The conventional take on the government shutdown is that it is a colossal blunder, but one largely of tactical dimensions: John Boehner underestimating the risk of trying to co-opt Ted Cruz’s brinksmanship gambit; Cruz and his think tank strategists miscalculating public angst over the healthcare law as a license for obstructionism. All true, but at the danger of missing the more substantial reality: the shutdown continues because it is remarkably popular on much of the political right. That is still the case after a week of unmitigated bad publicity for Republicans; it will likely remain so up to and after the point someone invents a fig leaf to make it end. And a Republican base that is undaunted in the face of such a debacle will keep limiting the party’s options with its ready-made barbs about sell-outs and pandering.
And what is an even more depressing truth? Those Republicans who are most at odds with the shutdown have some complicity here too. And no, it is not that they have been weak-kneed deal-cutters whose moderation created a demand for “principled” confrontation. (I have seen only two genuine deals in Washington in nine years: Democrats bending on top bracket tax cuts in late 2010 and Republicans doing the same, from the opposite vantage point, in early 2011, and I don’t hear tax relief for millionaires as an applause line in many Tea Party venues).
The real culpability for us right of center types? They (we) have been too timid in dealing not with Democrats but with a certain variation of conservatism. Those of us on the right who envision conservatism as a brand of public policy and not an enemy of the concept, who conceive that a more cohesive society is a legitimate conservative mission, and don’t confuse the left’s newest ill conceived initiatives with the fading hours before a socialist midnight, could and should have fought harder to keep the right from becoming radicalized. Instead, we soft-pedaled our own sense of responsibility. We bargained on absorbing a hard-right insurgency when we should have been looking harder at its assumptions, and its radicalism.
When it got fashionable to peddle theories that voters—that is, our fellow citizens—were divided between productive contributors to capitalism and coddled takers of government giveaways, too much of the thought leadership of the party sagely nodded. And then when our presidential nominee got caught saying the same thing, we rolled our eyes at his political tin ear without acknowledging that what he said was actually an article of faith in some of our ranks.
We allowed a lot of simplicities to frame our positions on complex issues. For example, we undermined our valid skepticism about the Democratic environmental agenda with muddled charges that science is a conspiracy. We cheapened our warnings about the lingering depth of the Great Recession with pot-shots that the media and the Labor Department were cooking the unemployment numbers.
We showed a little resistance to the hard-right’s musings about abortion and “legitimate rape” and did our share of distancing from mandatory ultrasounds and personhood laws. But the noisiness of these culture wars seemed to worry us more than their inherently un-conservative, big government character—and in our too tepid responses, we missed a chance to arrest the gender gap that is single-handedly turning states like Virginia.
We just shifted in our seat when the diatribes about the machinations of our liberal opponents crossed lines. When the jabs evolved from ritualistic partisanship into an insinuation that we were facing enemies who didn’t share our reverence for the country, our silence implicitly condoned the vitriol.
We didn’t stress enough over the evidence of a gulf between Americans in our respective visions of culture, of the economy, of the very legitimacy of government. If we were bothered that people who view their adversaries as illegitimate will coarsen civic dialogue, we rarely said so, unless it was the left throwing stones at our crowd.
We properly celebrated the grassroots populism on the right for the pragmatic reason that it finally gave Republicans the organizing mechanism to turn our base out; and for the intrinsic reason that activism is the essence of our democracy. But we weren’t quick enough to insist to the movement-minded among us that a political party is at its core not a movement: a party exists to mobilize to win campaigns and in a fractured electorate, winning requires being coalitional rather than ideologically pristine. We developed a weakness for rewarding provocateurs with the spotlight, as if unseriousness were not a ticket to perpetual minority party status.
We were entirely justified in noticing that conservatism had been demonized into the one permissible category for ridicule and verbal abuse. But we seemed so frustrated at our lost ground that we were tone deaf about how our partisan anger played to a middle class preoccupied with its own struggles—therefore, we missed the impression that we were more outraged about our own powerlessness than the powerlessness of the blue collars who not so long ago were part of our political base.
And we minimized the trend toward our cable news culture becoming an unintended parody of the left, with its own hour-long alternative realities, and shout-fests, and the paradox that our own media were stoking victimization and identity politics with the same zeal as confirmed leftists. It all seemed harmless until shouters armed with false facts started drowning out the town halls of Republican congressmen too.
When we discovered that a faction of the party had become the face of the party, we did what embattled organizations always do: we commissioned our surveys, convened our panels, and pledged to be smarter and more inclusive. Then, we discovered that the libertarians who crashed the gates weren’t about to grant the party flexibility on immigration, weren’t exactly inspired by columns on family friendly tax policies, and were joining forces with the teacher unions to thwart the education reforms that were supposed to be our next big idea.
So much squandered responsibility later, conservatism looks to most non-conservative Americans (and that is about 65 percent) like only so much grievance. And if it is absurd history to compare the anger to Civil War secessionism, as a Washington Post columnist just did, it is not at all absurd to remember that the only parties that have lived exclusively on grievance have been discredited third party fringes.
It is that cramped, defensive version of the right that is now what most voters imagine when they hear the term “conservative” and which has returned the Republican Party to its weakest state since late 2008. The center-right really does need to get a spine—if only they would use it to reclaim a party.