Saturday, September 18, 2004

What November Means

If you only read one article about the parties and the November election, the lead piece in the new Public Interest should be it. Providing some of the smartest and wittiest commentary on the parties (especially the GOP) and the upcoming election, James Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvo show what is at stake in November. Despite arguments that suggest each party echoes the other, the election is a choice between two distinct parties with different ideas.

The upcoming election will indicate whether Republicans are able to consolidate their resurgence since 1980 or whether, having peaked, their influence begins to ebb. Electoral analysts studying voter groups and demographic trends are missing the point which is that President Bush has identified the GOP with a distinct foreign policy grounded in a version of the theory of natural right. Bush has justified his policy with recourse to certain fixed and universal principles -- that "liberty is the design of nature" and that "freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind." Ceaser and DiSalvo contend that not since Abraham Lincoln has the head of the GOP grounded its principles in natural right to this extent; and defeat in November means not only the curtailing of Bush's foreign policy but also likely an end to his understanding of the GOP.

Moving to a discussion of today's Republicans, Ceaser and DiSalvo take as their point of departure the crude caricature of today's GOP as consisting of white racists, religious fanatics, the rich, and a handful of Jewish intellectuals.

The authors argue that, far from a replacement of the old Southern Democrats, the "GOP has become the South's dominant party in the least racist phase of the region's history. Republicans appeal to the same entrepreneurial, socially conservative, and patriotic voters in the South that they do in other parts of the country, with the only difference being that there are more of these voters in the South than elsewhere."

Regarding the recent anthropological accounts of "Red" and "Blue" America, Ceaser and DiSalvo assure us that we are not "undergoing a domestic version of the 'clash of civilizations.'" Still, cultural issues matter, and it is interesting that most recently it is partisan commentators who want to dismiss the Red-Blue distinction. Seeing no evidence of an outright culture war, analysts attribute the relative calm to the sagacity of the American voter who can separate the 'real issues' of jobs and healthcare. Red-Blue investigations overlap with religion which is a more certain predictor of party affiliation.

Speaking of jobs and healthcare, it's not so easy anymore to argue that the GOP attracts the greedy rich, with their numbers populating the ranks of the Democrats in roughly equal proportion. Education is generally a precursor to wealth, and no demographic group is more staunchly Democrat than college professors.

Finally, we come to the charge that the Bush Administration's foreign policy has been hijacked by a cadre of neoconservative intellectuals, influenced by the philosopher Leo Strauss. To accept this thesis, Ceaser and DiSalvo argue, one must believe that a foreign policy criticized for excessive democratic idealism has resulted from an "anti-democratic coup d'etat."

So, Ceaser and DiSalvo conclude, Republicans are just like everyone else; they live, work, and pray in suburbia, and they don't really know who Leo Strauss was.

What matters ultimately in attracting voters is the parties' stands on domestic and foreign affairs.

Domestically, it is not completely Reagan's GOP anymore. Social issues are playing a more prominent role than in the past, prompting some acceptance of an increased role for government. The GOP has defended "traditional values," while learning not to sound shrill; and the Democrats have turned to their "de facto" legislative branch (the judiciary) to defend libertinism. The Great Society programs remain discredited, however, and the GOP is still generally for tax cuts. Republicans went rather far with the anti-government theme in the early 1990's, prompting Bush to take a different approach than aggressive antistatism.

Bush's "compassionate conservatism" combines cultural conservatism such as banning partial-birth abortion and opposing gay marriage with libertarian-friendly tax cuts. Nevertheless and to the dismay of libertarians, Bush has initiated new programs in education and welfare, fostering a more nationalist kind of conservatism whose fate will depend upon victory in November.

In foreign policy, Bush is more clearly Reagan's successor. Reagan's anti-communism continues to make the GOP the more trustworthy party in defending the national interest. Nevertheless, the argument that the war in Iraq was defensive has evaporated without WMD, and most Democrats and many independents "either no longer accept the rationale for the war or have concluded that it was poorly managed." A Bush defeat, argue Ceaser and DiSalvo, will be attributed to the Iraq war.

Concluding with "party foundations," Ceaser and DiSalvo argue that Bush has justified his foreign policy on a kind of "neo-natural right" -- "that there is a structure or order to human beings and their affairs, and standards that can be both known and used to guide political action." This is where references to Leo Strauss are not irrelevant. Strauss sought to reopen the question of natural right at a time when American intellectuals were under the spell of historicism, which Ceaser and DiSalvo characterize as "the idea that human thought is nothing but the accidental product of its time, and that all conceptions of right are equally arbitrary." Strauss by no means addressed himself simply to conservatives, and it was more likely that the idea of natural right would find its home in the Democratic party which was much less suspicious of universalism. Slowly and especially after Vietnam and the rise of Reagan, the GOP became the home of natural right and the critique of the realism and relativism of Kissinger and Nixon and their policy of detente. Traditionalists kept their affection for Edmund Burke and his distrust of natural right in check, and libertarians accepted some "grand politics and strategy" no matter how much they resembled "versions of social planning."

And although Democrats often approve of versions of universalism and lofty appeals to human rights and dignity, they tend to frown upon the "foundationalism" that often goes with universalism. Democrats do not like their universalism to come from any stated foundation; instead they prefer it to emerge from some "evolving consensus or a narrative of progress."

The GOP is now "the 'radical' or 'revolutionary' party, with a political project grounded on a clear foundation; the Democrats, by contrast, are the new conservatives without a grand idea as their foundation, seeking to "return to normalcy." This is the choice we face this November.

(For our more philosophically-oriented readers, it is important to note that Ceaser and DiSalvo are talking more about modern natural right. Leo Strauss seems to have stood ultimately for the recovery of the classical natural right teaching which perhaps may not be accurately called "foundationalist." Neither, however, is it relativist. The best book discussing the question of the foundationalism of the classical teaching is Devin Stauffer's study of book 1 of Plato's Republic.)


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