No excuses for the GOP

To quote Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The Republican Party currently finds itself underlings. It is in a very difficult place. It faces some monumental challenges, and most of these problems are our own doing.

The chief fault is our abandonment of what I like to call “intellectual conservatism” in favor of right-wing populism.

By that I certainly don’t mean “smart people” vs. “dumb people.” Rather, I mean the underlying motivation and basis of the conservative movement of author and commentator William F. Buckley vs. the conservative movement of Sarah Palin.

The individual figures themselves would be virtually identical in most of their policy positions. This isn’t an ideological issue — a case of the squishy moderate establishment vs. the conservative grassroots.

Buckley was the logical brainpower behind the modern conservative movement. He hosted heady debates between people who sought factual backing for their assertions and always justified his beliefs with a litany of examples from history, support from the philosophy of Edmund Burke and John Locke, logical thought experiments and examinations of the effects of real-world policy.

One need only watch his debate on Firing Line with linguist and critic Noam Chomsky to realize you were dealing not only with a deeply conservative human being but a true scholar. Seriously, go watch it.

The conservatism of Palin and those like her is a new and, in my opinion, very unhealthy version of populism.

These conservatives hold most of the positions a conservative scholar would hold, but the reasons they hold them are different.

For the populist, the chief concern is less about sound policy or logically crafted ideology but siding with “the people” against “the elites.”

Today’s right-wing populists spends most of their time complaining about various brands of elites: the mainstream media, liberal academia, popular culture, politicians of any stripe and the so-called unprincipled establishment.

This was on full display last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. As Palin stood up, she delivered her usual shtick, positioning herself as the heroine of “the people,” and contrasting it against the vile corruption of the various elites, while making no intellectual argument for conservatism at all.

I have no particular love for the establishment, the mainstream press or any of the people Palin typically complains about, of course. But my issue is that the basis of her appeal is to the emotions — particularly resentment and anger — of the people listening, rather than a thoughtful appeal to superior ideas.

This represents a brand of victimhood I am uncomfortable with: We would have won the election if only the media wasn’t so hostile to us. If only so many “low information” voters didn’t get dragged to the polls by liberals, we would have won.  If only the Democrats hadn’t bribed the American people with promises of goodies to buy their support, we would have won.

If only the Republican establishment had principles instead of chasing centrist voters, we would have inspired those centrists to join our principled campaign for truth and justice.

These are not the reasons that Buckley, five-term U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., and former President Ronald Reagan became conservative. They didn’t resent the oppression of some phantom “others” and react by rebelling against it.

They understood that the path to winning the hearts of the American people isn’t by complaining. This is a country that could elect a socialist or a laissez-faire capitalist, if it believed in, trusted and identified with that person.

I have always subscribed to the theory that appealing to base emotions, like anger or fear or resentment, and adopting a victim mentality, were things that the left did. Indeed, most populists have historically been leftist reactions against conservative establishment elites.

I want to see a conservative movement that gives me a compelling rationale for its own existence. Something beyond, “I’m not those people you dislike.”

I’m a member of the conservative movement because I believe in certain things and want to see them accomplished. That is the movement I want to see.

Yet I remain hopeful. Unlike when a political party typically finds itself in obscurity and crisis, the “bench” of next generation leaders in the Republican Party is very strong, and I think most understand the problems right-wing populism has created for us.

The ultimate challenge will be finding a person who can appeal to the people the populists appeal to but can do so with a more hopeful, optimistic and substantive rationale. This movement can’t survive without it.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political operative. He serves as the Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican Governors Association, and has previously worked for Senator Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.