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The Fight for the Conservative Soul: Are We on the Cusp of a Two Progressive-Party System?

Posted by K.E. White on January 17, 2007

In the wake of the 2006 election cycle, the Republican Party’s soul is up for grabs.

And the battle to define it may prove to be just as important to the progressive cause as the performance of the new Congress.Michael Gerson

Below you will find sections from deuling articles by Michael Gerson, former chief speech writer of President George W. Bush, and Jurgen Reinhoudt, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

The lines seem clear: old school conservatives of the Goldwater variety, verses a milder, and seemingly progressive Chafee-sque party cadre–or, far less charitably, of the Podhoretzian neo-conservative ilk.

While a relatively minor war of words, the deeper conversation these passages represent may prove politically–and progressively–profound in the 2008.

From Gerson’s Christmas-day feature in Newsweek:

Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism–an idealism that strangles mercy.

But there is another Republican Party–what might be called the party of the governors. It is the party of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who has improved the educational performance of minority students and responded effectively to natural disasters. It is the party of Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who mandated basic health insurance while giving subsidies to low-income people. Neither of these men embrace big government; both show convincing outrage at wasteful spending. But they have also succeeded in making government work in essential government roles–not a small thing in a post-Katrina world.

The future of the Republican Party depends on which party it wants to be–the party of purity, or the party of the governors. In that decision, Republicans should consider: any political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs is hardly conservative, and unlikely to win.

Reinhoudt’s retort–from his article, When Christian Socialists Attack:

Gerson claims he is concerned about compassion and charitable benevolence. If he is, let him look at the glowing dynamism and strength of the American civil society, which is so strong only because the U.S. government (unlike European governments) is still relatively small. The civil society is the social glue that holds a society with individualist economic policies together: it is the informal network of neighborhood associations, churches, charities, and philanthropic institutions that help good causes and those in need. The strength of American civil society, worth more than $260 billion in 2005 (about $500 billion if you include the estimated dollar value of volunteer time), shows us that compassion and human kindness do not vanish in a free-market system…

Gerson writes that small-government conservatism is “a political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs.” In assuming that human needs will go unmet but for government intervention, Gerson falls victim to an old socialist fallacy. Frederic Bastiat, the great French free-market economist, wrote about this philosophical fallacy in 1850:

Socialism, like the old policy from which it emanates, confounds Government and society. And so, every time we object to a thing being done by Government, it concludes that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of education by the State–then we are against education altogether… We object to an equality which is brought about by the State then we are against equality, etc… They might as well accuse us of wishing men not to eat, because we object to the cultivation of corn by the State.”

Reinhoudt should have given greater focus to the substance of Gerson’s article (the status of American civil society)–he instead opts for stereotypical and superficial views of the American and European welfare states (for those interested, the scholarly work of Jacob Hacker proves quite helpful).

But ideological debates are often immune to such criticims: They view facts through a highly emotional lense, emphasizing the hope for a radical, untested future over today’s imperfect reality.

In either case, this war of words is significant: being long-lasting, and boasting loyal adherents on each side.

Is this a real and consequential Republican divide? Or merely clashing appearances of the same conservative ideology?

Republished from Campus Progress.

One Response to “The Fight for the Conservative Soul: Are We on the Cusp of a Two Progressive-Party System?”

  1. Herbesse said

    Will this make my Mitt Romney stocks on trendio rise?

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