alien & sedition.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
  Things Fall Apart, But Not Yet

If you're not reading The American Scene, you should be. Ross Douthat is probably the brightest conservative writer out there these days, and his generous, civil style makes for a refreshing contrast from what one finds in a lot of conservative publications. I believe that he has a book in the works based on his Weekly Standard article urging Republicans to be the "party of Sam's Club" - I'll post a review here.

So anyway... Douthat, responding to puzzlement by Micky Kaus and Ben Smith as to why there isn't an anti-immigrant candidate in the Democratic field, suggests that it's for the same reason there isn't really an anti-war Republican candidate: it's just not a primary-winning strategy:
[W]hile being an anti-immigration Democrat or an anti-war Republican might, if you were lucky, get you to thirty percent in some primaries, it would pretty much doom your chances of getting to fifty-one percent, because there's just too much institutional weight leaning against you. [...]

It wasn't always thus: Presidential nominating contests used to be serious ideological battles - think Goldwater versus Rockefeller, or Reagan versus Ford - and journalists are still conditioned to think about them that way, which is why they get excited about the silly idea of Chuck Hagel as a "rebel" Republican who'll shake things up in the primary season. But the big primary battles of recent vintage have tended to be more about style than substance: The difference between George W. Bush and John McCain in '00, or John Kerry and Howard Dean in '04, was more a matter of self-presentation than ideology. The last time a candidate made even a modest primary splash while deviating starkly from one of his party's core positions was Pat Buchanan, in '92 and '96, breaking with the GOP on free trade and to a lesser extent free markets in general - and he didn't get very far.
For Douthat, Giuliani is "the exception that proves the rule," since his entire candidacy is premised on asking for a one-time exemption from the GOP's ideological consensus "to allow him to get into the Oval Office and kick some terrorist ass."

Setting aside the question of whether Giuliani has actually given us any reason to believe he'd be a terrorist-ass-kicking president, Douthat's point is a good one: in the current era, basic intra-party ideological disputes are in many regards settled before primary votes are cast. This doesn't mean that there aren't any such disputes, only that the parties' institutional processes tend to select the winners of those disputes in advance of the electoral process, and candidates are forced to adapt accordingly. To put it another way: if you want to change the ideological orientation of your party, focus on the party's institutions, not the candidates, since the latter are forced to react to the former.

My suspicion is that this state of affairs is actually the historic norm. The period Douthat cites as a counter-example - the battles between Rockefeller Republicans and movement conservatives - represents a major point of transition for the Republican party. If the primaries in that period featured significant ideological struggles whose outcome was not predetermined, it's because the historical institutional dominance of moderate Northeasterners in the national GOP was suddenly being challenged - and would soon be usurped - by the movement conservatives of the West and Midwest (and, ultimately, the South). Once that fight was settled - with the Reagan 'revolution' - ideological consensus again became the norm. Buchanan's primary challenge represented little more than a doomed paleoconservative rebellion against this new consensus.

Arguably, the last time that the Democratic party found itself in a similar period of evenly-matched intra-party ideological struggle was during the late 19th century, when William Jennings Bryan and his agrarian radicals fought a battle of see-sawing fortunes against the Bourbon Democrats. That fight was essentially settled when Woodrow Wilson, who was initially the favorite of Bourbon party elders, co-opted much of the progressive Democrats' agenda, setting the precedent for the New Deal and all that followed.

For all the disputes over the meaning of Clintonism, Democrats have never really abandoned the New Deal - only wavered in their commitment to fighting for it. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been roiled by a dispute over the meaning of compassionate conservatism - which was always more a strategy than an ideology - and the failure to successfully achieve the transformation of American political economy which is supposed to constitute their primary objective. This has resulted in a certain amount of flux and confusion, but there's no sign - yet - of the kind of comprehensive institutional breakdown that would turn basic ideological questions over to primary voters to settle. It isn't even clear that a coherent alternative exists to the general post-Goldwater conservative consensus.

But it's certainly worth watching to see if something does develop.

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Let's not forget the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over civil rights between 1948 and 1972!
Good point, arbitrista.
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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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