Idealism and realism are in constant tension. From a political perspective, it is necessary for conservatives to strike a balance between the two. Standing alone, realism all too often shades into cynicism; idealism into flights of utopian fancy. In the end, however, we must see the world as it is, in order to shape the world as we imagine it ought to be.
In the GOP today, the dialectic between realism and idealism manifests itself both in the debate over the support given to more centrist candidates and in the proposals to adopt various, so-called, litmus or purity tests. Specifically, this debate often involves arguments in which one side focuses on electability, while the other focuses almost exclusively on ideological purity.
Frankly, both sides miss the mark. The GOP exists both to win elections and to “advance substantive ideas and public policies.” The key is to strike an appropriate balance, candidate by candidate, race by race, between the two.
We live at a moment in history pregnant with both great opportunity and with tremendous peril. There is a great deal of unease, of disquiet.. of fear.. abroad in the land. What our future world will look like is still inchoate. The point of our labors then, is to make certain that this future world will be a decent one- one in which human dignity will be respected, in which human liberty will flourish and in which the wolf will be kept away from the door.
Now is the time for moral strategy– for an intellectually serious, pragmatic, tactically savvy, conservatism devoid of demagoguery and utopian dreams of unattainable ideological purity -one capable of building and sustaining a winning center-right electoral coalition both nationally, and here in Delaware.
Thankfully, we have signposts in our past to guide us in the present.
Pointing the way ahead: Lincoln
Lincoln is, in my view, the ultimate example of a “moral strategist” in American political history. The moral issue he faced, of course, was the abolition of slavery. Living in a profoundly racist society, and in the midst of a civil war calling into doubt the future existence of the nation he governed, Lincoln adroitly maneuvered to bring an end to that most awful institution. In doing so, he moved cautiously, pragmatically, realistically appraising the scope of what was politically possible at every step. Throughout the civil war, he held together a diverse coalition of Radical Republicans and other, less ideologically committed elements. In the 1850’s, abolition was a utopian dream; by the 1860’s, it was reality. Nothing better demonstrates what can be accomplished through moral strategy.
A considerable diversity of opinion
In addition to Lincoln’s example, calls for purity/litmus tests and the purging of those deemed ideologically suspect from the ranks of the GOP are a departure from traditional conservatism. They are also, from a practical perspective, rather short sighted & self destructive.
Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata…
The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. … The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.
(emphasis added). Moreover, as Michael Powell has observed, a fixation on ideological purity and litmus tests inhibits the development of new ideas because “[t]he formation of powerful ideas requires the push and pull of varying viewpoints testing and informing one another.”
From a practical standpoint, Ronald Reagan understood the imperative to build a broad, diverse electoral coalition. He assiduously avoided litmus-test politics. It’s not a coincidence that he is remembered as one of our greatest Presidents, and there is immense irony in the effort to co-opt his “unity principle” in support of the efforts to develop new purity tests for the GOP.
Alone in the Political Wilderness
A recent example from “across the pond” also bears directly on the need for conservatives to reject litmus-test politics and focus their energies on pragmatically constructing broader coalitions. As my friend Jim DiPeso writes:
Britain’s Labor Party faced a situation in the 1980s that Republicans do today. Everyone-is-a-sellout-except-us ideologues who regularly congratulated themselves on their righteousness but lacked the political sense that God gave a billy goat grabbed hold of the Labor Party in the early 1980s and gave it a hard left turn into comical irrelevance.
Consequently, Conservatives that had newly returned to power had an uninterrupted run at Whitehall for another decade and a half. Margaret Thatcher broke the militant unions, unleashed markets, and remade the dowdy old UK into cool Britannia.
When Tony Blair came along, there was no thought of reviving the Labor Party’s old Militant Tendency extremism. After the Iron Lady had finished remodeling British politics, Thatcherism had become the new normal.
The Brits were lucky. The Labor Party’s self-intoxication with utopian extremism gave Thatcher a clear political field, exactly what she needed to reverse her country’s descent into threadbare socialism.
We won’t be so lucky if we repeat the experience with our nation’s conservative party losing its way at the hands of fratricidal militants who would rather be true to their brand of right-wing radicalism than responsibly defend against the advance of statist liberalism.
It seems illogical to let an obsessive fear of center and center-right Republicans trump concern about the excesses of a Democrat majority that is heavily influenced by liberal extremists, or to reject bipartisan compromise in favor of Democrat-only solutions. You cannot subtract your way to a majority.
A club, not a party
According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R- SC), “those people who are pursuing purity” are on a course to “become a club not a party…” It would be disastrous for America if conservatism devolved into a club.
Politically speaking, settling for permanent minority status in order to achieve ideological purity does not make you noble, it makes you irrelevant. As a conservative, I am a better advocate for my policy positions and values within the framework of a broader, winning, electoral coalition, then in a more ideologically “pure” political party composed only of those who think exactly as I do. Saying this does not make me any less zealous an advocate for the issues I care about; it makes me a more effective one.
Impossible things before breakfast?
The Republican victories in state-wide races in New Jersey and Massachusetts raise a question: what is possible for the GOP in Delaware in 2010? It no longer takes an extreme flight of fancy to imagine a Republican whose last name is not Castle or Wagner winning a state-wide race here- if it can happen in New Jersey, if it can happen in Massachusetts, it can happen in Delaware.
In both New Jersey and Massachusetts, the Republicans who emerged victorious were not ideologues, not zealots, but rather more pragmatic, centrist figures. Chris Christie even faced a third party opponent challenging him from the right. What would the outcome in Massachusetts have been had Scott Brown faced a similar challenge?
Like Massachusetts, we have a Senate race featuring a centrist Republican running against, probably, the hand-picked heir of a dynastic political family that seems to view public office as a hereditary entitlement. What would the effect of a third party candidate running in the race to the right be? Logically, it could only increase the chances of a Biden victory. Such a victory would, given Delaware’s historical penchant for re-electing incumbents, probably put Beau Biden in the Senate for a generation. That outcome does precisely nothing to advance the conservative agenda either here, or nationally.
The challenges we face as a people are extremely serious. Politics is not a game devoid of consequences. Perilous times and complex issues demand a certain modicum of maturity from those who purport to care about the fate of the world.
We need new moral strategists, leaders capable of striking the right balance between realism and idealism, of working pragmatically to build coalitions. Let’s put away childish things, like quests for ideological purity. After all, “conciliation while maintaining core principles is not only possible, but it also provides the most likely path to victory.” Make no mistake, we have an enormous task ahead.