Perhaps we should feel sorry for the conservatives in the ninth year of the new millennium. Thirty years of conservative ideology has produced great wealth for the highest tiers of society, but stagnation at best for the rest off us. Then, in 2008, with the possibility of continuing dominance of the conservative presence in American politics at hand, the whole free market house of cards collapsed around us; perhaps this, more than any campaign strategy, is what brought Barack Obama to high office . With conservatives and conservatism so effectively against the ropes it’s understandable that the response is somewhat punch drunk.
Indeed, it’s predictable that conservatives might want to regroup, consolidate its members and redefine themselves as a reference group. Exactly what does it mean to be a conservative? And does that definition include being a Republican? After all, conservatism has been the defining ideology of the Republican party for over half a century. The Republican Party, however, does not hold any special aegis over conservatism itself. Indeed, the opposite could very well be considered true.
Conservative Republicanism has collapsed. There’s nothing controversial about this statement. But conservatism itself is alive and well…and boy are they pissed! Right now they are looking for an institutional carrier to present their worldview. Conservative leaders, such as they are, have stated unequivocally that the Republicans may not remain their chosen vehicle toward this end.
As it stands, the conservative mentality is analogous to what sociologists call social closure. This is when a social group strictly defines the parameters of inclusion and membership. These parameters preclude a possibility of members bridging group identities by participating in other social groups. The idea behind closure is that there are certain, significant benefits to being a member to a particular group, in this case a substantial conservative voting bloc, and that these benefits should only be vouched to true adherents of group norms.
Politics, on the other hand, often requires significant interaction, negotiation, compromise and overlap (bridging) between social groups. Closure based on ideology is frustrated by political processes. Conservatives and liberals, being ideologically driven rather than politically driven, are often disappointed by those whom they believe to be their ideological representatives in politics. Often, dis-empowered groups will accept a certain amount of bridging in order to attain some voice in the corridors of power. However, what happens when the dis-empowered group was only recently in power? Could the current political paradigm be a case study?
Having been discredited, conservatives are retrenching. The problem according the the conservative weltanschauung, was not conservatism, but rather that past leaders (except Reagan, of course) weren’t conservative enough. By compromising with liberals and centrists the conservative cause was lost. Ergo, the solution is not to rethink the values of conservatism, as values are very rarely subject to critique, but rather to purge conservatism of its compromised elements and resurrect the “true” conservative.
This notion became apparent to me while I was discussing (read arguing) politics with my conservative brother who claimed that John McCain was not a real conservative, but rather a “progressive.” Granted, the word “progressive” has gone through some etymological convolutions in the last hundred years, but to make such a suggestion was indicative of the retrenching mindset of conservatives. In my brother’s mind, and that of many others, John McCain, the Straight Talk Express, is not a “real conservative.”
During the 2009 off term election the Republican congressional candidate in New York’s 23rd district, Dede Scozzafava, was derailed by conservative stalwarts for not being conservative enough on issues like gay rights and abortion. In one blog, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin even referred to Scozzafava as a “radical leftist.” Instead, conservatives rallied behind Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, effectively handing the district to a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War. This could be looked at as a demonstration of the benefits of belonging to the conservative group, and of the dangers of choosing a direction contrary to those of conservatism. Some view this move as a nihilistic persecution of independent thinking. Liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow have coined scozzafava as a new verb to describe this strategy.
Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele may well be on the spot if leaders in the RNC bring the so called “purity test” to the table at its winter meeting in Honolulu (talk about trouble in paradise). The purity test, recommended by some RNC leaders, enumerates ten positions of real conservatives. Those conservatives who agree to less than 80% of the positions should be denied RNC funding. The test, ironically titled “Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates” may well have the opposite effect of unity. Indeed, according to liberal columnist John Nichols, even Ronald Reagan would fail the purity test that bears his name.
Purity is a typical theme when it comes to establishing social closure. Indeed, a purity test McDonaldizes, the process of establishing purity. With ten simple rules one can determine who the real conservatives are (and scozzafava the rest). This process is endorsed by conservative notables such as Glen Beck and Dick Armey. By bringing such a technology into the Republican Party the aim is clear, to reinforce the Republican Party as the vehicle of conservative ideology.
Historically, however, the Republican party has been home to diverse ideologies. The list of Republican Heroes on the GOP website includes such varied personalities as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan (interestingly, it does not include Theodore Roosevelt). Should a party that makes room for such luminaries, some of whom have solid liberal or progressive credentials, become a purist expression of conservative ideology? According to claims made by GOP leadership, it’s what Ronald Reagan, the new patron saint of conservatism, would have wanted. (Reagan was unavailable for comment)
Indeed, it’s understandable that ideological conservatives should aim to control one of the two major political institutions in the country, the Republican Party. Indeed, it could be argued that this process has been going on for quite some time–at least to the Goldwater campaign. At the height of conservative power the Republican Party had no room for politicians like Lincoln Chafee who tended to have a higher liberal voting percentage than conservative Republicnas were confortable with (calculating the liberal/conservative voting percentages is another example of McDonaldizing). The term RINO, Republican in Name Only, has been a term of derision for many years.
And certainly, conservatives are not alone in trying to manipulate the direction of a political party. One might say the same about liberals with regard to the Democratic Party. Neither party, having achieved political power, has a demonstrated history of ideological purity. The argument could be made that, as institutions, they do not owe allegiance to any particular ideological movement. Their main function is to remain empowered institutions. However, I would argue that conservatives have been a much more functional core of the Republican Party than liberals have been for the Democrats. The ideological spectrum, for instance, between say Ben Nelson and Bernie Sanders of the Democrats is much wider than one would find between any two Republicans. The current health care debate demonstrates more solidarity among Republicans than Democrats, and I would hypothesize that this can be largely explained on ideological terms.
The current pursuit of purity among conservatives in and out of the Republican Party seems…different, more persecuting. The advent of purity tests and the punditocracy like Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin give this movement the aura of a postmodern Inquisition and purge. It remains to be seen if Republicans will choose to continue this course. Having been soundly routed Republicans may see the conservative route as paying dividends.
It’s unlikely that these dividends will pay. Ideological purity narrows the appeal of a political party. In a democratic society it is important for the institutions of power to be as inclusive of as many popular groupings, or to bridge into these groups, as is possible. Exorcising centrists or those with multiple leanings in the interests of ideological purity may be self destructive. Of course, this is the postmodern era where media talking heads mentioned above can sway, at least temporarily, the collective consciousness of large segments of the population.
In the meantime, it may be that conservatives will abandon the Republican Party for more ideologically pure third parties such as the Conservative Party, Libertarian Party, or even a nascent Tea Party. Ironically, this is what I have been advocating with regard to both Republicans and Democrats for many years now.