Posts tagged conservatism

George and Mitt Romney & the Death of Moderate GOP

Mitt’s father, George, was once the great hope of moderate Republicans., Art Shay / Polaris


The moderate Republicans of the 1960s were supporters of the free-enterprise system. They distrusted the then-overwhelming power of trade unions. They disliked the bureaucracy of the New Deal spending programs. Yet they did not altogether oppose social insurance. They favored voucher-style programs that delivered benefits without bureaucracy. Many were drawn to Milton Friedman’s concept of a negative income tax: the government would set a number that every American was entitled to. If an American earned less, he or she would receive back from the IRS a check necessary to bring him or her up to the guaranteed minimum. That idea went nowhere, but many other ideas appealing to moderate Republicans were enacted in the 1960s, forming the basis of much of our modern welfare system. We don’t build public housing anymore. We have Section 8 benefits that enable poor people to rent homes in private apartments. We don’t have a Federal Food Administration. We have food stamps.

What happened to George Romney’s moderate supporters inside the GOP? To a great degree, they fell victim to cultural and demographic shifts in the U.S. As evangelical Southern conservatives and white working-class ethnics migrated from the Democratic Party into the GOP, secular Northern professionals and managers migrated out.

George Romney and those who supported him were economic winners: the more affluent, the better-educated. But they were economic winners at a time when there seemed plenty to go around for everybody. Leaving some of the gains on the table to share with the have-nots looked—in the 1950s and ’60s—like a good investment in social cohesion, especially to people who remembered the pain and turmoil of the Great Depression. Today’s economy looks much more pinched, and today’s winners don’t feel they can afford to share. Today’s winners are looking for leaders who will protect their winnings against what looks to them like a voraciously hostile environment. The GOP moderates were the ultimate “good sports” of American politics. There isn’t much room for such people in an era of “winner take all.”

Right Minds

By Samuel Goldman

The French Revolution was not the first revolution in human or even European history. Mobs had ruled the streets before; princes had often enough been deposed. Yet Burke insisted that that the Revolution was “the most astonishing thing that has hitherto happened in the world.” What was so astonishing about it?

Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.

The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.

This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… . But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from they way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.

The central principle of conservatism was authority. Specifically, conservatism was an attempt to justify theoretically the political and social hierarchies that the French Revolution challenged. This means that classical conservatism is inextricable from anti-egalitarianism. Its major premise is that men are not created equal—and that they actually become less and less so as they develop their faculties through the enactment of various social roles.

What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much. In addition to the historical distance, the concept of individual rights imposes an unbridgeable theoretical gap between the two positions. Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.