A Time Out of Ideas

Though it may not show as of late, it is always my intention as an editor of this blog to contribute as much writing to these pages as I possibly can, subject to the constraints of time, energy, focus, and the steady flow of comment-worthy events. Unfortunately, since President Trump’s inauguration in January, I have found little in current events that was worthy of detailed analysis. The back-and-forth bickering of warring partisans has drowned out whatever sliver of substantive policy discussion existed among politicians, pundits, and journalists. The critical debates over which ideas should define the American right and left—debates which are uniquely powerful in presidential primary years—have already been shelved in favor of petty power struggles. All that is left is an exercise in political pugilism to be resolved by the judges when their twelve rounds are up sometime next November.

The void of meaningful policy orientation, however, is largely the doing of the Republican Party. In many ways, as always, they have made their own bed and must now lie in it. To criticize the left for its vapid, power-hungry, unceasing drive for government expansion into all areas of life and for having little connection to or concern for the lives of most Americans is not only accurate but eminently satisfying. Nonetheless, progressives and the Democratic Party do have one thing over the GOP: a direction. It is a wrong direction, a monstrous direction, but it empowers them to act purposefully towards their chosen ends. It ensures that when the opportunity arises to act, they do not hesitate to maximize their own interests and to push their program as far as partisan lines will allow.

The GOP has no such purpose. With control over the White House and majorities in both houses, five months into the 115th Congress it has thus far been unable to establish a coherent plan to govern. Its most distinctive domestic legislative effort has been a stymied attempt to renege on its years of promising to fully repeal ObamaCare and a failed effort to convince Republican voters that its own plan is anything but ObamaCare in Republican dress. Meanwhile, its political messaging has been so poor (even if we set aside President Trump’s Twitter-storms) that Democrats have been able to manipulate the short memory of public opinion and lead people to forget the utter disaster that ObamaCare is and has always been. Republicans will be immensely lucky if they do not ultimately bear full responsibility for its failure in the eyes of political historians who, already a left-leaning bunch, will give them no benefit of the doubt.

The result? A party with control over both the executive and legislative branches and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that cannot manage to produce meaningful reforms. A party that seized control after eight years of stagnation and failed recovery efforts under their opposition but which cannot manage to demonstrate the superiority of their own approach over even that low standard. That is, if one can properly refer to anything that we might meaningfully call a Republican “approach.”

Therein lies the problem. The Republican Party, in its decades-long strategy of maintaining a “Big Tent,” has largely eroded whatever coherent vision for the country it had to offer. In an effort to include everyone, it has whittled away the common ground held between party members and elected officials. It has become much more successful at winning elections than it was from 1930 to 1980, but it has done so at the cost of the ability to effectively implement a governing program (not that Republicans in the pre-Reagan era were wonderfully effective, themselves. The more that the party base is expanded to include everyone from capitalists and libertarians to race-motivated nationalists and populists, the less it stands for anything in particular.

Thus, we get what such a strategy logically predicts: victors who cannot agree on what to do with their spoils. In the past, this could be masked or ameliorated by whatever convictions or coherence were offered by a Republican president. In 2017, however, with a Republican president who has consistently demonstrated both a complete flexibility of opinion on every issue under the sun and a willingness to sic the populist dogs on any fellow Republican who does not swear fealty to him, no such agenda can take hold. The only firm policy is “agreement with the president—or else,” and what agreement with the president means can change by the hour.

Its circumstance, however, is not irreversible. What is needed is a coherent vision and leaders willing to adhere to it. Our preference for what that ideology would be is a matter of record: capitalism, as an ideology, a political program of action, is the only means of securing the rights of individuals against the abuses of government and the tyranny of majorities. The choice of which ideology, however, is sadly still a considerable stretch for the GOP. It is an organization which, culturally speaking, is not yet sold on the need for any ideology, any philosophy, any coherent set of guiding premises. It continues to drift, as it has for generations, in a fog of pragmatism, taking each passing situation as an unanticipated phenomenon which it is incapable of integrating into a broader framework which might offer up logical prescriptions for action.

Imagine a party that opposed not “ObamaCare” but rather “government control over healthcare” or even—we can dream—government control over any industry. Imagine a party that, rather than quibbling over whether the income tax should be a few percent more or less, challenged the fundamental structure of our modes of public finance or even—again, we can dream—considered and looked critically at the viability of substituting certain voluntary modes of public finance. Imagine a party that opposed not certain particular, individual regulations that affect whichever company lobbied it successfully this week but, rather, declared war on a regulatory code that has stifled growth and made generations of Americans poorer or even—yes, we can dream—challenged the morality behind the pre-emptive, “guilty until proven innocent” approach to law that underlies all government regulation. Such a party might face greater opposition, but it would also, I suspect, find greater and more fervent support from an American population whose incomes, job prospects, and security would be ever rising under such a principled approach to policy.

These changes, however, would require Republicans to rely on principles—not just in an election year or in a campaign speech, but in practice as well. It would require them to be a party of ideas, broadly applied and firmly upheld. I admit that I am doubtful as to whether the Republican Party, molded by pragmatic flexibility and a willingness to sacrifice a principle to momentary expedience, currently has the fortitude and the moral compass to do this. For better or worse, organizations constructed and molded under certain philosophical premises tend to attract and to promote members who most exemplify those premises, carrying on ideas and ways of operating from one generation to the next. Thus, change, if it comes, is likely to emerge from new members with different visions—entrepreneurs who are unwilling to adapt to the organizational status quo and who, instead, set out upon the long and difficult task of trying to make the organization adapt to them.

Their prospects may be dim and their odds long, but such political entrepreneurs are perhaps the only hope of making stale organizations trapped in a losing strategy reform their failing ways and adopt new methods. They cannot achieve this, however, by declaring the cause to be lost and falling by the siren’s song of fatalism. We are a nation founded by men who were both thinkers and doers, individuals constituted of both vision and action. To rediscover and revitalize that vision requires us to seek and embrace such a unity of purpose. If Republicans hope to be the agents of that change, it is time to start embracing such change-makers and becoming the party of limited government reformers that the American people have chosen as their legislators for the last eight years. The support for that vision has clearly been present, and politicians surely know what it looks like or they could not so successfully assume those personas on the campaign trail. All that is left is for them to be the men and women who they presented themselves to be on the campaign trail. All that is left is integrity.

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