Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jon Huntsman’s tepid conservativism

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot.  Would that you were cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
—Revelation 3:15-16

Jon Huntsman (R-UT), empty suit.
Jeffrey Lord’s “E. C. Cupp and the Freezing of the Conservative Mind” should be read in tandem with Peter Hitchens’ “The Right’s Reefer Madness”.  The first describes the disease; the second diagnoses the cause.

Once you’ve read these two articles in the American Spectator, then you can tell what’s wrong with former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s American Conservative piece, “Marriage Equality is a Conservative Cause”: To put it bluntly, Huntsman has conflated being a Republican with being a conservative.  The two identities are not identical, though they’re often treated that way.

What’s the difference?  The Republican Party exists to get its members into elective offices.  That’s all.  The party has never had a fully articulated ideology; rather, it’s had a preference for economic opportunity, a legacy of the free-soil movement.  The GOP does have a general conservative thrust, but more because the Democrat Party has developed an ideology than because of anything else.  It may be an exaggeration to say that conservatives and some libertarians are Republicans because they don’t want to be or vote for Democrats, but not by much.  But there have been liberal Republicans just as there have been conservative Democrats; sometimes the deciding factor isn’t “Which party represents me better?” but “Which party is better placed to get me into office?”

Conservativism is a political ideology, often approaching a philosophy of life.  Or, if you prefer, it’s a meta-narrative concerning human social relations, law and the functions of government.  There are different strains of conservativism; mainstream American conservativism generally falls under the description “liberal conservativism”, as it combines classic economic liberalism (read laissez-faire) with concerns for the preservation of traditional social institutions.  Without going into further subdividing, it’s fair to say this: There’s more to conservativism than economic and commercial policy.

Here’s Huntsman’s premiss:

The party of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan has now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.  The marketplace of ideas will render us irrelevant, and soon, if we are not honest about our time and place in history.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion has focused on cosmetic solutions to, say, our underperformance among ethnic and young voters.  This is a mistake: we cannot cross this river by feeling for stones.  Instead, we need to take a hard look at what today’s conservatism stands for.
… [It’s] difficult to get people even to consider your reform ideas if they think, with good reason, you don’t like or respect them.  Building a winning coalition to tackle the looming fiscal and trust deficits will be impossible if we continue to alienate broad segments of the population.  We must be happy warriors who refuse to tolerate those who want Hispanic votes but not Hispanic neighbors.  We should applaud states that lead on reforming drug policy.  And, consistent with the Republican Party’s origins, we must demand equality under the law for all Americans [bold font mine.—TL].

In other words, Huntsman reduces the Republican difference to free-market economic policies, and advocates junking everything else in favor of “me too” endorsement of the progressive agenda — a tepid pseudo-conservativism meriting the pejorative “Democrat Lite”.  It’s the same strategy Cupp and her Proximus (Latin for next) dissidents advocate, which Lord derides as “Pridianus” (Latin for yesterday):  “As in, to speak 21st century English, this group is ‘so yesterday.’  As documented by Robert J. Donovan 49 years ago.  And Thomas E. Dewey 14 years before that.”

Huntsman promotes same-sex marriage — this is, after all, the focus of the article — as “consistent with the Republican Party’s origins”.  To do so, he uses progressive catchphrasing, which falsely portrays the insistence on traditional marriage as giving second-class status to gay Americans.

Whether or not the gay rights movement would fit with the Republican Party’s origin, backing SSM isn’t “conservative” in any meaningful sense.  A libertarian might back this position, but libertarian and conservative aren’t synonymous.

Let’s refer back to our definitions:  Conservativism isn’t just “whatever the GOP happens to back this election cycle”.  It’s a mindset, a political Weltanschauung from which policy is derived, rather than a convenient name for a collection of platform planks.  The worldview is fundamental because it’s tied to personal identity; a person doesn’t just “give up” a worldview because it’s no longer convenient, unless he had no personal investment in its truth to begin with.  Even politicians have difficulty pretending to political values they don’t believe (did someone say “Mitt Romney”?).

Like it or not — and I get the feeling Huntsman doesn’t really like it — conservatives are the backbone, the core constituency of the Republican Party.  And the traditional definition of marriage matters to conservatives because marriage itself is a critical institution, necessary for a strong, cohesive culture.  You don’t win elections by cutting out your core constituency; that’s the way you lose.

How do you win, then?

Lord, in a tribute to the late Lee Atwater, quotes Sun Tzu: “The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life, without fear of danger.”  If modern conservativism is failing to attract voters, it’s because conservatives themselves have failed to tell the conservative story in an attractive and convincing manner.  No one ever lost an election by overestimating the need to educate the voters.  Before you can decide how to use social media — a skill sadly lacking in the GOP last year — you have to decide what you’re going to use it to say.

If anything, Huntsman’s article demonstrates that Republican candidates have mostly lost sight of what it means to be a conservative.  The children of Abraham Lincoln are now waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting for their Moses to give them a revelation and lead them to the Promised Land. 

In the meantime, they must suffer a party leadership of timorous empty suits, men and women without vision whose first impulse in the face of adversity is to be lukewarm conservatives.  That’s a good way to get spit out by the voters.