Thursday, September 16, 2010

Conservative Evangelists and Liberal Tacticians

Yesterday, contemplating Christine O’Donnell’s Senate primary victory in Delaware, I noted that, while it’s natural to speak of “movement conservatism,” it never occurs to us to speak of "movement liberalism.” That point warrants a little more attention.

Generally speaking, we expect democratic politicians to do their best to win elections in the hope that they’ll satisfy some of our preferences and promote some of our ideals in the process. So what are we to make of the fact that ambitious conservative politicians like Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint visibly supported O’Donnell, a likely loser in the Delaware Senate general election, over a likely winner like Mike Castle?

The best answer I can think of is that modern American conservatism is a political movement and Palin and DeMint are movement politicians. As such, heartfelt ideological convictions figure into their political careers in two crucial ways: first, they subordinate electoral victory to ideological rectitude—that’s why DeMint insists he’d rather be part of a steadfastly conservative Senate minority that an ideologically flabby majority; second, they regard winning hearts and minds as the principal measure of political success. Movement politicians are political evangelists who’ve persuaded themselves that, if they manage to win enough ideological converts, elections will take care of themselves. By that measure, the Delaware Senate primary was a political victory for conservatism even if it costs Republicans a Senate seat in the next election.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether a “movement politician” is a good thing to be. My point is that liberal movement politicians are an endangered species if they exist at all (the late Paul Wellstone is the last prominent specimen that comes to my mind). Or, to put the same point a different way, liberalism is no longer an ideological movement the way conservatism is. It was not so long ago, but you’d have to go back to Ted Kennedy in 1980, to find a liberal who had a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination running as a movement politician.

I’m not forgetting that there are plenty of Democratic politicians ready to stand by their own liberal principles even when it’s politically costly—the way lots of liberal congressmen walked the political plank by voting for ObamaCare is evidence enough of that. But that doesn’t make even the most doctrinaire liberals among them into movement politicians. If they were, they wouldn’t regard enacting ObamaCare despite its unpopularity as the greatest liberal achievement of the last forty years on the theory that, if they played their tactical cards right, public opinion would eventually take care of itself.  A conservative “achievement” of that sort would strike a Palin or a DeMint as a humiliating political defeat.

That raises a question for liberals who like to call themselves progressives: does it make sense to think of an ideology as “progressive” when its devotees are no longer in the business of winning hearts and minds?

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