June 30, 2009

A recent syndicated column by Thomas Sowell “€œRepublicans in the Wilderness“€ includes useful advice but also misleading conclusions. According to Sowell, while “€œRepublican moderates”€ Bob Dole and John McCain “€œlost disastrously to Democrats,”€ Republicans who have stood their ground, like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, have been more successful politically. Victorious Republicans have understood that “€œfar more Americans describe themselves as “€˜conservatives”€™ than as “€˜liberals,”€™”€ and dynamic conservative Republican leaders have therefore “€œcome up with alternatives to the Democrats”€™ many solutions rather than simply be nay-sayers.”€

Although Sowell’s advice to the GOP, to paint in sharp pastels rather than in shades of gray, is certainly welcome, it nonetheless includes unwarranted assumptions. The recently conducted Gallup Poll about ideological values is mostly meaningless. Although 40 percent of Americans polled claim to be “€œconservative,”€ 21 percent “€œliberal,”€ and 55 percent “€œmoderate,”€ it is hard to tell what “€œconservative”€ means here. Twenty-two percent of registered Democrats consider their politics to be “€œconservative,”€ while a Marist poll in 2007 suggested that a significant percentage of Hillary Clinton’s base characterized itself as “€œconservative.”€ Is a “€œconservative”€ perchance someone who would permit second-term abortion but gets queasy about abortions in the last trimester? Perhaps it’s someone who advocates gay marriage but opposes the kind of group marriages that is now legal in Holland.
The reference points in the survey, “€œconservative”€ and “€œliberal,”€ have become so vague that it may be time to discard them. Personally I would divide ideological camps along more relevant lines, namely between those who favor our current centralized public administration and the present judicial control of society in the name of selective and often newly discovered “€œrights”€ and those who hold to a more traditional view of constitutional government. As a decentralist, I stand with libertarians, communitarians, and religious traditionalists against Sean Hannity, Bill Maher, and other advocates of the current American managerial regime, with its neo-Wilsonian, conversionary impulse. 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, “€œliberals”€ were generally people who voted Democratic and favored a larger welfare state. But on social and cultural questions, they were generally to the right of what are now called “€œconservatives,”€ mostly because they were living in a more culturally traditional age. I couldn”€™t imagine any liberal in my youth favoring gay marriage, affirmative action for minorities, or governmental actions to remove gender distinctions from the workplace, except when employers are being pressured by government administration to hire more women. In fact it was the “€œliberals,”€ and not the free-market Republicans, who insisted on the single-family wage in order to keep women at home with their kids.

The single-family-wage was for decades the big economic issues for such certified “€œliberals”€ as Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s treasurer Frances Perkins. Although arguably such a measure would empower the government to entangle itself in other commercial transactions and to engage in more radical social engineering, the fact that “€œliberals”€ once favored what is now anathema to the feminists indicates how fluid “€œliberalism”€ has become. Needless to say, if the term is applied to those who called themselves “€œliberal”€ in the nineteenth century, one could find absolutely no connection between the past and present usages.

Another problem that Sowell does not consider is that some groups, like blacks and Hispanics, usually give “€œconservative”€ answers to social questions but then vote for candidates on the left. My eldest daughter has had a black friend since her college days at Michigan who sounds like Jerry Falwell but votes like Barney Frank. My daughter’s friend believes without evidence that the GOP is conspiring to strip blacks of civil rights. Moreover, she has often heard this view expressed by other black Fundamentalists, who attend her church. How does it benefit the GOP if such people define themselves as “€œconservative”€? This identification will not translate into changed voting habits, no matter how energetically GOP politicians grovel before minority audiences.

Sowell furnishes an example of where the GOP should be distancing itself from the Dems for the sake of electoral support. Unfortunately he furnishes the worst conceivable example. Apparently President Obama is not controlling “€œIran as a terrorist nation”€ and unless he starts taking stronger action against its wicked government, someone’s grand-daughters may have “€œto live under sharia law.”€ I couldn”€™t imagine myself voting for the GOP because it’s intent on getting us more deeply embroiled in Iran, in order to prevent someone’s grand-daughter from living under sharia law. It was precisely the meddlesome, missionary foreign policy of Obama’s predecessor, and the egregious rhetorical habits that W picked up from neoconservative advisors, that turned his administration into a cosmic laughing stock.

The present administration is doing the right thing in addressing the instabilities in Iran, by escalating its admonitions cautiously and by avoiding the appearance of undue American influence in creating opposition to the current Iranian government. The neocon-GOP alternative, which seems to lack a fan base outside of FOX-news stalwarts and those polled by the New York Post, is to inflict our “€œdemocratic”€ missionizing on the rest of humanity.

What happens, however, if our grandstanding does not bring about the change in the Iranian government desired by Sowell? Do we then move armies out of Iraq and Afghanistan, whither President Bush sent them, and redeploy them in Iran? And if we do not intend to apply military force, and an unfriendly government remains in power in Iran, what do we do then that is different from what Obama is likely to do, namely, combine stern language with economic sanctions. While there are multiple things the administration has done that should concern us, how it has handled the Iranian government is not one of these failings. And it is unlikely that a return to the missionary, saber-rattling policies popular at the Hoover Institute, the institution at which Sowell hangs out, will result in a flood of GOP voters.


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