by Ralph Benko
Jeffrey Bell, policy director for the American Principles Project (which this columnist professionally advises), presents a compellingly grim scenario in a recent column, entitled Losing Streak: The Democratic Ascendency and Why It Happened, in The Weekly Standard.
Bell was one of the key intellectual architects of the Reagan-era Republican ascendancy. On top of his important work for Reagan and his own U.S. Senate race, Bell’s greatest impact may have been that of his role as one of Jack Kemp’s privy-counselors. Economic policy, thanks to Kemp and his inner circle of supply siders, would never be the same. Over a billion people came out of abject poverty thanks to the changed economic discussion, and Kemp, Bell and others played a big role in changing it.
Bell has seen the GOP rise from its political grave before. In fact he was instrumental in helping to push it out. Now, extrapolating from his most recent, magisterial, book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter Books, 2012) , Bell observes:
“… Obama’s reelection makes the GOP’s minority status in presidential politics impossible to analyze away. Economic conditions — stagnant growth and high unemployment — seemed to fulfill the classic conditions for a ‘referendum’ election that would very likely result in the ouster of the incumbent. The president’s signature domestic accomplishment, Obamacare, was rejected by majorities in poll after poll. The charisma and voter euphoria that marked Obama’s election in 2008 had seemingly long since dissipated.
“But when all the votes were counted, the election was not very close. …
“[T]o win, a Republican nominee must either break a generation long Democratic winning streak in one or more states, or carry 168 of 194 electoral votes among the “purple” states that have gone both ways since 1992. Not for nothing have political insiders taken to calling the GOP path to an Electoral College majority the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight.
“If the next two decades are anything like the last two, the presidential outlook for Republicans is pretty bleak. ….”
What does Bell make of this?
“The Democrats’ sharp move to the left since 1998 is the most recent leap forward in polarization, which has been the underlying trend of American politics since the 1960s. What few could foresee is how well the Democrats’ decision to embrace the left would work politically. Political polarization involves a rallying of popular forces behind or against a worldview. …
“[T]he most striking thing about Reagan as a political leader was his integrated worldview and his determination to advance it on a broad range of policy fronts.”
Bell’s Postulate: An “integrated worldview and … determination to advance it on a broad range of policy fronts” is a political imperative. A worldview is a powerful, perhaps decisive, force. In the days preceding the American Revolution the colonists were disgruntled … without a worldview enabling them properly to address the infringements on their dignity by the Crown. Then … a pamphlet entitled Common Sense appeared.
Common Sense was written by an unprepossessing former girdle-maker named Tom Paine. Paine attacked the legitimacy of monarchy. He exalted the dignity of republicanism. His worldview caused a sensation. It transformed what was (literally) Tea Party disgruntlement into a coherent determination to achieve dignity through Independence. The rest is history.
Such is the power of Bell’s Postulate.
What might be the corollary? The most significant tactical dispute within the GOP, today, is whether or not (and, if so, how) to integrate the “social issues” into its agenda. Social conservatives are as essential to GOP viability as social liberals are to the Democratic Party. Social issues are considered déclassé by the urban elites, very much including the mass media. The “social cachet” factor, as it was dubbed by American Principles president Frank Cannon, seems to be why, despite the electoral math, the tony “Rove Wing” of the GOP, courting elite approval, flinches from these.
Besides bringing elitist disdain the social issues cause tension between the party’s conservative base and its essential libertarian allies, many of whom are socially liberal. Libertarians are the “swing vote.” When they sided with the conservatives on foreign policy — anticommunism — and on economic policy — tax rate cutting — the conservative position prevailed. When the libertarians sided with the liberals on social policy, as many have, the liberal position tends to prevail.
But liberal social values are not inherently libertarian. They are a matter of preference, not libertarian principle. The great political philosopher Frank Meyer, chief formulator of fusionism , was credited by William F. Buckley, with, as phrased by the Wikipedia, “properly synthesizing the traditionalist and libertarian strains within conservatism.”
