At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

What Exactly have Republicans Learned?

posted by Jack Kerwick

The next presidential race will occur in a political context very different from that in which the last transpired. 

Although it has only been slightly over two years since Barack Obama was elected president, matters have changed quite dramatically since that time.  Those of us to the right of center appear to have enjoyed a decisive reversal of misfortunes, a turn of events for which we have none other than President Obama and his Democratic colleagues to thank.

Two years ago, legions of American voters converged to complete the task of divesting Republicans of power, a mission upon which they first embarked two years prior to that.  Now, as last November’s mid-term elections amply demonstrate, comparable numbers of those same voters have set their sights upon the Democrats. 

But unless this turn of events is read as something other than a mere change in the partisan sympathies of the electorate, its significance will be lost—as will be the winds to which the GOP has now set its sails. 

The intensity of the consciousness of the threat that the federal government poses to his time-honored liberties is rivaled only by the intensity of the American voter’s resolve to resist those threats.  Although its’ formal membership consists in a minority of Americans, there can be no denying that the existence of the TEA Party movement emblematizes this sentiment.

What this means is that for the first time in a long time, there is a substantial segment of the Republicans’ constituency that is no less intolerant of their abuses than it is those of Democrats. And what this in turn suggests is that the days when GOP rhetoric of “limited government,” “individual liberty,” “fiscal responsibility” and the like didn’t need to coincide with conduct are over.  

Such days expired along with the completion of George W. Bush’s second term.  Republicans claimed to have learned this lesson.  But what voters deserve to know is, what exactly have they learned?

The Republican Party against which the American voter cast his vote in ’06 and ’08 is the party of George W. Bush, the party of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  It is incumbent upon Republicans generally, and the next Republican presidential candidate specifically, to account for why a vote for the Republican presidential challenger in 2012 will not be a vote for “another four years of Bush.”

Bush’s vision of “conservatism” is by now anything but illegible. It would serve us well to revisit it at this critical juncture when the Republican Party is rising from the ashes and eyes are beginning to turn toward 2012.

First, from very early on in his first term, Bush, let us not forget, distinguished himself as the first American president to endorse federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.  This was only weeks prior to 9/11, so no sooner than the controversy began did it end; but it is remarkable that it wasn’t a president in the mold of a Barack Obama that took this unprecedented step, but a self-avowed champion of “life.” 

Second, Bush is the author of “No Child Left Behind.”  Both the utopian aspirations of this law as well as its assignation of an ever expansive role to the federal government in the sphere of public education establish beyond a doubt that it could only be anathema to minds touched with even the faintest of conservative and/or libertarian sensibilities.

Third, if not for Bush, we wouldn’t have witnessed the largest expansion of prescription drug benefits since Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Fourth, both before and after the attacks of 9/11, Bush promoted “comprehensive immigration reform,” what many of his legions of critics—almost all of whom belonged to his own party—correctly recognized as a de facto amnesty.

Fifth, our last “conservative” president determined that the United States’ goal would be to “rid the world of evil.”  To this end, he simultaneously launched two wars (or should they be understood as “battles” in “the War on Terror?”).  While Bush’s defenders have argued that our excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were necessary responses to 9/11, means by which the government fulfilled its commitment to “national security,” it doesn’t require much thought to discern the weakness of this counter-objection. 

“National security” is an open-ended concept. That a course of action is undertaken in the name of “national security” no more justifies it than the fact that an action is done in the name of “love” justifies it: “national security” and “love” are compatible with unjust and foolish deeds no less so than with those that are just and wise. 

I have no doubts that Bush sincerely believes that it is in the long-range interests of the United States and the planet to deliver “democracy” to the Islamic world; but it is precisely this belief that betrays his commitment to a political-philosophical orientation that is not only alien, but antithetical, to the conservative temperament.  Whether the project to “democratize” Islamic peoples in Islamic lands is just, I won’t say; that it is folly, however, I expect all enemies of Utopian politics to unabashedly affirm.

Sixth, Bush promoted what he called his “Home Ownership Society.”  This sounds wonderful, but to bring this order to fruition, he continued the tradition, beginning with Carter, of using the resources of the federal government to pressure lending institutions to waive standard mortgage loan criteria.  This, as we now know, contributed in no small measure to “the sub-prime mortgage crisis” and “the economic crisis” that helped catapult Obama to the White House. 

