Conservative? Liberal? Something else?

An article by Katrina vanden Heuvel (posted at RealClearPolitics.com) caught my eye. And it has something to do with the way we define “conservative” and “liberal” these days. Vanden Heuvel’s article challenges “the self-made myth”, the notion that, if there were just “lower taxes, less regulation and small government”, that each and every one of us could realize “the American dream”.

To some extent, each of these is a worthy thing to work for. A reduced tax burden, especially the indiscriminate, across-the-board lowering of taxes that Reagan accomplished, puts more money in people’s pockets and gives impetus to consumers to spend more and to businesses to invest, expand, and hire more. Less regulation means less government meddling, which is both costly and distracting. And overall, reducing the size of (and the cost of) government (which doesn’t produce anything, but frequently only meddles), is the way to “pay” for those lower taxes.

That said, these elements are not the be-all and end-all of what “good government” should be. Vanden Heuvel makes a good point:

Americans benefit every day from government—from consumer protection to roads and bridges to food and safety regulation—even people who claim to hate an “activist government” are prime beneficiaries of the safety net at a moment when there are still over four unemployed workers for every available job and nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty.

It’s certainly the case with me. I’ve personally benefitted recently from seat belt laws (walked away from an accident in which I could have been killed without seat belts) and gotten through a period of unemployment. I like knowing that some government agency is watching the restaurants where I eat and the grocery stores where I shop to make certain health standards are met.

As well, you may have benefitted from unemployment insurance. You certainly benefit from the government-maintained roads that you drive on. The notion that government should take care of “infrastructure” is an important one. Certainly even conservatives would agree that the government should fix the roads. But infrastructure today involves more than just the maintenance of interstate highways. The concept of the Internet had a military/government beginning (even if it wasn’t Al Gore). We have the concept of the “corporation” and laws that enable us to do business that way. Government creates laws that protect intellectual property, through copyrights and patents. In that sense, it is certainly correct that government enables the wealthy in this country to become wealthy.

That’s the point of a book that vanden Heuvel is hawking: “The Self Made Myth”. Citing Robert Reich in what seems to be a blurb for it:

“This book challenges a central myth that underlies today’s anti-government rhetoric: that an individual’s success is the result of gumption and hard work alone. Miller and Lapham clearly show that personal success is closely tied to the supports society provides.”

This much is correct. Beyond that, vanden Heuvel goes on to suggest that “A central thesis of the book is that the greater an individual’s success, the greater his or her dependence on public infrastructure, public investment in research and innovation, and regulations and fair rules—all of which business leaders in the book cite as essential to their own accomplishments.” While I wouldn’t go that far, this is certainly a worthwhile discussion to have: “Precisely what is it that a government does that enables individual and societal prosperity, and what hinders it?”

But that is not precisely the point that Christians need to understand. There is something more.

Rick Santorum has been criticized as being a “big government” candidate. And relying on Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” and “let’s get government off our backs”, that somehow translates to “Rick Santorum not conservative”.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Reagan’s sentiments, I do so in the sense that the governmental “problem” that Reagan talked about was not necessarily intrinsic to government, only that the government had had fallen under the influence of those who enabled it to become harmful and destructive, and it was these harmful and destructive influences that needed to be reined in.

After all, government is a biblical concept. I don’t need to cite Romans 13:1 here, but I will: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. In the United States, we have a further twist on that. The government has been established by “We, the people….”

Not to fall into a soupy sentimentalism, but we, the people of these United States certainly are responsible for the government and the infrastructure that it provides.

As I frequently tell my kids, the biggest divide in the country is not Republican or Democrat, not conservative or liberal, but it’s between those who believe in God, and those who don’t. And I believe it’s more important than ever for Christians to look to this divide when it comes to creating or modifying public policy.

This is where Rick Santorum’s political philosophy comes into focus. Steve posted a link to a Reason.com article, A Frothy Mixture of Collectivism and Conservatism, which itself was a review of Santorum’s 2005 book, It takes a family. As the author notes, this is both a work of policy and a work of political philosophy. First the policy:

As a policy book, It Takes a Family is temperate. It serves up a healthy reminder that society needs not just good government but strong civil and social institutions, and that the traditional family serves all kinds of essential social functions. Government policies, therefore, should respect and support family and civil society instead of undermining or supplanting them. Parents should make quality time at home a high priority. Popular culture should comport itself with some sense of responsibility and taste.

