Just in the past few years, we've seen the political pendulum swing wildly back and forth between the left and the right, from the post-9/11 conservative heyday, to the progressive revival in 2006-2008, and now, supposedly, to a new dawn for the GOP. Andrew Sullivan laments how "ideology has infiltrated everything, it has saturated public and private, it has invaded even something sacred like religious faith, in which the mysteries of existence have been distilled in writing or even understanding the churches into a battle between 'liberals' and 'conservatives.'" He considers this antithetical to true conservatism, which "is a resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents, whether that ideology is a function of the left or the right."
Fair enough, but I think what Sullivan is really objecting to is partisanship masquerading as ideology. Think about it this way: If you wanted to seriously examine the ideology of, say, Sarah Palin, what would you come up with? Well, government is bad and markets are good (except don't cut Medicare!). And America, like, totally rocks, and guns are fun. But imagine for a moment that she were president -- or, for that matter, Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or any other prominent Republican. Now imagine that you suddenly found yourself a deputy assistant secretary of agriculture. If you were looking for ideological guidance as to how to do your job, what kind of help would Palinism (or Romneyism, or Pawlentyism) really give you? Not much. What the current group of Republican office-seekers believe is mostly that Democrats and things Democrats want to do are very bad, and we shouldn't elect those people or do those things.
If the Republicans do win a smashing victory in November, it certainly won't be because a compelling new 21st-century brand of conservatism swept the land. It'll be because people believe the economy sucks and the Obama administration hasn't done enough to fix it, and because congressional Democrats are a bunch of ineffectual losers (as of this writing, anyway -- we await the outcome of health-care reform). That won't stop pundits -- and Republicans themselves -- from declaring it an ideological victory (and I'll admit that I myself engaged in a little ideological triumphalism after Obama's election). But if that does happen, we should keep in mind that it will be a political win, not some kind of emphatic message from the voters that now we need to cut the capital-gains tax with all due haste.
Any party that wins has the right to implement its agenda, then go back to the voters and see if they like the results. But we should always be careful about assuming the public has demanded an ideological turn of one kind or another. And I hereby pledge to keep this in mind after the next Democratic victory.
-- Paul Waldman
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