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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Why Conservatives Won’t Govern
First Principles: The Role of Government
Alan Wolfe
It is commonly said that polarization has become the country’s most serious political problem. But polarization implies two poles, each of which is organized around ideas. The newfound opposition for the sake of opposition characteristic of the conservative movement suggests a far greater danger to democracy than polarization. That danger is not cynicism; even a cynic cares. What we witness instead is nihilism–and in the most literal sense of the term. Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine holding that because life lacks meaning and purpose, it is foolish to believe too fervently in anything. Of course, it strains the imagination to believe that congressional Republicans have read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and are familiar with his portrayal of Bazarov, the most insightful characterization of nihilism we have. But the conservative approach to politics these days comes close. Right-wing firebrands in the House promise that come hell or high water, they will not compromise. In any democratic political system, but especially in one with divided powers, no compromise means no governance. We can expect a significant number of House members to stand firm in their denial, no matter what happens to the economy, the environment, or the country.
Even the fondest hope of the new House majority, repealing Obama’s health-care reform, will fall victim to the party’s nihilism. To say no to a law that has already passed, after all, means to say yes to the legislative process. The Republican base’s anger at Washington will only be fueled if those elected as a result of its wrath get themselves immersed in the hearings, votes, and trade-offs–another term for compromise–that repeal will require. Republicans will also discover, as they did with Medicare, that there are parts of the law their supporters like and they will therefore seek to protect. It will prove far more politically effective to continue railing against the law as socialistic than to try and actually get it off the books.
Nihilism is as dangerous a political stance as one can find. Unlike polarization, it guarantees that words become divorced from any underlying reality they are meant to describe, that those watching the spectacle turn away in disgust, that tactical maneuvering replaces all discussion of substantive policy issues, and that political opponents are to be treated as enemies to be conquered. Lacking regenerative qualities of its own, nihilism can never produce new sources of political energy. It does not result in gridlock but shutdown. Grids can be unlocked. We will soon see what shutdown means when conservatives remain true to their strictures against compromise. The last time they tried shutdown, under Newt Gingrich, they blinked. This time we should take them at their word.
The shift from polarization to nihilism is well illustrated by the pre-election fate of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” Ryan is one of the few Republicans in the House of Representatives who has managed to persuade himself that his party still actually cares about policy. His roadmap is not especially original, but it does suggest a certain familiarity with the ideas of Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman. If we were still living in the era of Joe Allbaugh, Republicans would have been lining up to praise Ryan for his determination.
During the campaign, however, conservatives shunned Ryan’s plan like a virus. “Paul Ryan, who’s the ranking member of our budget committee, has done an awful lot of work putting together his roadmap,” then-Minority Leader John Boehner told a press conference in February. “But it’s his. And I know the Democrats are trying to say that it’s the Republican leadership. But they know that’s not the case.” Will Ryan become a conservative hero in the new House? Don’t bet on it. Once your purpose is to say no to everything the other side proposes, you do not want to put yourself in the position of saying yes to anything else, lest you actually have to spend your energy defending a position. Ryan and his plan will be trotted out at news conferences to prove that his party contains members who can read. But none of his policy prescriptions, any of which could be used to paint Republicans as opponents of programs upon which their constituents rely, will make it out of Congress.
A better guide to the immediate political future than Ryan’s roadmap was the GOP “Pledge to America” issued this past September. Widely criticized for its lack of any details, the pledge perfectly captured the Republican Party’s unwillingness to advance any ideas, even conservative ones. Combining the usual attack on out-of-touch elites with vague promises of rapid economic growth and lower taxes, the pledge never got around to discussing any of the tough choices that the United States would have to make if it were to actually bring its federal budget into balance. What new ideas will conservatives advance now that they control the House to prove their dedication to fiscal discipline? Will Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, find enough allies in the House to consider major cuts in Pentagon bloat? I would no sooner bet on that than on the possibility that the current generation of Republicans will follow Ronald Reagan’s lead and raise taxes (which he did, several times). The current House features ideologues without ideology. One feels almost sorry for the genuine libertarians in the new House. When the Speaker lines them up to vote, they will find themselves more often voting against their principles than in favor of them.
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TAGS: Conservatives
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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stmichrick:
Mr Wolfe;

Your premise seems to be that the FEDERAL government is supposed to plunge into every crisis, regardless if it's proper role has already been defined. In the case of Katrina, President Bush was in contact early in the crisis with the Governor and Mayor of New Orleans. The role of the Feds(FEMA)is offer assistance to the local government and basically, write checks. He was rebuffed until things were way out of hand.
As applies to your other examples, the Republican position is to limit the role of the FEDERAL government, with the onus being on state and local governments to decide the degree of government involvement.
President Bush made his determination about involvement in Iraq based on his CONSTITUTIONAL duty to defend the American people. The imposition of Federally mandated healthcare cannot be found in that document.
Jan 21, 2011, 9:00 AM
James D:
"President Bush made his determination about involvement in Iraq based on his CONSTITUTIONAL duty to defend the American people."
Defend us ... from what? The Constitution confers a duty, sure, but with that duty comes responsibility and accountability. The Constitution does not provide cover, and it does not provide an excuse, for ignorance and malfeasance.
As for FEMA's purpose, it goes far beyond "writing checks". Start with 42 U.S.C. 5121 and read on. And FEMA was not "rebuffed" ... like good Republicans, Brownie and company had adopted a policy of waiting 72 hours before intervening in any disaster, to see if local governments could cope without that nasty, socialistic Federal intervention. Never mind that in the real (non-GOP) world, it takes less than 72 hours to drown.
Jan 27, 2011, 9:15 PM
Lex:
@stmichrick: That is, to say the least, an interesting reading of the history of our involvement in Iraq.
President Bush and his administration fed false information to Congress repeatedly until they finally ginned up a fiction about nuclear weapons to persuade Congress to pass the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. In other words, in violation of the Constitution, his oath of office, U.S. criminal fraud statutes and international law, he fraudulently obtained permission from Congress to launch an illegal military invasion of a country with which we were at peace.
They hanged people at Nuremberg for that.
Feb 25, 2011, 11:24 AM
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Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
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