Quick: Which party is the conservative party, the Democrats or the Republicans?

You probably answered Republicans

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The truly conservative party in America right now is the Democratic Party. It isn’t even a close call.

The basic argument is simple:  The Republican Party gives voice to powerful calls for radical change; the Democratic Party does not. (“Radical” does not intrinsically mean “left,” as we assume. Merriam-Webster’s defines radical as “favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions.”)

There is no faction of the Democratic Party that has non-trivial influence that is not centrist, supportive of the status quo and pro-Establishment. There is no longer any radical dimension of the Democratic Party. Zippo.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have several radical factions with real clout in the party – Tea Partiers, evangelicals and extreme libertarians. The most radical talk in American politics that has any wide currency and credibility comes from the right.

Thanks to its radical wings, the GOP as a whole is further to the right of public opinion than the Democrats are to the left.  Equally important, the “right” in today’s America is conservative only superficially.  It is a misnomer that “right wing” equals conservative.

In temperament, rhetoric, policy, social prestige and support for things as they are, the Democrats are the party of the Establishment.

The ideological flip

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Sen. Barry Goldwater, 1964 GOP candidate for the White House. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is obviously new. There has been a giant flip in the parties in the past 40 years.  There is absolutely no question the Republicans were the conservative party in the 1960s era. There was no anti-Establishment element in the GOP that had a shred of credibility.  Barry Goldwater was the wild extremist and he was a flash in the pan who looks like a moderate compared to today’s right-wingers.

The Democrats had truly radical elements in those days and even more radical groups wanted to get into the party but largely failed. Democrats gave real voice to women’s liberation, reproductive rights, black power, gay rights, identity politics, consumer protection, environmentalism, anti-war protests, disarmament advocates, government reform and socialism.  The party was anti-Establishment in meaningful ways, even if its ultimate policies and governments were centrist.

Society as a whole over the years embraced many ideas once deemed radical including environmentalism, feminism, gay rights and deeper civil rights for minorities. As the nation moved left in this sense, Democrats became more moderate.  The most radical cadres lost influence. The “cause community” became part of the Washington Establishment. Far-left think tanks withered. Liberals became neo-liberals.  A born-again Democrat followed Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the White House.

But the Democratic Party “brand” stayed liberal.  Republicans and disaffected Southern Democrats mocked “San Francisco style” Democrats in election year after election year.

It turned out Republicans were good attackers and skilled bomb-throwers, too.  Ronald Reagan is usually given credit for moving the party to the far right. In my view, he moved the party only to the far-center right.  It was his henchmen and heirs that brought in the fire-breathers that eventually gained juice in the party. Key players would include Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Richard Viguerie, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Ross Perot, John Ashcroft, Sarah Palin, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers.

Some powerful current manifestations are the Tea Party caucus in House, a corps of very right governors, the prominence of fringe candidates in presidential primaries and clout of the anti-Establishment far-right love-in, CPAC.

What is conservative?

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William F. Buckley. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

My little theory, which I admittedly exaggerate a bit, obviously depends on a definition of what is conservative and conservatism.  There are several traditional (once a conservative’s kind of word) strands of conservative philosophy.  None really fits the 21st century Republican Party.

Edmund Burke and Toryism:  Reacting to the French Revolution, Burke’s speeches and writings where the founding ideas of modern conservatism and the Tory tradition. He believed that the enduring sustenance of societies rested less on laws and governments than on religion, customs, traditions, manners, inherited values and the authority.

The job of government and statesmen was to conserve what is best in society and to slowly tinker with the failings, very slowly.  He was skeptical of the Enlightenment notion that all problems are solvable by reason and science. So Tories have always opposed the kinds of central planning and social engineering at the heart of socialism and progressive liberalism.

After the Enlightenment, the greatest force for radical change in the West was capitalism and industrialization. Nothing attacked Tory ideals like markets, moguls and money.  The Tory tradition’s relations to capitalism was awkward for centuries, just watch “Downton Abbey.”

Most Americans associate conservatism with being pro-business, a very un-Tory view.  William Buckley is a good example of a modern American Tory as is the early George Will. 

“Social value” and religious conservatives have more in common with the Tory tradition, though they tend to have a zealotry proper Tories dislike.  And religious conservatism is a different beast altogether.

The Conservative Temperament and the Establishment: The conservative personality and outlook are perhaps more enduring than any policy cannon. Of course, that is what Burke is all about.

The archetypal American conservative temperament has been respectful of authority and old institutions, of traditions and the Constitution; it is suspicious of ideology, abstraction, eggheads and do-gooders; it is optimistic, polite, sympathetic to diversity more in thought than action; it was Puritan but has become individualistic and materialistic.  It was the idea of The Establishment.

The Bush family fits the mold. Bob Dole, Bob Michel, John McCain, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Mitt Romney do, too.

Does this temperament describe prominent conservative politicians such as Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Scott Walker and John Boehner?

