne argues conservatives should reexamine the legacy of President Dwight Eisenhower and his espousal of “Modern Republicanism.” Dionne notes Eisenhower’s readiness to accept the permanence of the social insurance programs established by his Democratic predecessors reflected a recognition that effective governance would not be possible without accommodating the prevailing preferences of existing majorities.

Dionne acknowledges Barry Goldwater and Buckley objected to this accommodation of an expanded government, but he also contends the two conservative pioneers were forsaking the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln: “to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.”

Dionne enticingly frames his proposed ideological course by recalling how Eisenhower unapologetic pursuit of “balance” represented “thoroughly Burkean” governance. 

Few conservatives could argue with that.

Of course, few conservatives had the chance to argue with that because accommodating the New Deal meant ceding the initiative to the incumbent Republican establishment resigned to making peace with an increasingly liberal Democratic Party.

While the Republican Party underwent civil war, the succeeding Johnson Administration, with general support from moderate Republicans, enacted civil rights, expanded welfare programs, and went to war in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, as Dionne should well remember from Why Americans Hate Politics, such bipartisan “balanced” advances were unsatisfactory to an increasingly radical liberal core that expected and demanded immediate racial integration, the comprehensive redistribution of wealth, and a complete withdrawal from Vietnam.

To invert a pithy observation Dionne cites by American commentator Irving Howe: “the more housebroken the right, the more adventuresome the left.”

Unfortunately, the accommodation Dionne praised was with an ideology on the precipice of self-destruction as its liberal component hurtled toward its own unique brand of ideological extremism. 

Extremism fragmented the Democratic Party, and, four short years after Goldwater’s seeming decimation of the Party, Republicans would win the presidency and would do so under a Richard Nixon who had become more reflective of fusionist conservatism than Modern Republicanism as Eisenhower’s vice-president.

The election also marked the beginning of Republican dominance in presidential elections.

But not in congressional elections.

Between 1968 and 1994, the Democrats would control the Senate for twenty of the twenty-six year period. By 1968, Democrats had been the majority party in the House for fourteen years and would remain there, uninterrupted, for the next twenty-four years. 

Most crucially, during that period, successive Democratic Congresses would institutionalize the entitlement-based federal government that has yet to be dismantled.

When Eisenhower left office in 1960, the only entitlement in place was Social Security:

  1. In 1962, the mandatory share of America's federal budget was 153.3 billion, approximately 20.75 percent of the total
  2. By 2015, the share would be 2,082 billion, about 62.4 percent. 
  3. Between 1965 and 2015, mandatory federal spending grew by 1,358 percent while the entire federal budget grew from 738.8 billion in 1962 to 3,336.2 billion in 2015 (only 452 percent).

Congressional Research Service
The Budget Control Act and Trends in Discretionary Spending
Components of Federal Spending, FY1962-FY2019

via Federation of American Scientists

Successive Republican presidents yielded on taxes during this period -- the corresponding Democratic Congresses never fulfilled the obligation to reduce federal spending. 

More pointedly, as an addendum to the discussion of Reagan nostalgia, Republican complicity is excused given the exigencies of the Cold War. 

(The Republican Party was a minority party under Eisenhower and never became a majority one. Nevertheless, the Republican Party was more united and more dynamic than the Democratic Party during this period and conservative unity based on anti-communism was an advantage. More than a few Democrats and independents voted for Nixon and Reagan on the basis of their avowed anti-communism and their economic or social stance, but rarely all three or just the latter two in combination. And many more conservatives have granted Reagan the dispensation so routinely withheld from others primarily because of his centrality to accelerating the successful close of the Cold War.)

To reiterate, “the more housebroken the right, the more adventuresome the left.”

This bipartisan institutionalization of entitlement-based federal government -- and its unceasing growth -- is one-half of the reason why conservative voters have never been satisfied with conservative standard-bearers, at least since Reagan.

The other half concerns Dionne’s would be warning to conservatives.

The Path To Irrelevance

Where Dionne promises conservatives redemption if they emulate Eisenhower, he warns of irrelevancy if they invoke Pete Wilson.

Pete Wilson hailed from California, the home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and between 1983 and 1999, served as U.S. Senator and then two-term Governor. A Goldwater volunteer, Wilson was a bona fide conservative and, in 1996, unsuccessfully bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Wilson was also the last Republican to win any statewide office in a conventionally scheduled election.

In his 1994 gubernatorial re-election campaign, Wilson also campaigned on the passage of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal aliens from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other services. 

The impetus was the strain placed on the state government’s finances by the presence of over one million illegal immigrants. 

California voters passed Proposition 187 and re-elected Wilson in landslides.

A federal court, however, later ruled the initiative unconstitutional and its provisions never went into effect.

Nevertheless, the assertion that the initiative’s provisions (and its supporters) were discriminatory proved the most lasting consequence as the California Republican Party has since ceased to be competitive and, aside from the anomalous circumstances of Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s election in 2003, has failed to win statewide office since.

In the evisceration of the once-mighty California Republican Party, Dionne warns conservatives risk irrelevance if they refuse to come to terms with the nation’s changing demographics.

Again, few conservatives could argue with that.

And again, few conservatives had the chance to argue with that because advocates (erroneously) assured the country that liberal immigration “would not change the face of the country” and that immigration is a civil rights matter. (Due to the latter, any call for reform is met with unjustified denunciations of prejudice.)

When Eisenhower left office in 1960, the United States still had stringent immigration restrictions in place:

  1. In 1965, the foreign-born share of America's population was 9.6 million, approximately 4.8 percent of the total.
  2. By 2015, the share would be 45 million, about 13.9 percent. 
  3. Between 1965 and 2015, immigrants added 72 million people to the nation’s population as it grew from 193 million in 1965 to 324 million in 2015. 
  4. Lastly, as of 2014, the estimated number unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. was 11.3 million.

The nation’s racial and ethnic composition, by percent, without post-1965 immigration would have looked markedly different than with the corresponding immigration. 

Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million To U.S., Driving Population Growth And Change Through 2065
Pew Hispanic Center
Via Pew Center (Chart, Data)

In an echo of praise for Eisenhower’s “prudence” in accommodating inherited entitlement programs, Dionne notes Reagan similarly came to terms with immigration reality by enacting an amnesty in 1986. (Dionne condemns Eisenhower’s deportation record.) 

As with taxes and spending, successive Republican presidents supported liberal immigration laws or, in Reagan and Bush 43’s cases, approved or countenanced amnesty -- and, again, Democratic Congresses never fulfilled their countervailing obligation to modify immigration law or to improve border security.

For the last time: “the more housebroken the right, the more adventuresome the left.”

As with entitlements, the bipartisan failure to address the negative effects arising from unrestricted immigration is the other half of the reason why conservative voters are doubling down on their dissatisfaction with conservative standard-bearers, especially since Bush 43.

Housebroken Once and For All

Overlooking the manner in which conservatives have been “housebroken” over permanent entitlement growth and unrestricted immigration underscores Dionne's principal blind spot -- as a liberal, he naturally lauds their occurrence as progress, and to this progress conservatives must yield (again). Otherwise, Dionne warns Republicans their future will be that of Donald Trump.

Fair warning, but before turning to the most recent and visceral manifestation of conservative voters’ frustration, the Republican Party is not the only source of polarization.

In a book about conservatives, Dionne's silence on Bernie Sanders’s coinciding emergence may be unsurprising but it is also farcical. A self-described social democrat who has had no use for the Democratic Party until now, Sanders has earned a significant number of votes from Democrats in his presidential bid by promising to expand entitlements by several magnitudes and to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. (Hillary Clinton may be the frontrunner, but only because her party instituted its own undemocratic fail-safe against letting its liberal base from getting too ambitious. Clinton is so crassly expedient she has already tried to outbid Sanders proposals to attract some of his voters.)

Even though high marginal tax rates were unsustainable in the prosperous Sixties, even though current entitlements are broaching insolvency, and even though illegal immigration is illegal, Dionne leaves unexplained how such proposals are original or feasible and what he would expect housebroken “Modern Republicans” to propose in response. Seventy percent tax rates instead of ninety percent? 

To his credit, Dionne warns liberals need to ensure the governmental programs they propose and institute actually deliver the intended results, but he then casually excuses the most recent high profile entitlement implementation disaster -- the Affordable Care Act. Dionne laughably asserts the failed website was “not a failure of ideology but of procurement, performance, and management.” Setting aside that these mundane and inherent roles routinely and satisfactorily executed, on a daily basis, by many, many, many other organizations, large and small, Dionne may be right, but then what is his explanation for the failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs? Failures as the result of procurement, performance, and management are commonplace, just more frequently -- and fatally -- when justified by liberal faith in Big Government.