Meyer’s insights about how to conjoin the traditionalists and libertarians are as crucial today as they were when he first synthesized them. Marginalizing the social issues, and their activists, is a recipe for GOP political suicide — as nonviable as would be a Democratic Party without its Progressive base.
Fortunately for the Republican Party there seems, in this columnist’s view, “an integrated worldview” centering around liberty that integrates the social issues confidently, with integrity and authenticity. It does so fully in a way not alienating to principled libertarians, independents, Reagan Democrats, and, even, principled liberals.
This columnist believes that defense of the worldview that gave us, and gives us, the Bill of Rights — classical liberalism — offers the most likely corollary to Bell’s Postulate. Classical liberalism holds that certain liberties are so fundamental as to deserve to be sacrosanct from infringement even by what Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.” Classical liberalism is antithetical to the Utopian romanticism of the left. In The Case for Polarized Politics Bell shrewdly traces the left’s Utopian romanticism to its very roots … and demolishes it. By disentangling classical liberalism from Utopian romanticism Bell suggests the path available to the GOP back to vitality — and victory.
What might that worldview look like in political practice? Every serious libertarian known to this columnist deeply respects the Constitution, especially its Bill of Rights. The Constitution enshrines within the supreme law of the land key liberties: civil, economic, and social. Among these rights are, very much, included a guarantee of free exercise of religion and the unambiguous right that “No person … shall be deprived of life …without due process of law.”
All true libertarians unite against government — which includes the courts as well as the legislature — coercion against the exercise of one’s Constitutional liberties. Any governmental attempt to interdict the authority of a religion to inform and champion (in law and in practice) its moral code unquestionably infringes a fundamental civil liberty.
Religion without theology, ethics, and moral code would be a travesty: a right merely to engage in a rite. The privilege merely to enjoy the liturgy of one’s choice is not the “free exercise of religion” championed by classical liberals, including the Founders.
Derogation of sacrosanct civil liberties — ones explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution — flies in the face of the libertarian ethos that says “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (often misattributed to the ur-classical liberal Voltaire but surely representative of his thought).
So there is an opening for a political championship of restoring our many eroded Constitutional rights. These include economic rights such as protection from takings, the gold standard, and even the obscure, interesting, provision that appears to prohibit the estate tax, and others; protection of Habeas Corpus now under assault; and many more rights now under siege including free speech, free press, and the right to bear arms, as well as religious liberty and life itself.
The left, itself exemplifying Bell’s Postulate in its determination to advance its own “integrated worldview … on a broad range of policy fronts,” is making a broad assault on our explicit Constitutional rights. This places the left on vulnerable ground. Americans honor the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.
The harder left, now, is making its real intentions known. On the last day of 2012 the New York Times featured an op-ed by Constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman entitled Let’s Give Up on the Constitution . This call immediately drew heated protests, including from the very liberal dean of Constitutional studies himself, Harvard’s Prof. Laurence Tribe, an honest liberal: “He (Seidman) tells us that he would preserve free speech and religion, equal protection and limited government, but he never explains how he picks those values over others or how his maddeningly vague proposal would ‘give real freedom a chance’ rather than risk tyranny.”
And so the corollary to Bell’s Postulate seems to be: the GOP path to victory will come from championship of the Constitution, and, with it, of human dignity. It will come from Constitutional opposition to tyranny, grand or petty, in economic, international, and social policy. Championing the Constitution is a worldview to unite the Republican Party… and the republic.
To regain viability the GOP requires a leader — there are at least seven officials or former officials who show real promise — to present an “integrated worldview” in defense of our Constitutionally protected liberties. A leader, like Reagan, showing the “determination to advance it on a broad range of policy fronts” will rescue the GOP from the grave that Karl Rove is digging for it. Bell’s Postulate tells why.
Ralph Benko, an economics policy expert living and working in Washington, DC, served on detail as deputy general counsel to an Executive Office of the President agency under President Reagan and to a Reagan presidential commission.