May 12, 2009

A Party and a Movement Are Not the Same Thing

Noemie Emery, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, writes in the May 11 issue ('Specter of Change') about the "passion for coalition-destruction" now seen on the right:
What lies behind this is (a) the feeling that oneself and one's friends make up a majority; and (b) a failure to realize that a party and movement are not the same thing. A movement exists to express and promote a coherent set of principles in the world of ideas and of values. A party -- especially in a two-party system -- is something quite different: a gathering of diverse political forces around a large and loosely held set of interests and values, that exists to give all of its factions access to power in the practical world of events. A movement gives a party a spine and a platform; the party assembles a coalition around them that is large enough to win and hold power, and turn some of the movement's ideas into law.

The conservative movement is a collection of theorists that self-selects for conformity. The Republican party is the vehicle for the center-right of the American polity, a group that includes the conservative movement, but is not quite of it, and includes many people who touch the conservative movement with different degrees of intensity, or only lightly, or on only a limited number of points.

Permutations are endless: Rudy Giuliani, right on defense, crime, and tax-cutting, but wrong (in the movement's view) on gays and abortion; George W. Bush, a hawk, tax-cutter, and social conservative, but a bleeding heart and big spender; John McCain, a strong defense and fiscal conservative, but a maverick on many things else. All are considered as grave disappointments by the purists of the conservative movement, who also give failing grades to every Republican president since Coolidge, with the exception of Reagan, and sometimes even to him. The movement seems in a permanent funk over the party's unworthy leaders and often looks down on the party itself as being a drag on the movement's aspirations and prospects. The only problem is that the movement, if it is to be anything more than a really interesting reading group, needs the party if it wants to succeed.

The numbers say everything: Over recent decades, about a third of the population has self-described as conservative; just under half as moderate; while liberals come in at a little over one-fifth. This shows the strength of the conservative movement, in that it outpolls the liberals and, when combined with the large number of right-leaning moderates, can frequently reach a majority. But it also reveals its critical weakness: It is unable to push its own numbers beyond this one-third. This failure is the source of constant frustration to the movement, because it has to bargain with people it thinks "unreliable," who may stand with it on one set of issues and wander away on the next.

This is true of McCain, of Lindsey Graham, even more of the ladies from Maine, and of no one more than their former colleague Arlen Specter, who is with them on card check but against them on the stimulus package; against them on the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, but with them as a stalwart on the equally contentious matter of Clarence Thomas. The problem for conservatives is that in the states that these senators come from, on-and-off backing is all they are likely to get. They can rail at the "unreliables" as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), but this is a misnomer, as the Republicans are not in fact the conservative party. They are the party of the center-right, including those who are about one-eighth of an inch to the right of the center. ...

What can conservatives do, if they want to extend their dominion? They might stop holding up Ronald Reagan as a shield and an icon and look instead at what Reagan did. He was a movement conservative and a movement leader, but he was also a politician, and a builder of party, who understood how a movement fit into a party, and how a party could move a movement ahead. Coalition destruction was not on his agenda. "He set out to run as the candidate of party unity, reaching out to Republican moderates, especially in the Northeast," as his biographer Steven F. Hayward has written. ...

Reagan would have seen Sarah Palin as an asset and not an embarrassment. He did not consider the party an embarrassment either, but the only mechanism through which the ideals of movement could ever be implemented. "The biggest single grouping of conservatives is to be found in that party. It makes more sense to build on that grouping than to break it up and start over," he said to those who suggested that option. "Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists," he said to an audience of exactly those activists.