Return to First Principles

Even prior to last week’s election it was clear to me that the Republican Party needed renewal. In this post I suggested that it reconsider it’s anti-gay stances, and in this one I turned a critical eye to the party platform.  As part of my own research into what a new party should like, I discovered Jeffrey Nelson’s “Ten Books That Shaped America’s Conservative Renaissance.” (PDF, HTML) This book lays out the most influential books in modern conservativism and discusses the four different groups that are allied at the movement’s core.

Libertarians: “The principles libertarians believed should guide government were free markets, private property, individualism, and limited government, in short laissez-faire.” Anti-Communists: “Anti-communism, especially opposition to Soviet imperialism, was another powerful force affecting the development of American conservatism after 1945.”  And Traditionalists:

... Russel Kirk traced an impressive intellectual genealogy of Americans and Britons that included Edmund Burke, John Adams, John Randolph, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and T. S. Eliot. In contrast to mainstream academic thought, Kirk persuasively demonstrated that conservatism has in fact been central to the American experience, and in doing so gave American conservatism, according to HenryRegnery, its “needed unifying concept.” “In essence,” Kirk wrote, “the body of belief that we call ‘conservatism’ is an affirmation of normality in the concerns of society. There exist standards to which we may repair; man is not perfectible, but he may achieve a tolerable degree of order, justice, and freedom….” To uphold these norms and standards is a concern of every conservative.

Neo-conservatives joined this coalition in the 1960’s. “... this group of disillusioned liberals, claiming, as one of them put it, to have been “mugged by reality,” migrated to the conservative cause. Reacting in part to the social uprisings of the 60s, in part to the isolationism and perceived “anti-Americanism” of the New Left, and in part to the consequences of liberal activism in government, these gifted newcomers came to realize that good intentions do not guarantee good or effective government.”

It’s been close to forty years since the neocons joined the coalition. Since that time Communism has breathed its last, having been replaced by the multiple threats of Russian exceptionalism, Chinese mercantilism and Islamofascism. None of these by itself constitute the scope of the threat posed by Communism during the Cold War, although each presents a formidable and unique challenge to freedom.

Does the anti-communist bloc still exist or have events made anti-communism unnecessary? Russian exceptionalism might appear at first glance to be the logical successor to communism. However Russia’s actions do not have the transnationalist goals that lay at the core of Communism. Chinese mercantilism is aided and abetted by the pro-business elements of the libertarian wing; any significant shift towards viewing China as an enemy is quickly resisted by business using China as a source of labor or a potential market. Islamofascism has roughly the same transnationalist elements of Communism, but lacks its broad scope.

Neoconservatives  share with the left a belief in internationalism, and isolationism – the traditional default state of America – is only found among the paleocons of the Libertarian Party. After nation building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and especially Iraq, does the internationalist view of neocons really make sense?

As for the Traditionalists, the concept of the family has changed throughout the history of the Republic. We have evolved from multigenerational households to single parent, and mixed ones. Yet no matter how the family has changed, it has not disappeared or become irrelevant.

The nuclear family existed briefly between World War 2 and the rise of the feminist era of the 1960s. I do not think it’s a stretch to declare it dead – and as Conservatives who are revisiting our first principles it’s critical to see it for what it is. We will not resurrect it by legislating morality and risk appearing hypocritical (“Republicans hate government everywhere except in the bedroom.”)

Is it possible for the coalition to expand and allow gays into the fold? The Gay Community has discovered that it is not the heir to the Civil Rights Mantel that it thought it was, as Proposition 8 was supported 2-1 by the black community. At the same time gay rights touch upon many of the civil liberties supported by libertarians. If not for the Traditionalists, the gay community would be a natural fit for the Conservative movement.

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but it is critical to learn from our experience in the political wilderness, and the first step is to revisit our first principles and conduct a thorough inventory of what it means to be a conservative.

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9 Comments

  1. mgroves:

    Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I don’t think the Republican party, or any reasonable person for that matter is “anti-gay”. The only sticking point is the idea of gay marriage, which can be understandably upsetting to Christians (Jews, Muslims, etc) who define marriage as a sacrament—and gay marriage as an oxymoron. Heck, a ban on gay marriage even passed in California of all places.

    I would suggest instead of Republicans “embracing” gays (which will never work, politically), how about instead taking up the idea that marriage is not a government function, but a religious one.

    That is, marriage is no longer enforced or regulated by the government. The government would care about your marriage as much as they care about who you pick as a friend. Marriage would be left solely to a church, or a synagogue, or WHATEVER. However, government’s role of contract and property rights enforcement is still intact: the idea of a civil union or some sort of binding legal nuptial agreement would replace government-sanctioned marriage. In this way, gay couples could have all the legal rights and divorce and custody malarkey that they want, without intruding on the Christian ideal of marriage between opposite sexes: liberal churches could offer gay weddings, and traditional ones wouldn’t.

    Sounds like a very conservative idea to me: less government intrusion, free market competition (between Churches), and a reinforcement of good old American pluralism.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    M
    Yup. We need to save marriage by removing its civil function and placing it firmly in the religious realm. In its place we should have some kind of legal arrangement similar to articles of incorporation or perhaps even common law.

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  6. suek:

    Re: gay marriage

    The question we need to ask is whether marriage is a social institution that society has an interest in. Why do we have government involvement? Whet is the purpose of licenses and various benefits?

    My personal opinion is that gays have two primary purposes for wanting the status of marriage: first, the various legal and financial benefits that accrue to married people, and secondly, the acceptance and recognition that they are “normal” by the majority of society.
    The first can be addressed by changes in the laws, if the majority see an inequity and wish to correct it, but that won’t happen until the rationale for the benefits are discussed. They may or may not be relevant.
    The second is an effort to change a perception by dint of force of law – it won’t work. When the opinion of society changes, the laws will change.

