by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
We have never embraced political conservatism. However, we also think that the conservative tradition in American politics is intellectually formidable. We find the best representatives of that tradition to be rigorous, insightful, and philosophically astute. They are political commentators for whom ideas matter. In their best work we find proposals and principles that we think are incorrect, but never merely stupid.
And this is as it should be. The entire system of American democracy is based on the premise that reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed citizens of integrity and good-will might nevertheless disagree deeply and sharply about fundamental moral, social, and political matters. Many of the most familiar political and constitutional mechanisms of our politics are aimed at managing such reasonable disagreement among citizens in a way that all disputants could be expected to recognize as even-handed, fair, civil, and rational. What's more, reasoned yet deep disagreement among intelligent and sincere citizens is not some unfortunate obstacle that democratic citizens should wish could be surmounted; working through such disagreements while sustaining conditions of civility and stable governance simply is what modern democracy is all about.
In this way, a modern democratic society needs there to be combating traditions of political commitment. Those who tend to find conservatism lacking need there to be stalwart defenders of conservative views that are articulate and smart. And the same goes for those who tend to reject various forms of liberalism and progressivism; they need there to be formidable exponents of the views they oppose. As we have written in previous 3QD posts, and have argued in our book Why We Argue (And How We Should), the only responsible way to oppose a view is to oppose the best version of it, and this requires one to know the best arguments in its favor. To put the point dramatically, modern democracy is an intellectual ecosystem that thrives only under conditions of civil disagreement among sincere and intelligent citizens. Were one of the many longstanding and noble traditions of democratic political thought to disappear from the public debate, the entire system would suffer.
It is clear that the contemporary Republican Party in the US is in the midst of an internal crisis that threatens to disrupt the intellectual environment of democracy itself. Judging from the pronouncements from those leading the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, conservatism is not a set of ideas that need intellectual articulation defense. It is rather a political stance defined strictly by vague depictions what it opposes: big government, Washington elites, Hollywood liberals, socialists, foreigners, Muslims, the mainstream media, and so on. One searches in vain for a careful and detailed discussion of these opponents, and no plausible story about how such threats are best combatted has been formulated. For the Republican frontrunners, there are bogeymen at the door, and hence there is no use in debating political ideas or weighing arguments; it is enough simply to call attention to the threats and express outrage. The rich intellectual underpinnings of conservatism have been lost, and we're all worse off for it.
That the Republican Party should find itself lacking a presidential candidate with the intellectual skills required for articulating a coherent argument for conservative politics is not difficult to explain. The trouble with political conservatism in America is that for the past fifty years, its central ideals have been growing increasingly unpopular with the American citizenry. The sociological, demographic, and economic explanations of this need not detain us. The fact is that the core conservative values of personal responsibility, self-reliance, restrained government, shared community, and the moral authority of tradition have lost their grip on the American people; the conservative values have given way to tendencies that conservatives must regard as base and uncivilized: insatiable appetites for luxury, excess, spectacle, and power, all of which are social forces that dissolve tradition and foster divisions. It is no accident that W.F. Buckley Jr. defined conservatives as standing athwart history yelling, Stop!
This cultural shift naturally presented a challenge to the Republican Party, which was faced with a social reality in which winning elections on the basis of their core values was becoming increasingly unlikely. Again, conservative intellectuals understood that their ideas were bound to be seen as out of step. Realizing this, they searched for other ways to win elections. What was needed was a way to build a political coalition among people who ultimately have little in common. And this required a strategy by which deep-seated divisions could be overshadowed by some unifying purpose. With the citizenry divided, this unifying purpose needed to be manufactured.
Alas, the formation of political unity is not as difficult as it may seem, for it is easy to construct nemeses: social and cultural forces that threaten to thwart, disfigure, nullify, or dilute whatever makes America great. Note that in manufacturing such an antagonist, one mustn't get specific about the nature or target of the threatening body. It is enough to simply characterize it as alien and hostile, or debauched and decadent, thereby allowing each citizen to fill in the details however he or she sees fit. The rest is left unsaid, and although this lacuna was presented as a matter of etiquette, it was actually practiced as a matter of strategy. A silent majority doesn't speak. And insofar as it doesn't speak, it doesn't speak to itself; fixated on the threats presented by vaguely characterized bogeymen, it cannot discover how deep its internal divisions run.
It is crucial to remember that the Republican strategy initially was to manufacture a unifying enemy for the purpose of winning elections. Once in office, Republicans could govern according to the traditional conservative values that they had downplayed or omitted from the narrative while campaigning. To be sure, this kind of bait-and-switch may seem cynical and disingenuous, but it is arguably the stuff out of which democratic politics is made.
The most recent national election cycles have shown the hazard of this strategy. The bait-and-switch has come full circle: The artificial foe has become the concrete enemy, the instrument has become the end, and the rhetoric has become the substantive message. At least since Reagan's campaign, the Republican Party has undergone a fateful transformation, most evident in the progression from Newt Gingrich's Contract with America to the Tea Party and Sarah Palin to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The resentment, anxiety, and fear that was once deployed as a device to motivate voting behavior is now the official party platform.
In this way, the Republican Party is no longer conservative; it's most visible members are no longer devoted to ideas of any kind. In fact, they seem committed explicitly to the premise that ideas do not matter. This stance, crucially, places them beyond critique, including self-critique. And it also is bad for the Democrats; as the Republicans offer only slurs, innuendo, and insults, neither seeker of the Democratic nomination has had to publicly defend against serious challenges and hold their own against real criticism.
We think it unlikely that the GOP will prevail in the upcoming general election. And we think that this is good news for the country. But, ultimately, the news is bad for our politics. The current contest for the GOP nomination has demonstrated to future GOP office-seekers that in order to get the support of voters who tend to identify with the Republican Party, one must vilify ideas as such and instead communicate solely in one-liners — empty slogans, vulgar innuendo, and childish insults. It has shown that conservatives who want to succeed at politics must give up on the project of articulating and defending conservative ideas. It has given good reason to think that in order to succeed, conservatives must become pitchmen selling the GOP brand. But traditionally conservatism was the idea that values are more than brands to be advertised and sold. In short, in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination we are witnessing the end of the Party. And that's a loss to us all.