Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Republican Crack-Up, Revisited

Perhaps the smartest political observation I've read in a long time comes from Joel Kotkin, a conservative Democrat and a noted demographer. In the March 20, 2016 issue of the Orange County Register, he wrote a fertile column about the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party. Kotkin's piece was laden with excellent observations, but none so important as this:

Successful political parties unite interests under a broadly shared policy agenda. The Clinton Democrats may seem ethically challenged, condescending and bordering on dictatorial, but they share basic positions on many core issues and a unifying belief in federal power as the favored instrument for change.

In contrast, the Republican Party consists of interest groups that so broadly dislike each other that they share little common ground.

This is a great insight, and it explains pretty much everything that has gone wrong with our nation politically for the past century.

The Democrats are a coalition of interest groups held together with a general unifying ideology: big-government progressivism. The Republicans, by contrast, are a coalition of interest groups without any single unifying ideology. Historically, their only basis for unity has been their shared enemies: the Democrats (and various points in the Democrat agenda). Members of the GOP have little in common ideologically -- only occasionally overlapping interests (often for diverse reasons), but mostly opposition to specific Democrats or specific Democrat initiatives and policies (again, for diverse reasons).

Put another way, there has been no basis for Republican unity in principle, except perhaps for a strong national defense. However, on matters of domestic policy, constitutional limitations on government power, economics, immigration, trade, civil liberties, individual rights...on just about everything you can name, Republicans are all over the map. There's no single principle, let alone broader political philosophy, that holds the party factions together.

Which explains why America has moved inexorably to the left over the past century, since the first Progressive Era. You have leftists, represented by the Democratic Party, who know exactly what kind of a society they want, and why. They have an underlying worldview, a Narrative, buttressed by academic theories and rationalizations, and translated into long-term policy goals. By contrast, the Republicans have none of this, and (perhaps except for Goldwater and Reagan) they have not had a leader who imposed upon the party, from the top, a unifying worldview, Narrative, theoretical rationale, or policy goals.

And it has finally led to what many are now acknowledging to be an impending crack-up of the Republican Party.

A Warning from 1996

Not that any of this should be a surprise. In fact, I anticipated the party's disintegration in a long 1996 monograph titled The GOP's Foreign Imports, published by the Institute for Objectivist Studies. In that essay, I observed that "Within the GOP, a philosophical meltdown is occurring." In words that could have been written today, I described how "the Republican majority in Congress is paralyzed and adrift, its energy gone, its direction uncertain." And, foreshadowing the emergence of Trumpism today, I noted: "Meanwhile, the populist/nationalist insurgency of commentator Pat Buchanan in the GOP presidential primaries impelled his nervous rivals to compete with him in bashing big business, immigrants, and imports."

Sound familiar?

I cited an earlier column I'd written, in the January 1995 Freeman, in which I had said: "The GOP stands precariously on deep philosophical fault lines, and already we're hearing rumblings of coming tremors that could shatter the...coalition.... Torn by ideological contradictions, the GOP is coming apart at the seams."

In the monograph, I elaborated:

The party has long maintained a "big tent," sheltering many opposing ideological factions. Cementing this uneasy alliance weren't shared premises, but shared enemies.... The primary contest [of 1996], noted U.S. News & World Report, quickly became "a slugfest over the ideas and identity of the Republican Party," a battle that "exposed a network of fissures and fault lines that is dividing the party and encouraging Democratic hopes of retaining the White House in November."

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I went on in the monograph to identify a number of warring ideological factions within the GOP.

Warring Philosophical Factions

First were the "pragmatists" -- "the ballast of the Republican Party," made up of "unprincipled champions of consensus, convention, and compromise. Philosophically vacuous but personally ambitious, pragmatists stand for everything...and nothing." These are most prominently represented by the members of the party Establishment.

Then were what I described as "anti-individualists." These come in several varieties. First are the "conservative welfare statists," who believe in big, activist, "compassionate" government social programs -- but who (in contrast to the Dems) promise to distribute and redistribute government goodies on the cheap. So they don't talk about repealing ObamaCare, for example, but instead "taking the best parts of it and making them work better." Unlike the unprincipled pragmatists, these Republicans (the George W. Bush/John Kasich types) are sincere...but they are liberals at heart. Which is why they have been described as "Democrat Lite."

Another variety of anti-individualists are the "tribalists." I described them as those who "draw their personal identities from collective affiliations. They believe there are inherent conflicts of interests among men that pit their group against all others in a battle for status. This prompts them to see themselves as victims of powerful elites, group favoritism, and dark conspiracies.... These 'angry voters' are drawn to divisive demagogues, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan." (And today, of course, to Donald Trump.)

