Doug Mills/New York Times
In today’s New York Times, Corey Robin muses about what it means to Republican identity and goals now that they are in power and are finding that power hard to manage. He seems to pace around the issue, however, rather than dive in and further unpack the catastrophe of incompetence and demagoguery that binds the party to its ideological base. In short, he seems to suggest that Republicans have no force or focus if they don’t have a struggle. This would define conservativism as a heroic identity without which it does not possess agency or the will to act.
Indeed, Robin suggests that American conservativism has “[softened] into lazy nostrums or hardened into rigid dogmas”. I’ll give him that, but he wants to say this is so because when Republicans regained the “keys to the castle” they became “joyful” and as a result “no longer control or set the terms of political debate”. Significantly, they no longer reach out — compromise and cajole — to expand their base. The movement becomes inert.
In this analysis, it is the “no longer” part that I quibble with, otherwise I think Corey Robin is more or less on the mark. I think Republicans did — and do — take their victory for granted; however, rather than being lazy about their nostrums and dogmas, they are smug about them.
I don’t think this is a new phenomenon manifesting itself as a result of Republican electoral success in 2016 or emerging from under the pall of Donald Trump. On the contrary, this approach to “governing” — or at least to setting policy priorities and agendas — has been on a complacent march from the early 1980s; Reagan, Gingrich, that crowd. Perhaps, as Robin suggests, conservativism once “progressed” as he tells us Friedrich Hayek said free markets progressed, that is when they are “on the defensive.” That makes sense to some extent, at least in the early years of conservative revolt against government and the state apparatus of public goods and services. But the so-called defensive stance congealed into an offensive one and adopted strongly divisive strategies in its attack. It has been a long time since conservativism was about building and sustaining growing coalitions.
Therefore, what we have now is more of a conservative event horizon than a lull in conservative dynamism. They have gotten what they were striving for and now cannot pull back. Health care reform is a perfect example of this displayed in practice. It is one thing to say you will do X, Y, and Z when saying so will advance an ideological battle. It is another thing altogether to enact those plans when those plans will have real consequences.
If you are a conservative, what are you going to do? Your entire identity and the momentum behind it is built on a discourse that wins (at least with some) in the abstract, but creates problems in practice. Back to health care reform, even if we ignore the bill proposed and withdrawn by the Republicans, we can see the problems this extreme right wing abstraction creates when put into practice by the very fact that it caused real divisions within in a party that is otherwise known to march pretty much in lockstep.
Back to health care reform…even if we ignore the bill proposed and withdrawn by the Republicans this month, we can see the problems this extreme right wing abstraction creates when it is put into practice. Look no further than the very fact that it caused real divisions within a party that was otherwise known to march pretty much in lockstep. It was an opportunity for Republicans to come together under one of their defining tropes — less government — and deliver on perhaps THE signature campaign promise since 2010, the repeal of Obamacare. And they couldn’t do it. The bungle that was their healthcare bill is really an afterthought in this analysis. It’s irrelevant. They cannot deliver.
So it isn’t just a problem of having the keys to the castle and not knowing what to do with that castle now that they have it, it is a problem of overselling the abstract and having to own that. Over the years we have expected less and less concrete policy from conservatives — they had 7+ years to draft an alternative to Obamacare and look at what we got — and more and more rhetoric, increasingly detached from fact or reason. Fantasy proselytizing is going to cause problems, as we see now. For Republicans, it painted them into a corner. You said you were going to do this, now do it. But if you cannot, how do you escape? How do you escape your rhetoric and retain your staunchly discursive identity?
Perhaps the biggest pitfall of winning for conservatives is now having to govern and produce results. That requires a different stance from taking defensive positions against an opponent and, in this regard, Corey Robin is absolutely right. But if being in power is the problem defining conservativism today, one should ask whether conservatives ever really expected to have to govern. Now there you have an existential crisis. Namely, what is the point of American conservativism today?