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Our Friends the Establishment Conservatives

The battle for the soul of the Republican Party has been cast as between "conservatives" and "moderates," between "grassroots" and "the establishment," "Tea Party" and "RINOs." While we sort of know what we mean by all of that, those labels are imprecise, and often get in the way. The battle is between people who believe strategy trumps ideology, and those who believe ideals are paramount. It's between the Realists and the Idealists. If the Party is to survive, it's a battle that both sides must win.

A picture might help:

American Politics


Realists value strategy, and put great stock in their own ability to make the right moves. They don't see a moral dimension to allowing the enemy also to make his moves.

Idealists believe that failing to oppose what evil does is simply capitulation - or even acceptance of the evil - by another name.

Obviously, these things are on a spectrum, not binary conditions. Even the most bright-eyed idealist has to budget resources, and even the most practical realist has an ideological bottom line. 

It may be true that on different policy fronts, someone can be an idealist who is a realist on others. If some set of issues don't present an individual much interest (even if they have fully formed opinions on it), they may accept a tradeoff that someone else would consider a violation of their core beliefs.

In the accompanying chart, I struggled with whether to include the colored labels, and what they should say. I finally decided to put them in. The "Republicans" label means the Republican Establishment. 

The Republican Establishment, then, is not some cabal, or a group of organizations. It is the Realists. These people are not evil, or simply power hungry, but at times they have let belief in their skill overshadow adherence to principle.  They are also often conservatives, and shake their head in wonder at being labeled anything else. Since they know they're conservatives, being told they're not by the new kids in town makes them distrust everything else those new kids say.

The Democratic establishment has found it much easier to adapt to the radical demands of the hard left. Statist realists are, for some reason, harder to distinguish from the ideologically driven variety. 

Realism and idealism are independent of ideology, though to be sure it's easier to be a moderate realist.

As an idealist, I can be persuaded to the use of political ju jitsu, but it never feels good, and I hate every second of it. I want nothing more than to hunt down the enemy and destroy him, metaphorically speaking of course. 

Realists think of themselves as smarter, craftier, wiser than their idealist allies. They use ridicule and label idealists as deluded and unsophisticated, and not yet grown up

Left to their own devices, the realists actually get little done. Like General McClellan, their plans stall awaiting more resources.

Realists don't see strategic moves themselves as representing moral choices. To a realist, it is not "caving" or "surrendering" to make a different offer in negotiations, for instance. It's just "what works" to get to the winning position, about which they are often just as committed as idealists. 

Idealists, on the other hand, see their positions as representative of their character, and trading something bad to the opponent to get something good means to the idealist a lack of virtue. 

NRO's Jonah Goldberg wrote:

In the recent internecine conservative donnybrook over the government shutdown, the insurgents insisted they were in an ideological struggle with the establishment. But there was precious little ideology involved. Instead, it was a fight over tactics and power. The Republican party almost unanimously opposed Obamacare, and the Republicans who’ve been in office far longer than Cruz & Co. have voted more than three dozen times to get rid of the disastrous program. And yet, the latecomers to the battle talk as if the veterans in the trenches were collaborators the whole time.

He almost nails it. Almost. The "fight over tactics and power" is the tension between the idealists and the realists. Ironically, voting over 40 times to get rid of Obamacare when realistically there was little chance the Senate would take it up provides scant evidence, as a logical matter, that the realists actually wanted to get rid of it.

To the idealists, showing that Republicans mean what they say is paramount. They won't support, volunteer for, or follow candidates whose positions are all about strategy and not reflective of a solid belief system.

There is a sneaking suspicion on the part of the idealists that the realists want to keep Obamacare around as a means of rallying the idealists every couple of years. This time they just didn't count on the idealists rallying themselves.

The two sides need each other. It takes both fervor and strategy to win elections, especially when one is faced with a dominant media and growing dependency culture. 

