Fighting for the future of conservativism
Establishment Republicans have been delighted by the victory of Thom Tillis, their favored candidate in last week’s North Carolina primary. After expensive advertising campaigns by establishment bagmen like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, mainstream conservatives believe they have a candidate who can beat Democrat Kay Hagan to win a valuable Senate seat in November.
Some commentators see Tillis’s triumph as a sign that other impending GOP primary races will also deliver electable candidates. Having watched the Senate slip from Republican grasp in 2012, as Tea Party candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Richard Mourdock in Indiana depicted the party as too extreme, they say the Tea Party is in retreat.
Not so fast. The experience of conservative parties elsewhere suggests that when pragmatists triumph over dogmatists, the dogmatists either regroup and go on to overwhelm the moderates, eventually making the party their own. Or they set up their own party — and trounce the moderates at the ballot box.
That is happening in Britain. The Conservatives, once Britain’s natural governing party, find themselves about to be pressed into third place in the European Parliament elections. They will be runners-up not only to the Labor Party but also to the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, their ideological nemesis. Like the Tea Party, the Independence Party has set itself up as the true conscience of conservatism.
There was a time when the European left was riven over dogma, with middle-ground Social Democrats jostling with hard-line Socialists. In Britain through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a three-way split, with middle-of-the-road Labor candidates noisily fending off assaults from the far left as well as Social Democratic reformers. This left Margaret Thatcher’s Tories free to win three elections in a row.
In France the left was terminally split between the Socialists and the Communists — to the delight of the conservative Gaullists.
In both Britain and France, the rift on the left has been healed. Having suffered defeat after defeat, the moderates galvanized themselves and either purged their ranks of unelectable dogmatic Socialists or, in France, put their Communist rivals out of business for good. Pragmatism finally triumphed over dogmatism.
While the left was wising up, however, conservative parties on both sides of the Atlantic that used to win elections by giving short shrift to ideology began busily acquiring dogma.
In Britain, the Tories abandoned centuries of pragmatism and embraced Thatcherism — a heady cocktail of free-market ideas, suspicion of foreigners and a strident dislike of the centralizing powers of the European Union. This is the British equivalent of states’ rights.
In the United States, a first run at radicalizing the Republican Party was made by the libertarian-minded Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964 but was trounced by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In defeat, the ultraconservatives did not give up. They instead transferred their affections to Ronald Reagan, an acceptable face of ideological conservatism who won the presidency twice in a row.
Both Reagan and Thatcher introduced into their previously practical parties a market-based doctrine. They began lauding the works of Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and University of Chicago economists, in particular Milton Friedman.
Thatcher was so ardently committed to textbook conservatism, she used to hand out a book list to her Cabinet. She even had Friedman teach them a lesson in monetarism.
For those who wondered where Reagan’s ideas came from, he referred them to his decades of Saturday radio broadcasts. There he had laid out the tenets by which he thought the United States should be governed.
Both Reagan and Thatcher suggested that answers to political problems were to be found in texts. Both left their parties an inheritance of profound divisions between moderates and ultraconservatives. The fissures continue to run through the Republican Party, distracting from their primary purpose — winning elections — in favor of being content to lose rather than abandon ideological principles.
In Britain, after Tony Blair’s Labor Party took three elections in a row, the Tory warring factions papered over their differences. The bitter disagreements over how to run the economy, over immigration and over Britain’s role in Europe still remain, however.
The failure of the fundamentalists within the British Conservative Party to represent the wishes of ultraconservative voters led to the rise of the populist Independence Party, with an anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-establishment platform that threatens to drive the Conservatives to defeat in the general election next year.
The Republican Party finds itself in a similar dilemma, riven between old-school, pro-business conservatives who are moderate on such things as immigration reform and states’ rights, and the Tea Party, an angry, populist, grass-roots movement that holds to an anti-big business, anti-Wall Street, anti-immigration, pro-states’ rights agenda. All GOP candidates, particularly presidential wannabes, must be measured against this.
Devotion to dogmatism proved disastrous in the 2012 presidential primaries. The Republican Party was presented with a number of candidates who would say or do just about anything to win approval from the vociferous Tea Party.
The establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, could not disguise the discomfort with which he was obliged to abandon his middle-ground positions, where most American voters feel comfortable. By Election Day, however, it was too late to recast himself as a moderate. He lost.
Fresh from their primary victory this month in North Carolina, establishment Republicans led by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are hoping to defang the Tea Party by limiting the number of televised presidential primary debates. They seek to limit the damage the divisive process does to the image of their nominee among general-election voters.
Already, Tea Party members smell a rat. They feel, with justification, they are being sold down the river, as they have so often been in the past. The stage is set for a post-2016 showdown in which the Tea Party either defeats the GOP establishment for good and conquers the commanding heights of the party – or, like Britain’s Independence Party, they break away and start fielding candidates of their own.
The complexion of the 2016 contest is therefore becoming clearer. Assuming that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally agrees to champion the Democrats, we can look forward to a prolonged campaign in which the main thrust of the Republican assault, irrespective of who wins the GOP primary race, will be Libya (Benghazi) and Lewinsky (Monica).
For Republicans, however, it is do or die. If they fail to win and Clinton serves two terms, the soul of the Republican Party will be up for grabs. Whether the moderates or the dogmatists win that final battle will determine the future of conservatism in the United States for decades to come.
Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, and Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.
PHOTO (TOP): Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech to placard waving Conservatives during an European election campaign rally at a science park in Bristol, May 8, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
PHOTO (INSERT 1): British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher points a finger as she answers questions at a news conference in London, June 8, 1987. REUTERS/Roy Letkey
PHOTO (INSERT 2): British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronadl Reagan share a laugh during a meeting of the Allied leaders in New York, October 24, 1985. REUTERS/Chas Cancellare
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Republican political consultant Karl Rove speaks at the fifth annual Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum in Washington, November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron