Peter Berkowitz has written a book addressing the ever-growing division within the ranks of republicans. The book, a quick read of only 126 pages, is called Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self Government, and Political Moderation. This phenomenon (the lost tribes of conservatism) has been a core theme of the Bull Gator Party, and Berkowitz proposes a solution for the question we often seek to answer (“where do we go now?”). The book was written in 2013 but the author frequently contributes to a number of publications and he recently summed up his thesis for the book in a July 2015 Wall Street Journal article.
Berkowitz loosely defines the division as between two main camps: social conservatives and limited government or libertarian conservatives. While this framing of the problem may be too narrow, it is a good start. Pretty much every single issue that will be relevant to elections in this era will be addressed in one view or another by these two camps, and in many cases the camps will be at odds. For examples from the current presidential campaign to illustrate the harmful division, we will consider abortion, national defense, and immigration.
Under this bipolar framework, abortion is dealt with by both camps: Social conservatives believe in life at conception and advocate for staunch pro-life policies, while limited government conservatives take a more libertarian approach and support the right of a woman to be free from government regulation, at least to some extent. Immigration is dealt with by both camps. The social side looks at a wave of non-assimilating immigrants and sees an attack on our culture and values, and is more likely to advocate for both a stop to illegal immigration, as well as a severe stemming of legal immigration, while the limited government side looks at the issue primarily from an economic perspective, and is less concerned about the culture change. Both sides agree on the need to address illegal immigration immediately, but they reach an impasse on the value of healthy levels of legal immigration. On National Defense, social conservatives cherish the US position as leader of the free world, and embrace our active role in foreign affairs, while the limited government side cringes at the cost of wars and peaceful intervention and the perpetual state of conflict in one region or another.
You can see how a rift is born among the right-leaning coalition. It is getting so bad that the camps are attacking eachother with more ferocity and anger than is directed at the (currently very harmonized) democratic electorate. Labels like “RINO” and “Establishment” are launched and both (or all, depending on how you define the camps) claim undisputed title to the term “conservative”. The camps competing for the term “conservative” are so different they could realistically form two parties and be mortal enemies! Meanwhile, the majority of democrats or left -leaners are entirely aligned on every single one of these issues.
Berkowitz suggests that conservatives return to the basic principles that gave birth to the conservative movement, those principles having been lost somewhere along the way. Chief among these principles are “individual freedom, equality under law, and limited government—all of which presuppose and protect religious faith and traditional morality”. These principles, at times, may be at odds with current notions of the Republican platform. Can these positions be reconciled?
A key theme of the book is a call for return to the concept of political moderation. This causes many hard-liner heads to spin. The mention of the word “Moderate” invokes images of lily-livered, mealy-mouthed deal makers who sell out their constituencies and their principles for dollars, or in the furthering of inside washington deals that only bolster the political class. Berkowitz addresses the difference between this unattractive characteristic, and the type of moderation he encourages, on pg. xi in the preface to the book: “I do not mean that conniving and cowardly offspring of expedience and ambition that betrays principle just to get ahead or get along. I refer instead to political moderation well understood, which accommodates, balances and calibrates to translate rival and worthy principles into practice.”
The first few chapters of the book go on to remind the reader that our nation was founded on one of the greatest political compromises of all time between two camps which were hopelessly at odds. The Federalists, and the anti-federalists both considered the opposing side to be entirely wrong. After a lengthy and heated debate, the best political system and thus the most powerful nation in the world was formed out of this highly unlikely compromise.
Moderation, especially at the executive level, may be the truest of conservative principles. We have now experienced an energetic executive with wild-eyed plans to fundamentally change the character of the nation, and the result has been a nation re-divided along racial lines, stagnation for the middle class and those in poverty, and radical social changes which elevate new minority groups at the expense of the liberties of the people at large.
This is not to say there are no bad guys. There would be no need for a Bull Gator Party if we felt our leaders were staying true to conservative principles. We would define “Establishment” politicians (those who have firmly disavowed any conservative principle, from any camp) as the “bad guys”. John Mccain, John Boehner, and Chris Christie come to mind as potential banner-waivers for this bunch, and we would be best served to identify and publically excommunicate those who have long since abandoned their ideological compass.
If we continue to insist on pure ideological purity in our chief executive, we are likely to face many generations of progressive leaders and policy because we simply do not have the coalition power to compete against a united progressive electorate. Our most revered conservative icon knew it, and we would do well to at least consider the idea. Neither camp (or their variations) can justifiably claim ownership and dominion over the term conservative, unless we stick to the broad principles of limited government and individual liberty. Perhaps we need a leader who, without respect to the term “Moderate” (Big M), has the innate maturity and leadership ability to moderate (little m) between our rival and worthy goals.