By Luke Freedman
One of the more interesting aspects of the modern Republican Party is how little resemblance it bears to traditional conservative values. The roots of modern conservatism can be traced back to Irish thinker and politician Edmund Burke, who emphasised the importance of the traditions and institutions through which individuals make sense of the world. It’s not that Burke was opposed to change; he was after all one of the few members of the British House of Commons sympathetic with the grievances of the American colonists. Change, though, should be a gradual process, he thought, and would have adverse consequences if not implemented prudently.
The apple has fallen far from the tree. Far too often the modern GOP has proven reactionary and combative — willing to sweep away precedent or custom in the pursuit of short term self-interest. In a 1998 New York Times op-ed, Alan Ehrehalt, former editor of Governing magazine, criticised the Republican Party for its aggressive use of the filibuster and handling of the Clinton impeachment:
Having been lifted by the American electorate into a position of genuine power, they have continued to behave more like a party of insurgents, probing for cracks in the constitutional structure rather than taking its rules seriously and looking for ways to make them work.
If Republicans in Congress have a common self-image, it is an image of conservatism. No doubt every one of the Republicans in the current House would accept ''conservative'' as an ideological label. But being a conservative must, in the end, be about more than tax cuts or family values. It must be about taking some responsibility for the fragile procedures and institutions that over 200 years have made an orderly public life possible.
Fourteen years down the road, things have gone from bad to worse. Republicans have set all kinds of records with their incessant filibustering: using the procedure for even the most routine business and leaving the Senate virtually unworkable.
The most egregious departure from precedent, though, was the GOP’s dangerous game of chicken during last summer’s debt ceiling crisis. Raising the debt limit requires congressional approval, but the process has always been relatively uncontroversial, since it simply involves ensuring the government can pay for previously enacted tax and spending policies. Every president since Truman has raised the ceiling, and conservative darling Reagan did it 18 times during his two terms.
There’s nothing wrong with using debt ceiling discussions to draw attention to past fiscal irresponsibly or to put in place future deficit reduction programs. However, many conservative congressmen did the almost unthinkable by essentially threatening to allow the US to default on its debt unless the government instituted enormous and instantaneous spending cuts.
The GOP eventually backed down, but even the mere uncertainty created by the crisis caused markets to plummet. Here, again, the Republicans choose to exploit any conceivable loophole within the government’s "fragile procedures and institutions" and holding the US and the world economies hostage in the process.
These problems extend beyond the legislative branch, as the conservative Supreme Court has adopted a decidedly anti-Burkean approach to constitutional law.
Take the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The case originally concerned whether pay-per-view documentaries produced by non-profits 30 days before an election were prohibited by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Instead of ruling on narrow grounds, the Court had the case reargued, allowing for a much broader ruling that opened the door for unlimited spending by corporations and unions in elections. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent, the majority "blazes through our precedents, overruling or disavowing a body of case law," issuing a quick and dramatic departure from the “special limitations on campaign spending by corporations" that had been in place "ever since the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907."
In service of a controversial conception of corporate speech rights, the Court was willing to push aside decades of precedent and a century of campaign finance law. All US elections would become testing grounds for Justice Anthony Kennedy’s bold hypothesis that the "appearance of influence or access [of unlimited corporate spending] will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy." The breadth and audacity displayed by the majority is hard to square with traditional conservative values.
We’ve heard much from Tea Partiers in recent years about the need to reclaim the values of previous generations. They would do well to start with the humility and gradualism that Burkeanism demands.
7 June 2012