Seventh, when the said “crisis” became a reality, Bush threw every ounce of his support behind the unprecedented bank “bailouts,” even going so far as to make a televised appearance in which he attempted to convince Americans that unless they too provided their immediate support of this massive expenditure of their monies, their economic system would collapse within days. 

These are just some of the highlights of the Bush presidency and the era of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  TEA Partiers and others need to demand of these repentant Republicans and the presidential contenders in particular to inform the rest of us, in no uncertain terms, which of these positions they now reject. 

Only then will we know whether they have truly amended their ways.        

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.  

 

A (Brief) Case for the Legalization of Vice

posted by Jack Kerwick

In spite of what the title of this article suggests, the characteristically Libertarian position—what is typically regarded as “the Harm Principle”—that all adult human beings have the right to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t involve them visiting harm upon others is not one that I endorse. 

The assumption that from the enterprise of invoking “rights” alleged to be “Natural” or “Human” in settling moral issues there is much fruit to be had is correct: since the idiom of “rights” is, so to speak, “the English language” of the universe that is our contemporary political-moral discourse, commerce between agents is facilitated by speaking it; furthermore, the language of rights embodies a vision that is markedly simple in its essence.  Yet these fruits are in reality poisonous: like all monopolies, the monopoly on our public morality that the idiom of “rights” has secured has resulted in a waste of resources in moral reflection, and the simplicity that it supplies has similarly succeeded in drying up the moral imagination by closing it off to other and potentially richer possibilities to explore in accounting for our experiences.

The distinctively Anglo spirit of liberty that “the Harm Principle” intended to encapsulate is all but lost by its transformation into a species of absolutism.  The largely informal mannerisms, customs, and dispositions—i.e. the cultural particularity—from which it sprung and that is the necessary precondition of its enjoyment and conservation is traded for a rootless abstraction or “proposition” that, as a timeless doctrine, runs up against logical challenges that are, in the final analysis, insuperable.

That perhaps most Americans are unaware of it does not change the fact that the only liberty that we have ever known consists in the far reaching dispersal of power that our constitutional traditions have secured for us: the division between the federal government and the governments of the states; the sovereignty of each state over and against the others; the division of each government into three branches; and, as importantly as any of our other institutional arrangements, the institution of private property, are designed to preclude the formation of large concentrations of power.  It is in the interstices of this intricate constellation of “checks and balances” that our liberty is located.

To put the point even more succinctly, our freedom derives from the rule of law, for it is the rule of law that effects this wide distribution of power within which our liberty is to be found.  The criminalization of those activities, like recreational drug use, that have traditionally been regarded as “vices” upsets this distribution and, hence, our freedom, by insuring that ever larger concentrations of power will be formed. 

Yet it isn’t just an ever more powerful government that imperils our liberty.  The criminalization of vice empowers as well the criminal; it encourages outlawry and, thus, turning the law against itself, undermines the legal association for the sake of which law exists.  

The criminalization of drugs, prostitution, and gambling has given rise to black markets.  Since these black markets are the criminal’s oxygen, by legalizing these activities we drain the blood from his veins and divest him of every vestige of power. 

At one time, the Bootlegger was the emblem of the Outlaw, the Gangster.  But there never would have been any bootleggers without Prohibition.  The Drug Dealer is the archetype of the Gangster today.  Both are creations of bad government policy, but while it took the generation of yesteryear only a decade or so to appreciate the truth of what no less a figure, and no more a “libertarian,” than the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, long ago discerned—the impulse to outlaw all evils creates even greater evils—we persist in our folly. 

The Bootlegger is no less a relic from a bygone era than the Knight simply because enough people realized that while alcohol consumption can ruin lives, the criminalization of alcohol consumption—through the seedy underworld that it engenders and strengthens—ruins more lives.  And what is true of the criminalization of alcohol consumption is at least as true of the criminalization of drugs and other currently criminalized vices.

The common objection that the legalization of, say, drugs, will result in an increase in usage is inconsequential for at least three reasons: first, it is an assumption; second, assuming as it does that legislators can alter the conduct of citizens at will simply by passing (or repealing) laws, it is rationalistic: the illegality of an activity may be a factor in accounting for why some people abstain from it, but surely it is far from being a decisive one; third, even if true, this disadvantage of legalizing drugs must be measured against, not some ideal standard of perfection, but the aforementioned disadvantages of criminalizing them. 

