So now that I’ve become famous enough to make the title of a post concerning my “eleven Christmas wishes”, I feel impelled to respond. Seriously, though, a watcher’s post – somewhat more thoughtful and reasonable than previous endeavors of post-election analysis – requires some significant clarifications. It is because I believe this debate about the future of conservatism and the GOP is important that I wade in so thoroughly in this post that so few of you will actually read from beginning to end.
Here are the overarching problems I see with a watcher’s declarations. First, he has a strong tendency to lump all “social conservatives” into a box without distinction, shake them up, and spill them out with one accusation after another. How about a precise definition of “social conservative” all parties can agree upon? Because, quite frankly, as I read his post, the implied definition I come away with is “a group of people on the Right who tend to be religious and are responsible for all the ills of the Republican Party, and whom I don’t happen to like.” Or possibly “James Dobson and his followers”. Addressing this one alone could clear up a lot of confusion.
Then again – judging by this more recent post – we also need a definition of “fiscal conservative”. I could be wrong, but it sounds like the implicit definition is “anyone who isn’t a social conservative.” My question for a watcher would be whether there is anyone in the Republican Party who isn’t a social conservative with whom fiscal conservatives might also have significant disagreements. In other words, maybe some of his “fiscal conservatives” really aren’t conservatives at all.
Second, a watcher writes that I “did seem to moderate [my] position to one of wanting a united Republican Party (with conditions)”. Moderating it from what? If I have moderated my position in this regard in any way, it happened well before the most recent election. No proof, no links, no before & after. It seems he hasn’t tried very hard to figure out where I am coming from, yet presumes to know enough to make broad, sweeping statements. But on to more detail.
Third, yes, I am “still in love” with what I wrote about the Kathleen Parker op-ed, in a manner of speaking – that is, if you want to describe my thinking in adolescent emotional terms. I prefer to say I still stand by it. (In fact, I went back and re-read the op-ed again just now to double-check my original assessment of it.)
Why was I critical? Parker isn’t completely off-base in her analysis, but she makes a few key errors in my judgment: a) She conflates evangelicalism with social conservatism. If needed, one could do a little research there to see the significant problem with this conflation. b) Her work is colored too much by her narrow disdain of Sarah Palin – who by most accounts (Katie Couric interview excepted) was a lift, not a drain on the Party. c) I believe the problem isn’t that “religion should be returned to the privacy of one’s heart,” as she contends, but that the religious should be informed by a “principled humility” (see #4 below). d) Similarly, the use of such language (including “oogedy-boogedy”) is an unnecessary slap in the face of people with serious evangelical Christian views – including among blacks and Hispanics she goes on to note the party needs to reach out to more effectively.
Now compare what Parker wrote with Ross Kaminsky’s Saturday column in the Rocky Mountain News. Ross, who probably is less religious and more libertarian than Parker, provides a more reasonable and compelling argument–avoiding the four issues. (But maybe the name-calling just feels better for some.) I have no such substantive quibbles with his piece. Tone does matter a lot, but it’s not the sole issue.
Fourth, I think a good portion of the differences a watcher sees can be accounted for by our personal experiences in local (especially) and state politics. Keep reading to see what I mean.
Now for follow-ups on a watcher’s responses to each of my 11 points:
1-3. Which “social conservatives come a bit late to the party”? Here the definition would help a lot. I don’t doubt it’s true for some people. There is a problem painting with such a broad brush, though.
4. The slight misunderstanding here is my fault for depending too much on a link to substitute for an explanation of what I mean by “principled humility” – I’m not merely referring to it as the fine and good character trait of modesty to which we all should aspire, but trying to effect a change of view. In the spiritual context, I have seen “humility” defined as a proper view of oneself in relation to God. The context in which I was using the term refers to a more modest and reasonable view of what politics can accomplish in the social and moral sphere – and even more precisely, an expectation that those issues that can and should be addressed politically be addressed at “as local a level as possible.” In that case, for example pro-life supporters should be able to find more common ground with other less socially-minded conservatives on overturning Roe.
5. Again, a definition of both “social conservative” and “fiscal conservative” would help greatly here. If someone could please elaborate on all the ways James Dobson has attacked fiscal conservatives… (links are fine) …this is an honest question. The facts will help me in how I flesh out an answer. Trust me, I am not a Dobson-ite in matters of politics, but I do respect his judgment on some issues.
Is the problem that certain Congressional Republicans “spent like drunken sailors” rooted in their socially conservative views and require a refutation of those views? Or does the problem lie somewhere else?
6. Here, I believe he attributes too much agency and power to “social conservatives”. Again, a definition would help. Who are these people who ran the GOP and “really screwed up”? Have there been GOP leaders guilty of pandering to social conservative elements to cover up their own fiscal irresponsibility? Yes, but the logic of taking out one’s wrath on all social conservatives is found wanting. I have argued in specific terms why we don’t need such leaders for the GOP.