I further subdivided the tribalists into two factions. First, "nationalists, [who] believe there are inherent national, racial, and/or cultural conflicts of interest," and who can be found "shouting 'America First!'" because "they see themselves in a 'cultural war' to preserve our 'national identity' from foreign and minority influences. They thus reject foreign trade, treaties, immigration, and racial/ethnic integration." The second faction are "populists, [who] define themselves not by nation or race, but by economic class. They believe there's a fixed national economic pie to be divided, so any gains by others must be at their expense. They thus see themselves as 'little guys,' exploited by a privileged elite of bureaucrats, businessmen, and bankers." (Trump deliberately appeals to both factions.)

In addition to the various sorts of pragmatists and anti-individualists (e.g., conservative welfare statists and tribalists), there is an anti-Enlightenment faction within the GOP: those who reject the Enlightenment values of reason, individualism, the pursuit of personal happiness and fulfillment, self-realization, and personal choice -- usually on religious and/or cultural grounds. They (wrongly) identify such premises with personal subjectivism and moral relativism, and as an antidote, they advocate the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the broader society and religious dogma. In short, they promote conservative cultural collectivism. These are the "social conservatives" who believe that government should impose Judeo-Christian values on society, by law if necessary, in order to advance social cohesion and keep unruly, self-indulgent individuals in line.

Finally, the GOP harbors a minority of "individualists...the most intellectual and principled elements on the Right," consisting of "economic conservatives and political libertarians, as well as Objectivists." These are the champions, respectively, of free markets and free trade; of "constitutional conservatism" and limited government; and of the Enlightenment worldview of reason and individualism. But today, this principled minority finds itself increasingly marginalized and outnumbered within the GOP. The hostility of the pragmatic Establishment toward "constitutional conservative" Senator Ted Cruz provides one example; the primary results provide another.

A Coalition Shattered

I wrote all of this in 1996. Twenty years later, nothing has changed -- except that the 2016 GOP primaries have revealed, with painful finality, that these logically irreconcilable factions have no rational basis for continued cohesion. At the outset of the primary season, a host of candidates vied for the Republican presidential nomination, representing every shade of pragmatist (Christie, Gilmore, Pataki, Graham, Trump), conservative welfare statist (Kasich), tribalist (the populist/nationalist Trump), religious social conservative (Carson), cultural collectivist (Huckabee, Santorum), constitutional conservative (Cruz, Fiorina, Jindal), libertarian (Paul), and economic conservative (Rubio, Bush, Walker, Perry). 

Now, ask yourself what any of these factions have in common. Can individualists (constitutional conservatives, libertarians, and Objectivists) make common cause with nationalist or populist tribalists? Can advocates of reason and individual liberty make common cause with conservative collectivists? Can anyone from any faction who is serious about his principles make common cause with -- or trust -- the unprincipled pragmatists?

Moreover, with the presidential nomination of Trump the Tribalist (and unprincipled pragmatist) looming ever more likely, the last pretenses of any principled distinctions between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have been obliterated. We are likely to face two competing forms of statism, and two equally authoritarian and thuggish candidates for our nation's highest office.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." During the 2016 election cycle I have been raising the alarm about the rise of Trumpism in the GOP precisely because it deprives individualists of any hospitable home in a viable major party. And also because whether Trump wins or loses, we have finally, sadly reached my long-predicted crackup of the Republican Party.

So...where do we go from here?

The Path Forward

Our first task is to face and grasp the cause of the problem. The problem is intellectual chaos. In terms of vision, philosophy, goals, policies -- of Narrative -- the GOP is everything, and nothing. That's why even with an electoral majority in Congress today (as in the early 1990s), the Republicans cannot rally around a single alternative to (say) ObamaCare, or a proposed budget, or a policy to deal with the looming disaster of runaway entitlement spending, or even a coherent strategy to deal with ISIS. Philosophically divided, the party is paralyzed by indecision; too many logically incompatible values, principles, and agendas are clamoring for collective agreement, with each splinter faction trying to impose its own on the others.

That can't happen. Collectivist decision-making may work for those who embrace collectivism; they are used to sacrificing individual interests for the sake of the group. But it emphatically does not work for those who champion individualism, by which the ultimate evil is sacrificing one's values for the sake of group "harmony." Those who embrace constitutional conservatism, free markets, and individual rights on principle cannot sacrifice their principles and go along with the statist agendas of pragmatists, tribalists, and social conservatives, in the name of "party unity." (The same can be said of sincere, principled social conservatives.)

