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The Conservatives

Pinchas-LandauThere is, without doubt, a growing sense of concern among Americans of all political leanings, in all parts of the country, with regard to the fecklessness of the Obama Administration. This goes beyond partisan politics – obviously, those opposed to Obama and his policies are angry, especially over the disaster that ‘Obamacare’ is proving to be, but it is the dismay of his supporters that is a more telling indicator that something is very wrong.

It is therefore all the more remarkable that the more interesting part of the American political system is its conservative wing, traditionally centred on and in the Republican party. Perhaps this is the case because it is on that wing that a major ideological debate is taking place, whereas on the liberal wing there is no parallel struggle, at least on the same scale.
The political right in America (unlike, say, in much of Europe) tends to be conservative with a small c, rather than a big one. That means that it has an almost instinctive suspicion of the state and its power and would prefer to have a smaller government, with less extensive (and intrusive) reach into most areas of public and private life.

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Conservative thinking tends in the direction that government, especially central government, cannot provide the answers to all of society’s problems, and even if it could, that doesn’t mean to say that it should. In other words, even in cases where it is likely that government can provide effective solutions, there is a need to recognize that these come with a price attached and that it is therefore necessary to debate whether this price is worth paying. The cost of any solution is first of all financial, which means that it requires increased taxation to pay for the programs – unless, of course, you just borrow the money and pass the cost over to ‘the future’. However, beyond the money involved, larger government is itself a cost to society – at least that’s how conservatives look at it.

However, traditional conservative thinking did not view government as inherently bad, let alone evil. True, Ronald Reagan’s line that ‘government is not the solution, it’s the problem’ is far-reaching, but Reagan did not mean that in quite as sweeping a sense as it sounds. But the political right is no split between the kind of traditional ideas outlined above and the much more radical ideology espoused by the Tea Party and the libertarianism of Ron Paul. The Republican party is now split between the old-style conservatives, who are regarded as moderates, and the new radicalism.

This split has spread to the policy research institutions, known as think tanks, that tend to be the laboratories of new political thinking and policy initiatives. There are liberal think tanks and conservative ones, and shades of each – but it is probably fair to say that the Heritage Foundation has always been amongst the most prominent of the right-wing ones. It was therefore a pleasurable experience to have the opportunity, on a recent visit to Washington, to find that there are still sane conservatives in the Heritage Institute – although outsiders claim that the place has been conquered by the radicals and now indulges in overt and intensive lobbying for the Tea Party agenda.

Maybe that is so, but James Gattuso, who is a senior research fellow in the Heritage’s Institute for Economic Policy Studies and who specializes in regulatory policy, is not of that ilk. Our discussion ranged over the gamut of domestic policy issues – he was careful to stress that he has no expertise in foreign policy area – and it was a relief to find that there are still people on the right who are looking for practical solutions that will facilitate the governance of the country, rather than pursuing ideological solutions that will not be accepted by the majority and hence will not work. The argument, increasingly commonly heard, that Obama’s policies are also ideologically extreme and hence unacceptable to the majority, may well be true – but that is hardly a convincing rationale to adopt equally intransigent policies based on the diametrically opposite ideology.

The details of the policy issues – not just healthcare of course, but also education, immigration and much more – are of course the nitty-gritty of any discussion. But the most encouraging thing I learnt from my visit to the Heritage, beyond the fact that there are still rational, serious people on the political right, was Gattuso’s historical analysis. He views the Tea Party as a part of a recurring pattern in American politics – populist and radical movements that spring up every couple of generations, with fundamentally similar agendas – but that flare up and then die down fairly quickly. He believes that political pragmatism will reassert itself as soon as the next presidential election or, at worst, the one after.




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