Libertarianism:  The prominence of liberty and rights were the foundational ideals of liberalism but risky and uppity impulses in the Tory view. This evolved of course.  Liberals came to value equality as much as liberty; the competition of those values has been the story of liberalism.

After the totalitarian atrocities of the 20th century, liberty became the ultimate value for a new kind of conservatism; rights, free markets and property rights were seen as the ultimate safeguards against the overreaching state and the zealotries of nationalism and communism. Liberals, they thought, become too infatuated with equality and too sympathetic to socialism or centralized economic planning.  People like Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman were the great champions of these ideas.

Libertarian conservatism has huge collisions with religious conservatism on the GOP track. Libertarians believe the state should give individuals maximum choice on matters such as abortion, gay marriage, right to die and contraception. These are vastly different worldviews. Both have sway in a party that has stranger bedfellows than the Dems.

Rand Paul may be the most mainstream and prominent libertarian politician we’ve had, much empowered by the Tea Party.

Republicans & Democrats

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Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz. (Getty Images)

Libertarian economic ideas became central to the Republican worldview via Ronald Reagan. But the temperament of the party remained establishmentarian for a long while; witness George H.W. Bush.  That changed as libertarian fervor spread; as the party became more and more anti-government (Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush the Elder weren’t anti-government); as the Religious Right gained partisan power; as the South turned from blue to red; as Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war”; and as the Tea Party gained traction.

On the other side, Bill Clinton’s triangulation brought Democratic platforms way to the right of George McGovern and Michael Dukakis, following Jimmy Carter’s lead. The power of organized labor waned and rich people took over the chore of bankrolling the party.  But the Democrats stayed left on the culture war issues and so we all took it for granted that the GOP was still the conservative place.

But looking at it all very simply, who are the real fire-breathers who have any genuine power in American government today?  For the Democrats, there’s Elizabeth Warren, barely. Bernie Sanders and Al Franken?  George Soros?  Help me, people; I’m struggling for more names.

The GOP is easy: Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Jim Inhofe, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Darryl Issa, Jason Chaffetz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Scott, Rick Perry, Paul Le Page, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman and Newt Gingrich.

As for the issues, which list seems more radical – radical in terms of the scope of change?

1) Obamacare; not departing illegal immigrants; supporting gay marriage; leaving decades-old abortion law in place; restricting state support of religion; raising the minimum wage; raising taxes marginally on wealthy taxpayers; aggressive conservation of the environment; aggressive interventionism abroad; spending money or roads and bridges; opposition to campaign finance reform; minimalist regulation of the financial sector.

2) Repealing Obamacare; departing illegal immigrants and restricting immigration sharply; repealing decades-old abortion laws; sanctioning religious discrimination; retaining the current minimum wage; opposing gay marriage; reducing taxes across the board; minimalist conservation of the environment; aggressive interventionism abroad; maximum feasible downsizing of government; opposition to campaign finance reform; minimalist regulation of the financial sector.

The answer is mostly a matter of taste and temperament. It’s a jump ball.

Who is the pro-Establishment party? They both are. But I give the Dems the nod.

Are the Republicans more pro-business? Indeed they are, more in rhetoric than results.  The belief in the magical powers of markets is a near universal creed in the party; Business America loves that, even if the Democrats are equally promiscuous in taking their money and doling out tax breaks, corporate subsidies and deregulating policies. So, sure, the GOP is the mercantilist party. 

Which party sounds more like it is on the outside and really wants to shake things up.  I think many Republicans would say it’s the GOP and I think they’re right.

Conservatives have long felt like they are fighting against American’s elite intellectual Establishment. This week, the National Review has an article by a prominent black conservative, Shelby Steele.  He argues that it is conservatives who are now the counterculture.

There is now the phrase ‘movement conservative.’ When I first heard it, I thought it oxymoronic. Conservatism is establishment and tradition, not protest and reform. But movement’ suggests struggle against injustice, the overcoming of some oppression. So it is telling that many conservatives now think of themselves as part of a ‘movement’ and refer to one another as ‘movement conservatives.’ A great irony that slowly emerged out of the turmoil of the 1960s is that conservatism became the new counterculture — a movement that was subversive in relation to the established liberal cultural order. And, continuing this irony, liberalism became the natural home of timid conventionalists and careerists — people who find it hard to know themselves outside the orthodoxies of mainstream ‘correctness.’ And what is political correctness if not an establishment orthodoxy?”

I agree with the spirit of this. But on one key point, I think Steele is disingenuous: A form of political orthodoxy does reign in America, but only in smaller, sheltered corners – on campuses, big cities, Hollywood and other elite neighborhoods.  In the rest of the country, I do not believe that Americans who really feel unprotected from mainstream culture – racial minorities, gays, immigrants – feel protected by any orthodoxy of ideology.

And this is at the heart of why the Democrats will remain “branded” as the liberal party.  Democrats represent and depend on America’s minorities. But they can do that and still be the Establishment power.  It is the Republican Party that gives more power to those who want to blow up the status quo and there isn’t anything conservative about that. 

[Also by Dick Meyer: Can the GOP survive on white voters alone?]

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