Few outside the hard cultural Left—certainly not Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) who makes several cameos as Santorum’s bete noir—would disagree with much of that. Not in 2005, anyway [when the book was written]. Moreover, Santorum’s policy proposals sit comfortably within the conservative mainstream.

As the blurb at Amazon says, “Throughout his book, Santorum emphasizes the central role of the family—in contradistinction to the metaphorical “village” of the federal government, as promoted by Hillary Clinton—in achieving the common good.”

That’s fair enough. But here’s where he takes issue with what might be called a reigning conservative “philosophy”:

But It Takes a Family is more than a policy book. Its theory of “conservatism and the common good” seeks to rechannel the mainstream.

In Santorum’s view, freedom is not the same as liberty. Or, to put it differently, there are two kinds of freedom. One is “no-fault freedom,” individual autonomy uncoupled from any larger purpose: “freedom to choose, irrespective of the choice.” This, he says, is “the liberal definition of freedom,” and it is the one that has taken over in the culture and been imposed on the country by the courts.

Quite different is “the conservative view of freedom,” “the liberty our Founders understood.” This is “freedom coupled with the responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self.” True liberty is freedom in the service of virtue—not “the freedom to be as selfish as I want to be,” or “the freedom to be left alone,” but “the freedom to attend to one’s duties—duties to God, to family, and to neighbors” [emphasis added].

This kind of freedom depends upon and serves virtue, and virtue’s indispensable incubator and transmitter is the family. Thus “selflessness in the family is the basis for the political liberty we cherish as Americans.” If government is to defend liberty and promote the common welfare, then it must promote and defend the integrity of the traditional family. In doing so, it will foster virtue and rebuild the country’s declining social and moral capital, thus fostering liberty and strengthening family. The liberal cycle of decline—families weaken, disorder spreads, government steps in, families weaken still further—will be reversed.

This vision, of course, has some detractors, and the Reason article points them out: “Goldwater and Reagan, and Madison and Jefferson, were saying that if you restrain government, you will strengthen society and foster virtue. Santorum is saying something more like the reverse: If you shore up the family, you will strengthen the social fabric and ultimately reduce dependence on government. Where Goldwater denounced collectivism as the enemy of the individual, Santorum denounces individualism as the enemy of family.” These visions shouldn’t be opposed; they should be seen as mutually reinforcing.

But more than that, Santorum’s vision, his philosophy, has its roots within the best of the Judeo-Christian ethic. [And not the worst, of which papalism, oligarchy, self-referential authority and corruption are the primary legacy].

Santorum’s policy list rejects such things as the recently found “constitutional right to privacy, which he regards as a ‘constitutional wrecking ball’ that has become inimical to the very principle of the common good. Ditto for the notions of government neutrality and free expression. And it includes such items on the Christian side of the God/No-God divide, such as “national service, promotion of prison ministries, ‘individual development accounts,’ publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in ‘every school in America’ (his italics), and more.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of his specific policy proposals. But what we do need in this country is moral and business infrastructure that fosters the creation of a lot of small fortunes among more families and small businesses, not a few large fortunes. We need public policies that prevent the kind of business gerrymandering that creates both Wal-Marts and General Motors, (one of which provoke either an overt reliance on the minimum wage, the kind of underpayment of employees that provokes the breakup of families, or unionization, the kind of adversarial greed that destroys industries).

The big money lobbyists will always have their say. However, in this country, “We, the people”, are responsible for the government. And we who are Christians, should understand best of all what is the proper role of government, and, if a society is indeed to have some rules, how best to craft those rules for the common good.

It is still just morning in America. Holding all of “church history” in our minds, we can envision that this country will last far beyond the next quarterly GDP statement, not only the next 10 or 20 years, but hundreds or even thousands of years. What kind of infrastructure do we want to work to put into place now, that will benefit the country 50 or 100 or 500 years from now?

The long view: don’t let the perfect to be the enemy of the good

Ronald Reagan In His Own Hand
Ronald Reagan thought out and thought through his own policies

I don’t remember exactly when, and I don’t remember the exact words, so I can’t provide a citation, but some time during all the rancorous politics of the 1990’s, George Will made the comment that for as much as conservatives disliked (and worse) Bill Clinton, he hadn’t done [or wasn’t going to do] any long-term damage to the Republic.

Now, I was a person who absolutely hated the Clinton presidency. He was so obviously a liar and a scoundrel, it was a travesty that a man like this should become President of the United States.

