Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Many a Slip from Party Philosophy to Governing Policy

Timothy Sherratt


August 4, 2006

Begin with a paradox. In 2001, the new Bush administration rejected the Kyoto protocols on global warming, while expressing some concern for climate change. Five years on, in a remarkable paradox, it is the "strong government" European Union, not the "limited government" Republican administration, which has adopted a market solution—greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme.

Now in 2006, with midterm elections approaching, there is many a slip between the cup of conservative ideology and the lip of administration policy. Will these slips affect election outcomes decisively?

Quoted in the New York Times recently, political scientist James Ceaser observed that Republicans and Democrats treat their respective political philosophies quite differently. Years in the political wilderness allowed Republicans to fashion a sophisticated view of limited government. Spending those same years in office, Democrats practiced interventionist government and paid little attention to its underlying philosophy—their successes and the levels of support they enjoyed suggested that the associated values had become so widely accepted as to need little defense.

This party asymmetry has persisted down the years, has survived an inversion in the fortunes of Democrats and Republicans, and may influence the outcome of the midterm elections.

Republicans invoke their ideology frequently and try to turn it directly into policy. This encourages the party faithful to judge policies ideologically. But the conservative commitment to limited government does not bear up well under scrutiny. Military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security spending, the rehabilitation of FEMA following the hurricanes, even the draconian immigration policy backed by House Republicans, all add up to expensive, interventionist government. Many of the faithful are outraged. If the Republicans fail to contain this crisis, grassroots turnout will be down in November.

The Democrats cannot overlook political philosophy. For several decades, radical activists replaced the bold, but still pragmatic, policies of the New Deal. What David Koyzis calls a politics of equal opportunity became a politics of choice enhancement. Civil rights, anti-poverty campaigns, women's rights, and gay rights shaped the party's profile and its practitioners. By pressing for strong government solutions to these issues, the Democratic Party forfeited its traditional claim to moderation, for who can remain moderate when fundamental rights are at stake? Party activists embraced the radical profile. Rank-and-file voters accepted it reluctantly or not at all.

So, despite all the problems faced by the Bush administration and the fissures in the Republican Party, the Democrats will have no easy time making gains this fall. To succeed, they must exploit the G.O.P.'s internal tensions and find a way to chart a distinct course of their own. If they belittle conservative ideology, they may only awaken Republicans' real affection for it, just as scoundrels in the seats of power rarely dampen the ardor of patriots.

American politics remains ideologically driven. Voters, even as they look for solutions, often succumb to ideological reassurances. Neither immigration, nor Iraq, nor gay marriage discourages ideological presentation. Is either party up to making its ideology produce effective governance?

Greenhouse gas emissions, as worthy of consideration by the electorate as these other issues, may not be prominent in the fall elections. This is a pity because a widely shared commitment to limited government has something to contribute to responsible policy on this issue. With appropriate government safeguards, markets for trading emissions credits may help combat global warming, in accordance with the limited government tradition. For now, however, there is no new federal initiative. And that is why, when Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a UK-US exploration of ways to combat global warming last week, he stood on the podium not with President Bush, but with Governor Schwarzenegger.

—Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”