For the past three months, I have been immersed in the politics of the state of Georgia. Having worked in the state legislature throughout its limited forty-day term, I had the opportunity to witness the very essence of the cultural and political war being waged throughout the United States, no different than the battles being fought in the legislatures of the forty-nine other states and in Washington, DC. Central to this struggle is the future of the Republican Party – the political vehicle most amenable to positive, capitalist reform and, paradoxically, one of the most resistant to the same. With factions like the Religious Right and the GOP Establishment fighting laboriously to reverse their diminishing importance in American politics, it is now more important than ever to both criticize and instruct the Republican Party so that it may grow, improve, and reform for the better.
As such, it is beneficial to observe how a Super Majority Republican Party would behave at the state level, as I have had the opportunity to do these past few months. Doing so would serve as a case study into the intellectual state of the Republican Party as a whole. My observations have only served to corroborate what has been repeated time and time again by myself, Slade Mendenhall, and many others: that one of the chief concerns of the Republican Party moving forward is its unyielding philosophic pragmatism and lack of principle. How easily the Georgia GOP, obliviously comfortable in its super majority status, can wag a finger at Obamacare’s insurance mandates with one hand and then sign one of their own mandates (such as the attempted autism mandate, or the successful chemotherapy mandate) with the other is but one of many examples that I witnessed in Atlanta.
It is, first and foremost, a contradiction between Republicans’ politics and their ethics. While many Republicans may proclaim their support of the free market and opposition to government overreach, they fail to fully grasp those concepts. The reason for that failure is simple but crucial.
When conservatives speak of “free markets,” they speak of them as floating abstractions and usually with a lack of clarity that fails to answer the question, “Free – to do what?” When they speak of “government overreach” they fail to address the issue of what precisely is being overreached, what boundary has been crossed. And when they speak of the virtues of “limited government,” they fail to establish what exactly those limitations are, by what standard they are set, and how to defend them.
The fundamental problem hamstringing conservatives in this discussion is a failure to properly conceive of and define individual rights, their nature, and their source. Despite the Tea Party’s effect of getting Republicans to at least focus on and discuss the Founding Fathers’ designs, the Republican base has yet to fully grasp the source and meaning of the underlying rights noted in the Declaration of Independence: those to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They pay lip service to these rights but too often act in contradiction to their professed beliefs. Still crippled by altruist-collectivist moral ideas, they are unable to embrace the Founders’ political vision because it is a vision based in the sanctity of individual rights above all else.
Such is why, as I personally witnessed during the 2014 legislative session during the debate on the autism insurance mandate, the Georgia GOP so readily cast aside the same small businesses it so quickly hoists on its shoulders during election time. It was because opposing the mandate required not only championing the limitations of government, but understanding the moral principle that limits government’s power — the right of individuals to pursue their own interests and not to be compelled by the state to act in the interest of others. Instead, the NFIB — the titular plaintiff in the original Obamacare Supreme Court case — was explicitly called out from the Senate floor and lectured for being “on the wrong side” of the issue.
No matter what their intentions are starting out, ultimately such Republicans differ from the Democrats only in degree. “What is it if we only break your little finger,” these Republicans ask, “when the Democrats are breaking your spine?” Of course the end is the same: an injury that should never have been inflicted and a body unable to function as it ought. Too many Republicans, as I witnessed in Atlanta, do not think in these principled terms. What makes a violation of individual rights wrong is not, they maintain, the injury itself but its extent.
By accepting the basic altruist-collectivist premises of the left, these Republicans open the door to the unimpeded growth of the state. Big government Republicans like those in Atlanta may stop themselves short and say that they do not support socialism like the left does, as that would be “impractical.” But as with poison, so with politics – each increment dulls the revulsion of that eventual final step over the threshold, making every additional step leading up to it more bearable, more steady, more assured, until at last the threshold is reached and the last draught of poison is swallowed. What was once “impractical” becomes a necessity in the name of the “common good,” duty, and sacrifice.
