Into the Wild

The track record of parties finding their ideological compass in the wilderness is undoubtedly mixed, but this argument is just stupid (emphasis mine):

It’s amazing that some smart conservatives still cling to the “winning-by-losing” strategy, refusing to surrender the lunatic idea that you can build a party’s strength by reducing its numbers. No movement in U.S. political history has ever benefited from a purification process; purges always weaken or destroy a party’s vitality and viability, as even 1930’s Communists could attest. Nothing is more obvious in the American political process than the proposition that you win elections by attracting wafflers, moderates, dissenters, and independent spirits to your side; you lose elections by driving away such uncertain souls.

Moreover, history shows conclusively that a bitter defeat never pushes a conservative party farther right, or pushes a liberal party further left. Instead, political organizations that experience harsh rejection from the electorate move instinctively, inevitably toward the center in quest of precisely those middle-of-the-road voters who abandoned them in the previous contest. After outspoken conservative Barry Goldwater led the GOP to an overwhelming defeat in 1964, the nominees that followed (Nixon twice and then Gerald Ford) clearly represented the more moderate wing of the party. When unapologetic liberal George McGovern brought the Democrats a ruinous 49-state drubbing in 1972, they followed with a long series of relatively centrist, purportedly non-ideological candidates (Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore), reliably shunning the strong leftist contingent within their coalition.

This is simply untrue. The Democratic Party just nominated its most unabashedly progressive presidential candidate in years after a rash of high-profile defeats. Have movement conservatives suddenly forgotten their fear of Obama’s “militant” leftism?

I imagine that most out-of-power parties respond to circumstance rather than any ironclad rule of ideological moderation. In the 1990s, for example, the Democrats nominated a Southern centrist to woo a conservative electorate. The interesting thing about this election is that Republicans lack a clear ideological scapegoat. Moderates and reformists insist that McCain’s substance-free campaign proves the need for better conservative wonkery. The Republican base, on the other hand, remains enamored with that old time conservative religion. The ensuing struggle for the party’s soul will undoubtedly be bloody, but I see no reason why Republicans will inevitably drift towards the center. In fact, the conservative civil war’s opening skirmishes suggest that the base is winning the argument.

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Filed under Conservatism, Participatory Democracy, Presidential Politics

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