The impulse to criminalize vice is a function of a view of the state and government that we needn’t pursue here.  Suffice it to say, however, the road to viciousness is paved by the urge to legislate for Virtue.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

Exploring the Republican Paradox

posted by Jack Kerwick

The Republican conceives of his party as the party of conservatism, the Constitution, and “limited government.”  For this reason, he loathes the so-called “RINO” (Republican In Name Only), the faux conservative who comes like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  At the same time, however, on those all too rare occasions when a genuine conservative, Constitutionalist comes along, the “conservative” Republican refuses to support that for which he claimed to ardently wish.

There are two current, mutually reinforcing illustrations of this paradox.  The first is the response on the part of Republicans to Newt Gingrich’s latest remarks.  The second is the response of those same Republicans to Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy. We shall look at them in this order.

Last weekend, while on Meet the Press, Gingrich not only refused to endorse Paul Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare; he explicitly and unequivocally rejected it.  “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” the former Speaker of the House asserted. Whether “radical change” is imposed via “Obamacare” or courtesy of plans authored by a “conservative” like Ryan, Gingrich is equally opposed to both.  “I’m opposed to Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative proposing radical change.” 

As if this wasn’t enough to convince the GOP faithful that Gingrich is no conservative, he then turned around to advocate a “variation,” as he characterized it, of the controversial “individual mandate” that is among the most salient of the constitutionally dubious aspects of the much dreaded “Obamacare.” 

The swiftness with which legions of the Republican Party faithful have declared Gingrich a faux conservative is a puzzling phenomenon, for many of the same “conservative” voters who are now slamming Gingrich have supported and continue to support Republicans—whether George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, etc.—whose political differences with Gingrich are, for all practical purposes, negligible.  We have no reason for believing that a President Gingrich would govern any less—and any more—“conservatively” than a President Bush, President McCain, President Santorum, President Huckabee, President Romney, or President Palin. 

Each will be just as enthusiastic as all of the others to grow the military ever more for the sake of furthering the crusade to export “Democracy” to the Middle East and beyond. And when it comes to domestic policy, none will express any enthusiasm in the least over the prospect of truly weakening the federal government by eliminating the leviathan of entitlements and bureaucracies of which it consists.

There is another reason why the Republican voter’s demand for truly “conservative” candidates can’t but engage the intellectually curious.  This brings us to Ron Paul.          

Paul is the one presidential candidate in the current Republican field who most certainly does promise to govern more conservatively—and dramatically so—than all of the rest, for he is the only person resolved to honor the Constitution and its original design for America. That is, he is the only person with the determination to bring about the restoration of the old Constitutional Republic that “conservatives” claim they desire.

Moreover, Paul has been billed “the Godfather” of the very Tea Party movement with which the Republican Party has labored tirelessly to align itself ever since it first emerged but two years ago. 

While Paul may or may not be the sole or even primary progenitor of the Tea Party movement that some have depicted him as being, there are few who would be comfortable denying that he is indeed among the sources of inspiration from which it arose.  And there is no one who can credibly deny that the ideas for which Paul argued a few years ago and for which he was roundly ridiculed by his Republican colleagues are for the most part the ideas that define the Tea Party and the whole political climate today. 

Simply put, there is no one in the Republican primaries whose vision of the Constitution and the Republic whose terms it delineates approximates more closely than Paul’s that of the Founders.  

In spite of this, it is a virtual certainty that he will not receive the GOP’s nomination.

So, what accounts for this paradox that is all too seldom unpacked?

The truth is that the “conservative” Republican suffers an identity-crisis—and Paul, perhaps even involuntarily, draws his attention to it.

Effortlessly, Paul at once exposes two dirty little secrets about his fellow partisans.  The first is that they are virtually interchangeable with one another with respect to domestic and foreign policy issues.  The second is that they are virtually interchangeable with Democrats when it comes to these same issues.

In short, Paul puts the lie to the Republican fiction that the Republican Party is America’s “conservative” party.  

Someone like Paul makes many Republicans uncomfortable with themselves.  He beckons them to revisit their identity as “conservatives.”  But introspection is hard work and most people prefer to avoid it.  Thus, they would rather attack, ridicule, and otherwise marginalize those who challenge them.  Conversely, they would prefer to associate with those who reinforce the myths that they have come to accept about themselves.