But after Will’s comment had a chance to sink in with me, I knew he was right. Having a President like Bill Clinton enabled the opposing forces within the Republic to coalesce; we had the small conservative revolution of 1994, and the Clinton presidency was largely neutralized, by forces that the founders had built into the American system some 200 years earlier. See Federalist 51, for example: “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” This is not a fool-proof system, but this principle continues to function properly in our day.

The notion that that, whatever political forces were in the ascendancy at the moment, opposing forces would coalesce, works for both sides of the political spectrum. George Bush, who had promised a “humble foreign policy” but eventually posited “the Bush doctrine” of “preventive war” – was mightily opposed, first in the congressional elections of 2006 – the Democrats made a mighty surge to win back congress, much as the Republicans did in 1994 – then in the 2008 Presidential election, when McCain was called “Bush 3”, to elect an articulate spokesman for their own causes, Barack Obama. And we’ve seen the effects again even during the Obama presidency, as the Democrats tried to do too much, and various Republican and right-leaning movements coalesced to bring the Republicans back into power in the House of Representatives.

* * *

In my lifetime, I have seen several schools of thought among Republicans as to “how to elect a Republican president”. Richard Nixon articulated the view that, as a Republican candidate, you should “run as hard to the right as you can to gain the nomination, then run as hard as you can back to the center in the General Election”. He did this, and it worked for him. Now, he had some problems of his own making, but those problems don’t necessarily negate the validity of this political strategy. In 2004, Karl Rove posited, and Rush Limbaugh popularized, the notion that we should exclude the center – and expand the right as much as possible, so as to create a right-leaning majority. Of course that seems to have worked for Bush in 2004 – but somehow Bush, Rove, and Limbaugh had promised too much, damaged the credibility of the party, and the backlash of 2006 and 2008 soon followed.

* * *

Now the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein has published a somewhat lengthy analysis of the Republican presidential campaign so far, specifically addressing the question “Why is a party that leans so far to the right poised to nominate a candidate whom many conservatives deeply distrust?” He concludes:

For many Republicans, [no alternative to Romney has] crossed the threshold as a credible president. … [No one of them] has emerged organically from the ferocious antigovernment backlash that emerged during the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and then erupted early in Obama’s. None of the heroes of that movement—from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—felt ready to run in 2012, either because they were too young or too recently elected, or both. Other veteran Republicans potentially attractive to those voters also passed, including Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Republican voters were left to choose from a field filled by an older generation that many of the newer activists view with suspicion. “In the next primary election, whenever it is, you’ve got a real group of potential candidates who are truly conservative and pro-growth,” says Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a leading economic conservative group. “It is an evolution. Republicans went bad, and now [the movement] is getting better, and it’s going up through the House and Senate, but it hasn’t produced a national leader yet.”

I would disagree with Brownstein that it was an “antigovernment backlash” that happened in 2006 and 2008. Nevertheless, we are at a point at which we may be left with Romney the nominee, and even maybe a “President Mitt Romney”. Which brings me to my point. Neither a Romney presidency nor an Obama presidency in 2012 is going to do long-lasting damage to the Republic. The system of government set up by the founders of this country is a pretty good one.

* * *

There was another school of thought on “how to elect a Republican president”, and that was Ronald Reagan’s way. Reagan had lost an election to Gerald Ford, but meanwhile, he was hard at work. A “Goldwater” Republican during the late 60’s and early 70’s, Reagan was a person who took the time to think through how conservative ideas and principles ought to play out in the real world. It was his thought and his policies that led very quickly (within 10 years) to the demise of the Soviet satellite of nations and eventually the Soviet system of government. And it was his economic attitude and policies that enabled the US economy to recover from the stagnation of the 1970’s to become the growth engine that it had become through the 1980’s and 1990’s and beyond.

From this perspective, it’s very hopeful for Republicans to have names like Christie and Ryan and Rubio and Jindal in some high-profile places. Ron Paul has, and articulates, some good ideas, but the weaknesses of his libertarianism (and his personal weaknesses) are very evident. Sarah Palin may have been a pretty candidate who espoused conservative principles, but she was just a “stopper” and a window dressing. The real heavy lifting of the Republican party will need to be accomplished not by someone who merely claims the mantle of Reagan, but by someone who can genuinely do what Reagan did, and that is, to think through the problems of the day, and understand how best to solve these problems with the best of conservative principles.

The American System not only allows for that, but indeed, it encourages it.