William F. Buckley called. He rolled over in his grave and can’t light his smoke.
Dennis Prager, a syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist for the National Review Online, wrote a piece that was published on the NPR website November 2nd. It explains his reasoning for straight-ticket voting, and the argument deserves a response.
I’m not going to argue against Mr. Prager’s opinions, although it’s tempting. That is for another venue, and since I’m not a foreign policy expert or economist, it would provide you nothing except a “he said, he said” tussle. Nor is it necessary, for there are plenty of problems with the presuppositions Prager relies upon to make his argument; they are my focus.
Let’s begin with the statement, “With only two parties competing in American elections, each party has had to encompass a much wider spectrum of ideologies.” In order for this to be true, the majority of viewpoints in American society would have to be represented, and there is no evidence this is the case. Nor is the statement intuitive: the GOP experienced ideological purges after 1964, 1992 and 2004. Independent voters, which now make up a majority of the electorate, move back and forth between the parties (the antithesis of Prager’s op-ed), demonstrating their ideology is represented by neither party. I could easily design a party platform which perfectly reflects my views, instead of being forced to compromise and support an existing political party. However, the assertion is convenient for those who want to claim the Democratic Party represents socialists and Marxists, but that is no more valid than claiming all Republicans are fascists. No genuine, intellectual analysis would claim that. If you doubt me, go find an authentic socialist and ask them if they agree with the Obama administration’s economic plan.
And quickly, before I move on, the Republican Party is not – “at long last” – the party of small government. Movement leaders, as recently as last week, are on record supporting Social Security, Medicare and ever-expanding military involvement throughout the world. Even Prager advocates military intervention in Iran, in his own op-ed. George W. Bush refuses to repudiate his use of torture or indefinite detention, and it is uncertain whether the GOP is willing to investigate or prosecute him. The PATRIOT Act is still alive and well. These are not the hallmarks of small government. As I have argued in the past, the GOP – even with its infusion of Tea Party energy – does not behave in a conservative fashion. The mistake made by Prager and others is confusing positions adopted by conservatives as being conservative positions.
He also asserts that small government is required for liberty. I’ve never really understood this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fluent in Hayek’s economic argument about centralized planning. And my knowledge of American and Modern European history equals or bests the next guy. Maybe that’s where I miss the point: liberalism was a movement to provide more liberty to citizens. It didn’t reject government, it simply decentralized power. Dethrone the monarch and allow the subjects participation and responsibility. The Boston Tea Party wasn’t about taxes, it was about a lack of representation in Parliament. So I have to ask Mr. Prager, do you think taxes are tyrannical, or are you an anarchist?
But my favorite has to be the contemporary trap of political philosophy: equating American exceptionalism with conservative values. Exceptionalism – the assertion of moral superiority and projection of might around the world – gained considerable momentum after World War II, and has advanced unimpeded. It has roots in Natural Law (see Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality) and bears a striking resemblance to the Jacobinism that early conservatives and our forefathers were so afraid of. It is a radical belief that we can remake the world in our political image, with little regard for the “cultural gravity” of other societies. By laying claim to it, the American Right betrays its heritage and history in the conservatism of Burke and Adams.
Now, Prager and those of a similar mind are free to believe what they wish, which kind of neuters the argument that Democrats are opposed to liberty. If he wishes to assert that George W. Bush’s knowledge of foreign policy is more impressive than Joe Biden’s, so be it: people can judge that statement on their own. But let’s be clear: when he champions “Sarah Palin [confronting] Iran rather than [placing] her faith in negotiations and in the United Nations” he makes an assertion that has no basis in conservative philosophy. And yet he uses conservatism to provide credibility to his argument, asking people to believe that his path is traditional, reasoned and proven, when it is not. Instead, the contemporary American Right seeks to refashion society in a form that hasn’t existed in over 150 years, if ever. It’s goal is to start over, rejecting almost all of the progress this country has achieved, and discarding the tradition and incrementalism that is the hallmark of conservative principles.
There is a reason that right-of-center thinkers like myself have a problem with the GOP. It’s the same reason that Russell Kirk, who wrote the definitive tome on modern conservative thought, “The Conservative Mind,” broke with them. It is the same reason that Reagan Republicans like Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar, John McCain and Olympia Snowe are in the crosshairs of the Tea Party: the American Right has radically transformed itself over the past three decades. In the process, it has dragged the rest of the political apparatus along with it. And while I realize the advantage of modifying the frame of debate to cast the Right as defenders of liberty, that does nothing to advance civil discourse. For there is nothing inherently free about small government, or inherently oppressive about big government. It is the reach of government and it’s openness to participation that is important.
I can think of a lot of words to describe the Democratic Party: cowardly, corporate, spineless, disinterested, but radical would not be one of them. Over the next few months, as Mitch McConnell and John Boehner refuse to legislate in order to disgrace the President of the United States, we need to stay focused on what is really the radical agenda. Is it a barely-left-of-center President attempting to meet in the middle, or a Republican leadership wanting to turn back the clock to the Gilded Age? Prager eschews the prospect of European progress; let him honestly argue for third-world economic isolation.