By Kyle (of Vogue Republic)
In the grand discussion of where should Conservative leaders lead and where do they go, it’s important to get a good lay of the land, a solid bearing of where Republicans and Conservatives are, and an accurate reading of where the competition is. Building off of Mark’s exploration of the relationship between the base and wonks and E.D. taking that ball and running with it, I hope to add another piece to the puzzle.
In talks about conservative dissidents, conservative wonks, what we really need to talk about are conservative elites, of which some of the former are included. Elites are, leaders, columnists, idea-mongers, and purveyors of vision.
In that sense, Rush Limbaugh, reviled though he may be, is certainly an elite but not a dissident nor wonk. What he does do, is project an image of what conservatism is and just as importantly what is not. Some elites are dissidents, quite a few are wonks but they are – for better and for worse- leaders of conservatism.
The conservative base and its elite leaders are fractured unlike their competition, Democrats, progressives, and/aka liberals. The very strong alignment between the liberal base and liberal elites forms an iron binary, a group whose fundamental agreement on issues joins them inviolably. Their broad agreement on social and economic issues allows them to work – more or less – in harmony. By contrast, the right has a fairly sizeable disconnect between both. For example with the bank bailout and gay marriage there are sizeable chunks of the conservative elite who either support them or simply don’t care at the same time that the huge chunks of the base have been positively apoplectic over them. There’s a reason you see one of the most prominent conservative lawyers in America working for marriage equality but zero liberal lawyers seeking to overturn Roe.
Another contrast between the two, effective signaling between elites and the base allows liberal elites to organize for health care and channel the energy of a strong base into focused issues of consensus whereas tea parties and town halls reflected a base only enough organized enough to be a disorganized mess.
We saw this contrast as early the 2008 presidential primary. The Democratic candidates came in all regions, genders, and colors but basically agreed on 90%-95% on their policy. The Democratic contest was a contest of packaging not direction or political identity.
The Republicans were the exact opposite. They were all wealthy, white, men but their ideas couldn’t have been more heterodox. Giuliani, Thompson, Huckabee, Romney all presented very different visions of the future of the Republican Party and consequently conservatism’s role within the party. The only candidate whose selection and platform amounted to tinkering around the edges rather than changing directions was also the one least offensive to the most number of people, John McCain. This is also why he suffered from an enthusiasm gap until he picked Palin.
So while I’m not sure the Republican party is a triumvirate, it is certainly a divided alliance of elites and base fragments which contrasts with what is and has been for a few years a unified liberal Democratic party. So while on the surface, Democrats seem to be unorganized and fractured, the nature of their disagreements (so far) has been over degree whereas the disagreements on the right are much more fundamental and thus significantly more divisive.
Reagan’s Succession Crisis
As fond as we are of looking across the pond to find useful analogues for modern-day Conservatism in America, perhaps the most useful is The Tudors. Or at least the English court of the 16th century.
Conservative elites, even the dissidents, seem to do a fair job of working with strains of their base but they also want their strain of conservative thought to be the dominant aspect of the future coalition, so they’re savagely attacking the others in what amounts to an internecine competition that looks like elites versus the base when, really, it’s elites versus the part of the base that supports competing heirs…and other elites, of course.
Even though Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, etc… are, by far, the most vocal of the conservative elite, less national but more noteworthy elites still hold significant sway. Ron Paul and his supporters are an obvious citation, they even now have their own dating website. Bob Barr has a core base of disaffected Libertarian-Republicans. John McCain is building a base of moderate-ish Republicans that he’s backing in primaries with his PAC. Conversely, high profile conservatives Senators Inhofe and DeMint have been weighing in on primaries supporting conservatives like Marco Rubio. Romney’s pro-business, fiscal conservative backers are still an influential group. Not all these groups are the same size but they are increasingly discrete and increasingly working against each other as much as they’re working against the Democrats.
The suspicion and sometimes outright animosity between the groups combines to create something of a double bind for elites of the wonk/dissident persuasion. They have two audiences external ones and internal ones and a fair competition for which one is more hostile.
For wonks, there really isn’t a constituency of people demanding that say Ezra Klein denounce ACORN or Brookings to account for every failure in the history of liberal policymaking ever in order to be taken seriously. Concordantly, there’s a very widespread sense that the fringe on the left is a fringe distinct from mainstream serious people on the left. The rush of Hollywood’s liberals to defend Roman Polanski had no carry over to the politicians they’ve given money to and fundraised for. That isn’t really true for conservative wonks and elites who are consistently challenged to defend standard/pall bearers for modern conservatives: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, racists on the right, etc…
So then, you have to choose which audience to work with and which to write off. The implication is you’re given a seat at the respectable people table, by distancing yourself from the rhetoric of the right. Or you’re given a seat at the partisan/ideology table by holding your tongue on any number of issues (the opportunity cost of sitting at the respectable people table). Of course, neither group fully welcomes you (see Romney, Mitt). Thus a dichotomy is born: solutions focused policy work or party reform.
Is there any clearer example of this than the United States Senate. Senator Bennett of Utah was challenged by the Club for Growth for his role in Wyden-Bennett, back when Grassley was in the negotiating room, the possibility of facing a primary challenger grew.
If Senator McCain were to cross the aisle and work on solutions for health-care, he’d be tarred and feathered. Any clout he might have in convincing the base, building up a different coalition, reframing conservatism, would be tainted as he was labeled the guy who enabled/voted for Obamacare.
This makes the party building task before conservative elites is positively herculean, at least to do it right, and I’m not sure there’s either a clear path here for anyone nor any particular reason why this task should be so hard other than politics today are ridiculously tribal.
The English endured a century and a half of bloody warfare, rebellion, plots, assassinations, and regicide as passionate factions sought dominance of the throne and the future of their country, let’s hope the Republicans/Conservatives can be quicker and less dramatic.