The last presidential election’s recriminations require no reminders… primarily because they have lasted through the entire 2017, and are not yet finished. The battle between NeverTrumpers, AlwaysTrumpers, SometimesTrumpers (which is, basically, everyone else) continues to generate dozens of articles and endless flame wars. Now, fighting over philosophical differences may seem like a tremendous, YUGE waste of time. However, all involved seem to be more committed to proving themselves right than to unifying the party or the conservative moment around any consistent set of principles that would help avoid factionalism now and in the future. NeverTrumpers claim that President Trump’s personality, character, and various actions before and after elections make him completely unacceptable in their view, and the worst of his supporters have taken over and ruined the party.
AlwaysTrumpers claim “my party, right or wrong”, and give, as a counterexample, the left, which is even more committed to destroying its common enemy than to eating each other, and somehow always stays on the party line message, which keeps them winning ideological influence, and often, elections as well. SometimesTrumpers believe in supporting the president when he does something they agree with, and critiquing when he doesn’t, without essentially losing their minds. There are varying degrees of intensity to each of these groups. However, many NTs, as well as ATs, cannot seem to live with the idea that there may be a very significant group of Republicans and conservatives who are not fully committed to a position more based in supporting a particular personality against the attacks by the left than in holding consistent political positions based in their understanding of what is good for the country.
STs, by and large, are viewed as unprincipled for being, apparently, neither here nor there. Understanding each of these positions is important, because as of this moment, everyone seems to be firmly rooted in his own view, with no possibility of budging anywhere. Now, some ATs are coming out with claims that all NTs are really Democrats, and should be defriended, isolated, and ignored. NTs, on the other side, deride anyone who doesn’t spend all day criticizing Trump or who has publicly agreed with him on anything, as a weak Trump enabler. Some of the more “liberal” NTs will tolerate the STs, but still try to have them move to the NTs sides with vociferous criticism of Trumpian excesses. Ironically, all this time, actual hardcore progressive ideologues are laughing like hyenas as the party and assorted shades of conservatives are tearing each other up, over what is more a matter of ego than any real principles on anyone’s account.
Meanwhile, the Republican party is shrinking, conservatism is not growing, and not much is getting done.
So how to resolve this seemingly impossible dilemma: to be welcoming to diversity of views, while also developing a coherent and consistent message that can move the party mostly in the same direction… no matter who is at the helm?
Now, this is where conservatism and Republican party may hold entirely different answers.
Republican party is a political vehicle, currently best suited for conservatism to win elections. It is not, however, in itself an expression of conservatism or conservative values, and for that reason, there will always be an inherent battle of ideas within the party. The President is the party leader. It should ultimately be up to him to define the message of the party, as well as its direction. What if the president is not conservative? Well, then, it is likely that the party will likely not be expressing conservative values either, unless, of course, a cadre of particularly active conservatives manage to convince the president otherwise. But that always works both ways. President Reagan was not always surrounded by stalwart conservatives, and yet the Reagan Revolution still remains a standard for a successful wave of conservatism, that swept the country. President George W. Bush by all accounts was more conservative than most of his advisers, who eventually ended up prevailing on a number of important decisions, much to the disillusionment of many hardcore conservatives.
The party, at the end of the day is what the people most active within it, make it to be. It is not particularly productive, then, to think about the direction of the party as a whole, particularly when the president is not particularly ideological. Under such circumstances, it’s worth focusing on winning individual battles and taking it one day at a time. Focus on prevailing in particular instances win minimize the likelihood of creating more internal enemies than is absolutely necessary. Both NeverTrumpers and AlwaysTrumpers should remember that the president, after his time in office, will cede his way to future, and yet unknown candidate, which means that we pretty much have to start all over again.
And it’s much easier to win those elections with a bigger party and a bigger tent than a smaller tent. It may FEEL better to cut loose all the haters and the losers, as well as all the suckers, the traitors, the RINOs, the fauxservatives, the alt-righters, and the sell-outs… except in 3 or 7 years, we’ll all need each other to fight another battle. So why alienate and freeze out potential voters, who may yet change their minds on any number of issues for any number of reasons? We may not think we ever want to ever hear from these people again, much less use them for anything, but life is long, and that is something that is impossible to know from the current vantage point. So first things first: don’t destroy friendships over politics. Best unfollow the posts on social media until you can get a grip, and then rekindle those relationships when you inevitably realize that if there is anything more important than whom your former voted for in the last election is whom he is going to vote for in the next.
