Thursday, February 14, 2008

How big should the tent be? (Part 1)

During recent chat sessions at Heading Right Radio (which you should all be listening to) Jazz Shaw asked an interesting question. I didn't write it down verbatim but it was something to the effect of "If the Republican Party wants to be a big tent, where is the edge of the tent? Which single tenet (or set of tenets) puts one outside the tent?"

It is a good question from the point of view of people who are conservatives in some spaces and more liberal in others. Jazz said he is a fiscal conservative and social liberal, for instance. Since the Democratic party leadership (not necessarily and I think NOT the typical Democrat voter) has been taken over by the far left they have a very, very small tent of folks allowed to run for significant office. For those people who are both principled and informed that means that there are many, many folks like Jazz who (I am guessing) disagree with many if not most of what the Democratic leadership represents. They also happen disagree with many of the ideas of the "movement conservatives".

The Republican party says it has a big tent so they should be peeling off many/most of those folks who would be voting consistently Democrat if that party were run by traditional Liberals (JFK/Scoop Jackson/etc.) instead of the current "Progressives" (read socialists/Marxists). Please bear in mind that I don't consider myself a movement conservative. I am certainly right of center (and by center I mean the real center of America and not the mythical leftist center the antique media portrays) but I have some leanings that vary with the traditional definition of a movement conservative. I am also not a "party Republican". I have voted for Democrats in local and state races because I thought those individuals were a better choice in that place and time. I would do so at the national level if I believed the Dem/other were a better choice or the lesser of two evils. I would call myself an independent conservative, YMMV.

So, how big is the tent or how big should it be? First of all I think there are really two, and maybe three questions there. How big is the net of ideas and inputs the party wishes to entertain? Secondly, how far from the center of the tent will it allow the standard bearer of the party to be? The first question may be further separated into where is the edge for members vs. the edge for state office holders, national office holders, etc. I am not sure that this is a distinction with a difference but it might be.

The first two questions, however, I believe offer a distinction with a difference. I know many people, myself included, that are very upset that John McCain will be the standard bearer of the party that is supposed to represent conservative views. He is, frankly, too far out of the center of the tent to be the standard bearer in the opinion of most conservatives. I only know a couple of folks who believe the party should not accept him as a US Senator and should have actively supported primary opponents. This is not, for instance, true of the former Senator Lincoln Chaffee. He was outside the tent completely while John McCain is just out from the center (IMO). It is acceptable to the vast majority of the movement conservatives that people who are in the tent but out towards the edge hold positions in local, state, and even national offices. The breaking point that peeves them is when the party nominates someone towards the edge of the tent to lead the free world. McCain has the added "benefit" of having poked the movement conservatives in the eye on many occasions which blurs the picture in his case but let us ignore that for now and try and focus on Jazz's, IMO, thought provoking question. I am not sure there is an answer but I think the thought experiment may be enlightening.

Next, in an attempt to come to an understanding of each other I offer a set of definitions. These may be more or less useful than those used by others but at least a defined set will (hopefully) avoid people misunderstanding what I am attempting to say and allow them to disagree in terms that I will not misunderstand.

First, the big categories. I offer a short description of how I use the categories of people on the spectrum. Please note that I am talking about the way people govern/vote/act and not what they feel/believe personally. Many people scoff at the idea of "I personally believe X but I don't want the government imposing X or restricting Not X". I do not. I hold several such views on very important matters. As a matter of political pragmatism I don't care how a politician feels. I care how they will act in their official capacity (vote/veto/appoint/etc).

It is, IMNSHO, frankly un-American to believe that all of one's personal views and choices should be imposed by the government. Our country was founded on "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and our society is defined by the trinity of phrases on our coins. These things are inconsistent with the imposition of any complete set of ethical and social standards on the society by force of the government. We can peacefully argue about where the lines should be drawn but I won't even entertain the argument that it is appropriate or Constitutional for the government to impose a complete set of strict norms, a.k.a. Sharia Law or Jewish Law or Christian Law.

Conservative - those leaning towards historic local/cultural tradition - in the US that means small but effective government doing only those things individuals cannot do well for themselves, preventing those things the populace finds abhorrent or that destabilizes or harms society but otherwise staying out of the way. Can be further broken into today's "movement conservatives", "Rockafeller Republicans", "social conservatives" and "economic conservatives" to name but a few.

Liberal - those attempting to preserve the intent of the framers (JFK/Scoop/etc) for our unique form of government - the framers were radical for their day but by no means socialistic. Where Conservatives are trying to preserve norms and allow experimentation only around the edges, traditional Liberals should be pushing the thought experiments of how to continuously improve society in larger and sometimes radical ways while still avoiding failed experiments like socialism and preserving individual freedoms. A true Liberal would as likely attempt getting the government out of something as getting it in. Today the only real contingent of these on the national level are called "Blue Dog Democrats" and most of those called that are not precisely traditional Liberals. The traditional Liberals now mostly call themselves conservatives but are not "movement conservatives". That said, I think many voters who call themselves Democrats are, in fact, closer to traditional Liberals. This group could also be further split into subsets like the Conservatives.

Progressive - far left socialist types - give the government most of your money and depend on it for everything, i.e. those in control of the Democratic Party now. Social norms are the largest place where government should have little say in your life.

Libertarian - far right with some leftish social positions, tiny government to no government - only enough government to avoid anarchy, get the government out of everything and leave me alone if I am not directly affecting anyone else

Populist - usually big government types but one whose ideas are fluid and whose governance is defined by opinion polls. Most successful populists seem to have a few ideas that are fixed but let the majority be fluid with the polls. I would call Gov. Huckabee, for instance a consistent social conservative but otherwise a populist. I would call former President Bill Clinton a largely social liberal who was mostly a populist. I would lean towards calling the current President Bush a national defense hawk and low tax conservative but otherwise a populist.

You can feel free to argue with these definitions and I welcome corrections that will aid the discussion, but my point is to make sure I am understood and not to get everyone to agree with my definitions.

Part 2 will be a breakdown of the key ideas on the national scale and where the various groups tend to fall in acceptance or rejection of those ideas. Note: not all policy positions tightly fit within or outside of any particular group. There was a time not long ago where it was Conservatives who were isolationist and Liberals who were interventionist and trade expansionist. That said, I will attempt to go through the things being discussed and where the bulk of any one group falls on that issue now. Once I have fleshed through those ideas I am hoping that it will be clearer in my head why there are so many folks who feel unrepresented by either party and so many others who support people who disagree with them on many of the most important issues of our time.


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