October 3, 2010

The elephant in the room

The GOP has abandoned the pragmatism that led to its greatest successes

For much of the past year and a half, the American chattering classes—and a sizable number of voters—have been wringing their hands over the state of the Republican Party. Republicans, they often point out, have obstructed President Obama’s agenda to the point of absurdity, engaged in irresponsible demagoguery on issues like the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, and are now running a campaign centered around a largely negative agenda and backed by the extremism of the Tea Party movement. While these criticisms have merit, those who make them often give little thought to why the Republicans have reached this point. This is a mistake— the underlying reason for the ongoing collapse of the Republican Party is a serious problem for the country as a whole as well as for the American right.

The fundamental problem with the Republican Party is that it no longer understands the reasons for its past successes. Many in the party seem to think that the United States has been defined throughout its history by the widespread belief in a minimal state whose primary responsibilities are defense, law and order, and the enforcement of contracts. They also seem to think that eruptions of government activism such as the present one are temporary deviations which the American people want them to correct. This notion, however, is so unfounded that it cannot even account for the Republicans’ own political accomplishments.

Consider the two political triumphs that most define the modern Republican Party: the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the 1994 Republican Revolution. While many leading figures on the right now think that these successes resulted from the party’s fidelity to small-government principles and a refusal to compromise, a closer examination of both reveals a more nuanced picture. Reagan made clear from the outset that he had no desire to roll back the New Deal (what many Tea Party-backed candidates seem to want) and in fact helped broker a compromise to protect Social Security. His famous tax cuts were pitched primarily as a program to reinvigorate the economy and to help middle-class families cope with rampant inflation. As for the Republican majority that won in 1994, their agenda centered around efforts to make the government less wasteful and more effective in areas like crime control. Their 1995 effort to shut down the federal government, which would presumably have been a huge success if the narrative discussed above were correct, in fact gave the Democrats a winning issue in elections the following year. The party’s crowning achievement during this period was the 1996 welfare reform bill, which reformed an existing anti-poverty program in a conservative direction by time-limiting assistance, adding work requirements, and giving states more freedom in administering funds.

These examples suggest that Americans do not generally elect Republicans to slash government spending and eliminate the welfare state. They do so when the Left’s proposed solutions to their problems become too centralized and bureaucratic to work, create unintended consequences, or undermine values like individual initiative and personal responsibility. Their goal in bringing Republicans to power is to find ways of dealing with those problems that channel market forces constructively and give people meaningful control over their lives while using government in a limited but effective way to do things that individuals cannot do for themselves.

Contemporary Republicans’ abandonment of this role, especially after the 2008 election, has made it impossible for them to speak to the concerns Americans actually have. Difficulty accessing health care, a failing education system, and a faltering economy are problems which are amenable to smart conservative solutions which combine the use of markets with targeted government intervention, but a party which seems, at least rhetorically, to reject any but the most minimal role for the state cannot argue for them. A party that cannot address these problems can do little more than prevent its opponents from succeeding, promise to undo their unpopular achievements, and use wedge issues to win elections.

All Americans have reason to worry about this development. The structure of our country’s political system is such that even a party that holds substantial legislative majorities and controls the presidency cannot govern effectively without help from the opposition, as the Democrats have discovered, and an opposition party without a governing agenda is badly positioned to offer substantive cooperation. Furthermore, American liberalism will be worse off if it does not have a vigorous opponent willing to offer alternatives to the Left’s proposals and thereby improve them. Finally, the Democratic Party’s view of government sometimes does lead to waste and dependency, and a country that lacks constructive alternatives to this approach is unlikely to thrive in the future.

—Ajay Ravichandran is a third-year in the College majoring in Philosophy and Political Science.