I watched the final debate between Britain’s current and two contending Prime Ministers this evening. They represented the Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats, and Labour Party. The contrast between the three was not half as stark as the contrast between British and American conservatives.
Let’s hope that American conservatives are paying attention to David Cameron of Britain’s Conservative Party. The Republican Party has been hijacked by policy makers who have decided that the clearest way to distinguish themselves from reasonable and practical policies is to offer unreasonable and ideological polices. Cameron’s campaign will hopefully remind Republicans that it is possible to distinguish yourself from reasonable policies by offering other reasons rather than just blindly opposing the other side.
For instance, Republicans in this country – the party that supposedly represents conservatives here – are mindlessly opposed to financial reform. Without reform, we will again find ourselves in the position of either bailing out bankers or letting them take down our economy. (And of course, no one wants to admit that even with great reforms we’re likely to find ourselves in this situation, the only difference being the probability and severity of the hostage situation.) Republicans simply don’t want to be seen cooperating with Obama – no matter how obvious or sensible his policies seem to be.
David Cameron, by contrast, rather sensibly wants to change things within London’s banking community in the wake of the Great Recession. He wants more regulation and more consequences for banks that pursue reckless policy. This position has the advantage of making sense whether one’s analysis is sophisticated or simply based in a common sense reaction to the last financial crisis. Cameron even mentioned that his plan for financial reform was very much like Obama’s.
In Britain, policies of liberals and conservatives sometimes align and sometimes clash. There does not appear to be a requirement to oppose everything the opposition party proposes. This used to be true in the US as well. Modern Republicans, as near as I can tell, seem to define themselves less by what they think will work than by opposing what Obama seems to think will work.
The curious thing about this is that Republicans are becoming more insistent on blind ideology in a time when the countries whose economies are performing best defy easy categorization: China is nominally communist but often more aggressively capitalist than the G-7 countries; Peru and Brazil’s economies have performed splendidly with some odd hybrid of socialist and free market policies that generally favor the poor. Anymore, the fastest growing economy is as likely to espouse adherence to free markets as socialism (and all the while adopting pragmatic policies). It seems as though the real solution to economic growth is ideological flexibility, not ideological rigidity. And yet Republicans, bucking the trend of conservatives and socialists alike around the world, are becoming more ideological. But if successful policy is pragmatic rather than ideological, having such an ideologically intent party means that we’re robbed of a practically conservative option in this country. No matter what your ideological orientation, you should find this troubling. We can’t steer right in this country because the party trying to pull the wheel in that direction does not want to pull into the other lane so much as go off-roading through the oleander.
I do believe that the Republican Party will look back at this period as the time of their great hijacking, a time when their only answer to any question was lower taxes and when they let themselves get defined on everything else by their automatic opposition to Democrats. As long as ideologues own the party, the country will either suffer from their rule (as under Bush) or conservatives will suffer from Republicans’ inability to win control in DC (as under McCain). As I said, one can only hope that American conservatives are paying attention to Cameron – and humble enough to learn from Cameron and even – on occasion – agree with Obama.