 No, individualist ends can only be advanced by individualist means.

In my opinion, bright, articulate advocates of principled individualism who aspire to public office should stop trying to "convert" or "take over" the Republican Party. That's a fool's errand, a futile waste of time, and a contradiction: You can't impose individualism on others.

Instead, I think they should aim to establish themselves first as champions of individualist principles and values on platforms outside the party apparatus, before entering politics. Perhaps through the media -- columns, talk shows, entertainment, public speaking platforms, etc. They should acquire a reputation and public following that way -- independently -- and then enter politics.

Ronald Reagan achieved public fame first as an actor, then as a public speaker touring the country. His famous speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, "A Time for Choosing," established his "brand" as a principled, articulate conservative. So, when he launched his political career, he already was well-known and well-liked. Because his brand had been so firmly established,
he didn't even bother to go up through the party ranks. His first run for political office was to be governor of California -- not for some smaller office. Similar examples of this "independent outsider" strategy could be cited, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and, yes, Donald Trump. They established attractive brands as individuals first. Then they just marched in and entrenched beachheads within the GOP, pushing aside hostile Establishment rivals by the sheer numbers and force of their followers.

Those of us who do not aspire to public office should look to support qualified, articulate, attractive, principled outsiders who do. (It's one reason I supported Carly Fiorina early this primary season. I wish that Trump's distracting celebrity presence hadn't obscured her many merits.) A second choice would be political insiders who have demonstrated a long track record of standing firmly on principle against the corrupt Establishment within the system. (It's the reason I currently support Senator Ted Cruz against the tribalist Donald Trump and the conservative welfare statist Governor John Kasich.)

As for those of us who don't want any direct involvement in politics, but who still wish to promote the kind of changes that affect politics, I have said for years that the place to focus is not politics, but culture. Ayn Rand and Andrew Breitbart were both courageous visionaries, and they both agreed -- in Breitbart's memorable words -- that "politics is downstream from culture." What affects culture more directly are stories. Not think tanks, not college professors, and not the abstract ideas and theories that flow from either -- but ideas as they are dramatized and romanticized in the form of narratives.

We urgently need to reclaim and romanticize the Western Enlightenment/individualist worldview in popular entertainment. We need the constant celebration of individualist virtues and values in art. We need to patronize and encourage the good stuff, not merely fight the bad stuff.
Negating negatives is not the same thing as producing positives.

Similarly, we need to honor, and to defend from attack, those who champion and protect our basic American institutions. This includes our police and military, our entrepreneurs and self-made individuals, our great historical leaders and cultural icons (including America's Founders). We need to extol their virtues as virtues. We need to celebrate their lives, giving them awards and recognition. Today's kids are tomorrow's leaders, and they need not only fictional models, but real-life exemplars of individualist virtues.

But yes, as a corollary to our positive efforts, we do need to declare war on today's artistic nihilism, whose toxic influence creates the sort of morally vacuous, shapeless entities who are fit for nothing but a welfare state or a collectivist colony. And yes, as a corollary to creating and defending values, we do need to confront evil's enablers -- especially its academic, political, and media enablers. We can't remain mute as our culture's values and institutions are under assault.

However, we must always remember that fighting evil is a secondary task. Our civilization is perishing due to over a century of nihilistic assaults on its basic philosophical values. That nihilism has created a void, a cultural vacuum. You don't fight a void; you fill it.

Our primary focus -- as George Washington put it -- must be to "raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair."

Advancing a New Narrative


Note that all of this has very little to do, at least directly, with the Republican Party: taking it over, deposing its corrupt Establishment, fighting over its platform provisions at conventions. It has very little to do with politics, period -- at least not directly. It dwells instead on the task of affecting the culture that lies upstream from politics.

The left has long understood the importance of "narrative control," which is why they have colonized Hollywood and the arts. As a result of their efforts, we can now throw facts and logic at people till the cows come home; but because our enemies have shaped the narratives by which people assimilate and interpret facts, we always lose the arguments. They process everything we say to fit a Core Narrative embedded in their brains, the dominant storyline that guides their lives and integrates their thoughts.

We need to take charge of that storyline. We need to advance a new Core Narrative for our American culture, but one rooted in individualist premises.

