It Would Be Nice If True Conservatives Were Empiricists, But Let’s Face It

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Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for the Presidency, speaks to a Young Republicans rally in San Francisco.
Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for the Presidency, speaks to a Young Republicans rally in San Francisco.Photo: Ted Streshinsky/Corbis

The “reformocons,” the small coterie of pundit-adviser-activists trying to coax the Republican Party back toward sanity, may be doing the most politically significant work of any faction in America today. But the task of talking sense to the senseless is tricky business, involving lots of soft whispering and noble lies. Peter Wehner, the former Karl Rove aide, has taken on an important role in this movement, but his recent New York Times op-ed urging conservatives to be less crazy, reveals just how cautiously the reformocons must tread.

The rhetorical tack adopted by Wehner is to insist that No True Conservative would do things that are not only common features of conservatism, but actually its defining traits. He denounces Republicans who have taken “an apocalyptic view of American life during the Obama era”:

America is “very much like Nazi Germany,” in the words of Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said we had a couple of years to turn this country around or “we go off the cliff to oblivion.” Mark Levin, a popular radio talk show host, warned that Republicans were “endorsing tyranny” if they didn’t support shutting down the government in 2013.

Actually, an apocalyptic view of American life is the very thing that propelled conservatism to power in the first place. During the middle of the 20th century, the conservative movement operated at the outskirts of the Republican Party. It was one faction within the GOP, but not a majority. It may have slightly preferred Republicans over Democrats, but National Review (the central magazine of that movement) denounced President Eisenhower about as sharply as Glenn Greenwald denounces President Obama today.

The first moment when conservatives seized actual control of the party came, of course, in 1964 through the Goldwater movement. The Goldwater activists were driven by conspiratorial thinking. The campaign’s main tract, “A Choice Not an Echo,” written by Phyllis Schlafly, argued that the party could never lose if it campaigned wholeheartedly on conservative issues, but it had been betrayed by “a small group of secret kingmakers, using hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques, manipulated the Republican National Convention to nominate candidates who would sidestep or suppress the key issues.” Another key tract, “None Dare Call It Treason,” by John Stormer, alleged “a conspiratorial plan to destroy the United States into which foreign aid, planned inflation, distortion of treaty-making powers and disarmament all fit.” It sold 7 million copies and was distributed widely by Goldwater volunteers.

This apocalyptic strain has regularly infused conservative rhetoric. Milton Friedman compared John F. Kennedy’s program to fascism. Ronald Reagan warned that, if Medicare passed, the government would inevitably force doctors to live in cities where they did not want to, and future generations would no longer know “what it once was like in America when men were free.” (Conservatives continue to tout that speech today, as if it had proven prescient rather than deranged.)

Wehner proceeds to assert that conservatism “isn’t a rigid ideology, it leaves itself open to self-examination and self-correction. Authentic conservatism has a high regard for things empirical, for facts that can lead us to better apprehend the truth.” This is also pretty much the opposite of actual American conservatism. The conservative movement has always stood for the idea that big government is wrong  not just prudentially but in principle. The main thrust was that it didn’t matter if government worked, it should be cut because the government simply had no business fulfilling anything beyond a few limited tasks like defense, infrastructure, the role of law, and so on. Barry Goldwater famously declared:

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.

Now, to be sure, conservatives have often embraced empirical arguments for their position, but those have been layered on top of a deeper philosophical core. (They object to Obamacare’s methods and goals, but they have insisted it would fail to accomplish those goals and, when plainly disproven, refused to concede error.) It is also true that Republicans have often governed cautiously, made compromises, changed course, and so on. But this has merely reflected the degree to which conservatives have failed to hold total control of the party. The mainstream wing held significant control over the party well into the Reagan administration (when conservatives bitterly assailed mainstream advisers for suppressing Reagan’s “true,” conservative instincts.) Small vestiges of the old moderate Establishment even lasted into the George W. Bush administration, which was generally governed in full partnership with the conservative movement, and was famously disdainful of empiricism or self-correction. Wehner should know — he was there.