Frequent commenter, proprietor of The Educated Imagination, and all-round swell guy Michael Happy sent me a link to a discussion with Cato Institute big shot Brink Lindsey last week. I read it and was thinking about commenting on it, but I got distracted by the start of the new term and forgot about it let it ferment for a while.
Lindsey notes that libertarianism and the American right are odd bedfellows in several ways, though of course that contention is nothing new. Indeed, the dissensus between the social cons and anti-statists goes back as far as Weaver and Nock, both of whom were men of the right. As usual, I encourage folks to check out George Nash’s excellent book for more background on this stuff.
I was reminded of all this by an opinion piece by Prof. Julian Zelizer at CNN today. He, too, notes the factionalism within the right, and suggests that the GOP needs a unifying, Reaganesque figure in order to challenge Obama.
I don’t really see such a figure at this time, although that could change by 2012. I certainly hope it does, as some past GOP candidates seem to have been selected on an “It’s my turn, dammit” basis (e.g., Dole, McCain).
But one of the things I find interesting about the right is that very disunity. Will Rogers is quoted as having said “I don’t belong to an organized political party — I’m a Democrat.” However, I would suggest that today’s Democrats have their unifying myth nailed down — where the government can do good, it should. Full stop. While any number of self-described conservatives will disagree with that premise, they’ll disagree with different portions of it. Some will offer another definition of the good. Others will argue that the goods they seek ignore more important goods. Still others will say that the role of the government isn’t to provide goods, but to allow individuals to do so without force or fraud. And so on.
Again, we see myths in conflict: myths of progress, myths of freedom, pastoral myths. I would argue that the competition between myths on the right is actually a feature, rather than a bug. We constantly struggle with defining principles, and I would suggest this gives conservatism an intellectual vigor that is less common on the left, although it’s the right that’s often depicted as monolithic.
I would argue that a more useful way of looking at the Republicans is as a one-party coalition. Unlike the American Whigs, however, who were united by anti-Jacksonianism and saw no reason to exist after Jackson’s departure, contemporary conservatives are drawn together not on a level of personality, but by their opposition to that central Democratic axiom I mentioned earlier. Because ideas persist longer than personalities, it gives the opposition to those ideas staying power as well. This is the “party of No” argument, but I have yet to see why that’s a bad thing. The idea that movement is always good is simply another form of the myth of progress. Inaction is often underrated.
Likewise, the fact that coalitions are difficult to keep united actually strikes me as a benefit in many ways, at least to those of us who prefer King Log to King Stork. But that disunity also provides another benefit in the form of an intellectual vitality that is no longer available when things are declared settled and/or beyond discussion. Maybe one day the right will end its dissensus, but until then, knowing what you don’t want may suffice.