Breaking up with the GOP
Is the battle of individual liberty against big government over? A lot of Republicans seem to have declared 'mission accomplished'
Senior editorial writer and columnist for the Register
Have you ever been in one of those destructive long-term relationships that, at some point, you really just needed to end?
I'm not referring to my marriage to my lovely wife of 23 years, but to my 25-year relationship with the Republican Party. In recent years especially, I have found fewer things in common with the party. I feel used and abused. We've obviously grown in different and incompatible directions.
It's a groan-inducing clichι, I know, but it applies here: I didn't leave the party; the party left me.
I grew up in one of those East Coast Democratic households, where FDR, JFK and even LBJ were lionized, and where the GOP wasn't so much loathed as ignored. I never met an actual Republican at least anyone who admitted as much until I went away to college. I became a Republican during Ronald Reagan's first term, having been inspired by his appeals to liberty, to his recognition of the freedom-stifling aspects of big government, to his unabashed embrace of the traditions of America's founders.
Reagan never actually rolled back government, but I can forgive a failure to achieve lofty aims. I cannot forgive abandonment of those aims. And it has been obvious for years, especially under the leadership of our current Republican president and our previously Republican-controlled Congress, that the "pro-liberty" stance has become nothing more than an applause line at those syrupy Flag Day dinners.
Under Republican leadership, the federal government has expanded without even including war-related spending far more quickly than it expanded under Bill Clinton. And when it comes to security matters, Republicans have been zealous in giving the feds additional powers to trample our privacy and liberties. Republicans have been unwavering in their support for embarking on nation-building experiments of the sort that traditional conservatives would abhor. The presidential candidates most committed to a muscular central government Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are leading the pack.
Now even the rhetoric of freedom is mostly gone. Most "mainstream" Republicans don't talk about liberty anymore. The advocates for this emerging New Republican Party are becoming surprisingly outspoken. A good example is New York Times "conservative" columnist David Brooks, a former editor at the Weekly Standard, the neoconservative journal that shilled vociferously for war in Iraq. (Hint: The results of that policy might offer some warning to Republicans before they jump too quickly on his latest advice.)
In a column reprinted today (beginning on Page 1 of Commentary), Brooks rebutted those of us who argue that "in order to win again, the GOP has to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days. It has to once again be the minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism, and states' rights. This is folly."
Obviously unaware of the ever-growing Leviathan around him, Brooks claims that the old days of oppressive government are over. The idea of limited government that silly, fuddy-duddy notion advanced by our Constitution, and ensconced in the Bill of Rights is so 18th century. Time for something more appropriate for our time!
He's got a new idea (actually, the oldest of ideas, the one that says that government and power are what matters, and that freedom and individualism are outdated). And he's even got a catchy slogan for it. He calls it, Security leads to freedom.
Forgive me a Dave Barry moment, but I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Doesn't this sound like something out of an Orwell novel? War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Security is freedom. Brooks argues that the "liberty vs. power paradigm" is passι. Government doesn't necessarily mean less personal liberty, he writes. Modern voters aren't worried about an overweening state. Instead, the public wants to be protected from the complex modern threats to their existence: "Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation."
Maybe a large segment of the public wants those things, but it's the job of statesmen to lead the People, to frame the relevant issues, to set a course that is at times bigger and more noble than the current small-scale debates not just to slavishly follow the People's basest desires. By the way, I'm not picking on Brooks per se, but using him as an articulate example of a form of thinking common today among many in the GOP.
Has the world been turned on its head? I see no signs that the classical liberal thinkers were wrong, that government is no longer wasteful, abusive and corrupt. Government continues to grab a larger share of our resources, even as it becomes less capable of doing its legitimate jobs with any degree of competence. Yet Brooks and others like him believe that the government can save us from all our neurotic worries, even ones as nebulous as "economic and social segmentation" whatever that means.
When people are secure, Brooks wrote, they are "more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world. ... People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities."
At this point I want to tell the People to grow up already. Brooks' point in the paragraph is true enough. But here I go again with an arcane notion in a free society, individuals need to take care of these matters mostly themselves, rather than to plead for bureaucrats and politicians to take care of things for them.
Our government is based on the radical idea that government should be limited to a handful of tasks, most of which revolve around protecting our natural rights. These are negative rights. They implore the government to leave us alone to pursue our own dreams and desires. Positive rights demand a positive response. If I have a "right" to education, then you must be forced to pay for it or provide it for me.
Traditionally, Republicans believed in negative rights. Yet Brooks thinks that's a mistake. He writes that the GOP needs to be "oriented less toward negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back?) and more toward positive liberty (Can I choose how to lead my life?)."
Instead of worrying about government spending, and regulating and snooping and launching foreign wars and eroding our civil liberties and imposing crushing tax burdens, and all those silly old fixations, Brooks argues that Republicans have to compete with Democrats in appealing to every soccer mom's desire for more social programs, more regulations, more protections from hobgoblins. He argues, in a refreshingly albeit frighteningly direct manner, for the final, total rejection of the American founding experiment.
Sure, the Republicans will focus more on terrorism and security issues, and the Democrats will focus more on health care and domestic regulation, but in this Brave New Paradigm, no major party will echo the words of that outdated crank, Thomas Jefferson, who argued that "the sum of good government" is one "which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned."
Perhaps that world already is here. Which is why I'm divorcing myself from the Republican Party, and keeping my distance from any group that doesn't place the defense of liberty as the prime goal of the political system.
Steven Greenhut is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.
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