But people are not attracted to a political party for its strategy. They come for the ideals. As government grows without bound and dominates more and more of our lives, the voices standing against tyranny, and not seeming to accept it, will be most effective at bringing people in.

The recriminations over who is conservative, who is a turncoat, who is crazy, and who will rush to stay home one election day are silly. We should all enter the political party of our choice, learn how to organize for electoral success, and stay true to our principles. We are none of us pure; accepting the impurity of others as we recognize our own, let's join together an unite against the enemies of freedom.

Giles mckenzie

I very much agree with you, Loren. Some definitely value strategy over ideology, seemingly to the point where they are willing to negotiate on some (what I would call) core conservative principles.

Well done! And it seems many people didn't understand the article/post. Again, well done!

DonMashak's picture
Don Mashak

B as in B, S as in S.... The Republican Establishment aka the right half of he one and only one ruling class pretending to be 2 major political parties, cannot be painted with the brush of reality. They is a much broader brush that can be used to paint the 2 sides of the Republican Party. Those 2 parts are rank and file members working for the best interests of rank and file Americans and the Republican Elites who are a selfish lot who only use the Republican Platform to get elected and thereafter treat it as bad toilet paper. What does allowing Congressional Insider Trading have to do with reality vs Idealism? What does not auditing the Federal Reserve Bank have to do with Reality vs Idealism? If the Republican Platform means anything, why aren't any Conservatives that identify themselves as and/or who act Progressive Run out on a rail? Why aren't Fractional Reserve Banks required to pay fair Market Value for the right to create money out of thin air? Reality vs Idealism? Bite me Don Mashak, The Cynical Patriot

Edwin Loftus

I want to add a kick at Mr. Heal's theory and the chart that supports it. The strategy of compromise and focus on being the most attractive to the greatest number of voters in order to win elections is an intuitively logical one. Anyone who has ever listened to Michael Medved has heard this theory explained and defended by a very bright fellow.
The problem is that the evidence disputes the intuitively apparent. We have been following this theory for all of my lifetime and for all of my lifetime the other side has been winning ... big ... and fast. So though a logical strategy, it is indisputably not a winning strategy.
There is a reason why, in true science there is no such thing as a proven hypothesis. It is because there is always the possibility that some unrecognized factor or new evidence will overthrow the theory.
In politics in America we have had that "new" evidence (many years). It is long since time to recognize that the logic of "moderation" (which Mr. Heal calls "realism") has been based on the omission of an unconsidered factor (or factors).
One is that it does not give the voter a clear choice or the means to perceive a clear choice. Constitutional Conservativism is always dilute and confused y the inclusion of anti-Constitutional Conservative ideas and actions, the very idea and actions that make the "Conservative" appear "moderate" and appealing to more of the people that don't understand Constitutional Conservativism.
Another is the reluctance to be aggressive when theoretically Conservative Republicans are in power. Obamacare was voted in during a rare and brief period when thy had the power to do so. During the 1990s the Republicans briefly held majorities nearly as great. And almost all they got for it was an agreement to phase out the existing system of Welfare. They could have at least tried to "fundamentally change" and dismantle or reverse the descent into socialism, but the were afraid to because actually privatizing Social Security, repealing Medicare or any comparable effort would "anger the voters" and "ruin their chances in the next election". This story has been repeated too many times. The Democrats seize their windows of opportunity while the Republicans hobble themselves over worry that they will lose swing voters in the next election. The Democrats lost seats after passing Obamacare, lots of them. But guess what ... we still have Obamacare.
The strategy of compromise to win elections is failing and has been failing throughout its history. Therefore the hypothesis has failed, it is not "realism". It is an illusion created out of inadequate comprehension of the factors relevant to reality.
Of course any slipshod hypothesis will be the "best hypothesis" until a better one comes along. Compromise strategists are ready willing and able to show that the "Stand on your Ideals" strategy doesn't win either ... or are they? Remember most of this debate gets caught up in the issue of how big, expensive and intrusive government is. We seldom discuss where government should lie even though that is the central issue in Constitutional Conservativism. Domestic government should lie in the hands of the states, not the federal government. The advocates of compromise are beating us with statistics that show cutting spending versus not cutting spending, but that has nothing to do with who is doing or cutting the spending, the states or the federal government. Who is regulating and who is setting policy go along with this.
So let's be realistic. Compromising "moderates" aren't winning with their tactics and their tacticians argue very effectively that directly attacking the size and scope of the Democrat's social programs is a loser as well. My Sensei back in the Dojo taught me to never fight an opponent's strengths, evade them and fight his weaknesses instead. If we can't win on cuing welfare dependent America's government services then why not evade that issue and instead attack those services being controlled far away in Washington instead of their own state capitals. In Washington, states like Massachusetts will fight cutting Obamacare because they love Romneycare so much. So are we better off fighting to cut at the federal level, or fighting to cut on a state-by-state basis? Let blue states have their versions of Obamacare while red states do something else and then let us compare results. Let states have their own versions of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. Don't campaign on cutting them, just on placing them in hands closer and more answerable to the people that use them. Massachusetts can experiment with completely taking over the medical care provider system unhindered by red state opposition. Democrats would vote for that. While red states modify the existing systems they now control along more "conservative" lines. Then let's compare the effects of our superior ideas to the effects of their inferior ones.
Drop the fight over how much to spend on what and focus on fighting to restore the "laboratory of the states". If our ideas are better, they will be proven better and this either/or unscientific guess-work will become irrelevant.
Then Constitutional Conservativism will be on the side of idealism, realism and Liberty. While the "RINO"s will be placed in their proper "statist" category along with Democrats and radicals.

