If Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democratic side of the aisle affected only the fortunes of the Republican Party, it would be no cause for concern for non-Republicans like me. But America’s democratic scheme depends on a robust opposition to check the government’s tendency to grow–especially now that the White House is occupied by Barack Lyndon Roosevelt. Yet Republicans are as far from serving that role as the Detroit Lions are from winning the Super Bowl.
So what should the Grand Old Party do to resurrect itself enough to mount some semblance of resistance to the advancing Democratic juggernaut? The answer is that it needs intellectual coherence around a powerful idea, and that idea should be liberty. This is a principle that is both strong enough to intellectually moor the party in the way that those who want a “purer” GOP desire–and grand enough to appeal to a broad swath of the population, as those who advocate a more Big Tent approach recommend.
This would be the exact opposite of what Bush did. He, remarkably enough, managed to combine every anti-individual liberty idea from the right with every pro-big government policy from the left. From the right, Bush acquired: a super-hawkish foreign policy; contempt for civil liberties; and religiously informed positions on gay marriage, abortion and end-of-life issues. And from the left he got: high-spending ways, including the massive drug entitlement for seniors; expansive ideas about the federal government’s role in education policy; and the chutzpah, just before leaving, to engineer a massive government bailout of banks and auto companies.
Since the utter rout of the Bush agenda last November, the only Republican who has made the case for liberty is Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, he argued that the GOP should concentrate on returning the federal government to its core functions, not imposing its moral views on everyone. But this is hard to take seriously from a man who voted not once but twice for a constitutional amendment overriding the power of states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, demonstrating that for all his brave talk about freedom and federalism, he is not completely serious about either.
But what should Republicans do to reclaim the mantle of freedom?
They could begin, first and foremost, by showing some embarrassment with the label “conservative.” Democrats have been embarrassed with the term “liberal” ever since it became synonymous with tax-and-spend in the public mind. Interestingly, even Obama, who is nothing if not a tax-and-spend liberal and then some, has shunned the label.
In fact, F. A. Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who did more than anyone in the 20th Century to fight socialism and revive the cause of liberty, urged conservatives nearly half a century ago in his essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” to find another name–one that emphasizes liberty–to describe themselves. There is an inherent tension between conservatism and liberty, he pointed out, which in a “conservative” party can’t reliably be resolved in favor of liberty.
Conservatives of course dismiss this tension. America’s institutions are built on principles of liberty, they claim, therefore defending them means defending liberty. But labels shape self-understanding–and the term conservatism shifts the emphasis from defending America because it is the land of liberty to defending liberty because it is American.
This has profound consequences for the conservative psyche, putting it fundamentally at odds with liberty whenever it threatens the conservative conception of America. It is not a coincidence that nativists who hyperventilate about immigration’s effect on American language and attitudes, isolationists who fear that trade agreements will dissolve American sovereignty, culture warriors who regard gay marriage and evolution as a mortal threat to American values, and technological Luddites who rail against advances in bioengineering because they tamper with their idea of nature have all found a comfortable home within the conservative party. It is hard to imagine, say, the Freedom Party becoming a ready forum for such ideas.
But to truly become the party of liberty, conservatives have to accept liberty not just in name but also in attitude. They can’t be the party of liberty if they reject the consequences of liberty. This means they have to internalize the notion that leaving individuals free to incrementally revise existing institutions in response to shifting human needs adds to–not subtracts from–the overall social well-being. To put it in economics terms, liberty produces positive–not negative–externalities. It doesn’t destroy existing culture, community and country, but rather produces what Hayek called “spontaneous order,” which, without bloodshed, allows the old and decrepit ways to be replaced by new and better ones. In short, they have to unabashedly welcome progress and finally purge the ghost of William F. Buckley, who keeps telling them to “stand athwart history and cry stop.”
Admittedly, adopting a posture of liberty won’t resolve every internal disagreement within the GOP. But it will cause it to rethink its policy agenda–abandoning many existing issues and adopting new ones. It will certainly mean that Republicans will have to stiffen their resolve to fight the frightening advance of the nanny and regulatory state under one-party rule in Washington.
But the recognition that a free people can’t be constrained in whom they hire, marry or engage in commerce with (barring of course some security or public health issue) will also give them ammunition to become passionate defenders of open trade and immigration, and thereby distinguish themselves from Democrats. A commitment to liberty won’t settle the abortion debate because even people who are pro-choice (like me) have to acknowledge that there is no easy answer as to when individuals become entitled to rights. But it will settle many end-of-life and other social issues where only an individual’s own life is at stake. Nor will committing to liberty yield clear principles to gauge the best course of action on the various foreign policy challenges of our times–but it will make the loss of civil liberties that inevitably follows overseas adventurism a central part of the discussion.
The 19th century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that there are essentially two grand themes around which political life can be organized in America: equality and liberty. Democrats already have a lock on the first and so, unless Republicans want to once again become tax collectors for the welfare state, as they were from 1933 to 1980, they will have to offer something radically different.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation. She writes a bi-weekly column for Forbes.com, where this first appeared.