The Conservative Leadership Project: Principles vs. Pragmatism?
Note: In response to our recent open letter to the conservative movement, we continue “The Conservative Leadership Project” here at CR. A series of articles that will first look to answer why we lose, and then come up with a plan for us to win.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not substantive disagreement on issues that threatens to engulf the Republican Party in open civil warfare. Nor has such disagreement led to the stillborn policy success of the conservative movement.
Rather, it is a distortion of the principles-versus-pragmatism debate that has the Right perpetually fighting with itself in ways the Left rarely does. But truth be told, no such tension between principles and pragmatism actually exists, and the standoff between entrenched GOP consultants/flaks/leaders and those of us in the conservative grassroots is based on a false choice.
If you really believe in your stated principles, the natural instinct is to contrive the most effective means possible to stand for and advance them. No sane person would knowingly and consistently construct a flawed means to pursue their convictions.
Recognizing this reality leads us to some uncomfortable conclusions, which is why we have concocted our own false choice of “the stupid party (Republicans) versus the evil party (Democrats).” Believing one’s leaders and associates to be idiots rather than treacherous is the lesser of two evils, I suppose, although the end result is the same nonetheless.
However, no human enterprise is consistently so stupid as to sabotage its own messaging, thwart its most loyal support base, and permit policies and practices diametrically opposed to its platform and stated goals at every turn. That means either today’s Republican Party is the single most moronic endeavor in all of human history, or it’s something else.
There are two options for the “something else.”
1) The people running the GOP want our votes, but they don’t share our values.
2) Too many of our leaders/spokespersons/candidates/politicians fail to maintain the consistency of their worldview when tempted to do otherwise.
My friend and colleague here at Conservative Review, Daniel Horowitz, has already written extensively about the first option, so it would be redundant for me to rehash intellectual ground he’s already taken. As just one example, his latest entry on that subject (“How Can You Fight When You Don’t Believe”) is well worth a read if you haven’t done so already. I have nothing further to add to his profound wisdom here.
I do feel compelled to address the second option, though. For it is the one that repeatedly came up a few years ago when my friend Gregg Jackson and I interviewed numerous conservative leaders for our book We Won’t Get Fooled Again: Where the Christian Right Went Wrong and How to Make America Right Again.
It happened when we simply asked Christian conservative leaders, who were engaged in the political arena, whether the basis for their strategy and methodology could be found and vindicated by the Bible and/or church history and teaching. The responses ranged from humanistic clichés to outright hostility that we would even ask such a thing.
But is it really unreasonable to ask a Christian whether their source material justifies their actions? For instance, don’t we demand judges base their legal opinions on the objectively plain wording of the Constitution? And don’t we criticize them (correctly) when they base their opinions on their own subjective, humanistic assertions instead?
Even if you’re not a “Jesus Freak” like me, or it’s not why you’re in politics, the overall premise being asserted is still germane. Although she was an atheist libertarian, Ayn Rand believed in “objectivism,” or the philosophical notion that existence requires some objective transcendent standards/truths in order to establish and maintain order. This is what Rand defined as “reality.”
Unfortunately, too often over the years I have encountered conservative leaders who are attempting to stand for that objective reality, or even moral absolutes, in a highly subjective, utilitarian way. In other words, their methodology and ideology contradict each other. It’s like driving a car by hitting the gas and brakes at the same time. The Bible says this is “the double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Ironically, the Left never makes this mistake.
The party of situational ethics, hedonism, and pagan/progressive philosophy walks the narrow road in the public square. They don’t have “pro-choice with exceptions” politicians, or worry about whether the candidate most faithful to the party platform will win the primary as we do. They know whether it’s a Democrat from a conservative “red state” or one from a liberal “blue state,” they’re all going to vote the same way once they’re elected.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have arguments and divisions, too. But the people running the show over there are the true believers, so they set the tone by contriving strategies, talking points, and infrastructure in accordance with that true belief. And even if they’re losing on an issue at the time, they refuse to accept defeat and their messaging makes it sound like “the right side of history” is just around the corner.
I saw this firsthand when I was on a MSNBC roundtable the day of the 2012 marriage vote in North Carolina. We were cleaning their clocks at the polls, and it was the 32nd consecutive election they had lost on the issue, but that didn’t break their stride one iota. Instead, they immediately changed the conversation to putting the onus on President Obama to “come out of the closet” on the issue, and give it the backing they believed their side deserved. And he did the very next day.
As Daniel has already painstakingly pointed out, we aren’t going to get that kind of leadership from many of today’s GOP leaders. They can’t fight for us when they don’t believe as we do. But expecting leadership from others in the conservative movement is a different story, and we can’t replace today’s quisling GOP leaders with real movement conservatives unless we get it.
Here’s just one current example of what that might look like.
Instead of fixating on meaningless polls this far out, consulting those who oppose us for advice, or negotiating for a seat at the GOP establishment’s very wobbly table, we need our conservative leaders to be establishing their own infrastructure for 2016.
Rather than obsess over who can win, we should do our own independent vetting of the presidential candidates to answer the question who should win. Who’s offering the very vision, skill-set, integrity, and leadership this country desperately needs? Then, and only then, once that person has proven himself do we concern ourselves with what it will take to get them elected.
Often I get accused of not caring about winning, which is ridiculous. I only care about winning. Most people who know me well think I care too much about winning. I don’t even let me kids win at Candy Land. But winning in politics is defined by advancing your principles, not losing them. And losing slower isn’t winning, either. It’s just losing.
I close with this question: If pragmatism is indeed “doing what works,” then why do we persist in doing what has proven does not?
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