If the Lincoln’s legacy is the rationale for government action, then why are liberals demanding the federal government intervene into the many realms many individuals can in fact do for themselves, or, as seen in the case of veterans, aggravating the suffering of the very individuals they intend to help.

Conservatives purposely vote for limited government to prevent such outcomes and if the fate of governance is not dependent on liberals permitting their elected leaders to disappoint them or forsaking long held principles, then why should conservatives be expected to do the same?

If Dionne wants to explore paths not taken, then he should examine the recurring intra-party argument from which Eisenhower originally sprang.

The Path Back to Normalcy

In 1952, Eisenhower defeated Senator Robert Taft for the party’s presidential nomination. Eisenhower and Taft generally agreed on limited government, but the former had concluded America, engaged in a global struggle with communism, could not retreat from a comprehensive international role. Possessing the experience and prestige of having served as the former commander of Allied forces in World War II, Eisenhower’s commitment to internationalism won the day against Taft’s more restrained foreign policy.

An anomalous situation for a country founded to be a Republic, the United States embarked on many unfamiliar fronts in leading the West during the Cold War. The maintenance of a large standing military, the development of globe-spanning intelligence capabilities, the erection of multilateral alliance networks, and deployments to every corner of the world -- all were unprecedented internationalist actions undertaken by the American Republic in the name of winning the Cold War.

Such measures resulted in a disastrous intervention in Vietnam and an Imperial Presidency that nearly crippled the Republic, but the extraordinary steps were ultimately vindicated when the Soviet adversary collapsed without a war.

With the Cold War’s end, the moment had come for the United States to become, as American diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick memorably put it, “a normal country in a normal time.”

Except, the United States never did.

In 1992, the only challenge to the prevailing consensus was posed by a former Nixon and Reagan Administration speechwriter, American commentator Patrick Buchanan.

As Buchanan and other conservatives understood it, the end of the Cold War also meant an end to the many compromises they had accepted to prosecute it, namely the accommodations Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan the preceding forty years.

Prior to the Cold War, the American Republic pursued its own modest interests on the world stage, minimized the scope of its federal government, and regulated immigration in the same fashion as all other sovereign countries. The occurrence of the Cold War necessitated internationalism, entitlements, and multiculturalism; with its closure, the rationale for their continuation disappeared.

But Buchanan barely advanced and, because some of his speeches were admittedly better in the original German, his invitation for the United States to become a normal country was never redeemed.

Instead the new bipartisan consensus has been repeated interventions overseas, continued expansion of the entitlement state, and pursuit of a multicultural chimera. (Didn’t everyone just observe the Soviet Union collapse in pursuit of the same aims?)

Dionne warns Trump is the future if conservative voters cling to a version of an irredeemable past. 

Trump is an effective bogeyman, but having examined why conservative voters are frustrated by the compromises of its leaders, Dionne is inexplicably missing his appeal and why conservatives are ready to vote for this troglodyte.

At this juncture, any voice questioning the rationale of ideological compromises accepted for a different era was bound to gain traction. 

Entitlements may be untouchable, but other aspects of the dysfunctional government are not -- voters may be ready for a candidate who relishes firing people and will hold scurrilous bureaucrats accountable. Illegal immigration continues unabated despite repeated legislative remedies -- voters are ready for a candidate who simply promises to build a wall. Overseas interventions go on endlessly -- voters are receptive to a candidate who questions alliances in which the United States performs the vast majority of its missions or promises to stop buying oil from duplicitous autocratic regimes in the Middle East. (Liberty and tradition remain the animating fundamentals of American conservatism, maybe anti-interventionism in foreign policy will be the unifying geopolitical perspective.)

After the Cold War ended, the Republican Establishment never proposed such alternatives. (The Democratic Party has come to the abyss and has decided to jump in enthusiastically.)

If it wasn’t Trump, in all his grotesque scatology, then it would be another voice articulating the road back to normalcy.

Thirty minutes after completing the final draft of this essay, Donald Trump indicated “some form of punishment" for women who have abortions if they were made illegal.” Genuine conservatives seek only to end the procedure, they do not seek to punish any individual, especially the mother. Challenging the status quo is worthwhile and doing so during this election cycle was certainly exciting, but this last statement is beyond the pale and all conservatives should disavow Trump.

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