Thursday, September 02, 2004

Andrew Sullivan and the fight for the soul of the Republican Party 

Speaking of Andrew Sullivan, he's also not very happy about the Republican convention - Zell Miller's Dixiecrat zealotry, evasiveness on Iraq and economy, ideological incoherence all tick him off - although McCain and Guiliani generally get the thumbs up. My favourite line though is:
"So we have an Austrian-American bodybuilder with a history of orgies and a couple of spoiled, hard-drinking party girls [W's daughters] fronting for a party whose platform is inspired in large part by Biblical fundamentalism. Yep. It would be hard to convey a more vivid reflection of our fractured culture than that."
Yes, the world is a pretty ironic place. We in Australia have a saying that our very own Liberal Party is a "broad church." Mind you, something like the Religious Right wing of the Republican Party is almost non-existent within the Liberals (Australia being a lot more secularised than the United States), nevertheless, the "broad church" tag is still a meaningful description for the fact that the Party unites - often uneasily - many different, and sometimes contradictory, political impulses. Populists spar with free marketeers, progressives with conservatives, libertarians with traditionalist middle-of-the-roaders; and ultimately the only thing that absolutely and ultimately unites them is the hatred, or more politely, dislike of the Labor Party.

Things aren't that much different within the Republican Party, which is why the Religious Right provides the numbers but Arnie provides the star attraction, and why Andrew Sullivan with his version of compassionate conservatism can battle for the very soul of the GOP with the visions espoused by Rick Santorum, Alan Keys, or indeed George W Bush. Ironic? Maybe. Unusual? No.

Every broad-based political party is through history and circumstance an amalgam of different tendencies, inclinations, and interests. I suspect that this is in part because the more sensible and pragmatic political groupings understand the "strength in numbers" principle - while many greens, socialists or libertarians choose to remain ideologically pure but unelectable and thus politically impotent, most others realise that they can achieve far more as part of a grander coalition. It might entail some compromises and a lot of infighting, but in the end it offers the best chance of achieving at least some of the preferred objectives as opposed to none. Thus in America, religious conservatives, social libertarians, free marketeers, defence hawks, and many other sectional and ideological groups all get together under the elephant banner not because they're necessarily enamoured with each other, but because they aim to hitch a ride and on everyone else's back push through some of their own favourite agenda. Oh, and because they decide that all things considered they dislike the other guys (the Dems) more than they dislike their fellow constituent elements of the Republican Party.

The Democrats are of course in the same position. Andrew Sullivan thinks it's ironic that a party that according to him is increasingly dominated by the Religious Right wheels out as part of its marketing exercise two happy go lucky party girls and an actor with a rather interesting, though decidedly unconservative past. Fractured culture, yes, but no more than John Kerry reporting for duty in an orgy of patriotism for a party that seems to idolise Michael Moore. After all, who and what is the Democratic Party today? Is it liberal hawks like Lieberman, blue-collar union hacks like Gephardt, sophisticated Brahmins like Kerry, racial hucksters like Revs Jackson and Sharpton, oddballs like Kucinich - or indeed star haters like Michael Moore? It's of course all of the above, and as long as there are two people left in the party (after Michael Moore eats up all the internal opposition), the struggle for the soul of the Dems will go on.

And so it will in the Republican Party. And the Liberal Party. And the Labor Party. It's sometimes infuriating, sometimes depressing, but can at the same time be strangely exiting and exhilarating. And the bottom line is: it's also inevitable. More than that, too - it's essential: only such competition generates dynamism, which in turn ensures survival. At the risk of sounding too Darwinian, I'd venture an opinion that parties - or any other groups in society - which become too settled in their ways and too comfortable with their internal equilibrium and status quo, soon stagnate and die.

So, Andrew, life will go on. Sometimes the religious conservatives will be on top (so to speak), sometimes your style moderates will prevail, and sometimes somebody else altogether. Personally, I will be worried not when there is too much fighting for the soul of the party, but when somebody eventually gives up and the fighting stops.

Update: Another interesting perspective on the American parties - Karl Zinsmeister argues in the "Wall Street Journal" that the old stereotypes are no longer valid:

"Democrats: the party of the little guy. Republicans: the party of the wealthy. Those images of America's two major political wings have been frozen for generations...

"No more. Starting in the 1960s and '70s, whole blocs of "little guys" -- ethnics, rural residents, evangelicals, cops, construction workers, homemakers, military veterans -- began moving into the Republican column. And big chunks of America's rich elite -- financiers, academics, heiresses, media barons, software millionaires, entertainers -- drifted into the Democratic Party."
A very interesting piece.

Update II: James Taranto, on the other hand, liked Zell Miller's speech: "Sullivan's... comments reveal less about Miller than about the provincialism of our big-city media elites."


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?