Is the Republican Party losing credibility at just the time its conservatism is most needed?

In a sharply critical article at the Atlantic Conor Friedersdorf (HT: Evan Donovan) argued last month that the Republican Party has lost itself in a world of fantasy and fiction such that it is unable any longer to arbitrate between what is true and what is false. Friedersdorf exaggerates the problem, as well as the degree to which the problem is uniquely Republican, of course, and much of what he complains about is more the result of trends in modern media and democracy than anything else.

Even with those qualifications, however, there is no question that Friedersdorf is on to something in his basic point. The Republican Party has a credibility problem. Or to perhaps put it more accurately, the Republican base has a credibility problem.

Friedersdorf illustrates his point,

National Review’s readers have been exposed to the argument that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “Grand Jihad” against America; in Forbes, Dinesh D’Souza set forth the thesis that Obama’s every action is explained by a Kenyan anti-colonial ideology that overwhelms all else. I mention those magazines not because they’re worthless, but because both publish good stuff, and employ a lot of talented people who are more than smart enough to see through this nonsense….

A bit farther toward the fringes you’ve got the birthers.

Just now, the GOP nominee was exposed as believing, or pandering to donors who believe, that the 47 percent of Americans who vote Democratic are the same 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes. That is demonstrably false, but many on the right have lined up behind his remarks, and started to shame co-ideologues who dared to criticize the Republican standard-bearer.

He goes on,

The civil war the right needs is one waged against the hucksters, whether they’re in the marketplace of ideas or the marketplace itself. Victory would mean establishing norms that would’ve made Roger Ailes too ashamed to air all those months of Glenn Beck; that would’ve made the Claremont Institute mortified to give Rush Limbaugh a statesmanship award …

Yes, there will always be hucksters. And spending all one’s time fighting them is a foolish enterprise.

On the right today, they are so numerous, prominent and shameless, their pathologies so ingrained in right-wing media and politics, their wealth so corrupting to young talent, and their pathologies so seldom challenged by those who know better, that Republicans are operating at a persistent information disadvantage. (Too many believe even their own bullshit.)

Now let me say again that I don’t believe the Democrats are in any better shape. What’s more, for all of its flaws and weaknesses, the conservative movement is only growing in credibility when it comes to its basic diagnosis of the American (or western style) welfare state. Even a prestigious British magazine like The Economist has recognized that Paul Ryan’s honesty and candor about the federal debt and about the way in which he proposes to solve it is a breath of fresh air for American politics (whether or not the American people are open to Ryan’s solutions). And numerous Republican governors (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie) have worked out their conservative principles in ways that have helped their states thrive. For numerous reasons, in fact, on the state level the Republican Party should be considered a great success. One need only think of California to get a sense of the alternative.

All that said, however, when it comes to national politics – when it comes to the way many Republicans talk about President Obama or the Democratic Party, and when one listens to their proposals for the way in which this country could realistically (and with anything approaching a consensus) move forward – there is something missing. When even Mitt Romney, a man known for his political moderation, pragmatism, and good business sense, goes off the rails pandering to conservative fantasy, and threatening the viability of his campaign among independents in the process, something is wrong.

Even if the world of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ron Paul was the real world of facts and common sense, what good would it do us if these men cannot communicate their vision in a way that actually makes sense to the country? It is not enough simply to have your principles and be sure you are right. You have to be able to make the case to your fellow citizens that your diagnosis of the country’s problems is the right one, and that your solutions could actually work, could actually make us all better off. You have to be able to convince the hard working common man (and woman) – whether white or black or Hispanic or Asian – that you can make his or her life better. Ronald Reagan did that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did that. The Republicans of our day are not doing it.

The tragedy of it all is that given the problems our country is facing right now, and given the inability of the Democratic Party to come to grips with the dead-end road down which its blue welfare state liberalism is taking the country, we have never needed a robust, coherent, and plausible conservative alternative more than we do now.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on October 2, 2012, in 2012 election, Mitt Romney, Republican Party, Welfare State and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is the Republican Party losing credibility at just the time its conservatism is most needed?.

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