I lost half of yesterday afternoon obsessing over early election returns, the evening hours brooding about the GOP defeat, and much of this morning so far catching up on post-mortems. I’m providing my own (perhaps overly) bleak outlook here with the proviso that I intend to spend the rest of the day—and my life—trying to look ahead to happier things.
Scouring Twitter for solace among fellow conservatives, someone mentioned this election wasn’t about Americans choosing the wrong guy but about conservatives failing to articulate their principles. I have to disagree. Conservatives articulated their principles forcefully in opposing Obamacare, for example. They were right to do so given the conservative principles about liberty and the role of government. Conservatives don’t follow those principles always or in the same way, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The law has the rare distinction of exceeding Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause, as the Supreme Court held. Although it was upheld as a tax, it is technically unconstitutional under the Origination Clause, which requires all tax measures to originate in the House. It’s a long shot SCOTUS will reach that issue in the case currently pending, though. The point surely would have been argued had the Court ever indicated it was considering taking the tax argument seriously. I don’t mean to re-litigate Obamacare. The point is that there were (and still are) real problems with it in principle. A majority of Americans agreed and even still agree. But what happened when conservatives took up the principled position? When they maintained that position? They were tarred as obstructionists.
The reason the GOP’s principles were considered obstructionist stems from the fact that they supported an individual mandate in the 90s. So they did. The GOP is institutionally conservative, after all, and sometimes that cuts both ways when it motivates them toward protectionist and anti-competitive policies and to kowtow to big business. But conservatism and the GOP are also chastened by their countervailing commitment to liberty. Is that hypocritical? It may be somewhat schizophrenic, sure. Any ideology that tries to achieve a balance of liberty and security necessarily must be. Ideologies that don’t deal with these difficult balancing acts are called the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, etc., and they don’t cause the major parties any concern whatsoever. But there are principled ways to find middle ground and have a meaningful place in policy-making, and the GOP proposed some as alternatives to the conservative/progressive ideas that Obamacare espoused. They were rejected as not ambitious enough, and the Democrats were satisfied to tar the GOP as obstructionists to the extent they professed a commitment to inflexible principles, and as flip-floppers to the extent they proposed more nuanced views. The Democrats don’t want a GOP that moves to the center. They want a GOP that will just leave them alone like the other principled fringe parties do.
This election season has had me writing about politics and the election much more than I’m comfortable doing. I’m obviously partisan, but I understand and appreciate nuances. I believe conservatism allows for nuance within a principled framework. As much as I’ve tried, though, I can’t find any legible framework of principles in modern liberalism—the liberalism whose heredity is in the protectionist conservatism of the mislabeled “progressive” movement under Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, and then dusted off and mislabeled again as “liberalism” under FDR. Musings on modern political ideologies seem to me like notes from Babel.
That form of conservatism/progressivism/liberalism is anything but liberal. In fact, the more I study that train of political thought the more I confirm that its very essence is the rejection of principles, and most importantly, principles of liberty. It is Hegelianism in the form of political ideology. It is the truth of an ever-changing History: truth as action, truth as will, truth as power. As an objectivist, as one who believes in universal truth, it simply is not within my constitution to understand modern “liberalism,” let alone to be a “liberal.” And so the sting in losing elections to a modern liberal like Obama has less to do with what he will accomplish. Although I was fooled four years ago by people who insisted he would “govern from the center,” I tend to believe that the House will act as a firewall against his doing to much more illiberal damage. No, my fear is not about the policies that will be enacted in the next four years. It is about the extent to which his existentialist political philosophy will change how we understand society, individual, government, and their relation to one another. What is a “right” if we reject the founders’ concept of negative liberty? Who owes the corresponding duty? I’ve asked that question on these pages a number of times, and despite the number of smart liberals here, I’ve never gotten a cogent answer. I’ve found common ground that the “idea” of liberty carries some emotional weight, some psychic significance. But there is no intellectual machinery offered by modern liberalism to guide us in questions about when it must yield to some other value. When truth is merely defined by History, there is never a need to answer those questions. Times change, and so does truth. Is there any wonder why conservatives resist change when those are the stakes?
This reelection, I fear, goes some length to making this all a moot point. Obamacare is in, and the consensus seems to be that it makes health care a “right.” (Actually, it’s only health coverage, quite different from care, but that’s another story.) This is further precedent that we get rights when the Government says so and that’s that. A better answer about the nature of rights can neither be expected nor given. The rub is that we also cannot now expect or demand a better answer when the government deprives us of rights, either. We prostituted that principle in exchange for the “right” to government entitlements. The modern liberal America is actually strikingly illiberal: The government giveth and the government taketh away on its say so. If liberty is not a fixed, objective concept, it has no protection to offer us. The Declaration of Independence ushered in a liberal nation that, by degrees, ceased to exist sometime during this modern conservative/progressive era that began in earnest a century ago.
So perhaps conservatives and classical liberals will attempt to regroup and define and refine their principles for the next contest. But in addition to the attacks they will receive on top of being “divisive” and “hypocritical,” they will also have to hear that they’ve already lost this fight. This is a nation we liberal conservatives no longer recognize because it is indeed not the same nation. Liberal democracy is something of a misnomer because democracy eventually devours liberalism. The aspect of conservatism that sought to stave off that eclipse has failed, and for me, that is the bitterest part of the defeat.
In the meanwhile, I will pray for the health of our aging justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy. With them and the other constitutional conservatives on the Court, and scarcely anywhere else, our founding principles still live.