lheal's picture
Loren Heal

I confess I didn't read that whole thing, though I agreed wholeheartedly with the first few lines. I suggest you post it as a blog somewhere, where you can use paragraph breaks and such to make it more readable. The comments here are hard to use for in-depth argument.

Val Erie

*Thanks*, dear author, for showing why I will NEVER support FreedomWorks ever again.
Republicans are "realistic"?!?
DEMOCRATS are "realistic"??!!??

You poor thing, you.
Republicans are spineless wh*res of statism.
Democrats are Marxist ideological extremists.

If one considers the US Founding Documents to be "realistic,"
then Tea Party members are the only realistic players in the game.

Only a *fool* would claim that having - and *gasp*! standing by - principles is "idealistic.
Your suggestions above disgust me.

Joe Grimes

I think the case might be made more effectively if the term evil was eliminated. Because one does not agree with your concept, position or ideology, that does not make one evil. It is a basis for disagreement. As a Navy man, I spent time in the service of my country, to, among other things, defend the right for Americans to think independently, but not to call them evil because they did. We can and should respect error of judgments and/or conclusions, but such errors do not make one evil. Not all Muslims, blacks, women, etc. are evil, because of their beliefs, color or gender. The simplistic view of the world is just one of the reasons I moved away from the thinking of Republicans. Hatred toward those who think or look a little different than you, is too immature a position for one who desires political leadership to tolerate.

David Copley

Idealism and realism are not in opposition in the Republican party. Idealism is setting high standards and realism is being practical. These are not mutually exclusive. It is definitely possible to maintain high standards and achieve practical results. I agree that all Republicans consider themselves Conservatives but there is a difference between a constitutional conservative and a progressive conservative.

A constitutional conservative accepts the founding documents and preserves the core tenants of the constitution and bill of rights. A progressive conservative believes that "government must be actively involved at all levels in reforming modern society. The existing constitutional system is outdated and must be made into a dynamic, evolving instrument of social change, aided by scientific knowledge and the development of administrative bureaucracy" - Heritage Foundation. These are true opposing views.

Edwin Loftus

Smart! Kudos! And - what he said.