Journalist Rick Perlstein recently asked for my forecast on the future of the Republican Party. It’s an important question. American political culture takes election victory to be the ratification of truth, which is why this question is usually addressed from the point of view of whether the party will continue to hold power. I would rather address the issue of what power has come to mean to the Republicans: namely, everything.
The Republican love of liberty, which seemed to be a sincere impulse of the party’s core during the 1990s, has been reduced to mere sloganeering. After many decades of balancing its ideological contradictions, the culture of the party — its leadership, activists, interest groups, and intellectual backers — has fully embraced power in all forms.
Now, pointing this out is akin to mentioning the elephant in the living room, the one which some of the guests welcome and some have decided to ignore. For the latter group, here is a partial litany of what the Bush administration has done by way of using and expanding government power: the Patriot Act, the Patriot Act II (as part of Intelligence Reform), No Child Left Behind, Medicare drug benefits, the Transportation Safety Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security, not to mention two major wars that have cost hundreds of billions, and left only destruction and chaos in their wake. Government spending in Bush’s first term soared more than 29%, twice Clinton’s average.
The second term will bring more of the same, or worse. Bush is going to try to install the country’s first-ever peacetime program of forced savings. Though it is being sold as privatization, it is a huge step-up in statism, and also prepares the way for controls on consumption spending, as seen in World War I and II. There could be more wars in the Gulf region, with Syria, Iran, and others tossed on the chopping block. As regards the invasions of individual liberty, there are no limits. Already proposed is a national ID, fingerprints on passports, more intrusions into bank accounts, more travel restrictions, more surveillance, and even the draft and national service.
Here’s the overall idea, courtesy of Patrick M. Hughes, top official at Homeland Security. “We have to abridge individual rights, change the societal conditions, and act in ways that heretofore were not in accordance with our values and traditions, like giving a police officer or security official the right to search you without a judicial finding of probable cause.” He said this in 2003, in a forum at Harvard on the future of war. A google reveals some comments from a few blogs but no major controversy. In fact, in the culture of the Republican Party, these comments would be defended by most party regulars and Bush apologists.
Virtually all traditional Republican themes that were once seen as making a case against government have been transformed into policy agendas for more government power. Pro-family means a national law on marriage. Pro-religion means funneling tax dollars to religious charities. Education standards means centralization and regimentation. The free market means forced savings at home, vicious anti-trust prosecutions, protectionism for favored industries, and the imposition of new economic structures abroad. The parts of the GOP agenda that appear to be compatible with the idea of liberty — tax cuts and contracting-out of government services — are better understood as sops to the donor base that are unmatched with a principled commitment to spending cuts or meaningful deregulation. And even the contracting notion is being put to dangerous use in the privatization of tax collection.
Whether and to what extent this represents a betrayal or a fulfillment of the party’s cultural foundation is a complicated question. The slogans about limited government and free markets, as well as the bromides against big government, are employed as catchwords to bamboozle the bourgeoisie that pays virtually no attention to political affairs. The masses who voted for Bush feel a cultural, religious, or regional connection to him and seem only to be looking for a rationale, however implausible it may be.
The relationship between the Republican Party and the central state is very different. It was the party of big government from its founding in 1856 though the Hoover administration. With the Depression, Hoover jumped at the chance to regiment the economy and intervene in every way possible. Contrary to legend, most New Deal approaches to countercyclical policy were first attempted by Hoover. In opposition to FDR and Truman, the Republicans sounded pretty good. But in power, Eisenhower, apart from his last-minute warning against the military-industrial complex, gave us a long litany of big government programs that included federal highways and government intervention in arts and culture.
Nixon and Reagan both came to power on a platform of cutting government, but left Washington having inflated spending and created vast new bureaucracies. Both proved surprisingly sympathetic to protectionism, disguised tax increases, big deficits, and regulation, generally beating out the Democrats in the competition for which party could govern more irresponsibly.
The city of Washington itself reflects this reality. Of all the imperial-style bureaucratic structures in that city — all massive and indistinguishable from state edifices erected by Ceausescu or Stalin, except more expensive and far more elaborately furnished — the largest is called the Ronald Reagan Building.
Nice irony, isn’t it, that it is named for the president who promised to cut government while doubling it and creating many new agencies. Fitting with Republican tradition, too, the Reagan building is the first federal building in DC dedicated to combining the public and private sectors.
Who works there? Employees for the egregious US Agency for International Development, and many White House employees too. Also Volkswagen of America. The Customs Department and the Nixon-created Environmental Protection Agency lease space there but so does the US-Mexico Chamber of Commerce and many other groups. Here we have the whole of the Republican reality in one massive space: big government working with big business to enlarge the state and its spending at the expense of everyone else.
If you want to visit the Ronald Reagan building, you need to take a flight (security now overseen and guaranteed by the federal government, for the first time in history, thanks to George W. Bush, the son of Reagan’s vice president) into the government-owned and operated airport also named after Ronald Reagan. These are all small symbols, but they point to a very important reality that is completely denied in popular political wisdom: the Republican Party is the party of power.
The ideological base of the party has returned to its historic stance. The love of liberty in evidence among the party faithful is a feature of the out-of-power principle: Republicans don’t like to be ruled by Democrats. But the test of its sincerity comes with the behavior of the party in office, and here Republicans fail miserably, with the single exception of Ron Paul.
There are three intellectual/cultural roots of the failure. First, there is the age-old problem of chauvinism and militarism and finally uncritical support of imperialism and the celebration of destruction and murder. A conversion of the Republican Party would require that it recognize that patriotism means love of country, not government, and toleration, not hatred, of the other. The party would also have to purge its old Cold War habit of regarding the global US military empire as the protector and spreader of freedom.
Second, there is its devotion to the idea of force, which, during peacetime, shows up in the conservative support for “tough on crime” policies, jails as a means of social control, the war on drugs, and the general belief that the “rule of law” (really the rule of police) is capable of stamping out vice and anti-social behavior. Under the right conditions, this conviction mutates into a belief that the American world presence can control and civilize the whole world.
Third, there is its theological-political position that the American experience represents a unique godly intervention into world affairs, and that the American mission is a holy one guided and blessed at every step by the Creator. The roots of this error lie very deep in America’s past, dating to 17th-century New England. But it is especially worrisome on the level of a world empire, with power-mad politicians claiming to act through Divine Mandate.
Until something curbs these tendencies, the Republican Party will continue to represent a threat to liberty. Whether the Democrats will see their chance and become once again, at least in relative terms, the party of peace, freedom, frugality, and normalcy is hard to say. Certainly the Bush experience represents something of a teaching moment for the left. What can they learn? Do not trust the state. Do not ask it for anything. Reject power and all its works. Once unleashed, it resists containment. Even if the left will forever loathe capitalism and the market economy, it can come to recognize that the state which tramples on property at home will trample on everyone’s liberties, at home and everywhere.