The Republican Party and the conservative movement: a key distinction

Paul Krugman, from the beginning of the economic crisis, has been mostly ‘right’ on what it would take to have a recovery, much as Nate Silver was mostly ‘right’ on the 2012 election. But I’m going to criticize a recent Krugman column from the point of view of a political sociology, because the column — headlined ‘The G.O.P.’s Existential Crisis’ (link) — fails to make a key analytical distinction:

The modern Republican Party’s grand, radical agenda lies in ruins — but the party doesn’t know how to deal with that failure, and it retains enough power to do immense damage as it strikes out in frustration.

The problem is Krugman’s ahistorical characterization of the Republican party. His argument proceeds as if the Republican party has an essential, unchangeable nature. But the opposite is true: the party of both Lincoln and Reagan has a long history of changing its animating ideas, and we can’t today write as if the GOP will never shift again. The modern Republican party’s main agenda has not been to live and die by a certain set of ideas, but to increase its presence in government. The party believed and promulgated knowledge — chose its ideas — according to an assessment of how to best to maintain or increase the power of the organization.

Krugman’s theory of a “crisis” better fits the conservative movement, whose agenda is defined much more by a particular set of ideas. Krugman rightly points out these beliefs are now vulnerable. For example, the core principle of “small government” is in the process of being deemed unpresentable by GOP leadership during the fiscal cliff negotiations. Instead of presenting in full the details of a Paul Ryan-like plan — which is what they’ve come to be associated with — the leadership is trying to force Obama into being the author of the spending cuts, or at least co-author. If you are a conservative movement true-believer, you have to be wondering why the party is not taking the opportunity to force massive spending cuts upon Obama. The answer is that cutting social spending alienates important social groups, and the party, if not the movement, needs to rebuild relationships with these groups.

The Republican party is either in the process or soon will be of morphing and mutating, adjusting to realities, like it always has, like any party. The shift will be comparable to the recent transformation of the Democrats from New-Dealers to neoliberals, pre- to post-Clinton. When ideas lose credibility or become outdated, parties adapt because they can.

In contrast, the conservative movement is more boxed in, almost entirely dependent upon the success of a few self-definitive ideas. Most important among them is the idea of “small government.” Problem for the movement is, data suggest the GOP believes the details behind the “small government” idea are publicly unpresentable, and appear to be remarkably close to pivoting away from them a little bit. Such a pivot the conservative movement can’t make, lest there be no conservative movement.

In sum, in terms of the ideas he detests, and upon whom he empirically pins the “agenda,” I would suggest Krugman make a distinction between the movement and the party. And to read Gross, Medvetz, and Russell’s sociology-of-knowledge paper on the movement.

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This entry was posted in conservative movement, political sociology, politics, The End of the GOP. Bookmark the permalink.

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