Yes, this is a rant about US politics
I enjoyed Nicky Kristoff’s article today about the decay in influence of moderates in the US Republican Party. This is an old story but a good one. It is easy to forget that in the old days — before the fax machine — there were quite a few social conservatives in the Democratic Party. They were called “dixicrats”. Now we think of social conservatism as a Republican Party obsession.
So who are the real conservatives? One can argue that 19th century liberalism in Britain was a conservative reaction against Tory corruption. The great Gladstone argued forcefully that achieving social justice — even to the point of giving home rule to the Irish — was simply the right thing to do. He was not a Tory, though at one time he had hopes of leading the Tory party. But he was socially conservative as we understand the label. The Tories (conservatives) on the other hand, were more concerned with pragmatic than moral arguments. They tended to be more … shall we say …. morally flexible. And this pragmatic approach held sway among the Tories in Britain, I would argue, until Thatcher. Sadly, Mr. Cameron has not had the imagination (so far) to turn away from her style of zealotry.
Like the old fashioned Tories, US “country club conservatives” (rather active until 1980 or so) also craved stability and evolution rather than wild leaps of faith into social engineering experiments. In my memory, Gerry Ford and Nelson Rockefeller were the last of this breed. The Reagan crowd pushed them aside in 1980 when Reagan seized the nomination of the Republican Party. No one remembers his moderate opponent, John Anderson. Perhaps in reaction to perceived democratic party evangelism about civil rights, the republicans became more evangelical too — merging fervent beliefs in freedom from regulation (Reagan’s famous idea that government is the problem) and individual morality. Hmmm …. not so much unlike the 19th century British liberals.
I would argue that Mr. Obama represents the most pragmatic thinking in US politics today. But he is not allowed to admit it because he is a democrat and as such, keeper of the flame that Johnson ignited back in the 1960’s. Odd, I would say. And sadly, a failure of imagination. After all, as I posted below, it is not as if moderation has no political appeal. One just needs the imagination and courage to build confidence in the moderate message.
FOLLOW - And where did Jimmy Carter fit into this? From the outset, Carter was a policy moderate on the one hand, and a moralist and a bore (a social conservative) on the other. Like Gladstone, he liked lecturing people. In contrast, Reagan was a policy radical, social conservative and a much better politician. In my view, the mistake people make about Carter is to consider him solely as a moderate. To the contrary, Carter’s great failure (and it was a big one) was to overestimate his appeal as a smart guy — a reformer. His reforming zeal seemed important immediately after the Nixon trauma. But Carter didn’t get it that people wanted to move on, get back to friendlier — even if adversarial — ways. Carter didn’t know how to sell that and so moderation lost out in the 1980 election. Mr. Obama should take note. To be a successful pragmatist and moderate, he needs to be tough and to laugh a lot. BTW, I can’t remember ever seeing Mr. Carter laugh.
2d FOLLOW - Perhaps one reason that Republicans have strained so hard over the last four years to paint Obama as a dangerous radical is because deep at heart, they fear a resurgence of the appeal to humanistic moderation. Such a resurgence would catch them out as the radicals that they are.
3rd FOLLOW - I am also reminded here of the great shock that US republican leaders experienced during the Clinton impeachment process. Those folks were confident that if they could catch Clinton in a lie (and after a huge amount of work they did) that Americans would be revolted. A good illustration of the social conservative imagination. Their shock was that Americans were more revolted by the obvious malice shown in the witch hunt than by the lie or the underlying roguish behavior. So Clinton won that battle by connecting to “the better angels of human nature”, ie, just being not socially conservative.