Michael Gerson: What's needed is a conservative temperament
WASHINGTON -- A few recent developments have revealed the tea party temperament in its most distilled, potent form.
Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin called for the impeachment of President Obama on the theory that his border policies are “the last straw that makes the battered wife say, 'no mas.'” Excavating the layers of mixed metaphor—the straw that broke the camel's back is somehow causing an abused woman to surrender in Spanish—Palin demands the ousting of an American president on the constitutional theory that “enough is enough.”
Republicans who disapprove of this plan, according to Palin, lack “cojones” and true conservatives should “vehemently oppose any politician on the Left or Right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment.” Opponents are identified not just by disagreement (and by a lack of male sex glands) but by hesitation. In adopting the succession practices of a banana republic, and in elevating Vice President Biden to power, those who are reflective and deliberative are natural enemies.
At the same time, failed tea party Senate candidate Chris McDaniel claims his primary opponent, Thad Cochran, “stole” the election—a serious charge made without serious evidence—and equates overturning his 7,700-vote loss with preserving “the torch of liberty.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has embraced McDaniel's legal challenge, blaming the “D.C. machine” for shifting the election results.
The tea party movement, of course, is more than the sum of its Palins. Both major political parties have and need a base of enthusiastic populists. And some of the Republican Party's brighter policy lights, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, emerged from tea party backgrounds.
But it is clearly not Rubio's anti-poverty proposals or Lee's child tax credit increase that brings tea party crowds to their feet. The movement has developed a characteristic tone and approach. It is often apocalyptic. The torch of liberty sputters. The country is on the verge of tyranny.
Yet, without apparent cognitive dissonance, the movement's goals are often utopian. The nation's problems can be solved by passing 10 amendments to the Constitution or by impeaching the president. And those who don't share a preference for maximal (sometimes delusional) solutions—those who talk of incrementalism or compromise—are granted particular scorn.
The tea party temperament is often accompanied by an easily reducible political theory. “The word 'education,'” McDaniel has argued, “is not in the Constitution. Because the word is not in the Constitution, it's none of their [the federal government's] business.” Neither are the phrases “health care,” “retirement assistance,” “disaster relief,” “food safety” or “cancer research.” And there goes much of the modern state.
These habits of mind—desperation, utopianism, purifying zeal and ideological simplicity—have their uses throughout history. But they can't be called conservative. This is one theme of a careful, instructive essay by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers in National Affairs that ought to be required beach reading for conservatives. The authors describe the attributes of the conservative temperament—humility, an appreciation for what is worthy in our society, a preference for incremental reform, a distrust of abstraction—and contrast them to the “misguided radicals of the Left and Right.”
Progressives, in their view, have created complex and ungovernable public systems by “doubling down on centralization and technocracy.” But “some on the right seek to break with the past in a very different manner—repudiating 80 years of institutional development and reinventing America as a nation that rejects the substantive role for regulation or a social safety net. Though they are often labeled as 'conservatives,' their ambitions, and especially their rhetoric, emphasize the need for a sharp break with many features of our current governing institutions.”
The alternative is a more empirically grounded and practical conservatism, which displays a “deep interest and knowledge of our starting place and the plausible means of making improvements.”
This advice is timely. Precisely because President Obama's progressivism is exhausted and increasingly discredited, Americans will give the GOP another look. They will be either impressed or frightened by what they see. A party that is genuinely excited about conservative anti-poverty proposals, the child tax credit and other reforms—rather than impeachment and the abolition of modern government—might even be judged worthy of the presidency again.
The most urgent requirement for conservative success is the recovery of a conservative temperament.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.