I have been a Republican since I first registered to vote at age 18. They sent me in the mail a little card listing Republican Principles, which I dutifully pinned to my bulletin board of teenage paraphanalia. The statements on the card were a little too watered down and mealy-mouthed for my tastes – in that paleolithic era the term “focus group” was not yet in wide circulation, but the reality was very much with us – but it was indeed a set of principles. I understood that I was signing up for an organization that had at least some non-negotiables.
Today, exactly a quarter century later, I resign from the Republican Party.
I formed a resolution of doing so months ago, but I decided to wait and give the party the last chance to do the right thing to which it was entitled by both law and custom. It chose not to take its last chance to escape entanglement in disgrace, so I am taking mine.
The next question is whether there is any future for “conservatism” under that name or in the historic expression it has recently taken. Many people are already passing around this powerfully affecting testimony from a young conservative that the movement she joined no longer exists. If you are not passing it around yet, you should start.
There is always, of course, some kind of future for the ideas and moral commitments contained within the ill-defined and somewhat incoherent jumble we currently call “conservatism,” just as there is always some kind of future for the ideas and moral commitments contained in the equally ill-defined and somewhat incoherent jumble we currently call “progressivism.” The past that made us who we are and our aspirations to unrealized possibilities; devotion to eternal principles and devotion to tangible, historic realities; these things are perennially attractive.
The quesiton is whether the ideas and commitments will continue to be organized in a way that resembles what we have known. Social conservatism and economic conservatism as we have known them have both been shown to be effectively powerless. Trump has neutered both of these conservative factions by demonstrating that one does not need to give them anything to gain power. The only question facing leaders of both factions is whether they value short-term power (in which case they bend the knee to America’s Mussolini) or long-term integrity (in which case they must admit they do not now have, and have not had for some time, much power at all). The choices we see these leaders making in real time before us reveal much that had been hidden – much good as well as bad.
My guess is that something will happen now that will be neither a repudiation nor a continuation of conservatism as such, but something in between. Jonah Goldberg has been talking about a new Liberty League modeled on the organization that gave anti-statists a home outside the parties during the high tide of American statism. (This is long but I could not stop reading it.) But would that be simply a place to keep the conservative flame lit in exile, or a place to forge a new expression of old ideas and commitments that would not be what we have called “conservatism” but would incorporate some of its elements?
Another model we might look to is Vaclav Havel’s Civic Forum. When the moment of crisis arrived, the Czech dissidents formed an umbrella organization that welcomed any and all opponents of the Stalinist regime, whatever their ideological commitments. Havel provided an expression of shared moral foundations broad enough to show that they all had something in common. The coalition held the nation together during the crisis – held it together in opposition to the Stalinist regime. After the crisis passed, it promptly fell apart and two-party democracy arose in its place – as one would expect to happen, and even welcome. I think we are probably entering a period of history that will bear more in common with Czechoslovakia in 1989 than America in 1934.
I do not resign from conservatism. But my priority is not conserving conservatism. My priority is building moral consensus so that Americans who love what is good, true and beautiful can find a way to hang together. For if we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.