7. I didn’t respond to a watcher’s previous two posts supposedly about “fixing the Party”, because to deal with his mischaracterization of my views and others, partly on the basis of a highly selective citation, would have required an even longer essay than the one I’m writing now. Most inexplicable is his presumption of my motives: “Ben doesn’t want debate. He just wants to pontificate.” I would consider that an effective use of reverse psychology on his part.
In an earlier post, he wrote about me: “What does he really believe about the need for unity, the need for welcoming fiscal conservatives back to the party? I havenâ€™t the foggiest idea. He hasnâ€™t provided any evidence that he knows what he wants.” And he wonders why his earlier posts didn’t elicit debate. He claims to read this blog. He could have gone back through the past two years of my posts and compare the amount of time and space I have spent arguing for fiscally conservative politics vs. socially conservative politics. It could have saved both of us a lot of time and explication.
8. Here’s a difference partly accounted for by disparate personal backgrounds. School choice is an issue that by any broad state or national measure is one that unites fiscal and social conservatives. Yet a watcher writes that “a bunch of school choice nuts” were “intent on wrecking the system” in Colorado Springs. Setting aside his characterization of events, with which I have little familiarity, that would in no way diminish the value of school choice as effective and successful policy. His own abandonment of the cause on that basis says more about his temperament than the morality or usefulness of the issue. School choice is a long debate in which I am glad to engage more thoroughly in a different forum.
9-11. A la mode?
In regards to what a watcher says is missing:
1. Social conservatives have to lose the bunker mentality. In many ways, social conservatism is as corrupt as the Democrats when it comes to trying to protect corrupt politicians who happen to vote with them and talk their talk.
This is a tendency of any political party or movement, exacerbated by the level of power and largesse at the national government’s disposal these days. But here, it would be helpful to distinguish the cynical and corrupt leaders from the sincerely motivated rank-and-file. This is why I have advocated the need to “educate” devout social conservatives in the need for “limited government, personal responsibility, and fiscal conservatism.” The key is not to put the grassroots constituency on the defensive but to keep them working on the same team.
2. Social conservatives (in and out of office) have an air of arrogance about them when it comes to interactions with constituents and citizens who are Republicans but not social conservatives.
Some, I’m sure, but not all. (Since he has labeled me as a social conservative, I’m left to wonder about my own “air of arrogance”.) Why focus with a broad brush on “social conservatives” instead of the guilty parties that could be identified by name? Perhaps here is a place where his personal experiences differ with mine. Or maybe it’s a definitional issue again.
3. The HD 6 assembly selection of a candidate (who probably wasnâ€™t even a real Republican) simply because she claimed to be Pro-Life shows how shallow social conservatives can be.
How shallow many social conservatives at the activist level can be, yes. But the condition is not isolated to people with socially conservative views – rather, the tendency is more easily noticed because they often are the ones most motivated to show up at these assemblies in the first place. Again, something I have addressed before: The need to educate and emphasize “limited government, personal responsibility, and fiscal conservatism” as I have worked to do. (And certainly can learn to do more effectively.) Further, there is a need to inspire fiscally conservative people of all stripes – including those who are also social conservatives – to get involved and get active.
4. Social conservatives in leadership positions are being urged (to the point of being threatened) to sit on their hands when a fiscal conservative is running but Ben pretends that isnâ€™t happening.
I have read a few examples about such activity going on in a watcher’s neck of the woods: El Paso County. I don’t “pretend that isn’t happening.” I condemn that sort of activity, but without firsthand knowledge of specific incidents, what good does it do for me to speculate?
He wrote his sentence in the passive voice, so I’m not exactly sure who is doing the urging. If I hear firsthand or see documented of such cases, be assured I’ll speak out against it – whether it’s social conservatives boycotting people they disagree with or the self-appointed moderates boycotting people they disagree with. In this case, he is making too much of something that isn’t there. Or perhaps just extrapolating his local experiences and assuming they are the same in my neck of the woods.
5. Some of the social conservative agenda can be intrepreted by businessmen as being indifferent to business interests leading to severe underfunding of all Republican candidates.
No doubt true. I dare say some of the fiscal conservative agenda qualifies for this distinction, too. It depends which elements of the business community he is talking about. Despite caricatures to the contrary by the Left, big business tends to be far more pragmatic than ideological. Small business entrepreneurs, of course, much more clearly understand the need for fiscally conservative policies. And I know quite a few of these small business entrepreneurs who are also socially conservative.
But as I stated earlier, and a watcher agreed, “fiscal and social conservatism rightly understood are far more compatible with each other than not.” Getting to the “rightly understood” part is very important. Officials and leaders who bent too far away from fiscally conservative principles deserve to pay the political price for party failures.
A watcher and I also agree that solutions leading to broadly conservative Republican success won’t be easy. But I disagree with his focus on bashing one element of the coalition — especially in using such vaguely-defined terms to do so. The remedy is not to therapeutically belittle or disparage a bloc of voters for their deeply-held beliefs.
This is a complex and tangled issue of which we have only scratched the surface. Not only to a watcher but also to any reader who has somehow made it this far, please fire back. In the meantime, I’ll question my own sanity for writing this much.