The American Conservative Dilemma – Governance

I remember sometime around 1994 (before the GOP congressional successes) a conservative Republican political science professor at Northern Illinois University (NIU) was speaking casually with a grad student who was hopeful for Republican prospects. The professor suggested that, while they both might abhor the Clinton Administration, when it came to Republicans actually achieving power in Washington, conservatives might come to regret their wishes. That lesson, in a hallway before or after class, has stuck with me. It was an instructive view of a conservative perspective on government. It said that if you believe, fundamentally, that government is an evil (not the worst evil, but an evil nonetheless), then taking over government will not make it good – and it may make you complicit.

My first post in this blog in March 2004 spoke to the same issue, the distinction between conservative views and Republican governance; although I don’t think I had the NIU conservative discussion in mind. Lately we’ve been hearing more about the problems of the Bush Administration in this context as its former unity and strength crumbles under the realities of governing.

There’s a lack of quality management in the Bush Administration because few experienced conservatives want the job.

There’s conservative dissatisfaction about how the Bush Administration handles foreign policy.

There’s longstanding conservative dissatisfaction with spending and increasing debt – and that started well before the 2004 election and the Bush Administration response to the Katrina disaster.

In this context Jonathan Chait’s New Republic piece on The Anti-Dogma Dogma is instructive. At its most basic the issue is this: the conservative ideal is freedom. The liberal ideal is liberty. Freedom by definition requires “being left alone” and is always in tension (if not at war) with government. Liberty by definition, “immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority,” requires some sort of governance.

Paul Krugman among others has observed , “politicians who don’t believe in a positive role for government shouldn’t be allowed to design new government programs.” While this is true, there is something even more basic to learn: parties that believe that American “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” may not have the solution. They may not know how to govern.

Comments 1

  1. Greg Smith wrote:

    Great post. I think there are a lot of conservatives (true Goldwater conservatives, not the current crop of neo-con leaders) who feel that their excess of power in Washington has done a disservice to their views (We’re also seeing Madison’s views from the Federalist Papers being vindicated right before our eyes). The last 5+ years have given us a great look at how conservative ideology doesn’t translate into any kind of ability to govern. Putting people who despise government in charge of the government has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. As Barack Obama said a few months ago in a speech, “The problem isn’t that their philosophy isn’t working the way it’s supposed to – it’s that it is. It’s that it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.” I think thats a very telling observation of our current government. They can’t govern well because they don’t think government can/should govern well.

    I’m also interested to read Chait’s piece in the New Republic. I’ve written a little bit on the constant tension between freedom and liberty (or individualism and civic virtue as I wrote) and I’m always looking for more views on the subject and how those issues play out in our republican (small “r”) society.

    Posted 20 Jul 2006 at 11:43 am