John Stuart Mill famously described conservatives as “the stupid party.” The description has unwritten boundless hilarity among liberals for more than a century, but that is only because they (stupidly?) neglected to take Mill’s deeper message on board. Every true partisan of liberalism, Mill wrote, should pray for the enlightenment and acuity of conservatives if for no other reason than intelligent opposition tends to have a tonic effect on liberalism itself.
That is probably true. But there is a toxic assumption lying behind Mill’s strictures that is worth pondering. It is this: the more closely one compares liberals and conservatives, the more it emerges that by “stupid” many liberals (including, I believe, Mill himself) mean “disagreeing with me.” Liberalism, that is to say, regards its political opinions not as opinions but as reflections of the state of nature: what any right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) person believes. But your opinions, my conservative friend, are regarded not so much as opinions as some form of heresy. Here in a nutshell you have the motor behind political correctness and the staggeringly illiberal attitudes espoused by the elite liberal establishment.
There’s a lot more that might be said about Mill’s diagnosis of conservatives as “the stupid party.” You might, for example, want to ask the embarrassing question “stupid compared to what?” or — another embarrassing gambit — “What counts as liberal these days?” In any event, whether or not conservatives can really be described as “the stupid party,” I fear that Republicans, having repudiated the instinct of self-preservation, are shaping up as a kind of suicide club. (H/t, Robert Louis Stevenson.) I know, I know: if you were to create a Venn diagram of conservatives and Republicans, you would have less overlap than you might suppose. But if you are thinking about political realities — about how power is acquired, held, and exercised — Republicans, for the time being anyway, are the closest thing to conservative players we have in the game (as distinct from those quarter-backing from the bench).
This is not, it pains me to report, a cheery fact. Conservatives look around and see that, when it comes to simple venality, Democrats nearly always take the palm. The party that spoke up for slavery in the 19th century, segregation in the 20th century, and the neo-segregationist muddle that is multiculturalism, affirmative action, and political correctness in more recent years is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Entitlement, Inc., committed not simply to a redistributionist but also centralizing, statist agenda, the pursuit of which licenses all manner of Alinskyesque subterfuge.
Further: It is an irony of language that those who congregate under the banner of liberalism more and more associate themselves with policies that are inimical to individual liberty and its great enabler, democratic capitalism, while conservatives, committed to free markets and policies that promote self-governance and individual initiative, should be denied the moral lubrication of that coveted term. Russell Kirk was right when he said that he was conservative because he was liberal, i.e., committed to ordered liberty and the fiscal responsibility that underwrites it. But Republicans, having largely ceded the rhetorical high ground to the Democrats, have lost access to such clarifying formulations. (They have also, in the name of “compromise,” capitulated on . . . well, on nearly every important Democratic initiative. See, e.g., Andy McCarthy’s depressing column about the fiscal side of this tawdry reality in “The Myth of GOP Stinginess.”)
These abstract observations have some very practical implications, seen, for example, in recent polling results. Ponder this: a week or two ago polls aggregated by the indispensable RealClearPolitics showed a “generic Republican” winning against Barack Obama in the upcoming general election. Every particular Republican on offer, however, lost to Obama, Mitt Romney just by a few points, Gingrich, Santorum, and Ron Paul by a larger margin.
As of Friday, the prospects for Republicans were notably gloomier. Mr. Generic Republican, in a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, was down by 5 points against Obama; Rasmussen and other pollsters showed Obama winning against all the Republican candidates by an even larger margin. Meanwhile, Gallup and NBC/WSJ have Gingrich out front to win the the Republican nomination. Nota Bene: he wins the nomination; he loses (according to one poll, he loses by 18 points) the general election.
Now, I acknowledge that it is early days yet. As British Prime Minster Harold Wilson famously put it, “a week is a long time in politics.” Those polls numbers might be wildly different come November. But the current numbers are not without significance. They tell us, above all, that there is a great hunger that is not being satisfied. They also tell us that there is widespread unhappiness, not to say disgust, with the status quo ante. The Republican establishment seems unwilling or unable to take this on board. They are still playing the game with yesterday’s dice. Some observant commentator described the Republican primary thus far as a sort of circular firing squad in which everyone was gravely injured, if not killed (farewell, Messrs Pawlenty, Cain, and Perry! So long Ms. Bachmann!). Team Obama must be enjoying the bloodsport, but what about the rest of us?
I have often said that I regard the Tea Party as the most vibrant and salubrious political phenomenon in contemporary American politics. Many people seem to believe that the Tea Party is a tool of the Republican Party. That, certainly, is what the Republican Party wishes you to believe. In fact, though, the Tea Party looks with jaded-eye upon Republicans and Democrats alike. Their goal is smaller, less intrusive, government. If Democrats are the party of big government, Republicans, despite rhetoric to the contrary, have invested heavily in that franchise. Hence the conservative unhappiness with the Republican field. And hence this melancholy prognostication: the Republicans’ only live hope for the 2012 presidential election is to endorse an articulate conservative candidate. So far, they have failed to find him (or her). Time is running out. The spectacle of mutually assured destruction that we’ve been treated to under the name of the Republican primary has offered some entertaining, if unedifying, moments. Entertaining moments do not win elections. Principled conservatism does. Any takers?
Also read Victor Davis Hanson: “What We Do Not Want to Hear Anymore“