Thus forms the fundamental question before the Republican Party today: will it take advantage of the trend of the last five years and embrace a full-bodied ideology of individual rights or will it slip back into the pragmatist, collectivist ways of its past, always accepting the left’s basic premise while disputing the degree and methods of implementation? Can it break free from those who still struggle to keep it rooted in the failed ideas of its past or will it turn a new page and perhaps bring with it a new course for America?
To answer that question, the Republicans must dispense with trivial squabbling over the numbers, statistics, studies, and costs surrounding the latest intrusion of government into the economy. They must, instead, rise above it to first answer the broader moral question: is this a proper role for government? They must delay the menial concerns of the bill to judge it first and foremost on its pure, underlying essence. But before they can issue such judgment, they must develop standards by which policies may be judged, articulating a moral code and deciding if that code is to be the collectivism of the left or an enlightened view of individual rights as embraced by the Founders.
This requires reevaluating their own philosophies and resolving the inconsistencies therein. They must discover that the “liberty” they already superficially claim to support is properly the liberty of every man to pursue his own self-interests. Elected officials must learn that man is not born owing a debt to his race, clan, society, or species; that one man’s misfortune is not justification to tax the fortune of others; that reason is the only guidance they need to govern objectively and honestly; that to have faith is a right of every man, but to govern by it is a right of none; that justice, not some constructed socioeconomic “ideal,” is the end of the state and their only prerogative as statesmen; that the moral is the practical, as justice will give to each as he has earned, and that anything less is an impermissible violation of individual rights.
Finally, they must have the courage to stand by those principles. To remain silent when one’s colleagues are in error, especially as a member of an elective legislative body, is to sanction the error and to share in its fault.
Sadly, on many issues Republicans share blame nearly across the board. On others, there is considerably more discord within Republican ranks. However, so long as senators quietly enter a “nay” on an impermissible bill, press their colleagues with difficult questions, or exhaust their time in the well speaking against their own party when it is in error, there exists a battle for the future of the Republican Party.
There is little rhyme or reason as to when certain Republicans will break from their party, and some issues see virtual partisan unanimity, but nevertheless, the constituent elements of a truly reformed Republican Party are present – they need but refinement, extension, and actualization. Those who carry the correct views on immigration should reexamine their incorrect views on insurance mandates; those who support an individual’s right to self-defense should question their intrusive stance on government surveillance; etc. If but one would undergo a personal enlightenment and eliminate the inconsistencies in his or her own philosophy, that individual could serve as the standard bearer of a new Republican Party (and such standard bearers, albeit imperfect ones, are beginning to appear on the national stage if not always in state politics).
Principled statesmen do not manifest themselves without first having a corps of rational intellectuals leading a renaissance that will both educate and inspire voters to make proper decisions at the ballot box. The few politicians in Atlanta and elsewhere capable of reforming the Republican Party and realigning it to be the party of capitalism and individual rights can act as intellectuals in their own right, as some have done, but more are needed. There must be intellectual as well as political leadership.
Such is why I have penned this piece, critiquing the very people I served under for the 2014 legislative to session. Such is why I have come out against the policy goals to which many of them – especially the party’s leadership – have wholeheartedly married and devoted themselves for a number of years. It is because it needs to be said, or else the same politicians will be back in 2015, and the same bad pieces of legislation will return along with a whole host of new “practical concerns.” I say it not for their embarrassment, but for their edification, and for the preservation of the liberty of the individual that continues to be eroded in committees and general assemblies across this country at the state and federal levels.
At the conclusion of my time in the Georgia legislature, having witnessed our political process firsthand, I stand reaffirmed in my belief in what I have for so long written in these pages regarding the need for basic moral principles in our political system. Though cynics never tire of telling the young how experience is the cure for idealism and that with time and exposure comes the realization of the need for moral compromise, I consider myself a political survivor – both of my University and my legislature. Having weathered my first major political outing, I emerge ever more convinced of the principles that we defend in these pages and, despite the challenges and disappointments, I can proudly say that I have an even greater regard for our Founders’ vision today than on the day I first reported to the state capitol.