This, I surmise, is why Republicans reject a political conservative or “constitutionalist” like Paul when they have the opportunity to endorse him.  It is this that accounts for why they fool themselves and one another into believing that there are gradations of “conservatism” among candidates who for all intents and purposes are indistinguishable from one another—and their Democratic rivals.    

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

The Tea Party versus the Republican

posted by Jack Kerwick

Thus far, the field of GOP presidential contenders, actual and potential, isn’t looking too terribly promising. 

This, though, isn’t meant to suggest that any of the candidates, all things being equal, lack what it takes to insure that Barack Obama never sees the light of a second term; nor is it the case that I find none of the candidates appealing.  Rather, I simply mean that at this juncture, the party faithful is far from unanimously energized over any of them.

It is true that it was the rapidity and aggressiveness with which President Obama proceeded to impose his perilous designs upon the country that proved to be the final spark to ignite the Tea Party movement.  But the chain of events that lead to its emergence began long before Obama was elected.  That is, it was actually the disenchantment with the Republican Party under our “compassionate conservative” president, George W. Bush, which overcame legions of conservatives that was the initial inspiration that gave rise to the Tea Party.

It is this frustration with the GOP’s betrayal of the values that it affirms that accounts for why the overwhelming majority of those who associate with or otherwise sympathize with the Tea Party movement refuse to explicitly or formally identify with the Republican Party.  And it is this frustration that informs the Tea Partiers’ threat to create a third party in the event that the GOP continues business as usual. 

If and when those conservatives and libertarians who compose the bulk of the Tea Party, decided that the Republican establishment has yet to learn the lessons of ’06 and ’08, choose to follow through with their promise, they will invariably be met by Republicans with two distinct by interrelated objections.

First, they will be told that they are utopian, “purists” foolishly holding out for an “ideal” candidate.  Second, because virtually all members of the Tea Party would have otherwise voted Republican if not for this new third party, they will be castigated for essentially giving elections away to Democrats.

Both of these criticisms are, at best, misplaced; at worst, they are just disingenuous.  At any rate, they are easily answerable. 

Let’s begin with the argument against “purism.” To this line, two replies are in the coming.  

No one, as far as I have ever been able to determine, refuses to vote for anyone who isn’t an ideal candidate.  Ideal candidates, by definition, don’t exist.  This, after all, is what makes them ideal.  This counter-objection alone suffices to expose the argument of the Anti-Purist as so much counterfeit.  But there is another consideration that militates decisively against it.

A Tea Partier who refrains from voting for a Republican candidate who shares few if any of his beliefs can no more be accused of holding out for an ideal candidate than can someone who refuses to marry a person with whom he has little to anything in common be accused of holding out for an ideal spouse.  In other words, the object of the argument against purism is the most glaring of straw men: “I will not vote for a thoroughly flawed candidate” is one thing; “I will only vote for a perfect candidate” is something else entirely.

As for the second objection against the Tea Partier’s rejection of those Republican candidates who eschew his values and convictions, it can be dispensed with just as effortlessly as the first.

Every election season—and at no time more so than this past season—Republicans pledge to “reform Washington,” “trim down” the federal government, and so forth.  Once, however, they get elected and they conduct themselves with none of the confidence and enthusiasm with which they expressed themselves on the campaign trail, those who placed them in office are treated to one lecture after the other on the need for “compromise” and “patience.” 

Well, when the Tea Partier’s impatience with establishment Republican candidates intimates a Democratic victory, he can use this same line of reasoning against his Republican critics.  My dislike for the Democratic Party is second to none, he can insist. But in order to advance in the long run my conservative or Constitutionalist values, it may be necessary to compromise some in the short term. 

For example, as Glenn Beck once correctly noted in an interview with Katie Couric, had John McCain been elected in 2008, it is not at all improbable that, in the final analysis, the country would have been worse off than it is under a President Obama.  McCain would have furthered the country’s leftward drift, but because this movement would have been slower, and because McCain is a Republican, it is not likely that the apparent awakening that occurred under Obama would have occurred under McCain.

It may be worth it, the Tea Partier can tell Republicans, for the GOP to lose some elections if it means that conservatives—and the country—will ultimately win. 

If he didn’t know it before, the Tea Partier now knows that accepting short-term loss in exchange for long-term gain is the essence of compromise, the essence of politics. 

Ironically, he can thank the Republican for impressing this so indelibly upon him.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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