We need to hammer that Narrative home in every venue, using every media, cultural, and political platform. The Core Narrative of American Individualism needs to be translated into thousands of specific stories and examples, into countless variations on its basic themes, and then applied to new contexts in fresh ways. We need to see it manifested in novels, plays, and movies. We need it in TV shows and historic documentaries and biographies. We need it in video games, and children's picture books, and songs, and poetry.

The Individualist Narrative needs to be romanticized, honored, championed, and defended. And its enemies need to be challenged, opposed, mocked, and fought -- just as they have done for over a century against ours. 

This is not primarily a political battle. It is a battle for hearts and minds, over what it means to be human. It is a battle over the nature of our fundamental ideals, values, motives, and purposes.

It is a cultural war.

But it's not a cultural war whose goals are to be defined and represented solely by social conservatives versus cultural leftists. It's time that those of us who are principled individualists march onto the cultural and political battlefields as a third force, armed with our own Narrative.


fosterj717 said...

This is one of the most comprehensive and rational musings on the body politik of today. The author captured what many of us have been struggling to understand and get a handle on. Thanks for the great insights!

Joe David said...

Logical solution, but how can one fight back if the left controls the media, entertainment, education, etc.? The outlets are minimal at best. What options are available aren't significant enough and accessible enough to be of any real value. We need a bulldozer to level the field. Where can we find one of those?

Phil said...

Thanks for revisiting some of your previous points on these issues. The richness and detail of your analysis is clear and striking. For example, your breaking down the different types of tribalist, the different types of anti individualist instead of just leaving it at that.

The people who try to analyze the groupings in current political parties in terms of leap two or three categories, for example, as just pre-modern vs. enlightenment vs. postmodern or anti-enlightenment, don't seem to get that that is operating on too abstract a philosophical level.

Most people are not that consistently or predominantly on one of those three levels. In fact, I encounter people and groups more and more who are even less consistent than being, say, consistently "anti-individualist". Often they are single issue people on issues such as abortion or immigration and inconsistent on other issues. They will be strongly pro-individualist on one issue and strongly anti-individualist on another issue.

The burgeoning fragmentation and inconsistency that I see has everything to do with the decades-long steady decline of the American educational system.

Fragmented mental representation. Fragmented politics. Fragmented worldview.

I could have a debate and maybe be able to persuade a consistent, dedicated socialist on the basis of broad ideas more or less well integrated. It's hopeless if I'm talking to someone whose cognitive bandwidth is no greater than one narrow issue.

I agree with you that changing a culture involves seizing control of or offering alternatives to the dominant narratives. In other words, it largely involves the arts -- literary, spoken, theatrical, poetic, etcetera. But not just telling fictional stories, I think. Organizing one's nonfiction writings, documentaries around telling stories as well.

Even more fundamentally, one has also to offer full-scale top-to-bottom educational alternatives and courses and books outside of politics, economics, and even overarching ideologies- - history, the humanities, the study of languages and literatures, sociology, psychology. (More than just philosophy).

Or else your "narratives", especially if they are counter to current trends, are not going to sink in very easily.

It used to be that a shallow, angry, superficial, demagogic, blustery, defiantly anti-intellectual, con-man populist would only appeal in the less educated region of America. Which for most of American History, has been for multiple reasons the Deep South of Huey Long, George Wallace, etc. It is only the spread of the lack of a good educational system throughout America that makes Donald Trump possible outside of the Deep South. Sort of a spreading intellectual redneckism.

Buchanan never got that kind of traction or was a threat to become President because he arose in a generation which was incrementally getting somewhat better public education. They could smell out his shallowness.

Robert Bidinotto said...

fosterj717: Thanks much for your kind words.

Joe David: I think it is an error to think in personal terms about fighting the entire political-cultural war -- of thinking about bulldozing the whole field of battle. Facing the enormity of an entire war will paralyze any soldier. That's why in my post, I tried to suggest things that individuals can do. We can all do a little: recommend the right books and films, try to influence our own children, support a good candidate, challenge someone's nonsense. If we all focus on doing what we can in our own lives, the cumulative impact will be huge.

Phil: You're right that most people don't fit easily within one category. Because people compartmentalize a lot, their views in one area rarely correspond to their views in others. Categories exist more for the benefit of our own understanding than they do as useful pigeonholes for complicated individuals.

You also make a good point that a Donald Trump (like his more intellectual precursor, Pat Buchanan) could never have had such a broad influence in the past. If we begin to focus not on discrete ideas and premises, but on the bigger picture -- on the narratives that people like him (and Sanders) are peddling -- then we get a clearer understanding of the nature of their appeal, and what it will take to overcome their influence.