Once upon a time, in the far-away land of Grand Rapids, there was a young man who decided to distinguish himself from his peers by articulating a full-throated, aggressive conservatism in a social space permeated with superficial left-wing dogma. This young man internalized his conservatism, turning it into a badge of honor; he felt at ease with its hard-headed pragmatism and rejoiced in its elevation of individual merit.
As time passed, the young man became so identified with his ideology that he became something of a foil from central casting, the Alex P. Keaton in a room full of Phish groupies, to the point that his persona, during his college years, became irrevocably intertwined with the public perception of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Yet all was not right in Grand Rapids. Our hero, far from being personally content as a political malcontent, instead grew increasingly cynical about the political process. The lucid conservatism with which he found succor through the pages of National Review and First Things was transformed without his consent into a semi-coherent “compassionate conservatism,” and he found himself defending, with diminishing zeal, the ineptness of a President who just couldn’t seem to marshal the competence to match his conviction.
By the time yet another national election cycle came around, the young man found himself utterly disconnected, even after the brief puff of excitement following the Palin announcement. No, not only were the Party and the Movement different, but so was he; an ideologue, no more.
My journey from educated-but-unreflective ideologue to something more nuanced has been a long, painful process. The first trickle started after Hurricane Katrina; the “heckuva job, Brownie” nonsense mixed with ongoing stupidity at the TSA and the obvious excesses of the K-Street GOP did not sit well. Although my faith in theoretical conservative beliefs did not waver, my hope that conservatives ascendant would be an unmitigated force for good, did. In early 2006, I started to share in the sense of doom about the mid-terms, and after that, my heart wasn’t really in it.
The fact that Mike Huckabee could be a contender for the GOP nomination that John McCain eventually won, left me listless and politically cranky. The enthusiasm of the Left over Barack Obama and the 2006 elections suggested that perhaps conservatism flourished best when it was in the wilderness, serving as a counterweight that may occasionally stymie the Left but which was simply not capable of governing in its own right.
Yet Obama, and particularly the Pelosi/Reid team, have moved in disconcerting directions. Going wobbly over Gitmo, treating the underpants bomber as a law-enforcement issue, forcing the Porkulus bill, ram-roding a horrid health-reform bill, advocating cap-and-trade — all of it, based less on sound science and prudent economics than on the cynical desire to placate a hungry activist base.
This has renewed my political interest, yet I am no longer able to claim the role of the unreflexive GOP apologist.
Partly this is because of my stands on the issues, which I had to hone without substantial regard to the “party line.” This has led me to an economic neoliberalism, marked by fiscal restraint, low taxes, low regulation and more privatization, low national debt, and free trade. In defense and foreign affairs, I support maintaining a large military and using it to aggressively defend American interests abroad, and to end widespread human-rights abuses (e.g., genocide), something on the Dick Cheney model. On most domestic social policy, I now trend libertarian, even though I oppose abortion in all instances and would prefer that innovations like gay marriage wait for widespread social acceptance instead of mere judicial fiat.
Accordingly, I now consider myself a center-right Republican. Most social issues don’t resonate with me like they used to, although I remain a very strong proponent of fiscal restraint and aggressive prosecution of the war on terror. Furthermore, I am much less likely to pull the GOP lever in the ballot box by default; I’d vote for a competent, centrist Democrat (like Bart Stupak) over a bomb-throwing radical (like Michele Bachmann) on any first Tuesday in November.
From this new vantage point, a few observations emerge with greater clarity.
- Not for naught is Peggy Noonan growing on me. Her columns of late continue to address the erosion of civil discourse in the body politic. The Left and the Right, it seems, aren’t even bothering to shout over each other anymore; now, they talk only to their true believers. Those in the middle who could be persuaded have very little recourse to reasoned debate. Those on the fringes are engaged in discrediting their opponents in any possible way. This does not bode well for the nation; America as a two-party environment needs to have a certain amount of social lubrication to keep those two wheels spinning at least on the same axle. The “Climategate” story is an excellent case-in-point: Fudged climate data could have been a teaching moment for climate-change proponents and skeptics alike, but instead it turned into something akin to an early Soviet party congress in Copenhagen, with a deluge of dogmas and denunciations substituting for meaningful debate.
- The Democrats are playing a dangerous game by utterly ignoring the will of the middle (which by ungodly proportions is opposed to Obama’s signature issues of health reform and cap-and-trade) to impose a solution written by the fringe Left. The arrogance of this imposition upon the electorate is breathtaking, and it will not redound to the Democrats’ good eleven months hence, nor to the good of the future generations that must pay the bill for this package of reckless spending.
- The Republicans have gotten lucky by being irrelevant, yet they still seem incapable of providing a unified and coherent alternative to myriad issues that could earn them genuine goodwill and respect. This is the perfect time to build a solid case for a responsible, pro-freedom policy alternative, but little comes back except “No.” A golden opportunity, wasted.
- The last year should put the nail in the coffin of the idea that media figures are unbiased. Look no further than Anderson Cooper’s “teabaggers” nonsense, or the resurrection of Dan Rather’s “fake but accurate” strategy with regard to Climategate, for proof.
- The people most affected by the big-picture political struggles of the day are the people least likely to be tracking these issues with diligence. How many 20-somethings who don’t really care about health insurance are really aware that in just a few years, they may face steep penalties for going without? How many 13-year-olds realize that their goal of serving in the military may well result in a tour in Afghanistan? How many senior citizens understand the impetus to rationing that underpins the Senate health bill? And where are the mediating organizations that should help keep the average citizen informed, with utmost objectivity, about policy changes?
Some commentators, including Noonan, have suggested that the 2000s were a “decade of disillusionment.” Perhaps this is so, but it need not be a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, the cooler, wiser, more moderate heads must prevail. They must be open to some change, but perhaps not a restructuring of the country. They must be willing to talk, but not to encourage the sloganeering and invective of the fringes. Most importantly, they must have the courage to run and win elections, thereby bringing a sense of balance back to the national debate, a framework of fairness that has been missing for a few years.
Political evolution is hard work. It takes real courage to set aside the talking points and the knee-jerk ideology that accompany a sociopolitical movement, and instead find wisdom along the path less traveled.
Hard work. But necessary.