The Republican Party is Not the Conservative Movement
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the Republican Party. See his previous OUPblogs here.
A political movement is not the same as the party that claims to represent it. And the disconnect between the Republican party and the conservative movement is sharper today than it has ever been since the heyday of the Reagan revolution. Consider the rising star of Glenn Bleck – as if one Rush Limbaugh isn’t enough – and the marginalization of Michael Steele, who wasn’t even invited to speak at last weekend’s march in Washington and who was denied the opportunity to speak at a Chicago Tea party in April. The angry voices in town-halls and the national mall are not evidence that the Republican party has found its voice, but that it hasn’t. When citizens feel that elected officials don’t speak for us, we take up arms ourselves (sometimes, literally).
The Reagan coalition is fraying, because the libertarian faction of the conservative movement has had enough of sitting at the back of the movement’s bus. For too long, they bought Ronald Reagan’s and George Bush’s argument that expensive and deficit-increasing wars are a necessary evil to combat a greater evil, but the bailout of the big banks last Fall was the last straw for them. If Irving Kristol once said that neoconservatives are converted liberals (like Ronald Reagan himself) who had been “mugged by reality,” Tea Partiers are conservatives who have woken up to the fact that neoconseratives are no different from pre-Vietnam-era liberals chasing after utopian
The reason why Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the heroes of the movement, and Michael Steele is persona non grata, is because fiscal conservatives no longer trust the Republican party who for too long has placed their agenda on the backburner. This, in turn, has been brought on by the fact that neoconservatives have lost their privileged status within the movement because of the delegitimation of the adventure in Iraq and the onset of the economic recession. While the end of the Cold War vindicated neoconservatism, the events of September 11 gave it a new lease of life. Together, these two contingent facts of history contributed considerably to the longevity of the Reagan revolution, even as the botched and expensive adventure in Iraq put a screeching halt on the neoconservative ascendancy.
Americans today face a crisis in their pocketbooks and not with foreign nations. Tax-and-spend liberals are a worthy enemy, but they are nowhere as scary or as unifying as the “Evil Empire” or the “Axis of Evil.”
This is why Republican public officials are doing a lot of soul searching these days as they try to make sense of the disconnect between their ideology and party that has been brought on by neoconservatism’s decline. The lack of coordination and indeed the widening chasm between the party and the movement can be evidenced in Arlen Specter’s cross-over to the Democratic aisle, Senator George Voinovich’s complaint that his party was being “taken over by Southerners,” and in Olympia Snowe’s and Susan Collins’ overtures to Barack Obama.
Most people will agree that we know exactly what Barack Obama is up to, politically. The right-wing talk-show hosts will be the first to tell us. But we really do not know what the Republican party stands for or who could possibly lead it in 2012. This is because the party has lost its synthesizing logic and lacks a unifying hero. This weekend, a straw poll conducted at the Values Voters Summit put Mike Huckabee on top, with 28 percent of the vote, because the straw pollers are Values Voters, who constitute yet another faction within the conservative movement. But what was more telling is that even though Sarah Palin did not even turn up for the event, she nevertheless garnered the same endorsement as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Mike Pence, at 12% each. This is conservatism in
search of a leader.
Because it is parties that win elections and not movements, Republican members of congress should not be taking any comfort from the passionate protests of the Tea Partiers. Instead, they should be embarrassed about the fact that they have been trying to play catch up with a movement that has lost hope in its elected officials. More importantly, the Republican party must find a new way to unite the neoconservative, libertarian, and traditionalist factions of the movement to have any chance of standing up against a president and party, who in 2010, could well be riding the wave of an economic recovery to electoral success.