So far, 2022 election postmortems have focused on the degree to which Donald Trump’s mimics—with their prickly demeanors, conspiratorial paranoia, and adherence to stolen election narratives—cost the GOP winnable races. That’s justifiable, given the underperformance of those candidates compared with more conventional Republicans up and down the ballot. But the GOP’s Trumpy candidates were not evaluated on personality alone. They took with them into their races both the baggage Donald Trump brings to the table and his populist platform.

In 2022, the rise of populist Republicanism muted the distinctions between the two parties and foreclosed any prospect of voting for a party that will preserve as much or more than it will transform. Indeed, the bipartisan consensus around the notion that America could use a radical overhaul has led the country’s two major political parties to mirror each other in ways that are utterly redundant.

For example, America doesn’t need two parties dedicated to fiscal profligacy. In October, by dint of the fact that his party didn’t introduce another multi-trillion-dollar Covid relief bill in 2022 and instead passed something it decided to call the “Inflation Reduction Act,” Joe Biden insisted that Democrats were now the “fiscally responsible” party. It’s a laughable claim, but it’s understandable why he’d stake it out. With the GOP having sacrificed its reputation for frugality, the mantle of fiscal prudence is up for grabs. Democrats cannot simultaneously attack the few honest brokers willing to acknowledge the imminent insolvency of America’s entitlement programs or its unserviceably large interest burdens and still claim to be the party of green eyeshades. But nor can the post-Trump GOP.

Critics of pre-Trump Republicanism long observed that the GOP was only ever the party of fiscal prudence when it was out of power. In power, Republicans spent as big as their liberal counterparts. But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, the virtue here being prudence. In abandoning the hypocrisy with which it was duly charged, the Republican Party has given up a contrast with the Democrats that served it well in times of uncertainty and hardship. If both parties are profligate and don’t care who knows it, why would voters endorse pale pastels over bold colors? In Republican-led states, conventionally conservative prescriptions for growth–low taxes, a navigable regulatory environment, and the freedom to fail–are proven concepts. Moreover, given the GOP’s intention to present itself as the anti-inflation party merely because its augmented presence in Congress represents an obstacle before big-spending Democrats, the reversion to a conservative mean will require fewer rhetorical contortions along the way.

Likewise, America doesn’t need two parties committed to the country’s withdrawal from the world stage. Again, Republicans thought they might benefit by default, having failed to preside over the humiliating, bloody debacle Joe Biden engineered in Afghanistan. In retrospect, it’s unclear why. Donald Trump retailed his intention to do the same thing, and (we subsequently learned) he tried to execute a withdrawal similar to Biden’s but with even less preparation.

In the interim, the Republican Party has made itself into a tribune for the unpopular view that the U.S. should abandon Ukraine to the depredations of its would-be Russian conquerors. Republican infotainment addicts are bombarded almost nightly with a McGovernite view of America’s malign role in geopolitical affairs—a view shared primarily by the last few genuine McGovernites who still call the Democratic Party home. Trump-trained Republicans have increasingly come around to the notion that the American-led world order isn’t worth preserving. So, the banal and thankless task of maintaining the advantageous status quo falls to their counterparts.

Speaking of the unfashionable, counterrevolutionary act of preserving the status quo against the forces of radical change, the United States needs a party responsive to its pro-life constituents that also reckons with the political realities of the post-Dobbs environment. Anti-abortion activists who might once have thought they could impose their vision of society on their neighbors by fiat have endured enough rude awakenings by now that only the comatose could miss them. A healthy political party would internalize those unmistakable signals and respond accordingly.

A conservative party is not without moral convictions, but nor is it allergic to the persuasion and incrementalism that effects durable changes to the social contract over generations, not election cycles. The verdict in Dobbs overturned a half-century of predictability. Progressive partisans and their emissaries are just as out of step with the American mainstream when it comes to abortion, but they maximized the advantage of being the party that promised to restore the status quo. Republicans believe Dobbs restored a more durable, republican social covenant. But without an emphasis on liberty and the sovereignty of the individual, it looks to the uncommitted observer–with no living memory of pre-Roe conventions–like radicalism.

Of course, America does not need two parties animated by paranoia. Among Democrats, the story of the United States is a Balkan tale of inter-tribal warfare. Rich vs. poor, corporate America vs. the little guy, the white majority vs. everyone else, and so on. It is an account of historical grievances and the long march toward justice, with the promise of victory culminating in the comeuppance to the vanquished. This outlook provides fertile soil in which conspiracy theories could flourish, which is why the Democratic Party has until recently been the traditional home of election-denial and constitutionally dubious power grabs designed to punish the ill-defined plotters.

The long, bitterly aggrieved memory this outlook requires was imported into his adopted party by Donald Trump, and it flourished like an invasive species. But this is not an outlook that can long survive in a political coalition that prizes individual agency above all else. An outlook that views government as a tool to even the historical scales rather than what it more often is, an obstacle to human flourishing and a means of preserving more conflicts than it resolves, will embrace paranoia.

When America had a conservative party, it also had a boring party. Contrary to conservatism’s critics, the boring party was not without ethical convictions, strong policy preferences, or the will to shape the nation in its own image. Nor was it bereft of success stories, however reluctant its critics are to admit. Today, the country has two very lively parties, and lively parties are unpredictable parties. Both seek fundamental transformations to the American compact. Both take a dim view of the choices you’ve made for yourself and their aggregate effects. Neither can muster much enthusiasm for America’s institutions of self-governance or the mechanisms of entropic social organization that constitute themselves in the absence of a guiding hand.

To some extent, that is the natural disposition we would expect from the technocratic party—the party of reform, revitalization, and renewal. It’s alien to a conservative party, which is perhaps why conservatism can seem passé. To hear the most passionate Republican office seekers tell it, the nation is in a state of existential peril that only revolutionary action can reverse. There is no American political party dedicated to taming the reactionary impulses that fall in and out of fashion among the gentry classes. Our political culture is defined now by two factions in a constant state of reinvention, and they’ve come to look a lot like each other in that regard.

As liberals become progressives and conservatives become populists, Americans look upon this perpetual identity crisis and see a nation without grownups secure enough in their convictions that they might maintain them for more than a few months. America needs a grown-up party. America needs a conservative party.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link