    I think there are also an underlying need with two reasons: the need to prevent religion from condemning homosexual behavior as sinful. This is obviously because nobody wants to be told they are sinful, even – oddly enough – when they don’t believe in the concept of sin. More than that, though, is the leftist desire to eliminate religion as a voice of authority. Destroying the authority of the family and of religion is a necessary step to elevating the State as the ultimate authority and determinant factor of correct and acceptable behavior. Take religion out of the equation and you have only the law. If it’s legal, it isn’t wrong. We can change the law, therefore we can change “right” and “wrong”. Unfortunately, this also eliminates the concept of ideal behavior, and leaves us with a standard that simply prohibits behavior which is below the lowest standard a society will accept. Eventually, those sandards will be dropped lower and lower until there are no behaviors that are prohibited.

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  8. MikeDevx:

    The most controversial of the arguments above is that the conservative movement should become, not merely gay-tolerant, but gay-inclusive.

    The author states:
    “Is it possible for the coalition to expand and allow gays into the fold? [...] If not for the Traditionalists, the gay community would be a natural fit for the Conservative movement.”

    This concerns me, in that the author believes the entire “gay community” would be a natural fit. By what criteria? Most gays in the “community” are quite far-left in their political outlook. There is a vocal conservative gay wing, but they (we, I should say) are in a very small minority. The “community” itself is extraordinarily hostile to conservatism, and not merely because much of the conservative movement has been hostile to gays. I do not see any natural fit of the ENTIRE community within conservatism.

    Conservatives could make one welcoming motion: That we will be welcoming to those gays that: – agree to all the other tenets of conservatism, AND – agree that a monogamous sexual relationship that is long-term and stable, with no sexual activity outside that spiritual bond, is the only acceptable and allowable relationship for gays within conservatism – agree to abandon the use of the judiciary in forcing civil rights tyrannies upon the voters of states who repeatedly have shown they detest the judicial activism and judicial tyranny. Recognition of any such rights are to be won via the laws of the legislatures or not at all.

    But the author above will have no intentions of going there, as is shown by his assault on the definition of traditional families. Side by side with the affirmation that the entire gay community is “a natural fit” within conservatism, the author also states this concerning the nuclear family:

    “As for the Traditionalists, the concept of the family has changed throughout the history of the Republic. [...] no matter how the family has changed, it has not disappeared or become irrelevant. [...] The nuclear family existed briefly between World War 2 and the rise of the feminist era of the 1960s. I do not think it’s a stretch to declare it dead.”

    First off, the nuclear family existed from the founding of our great Republic up through the current day. The only departure of significance from it is the rise of the single-parent household, and studies are clear that single-parent households face daunting challenges that usually mean that the children suffer in many ways. The two-parent household is simply a far better environment (as long as the parents have been at least somewhat wise in choosing each other as mates).

    The author does not think it’s a stretch to be declaring the nuclear family dead? Au contraire! The author should be screaming from the rooftops that we need a return to the two-parent household! And respect and honor should be shown to the elders who are the grandparents and great-grandparents of their children, providing for the children a broad respect for generational values.

    Note the attack on “Traditionalists” throughout the entire piece. What we end up with is really nothing more than the usual libertarian wing’s assault on the traditional wing. Read the entire piece and ask yourself as you are reading: Where has the author given even the mildest nods of respect to traditionalists within conservatism?

    Unless libertarians and conservatives BOTH can find a way to accomodate each other, conservatism will not be able to summon the strength to confront the far-left agendas sweeping our country. There is plenty that the two wings can agree on.

    – Traditionalists must (again) learn to honor – and regard as sacrosanct – individual freedom and responsibility, small limited government with checks and balances, and free-market capitalism over crony capitalism. The Bush years abandoned much of this in favor of bloated, massive government.
    – Libertarians must (again) learn to honor – and regard as sacrosanct – the idea that the strength of the fiber of the American people has been its respect for and continuance of traditions and traditional values. We do not change for change’s sake; we change when there is compelling evidence that the change will be good, and when change is needed. A deep abiding respect for traditional religious values should form the bulwark of this effort to insist on the primary importance of traditional values, especially traditional religious values, within conservativism.

    Without such high mutual regard and respect between libertarians and traditionalists, we won’t get anywhere.

  9. Scott Kirwin:

    Mike
    You raise some valid points. The “Gay Community” is indeed a bad fit with conservatism. It’s not monolithic – contrary to my statement and what the activists would have us believe. There are gay republicans and gay libertarians as well as gay communists.

    But I stick by my comments regarding the nuclear family. It is dead, nor did it exist “from the founding of our great Republic up through the current day.” What did exist was the multigenerational household – which was the forerunner to the Nuclear Family. While I agree with the statements regarding single-parent households, the nuclear family wasn’t much better. The natural or default state of our species is the clan, and the multigenerational family only evolved out of that after cities appeared.

    If you want to scream anything from the rooftops, yell that we should be living with our cousins, aunts, uncles and especially our grandparents and grandchildren. But such a state would be difficult – if not impossible to achieve in light of the challenges of modern life. For example, for me to live this way I would have to return to St. Louis and live with family members whom I’m not very fond of and feel similar towards me. A clan-sized family unit would entail a loss of freedom that simply is not acceptable in modern society – although in exchange would be a level of personal security and sense of belonging that most people can only dream about today.

    As a self-described libertarian I have significant doubts about our alliance with the traditional wing. We’ve lost natural allies due to the traditionalists imposition of a religious litmus test on who can and cannot join the Republican Party. At the same time I do not want to see them cut adrift from the movement because I do recognize and respect the importance of religion in modern life.

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

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