But what if what if those RINOs/alt righters are playing right into the hands of the left-wing enemy? Trust me, there is no one playing into the hands of the left more than you do if you cut them off completely. Human beings have free will, which means changing their minds, and being wrong, frequently and hopelessly. Unless you think that the apparatus of the authoritarian one-party systems served them well, all you can do is be persuasive and offer them something more within the party than outside of it – the ability be active and to persuade. Essentially, while the song “Stuck in the middle with you…:” may seem particularly ironic, the reality is that the only way to win is by finding a way for your ideas to prevail. You can’t force or scare people into compliance without either the party deteriorating into cultish groupthink that prevents fresh ideas and creative solution to political and ideological problems, eventually killing it before any progressive forces ever get to it, or without causing resentment, rebellions, and endless frictions. We see both right now.
As for conservatives are concerned, the beautiful thing is that not one person needs any apparatchiks to define the “message” for him. The message comes from the deeply held values, and the better we are equipped we are to understand and defend them, the more likely our ideas are to prevail and to help define that message. If most people call themselves conservatives, but are not even familiar with the basics, there will always be no shortage of con artists ready to hijack the messaging platforms and to stiff the entire movement with something grotesque and unpalatable. Last year’s election clearly demonstrates that conservatism needs a revival in more than just numbers. There are two distinct issues that need discussion, understanding, and refinement:
The first: what is the state of conservatism as an attitude and a philosophy right now? It is only once we determine what themes are most prevalent that we can properly measure success, quantify and qualify it.
The second: what should it be? What principles can we draw from the great classics encompassing the bedrocks of the founding philosophy and how can we properly translate it into modernity, while avoiding past missteps?
Whatever our educational and outreach efforts, we should seek to expose our audiences to a broad array of thinking and determine where they stand for themselves. Abstract values and elections overlap but ultimately the goal of a value system is to provide guidance for selecting people who are most likely to defend those values, as well as to promote priority issues. Ultimately, conservatism, and any other paradigm, serve a greater purpose than merely a lodestar for dealing with imperfect human beings under pressure to gather as many votes as possible in high pressure environment where all sorts of other factors that have nothing to do with policy or philosophy come into play.
Ultimately, winning elections has to do with many factors – including campaign organization, identifying the audiences and reaching them in a compelling way, and having the flexibility and creativity to both plan and be spontaneous with overcoming obstacles when little is under control. Having the Greek chorus of supporters staying on message is but one of those factors. The left has not always been the most organized. And the wave of Republican frustration with the status quo swapped away all resistance in 2016, not just in the complicated and unpredictable presidential campaign but in both houses of Congress. And yet, progressive values translate through institutionalized learning and control of the agencies through career officials at least, as much if not more than through political victories and legislative advances. There is no quick legislative or executive fix to institutions of higher learning, Hollywood, most mainstream publications and channels, tech giants, professional associations, unions, artistic scenes, innumerable non-profits, and other gatherings with wide reach and ability to influence hearts and minds.
The old stereotype that conservatives all tend to end up in business making money is only partially true. There is no shortage of highly erudite and cultured conservatives of all ages and background. And commitment to culture needs not be full time. Yet, what is ultimately funding of such opportunities is lacking. Gulf States and progressive billionaires endow chairs of universities with gifts that translate into particular type of curriculum, faculty, and even the backgrounds of students who end up being attracted to these fora. There is no shortage of conservative-leaning donors, yet their money goes at best towards think tanks and isolated conservative colleges, as well as equally independent publications. They are not buying stakes in mainstream media empires; endowing universities, or sponsoring production studios, with Clint Eastwood, a well established figure in Hollywood being one of the few noteworthy exception. Separating themselves into conservative spaces may be a good way to stay on message, but not a good away to go on offensive or to promote that message.
Also, staying on message becomes of increasingly limited value if the number of people sharing that message is decreasing over time. If conservatives want to see how well their message survives in the world outside the bubble, they need to first, engage with people who think differently from increasingly minute ideological confines, and second, engage in intellectual contact with the adversary, rather than flee the battlefield at first sign of danger or real challenge. The progressives have not won anything by being shy, deferential, wallflowers. Their strength is not in beating down anyone who even remotely disagrees with the party’s appointed messenger – in fact, that’s what cost them the presidential election in 2016. Rather, it is in promoting and supporting their own. They identify, cultivate, and place young talent by the hundreds. By contrast, conservatives cultivate political activists, but not necessarily pundits, opinionmakers, and ideological influencers. Those are left to their own devices – if someone manages to make it and create his own organization, they are indeed lauded and feted. But who do these young conservative organizations target? Other conservatives. How much effort is spent on questioning progressives, at least those who are open to seeds of doubts, and to the independents? As a result, conservatives seem to always be strengthening their base, but not really growing. Whether it is the Republicans scaring off potential supporters, or idealogues unable or unwilling to make contact with anyone outside the choir, the outcome is the same:
There is no one to stay on message.
Time to rethink our strategy, move away from bickering over differences whether in candidates or approaches, let people be with their opinions and disagreements, and do what the left has indeed has always done best: