CREDIT: Flickr user Steve Rhodes
About a week into 2014, and the debate over what will be one of the year’s defining issues — how the Republican Party will adjust its wildly unpopular policy vision — has already broken out in earnest. It started with an essay by Michael Strain defining a conservative approach to unemployment that right-wing heretic David Frum referred to as “a ’95 theses’ moment for the reformist right.” Another essay, by Bush speechwriters Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, lambasted anti-government conservatism, leading to a wave of backlash from the GOP’s libertarian wing.
Is this pundit debate a harbinger of political change to come? David Brooks certainly thinks so. The New York Times columnist wrote today that because there’s “no other game in town” for conservative policy ideas, Republican politicians will be forced to endorse reformers’ policies. “The emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right;” Brooks argues, “they can just fill the vacuum.”
As a writer, it’s kind of nice to think we matter that much. But we don’t. Brooks’ view is a terminally naive approach to thinking about American political parties embrace new political ideas. The reality is both more complicated and more interesting, and suggests that the most important question to ask would-be conservative reformers isn’t what their policy preferences are. Rather, it’s how they plan on organizing a movement to build those preferences into policy reality.
The core problem with Brooks’ argument should be obvious: Republican politicians don’t want to change their policies, and writers aren’t in a position to make them. Jamelle Bouie laid this argument out well in a response to Strain’s essay, and there’s no need to recapitulate his point. Suffice to say a party full of people convinced its policy ideas would work if only Democrats let them be tried isn’t interested in new policies.
This uncomfortable truth is either sidelined or dismissed in the conservative reform debate. There are plenty of different “conservative” ideas floating around various different magazines, websites, and think-tanks, including some that lefties could learn to love. Though different factions of conservative thinkers love debating each other about *which* of these ideas should win the GOP’s intellectual Bachelor rose, they’re very unlikely to persuade each other that (forgive the jargon, but it explains how tribal this is) libertarian populism is better than reform conservatism or vice versa. In all of this sparring, not one of these factions has presented a coherent plan for how their preferred visions could actually become the reigning Republican credo. Policy manifestos don’t mean much if there isn’t a political strategy to make them a reality.
Historically speaking, a party’s policy views tend to be change as a result of pressure from a vibrant movement that’s got a finger on the pulse of broader trends in the way the public’s views on politics are changing. The way the conservative movement wrested the GOP from the Republican old guard is, interestingly, a particularly clear example of this pattern.
Movement conservative ur-myths usually tell a story about National Review and other publications persuading Republicans of the rightness of the conservative policy vision, yielding Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, but that’s skipping a crucial intervening step. Activist groups, organizers, non-profits, and politicians, the “movement” part of the conservative movement, built the electoral base necessary to elect politicians who would govern according to the basic policy vision — an aggressive foreign policy, libertarian economics, and reactionary social policies — that now defines modern conservatism.
They did that by picking out powerful interest groups and large demographic groups open to conservative ideas, and then bringing them into the conservative fold. That took work by men like F. Clifton White, who rallied business leaders behind Barry Goldwater’s anti-government rhetoric. An attendee of one of White’s pro-Goldwater events remember the 1962 meeting as a “watershed,” where what White perceived as a “lack of political activity in the business community” was reversed, giving birth to “a practical modern conservative political movement.” It took partisan activism in the South, where whites alienated by the Democrats’ pro-Civil Rights position were turned Republican by concerted concerted ground-level GOP operations. And it took groups like the Moral Majority that persuaded politically inactive evangelicals that they needed to get involved in conservative politics if they wanted to save their communities from big government authoritarianism.
The point here is that it wasn’t inevitable that the Buckley/National Review vision of conservatism took over the GOP; there were plenty of competing right-leaning policy visions, including both Friederich Hayek and Ayn Rand’s libertarianisms as well as Russell Kirk’s communitarian traditionalism. But what we know call conservatism, a sort of compromise position then referred to as “fusionism,” won out because the fusionists were by far the savviest at building political organizations interested in translating their ideas into electoral victories.
You can tell similar stories about other major changes in party politics. For instance, the rise of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats and the Democratic Leadership Council depended on a similar pattern of idea development, a movement building an electoral coalition devoted to those ideas, and then that coalition electing enough leaders committed to the movement’s ideas that they change the party’s tone. The same is true of their displacement of by today’s leftier cohort, people like Elizabeth Warren and, to a lesser extent, President Obama himself.
Like both the New Democrats and their contemporary successors, conservative reformers have lots of different policy ideas. But they have almost nothing in the way of either an organized movement or any real idea about which demographic groups could form the base for that movement’s victories. Until conservative reformers start organizing, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of their change inside the GOP.