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:


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.


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