Top political minds discuss conservative ideas that could define the future at the West Coast Retreat.
Editor’s note: Below are the video and transcript to the panel discussion "The Shape of Politics to Come," which took place at the Freedom Center’s 2015 West Coast Retreat. The event was held March 6-8 in Palos Verdes, CA.
Peter Collier: This panel has this odd -- because David wanted to make an allusion to H.G. Wells I guess -- has this odd title, "The Shape of Politics to Come." But, I think, obviously, most of us are in the here-and-now with politics; we’re political junkies, obsessively on the edge of our seats right now about 2016, desperate to be released from this plague we’ve been suffering under for the last six years, wondering if the next two years will rip finally and definitively the heart and soul out of our country. We’re looking for the guy or the gal that will come riding out of the west and save the Republic. We’re thinking candidates, caucuses, straw polls, primaries, who are we going to support, who can get us to the White House, who can win District 3 in Ohio, and if whoever gets there, can they reverse the catastrophe that has been visited on our country? We’re thinking all these micro things. We’ll have a chance to discuss all those things this morning in due course, but politics is not just about the horse race; it’s also about competing ideas, whose clash takes place invisibly and sometimes inaudibly as we go about our daily business. Good and mainly bad these days, ideas that determine in part what we think about politics and how we react to politics, even though we don’t know in some sense that these are motivating us.
It’s about institutions that have traditionally defined America and have been impacted by these ideas, slowly but definitively changing what we think our country is and what it ought to be in a way that is really more profound than the world envisioned by legislation, judicial decision and even executive action. We’re lucky to have two men today who are outstanding in the realm of the history of ideas as well as in the realm of politics per se. They’ve offered to stand here for a few minutes this morning, picking their own brains and giving us an idea of issues we ought to think about.
I’m going to, by seniority, introduce first Bill Voegeli, William Voegeli as he is now known. I met him almost 30 years ago; David and I staged something called the Second Thoughts Conference, bringing a bunch of failed radicals together, whose only success was that they hated their radicalism. Bill was there. He was working as a program officer for the sadly now defunct John M. Olin Foundation, one of the great foundations that helped build the conservative movement. He’s presently senior editor at the Claremont Review of Books and he’s a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center. I’m sure you’ve seen the stuff he’s written -- City Journal Commentary, Weekly Standard, other magazines. His first book was "Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State," published in 2010 and he just published a really good book called "The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion." This is really an elegantly written dissection of the appeal and dangers of liberalism’s pretentious and cynical use of the language of compassion which has led to this vast necropolis of failed government initiatives as well as a bable of vulgarized political discourse. I’m glad to have Bill step up right now.
William Voegeli: Thank you, Peter. Ladies and gentlemen, pleasure to be with you today; honored to share the platform with two writers whose work I’ve admired so much.
High on the list of Tea Party accomplishments is the addition of the term “constitutional conservatism" to our discourse. I admire the clear signal sent by that phrase. A singularly American conservatism must conserve what is best and most distinctive about our republic; what has been crucial to its preservation and progress. Moreover, I understand the Tea Party’s conservatism to be constitutional in the capital C sense in which Americans use the term, but also the lower case sense more commonly used in England. What constitutes America is our written Constitution, but also the moral character and political sensibilities of our nation. Our system of government pre-supposes and reinforces our moral character and that character allows the republican system of government to flourish.
The question of the relationship between the structure of the government and the character of the people was a preoccupation of statesmen and philosophers in the late eighteenth century. James Madison wrote that if men were angels, no government would be necessary, but since they aren’t, and it is, we need to supply the defect of better motives by arranging opposite and rival interests. This, what he called republican remedy, to the diseases incident to republican government, can solve what Madison called the great political difficulty; to enable the government to control the governed while also obliging it to control itself.
A few years later, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant took this line of argument to its logical conclusion. Devising a successful republican constitution requires simply that "powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other.” “Thus,” he concluded, “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils if only they are intelligent.” Madison refused to go that far. As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, he wrote, “So there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence, republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Keeping a republic from collapsing requires good civic architecture, checks and balances, federalism, but it also requires solid building materials, citizens who are decent and honorable.”
I wrote a book on modern compassion because I thought it was a political problem, but also a broader social problem. The Oprahfication of America where we are obliged to feel sorry for everyone and entitled to have everyone feel sorry for us will make it harder to preserve our country or even to see why we should go to the trouble. Charles Murray has recently argued that Europe’s cradle to grave welfare states are both a cause and a consequence of a shrunken view of the purpose of life. The prevailing idea, he contends, is that because humans are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate, the highest purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as conveniently and pleasantly as possible.
By contrast, when the Declaration of Independence proclaims the inalienable right to the pursuit happiness, it uses that word in the Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole, according to Murray. A life well-lived, in other words. The more recent precept that all lifestyles are created equal and the only truly unforgiveable sin is to be judgmental about anyone else’s lifestyle is also designed to promote happiness or at least one understanding of it. As one of Andrew Sullivan’s bloggers wrote last year, “The whole point of 1960’s social liberalism was to allow and encourage people to pursue whatever types of consensual, personal behavior they wanted in order to increase individual freedom and happiness.” “It was,” he continued, “a positive, joyful, human freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly narrow vision of how human beings should behave.”
And the problem is that people who have been assured over and over that they have nothing to be ashamed of are left with nothing to be proud of. The generosity of non-judgmental compassion is indistinguishable from contempt. C. S. Lewis said it best. “Kindness merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad provided only that it escapes suffering. It is for people who we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms with our friends, our lovers, our children we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy and contemptible in estranging modes.” The constitutional conservatives who attend to the moral soundness of the citizenry constituting our nation are not killjoys. They pay their fellow Americans the compliment of treating them as moral agents, not just sentient creatures.
While the attenuation of the idea of a life well lived is a great problem for politics, it is not one that can be solved to any significant degree by politics. We will reinvigorate that idea in our capacity as parents, neighbors and through civic and religious associations more than we do as political activists and legislatures. This will be hard work and a long slug. It is by no means hopeless, however. There have been religious and moral re-awakenings before and they will occur again. The rule that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t, applies to social developments not just strictly economic ones. The triviality and inanity of lives devoted to passing the decades between birth and death in pleasant and interesting ways is its own worst enemy. We have seen that future, and it’s an endless adult education seminar, where ever-greater latitude is afforded to ever-smaller souls and where freedom means nothing higher than the care and feeding of personal idiosyncrasies. Such a destiny is unworthy of America and of humans in general. People are wired to want much more. There are no guarantees, but there are good reasons to hope that in time we will disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country. Thank you.
Peter Collier: Next up is Jay Cost. I’m sure that many of you over the past years have seen Jay’s columns in Real Clear Politics, a political micro analyst par excellence of the Michael Barone, even the Karl Rove school, I guess you’d say. He did graduate work in political science at the University of Chicago, got his start as a writer analyzing trends for Real Clear Politics and now works for the Weekly Standard with a slightly expanded portfolio. He’s written for the Wall Street Journal, National Affairs and other publications. His first book was called "Spoiled Rotten" and I think he talked to us about it a couple of years ago. It’s a history of the Democratic Party and I think, a fervid look at Democratic Party corruption. His just-published book is really kind of a larger attempt to handle that same issue of corruption. It’s called "A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption." This is an astute and deeply intellectual work that’s fascinating as constitutional history. Jay makes the interchanges between Madison and Hamilton like a Federer-Nadal match, so to speak, but it’s also a very daunting look at our current political system and all its discontents. Read it and weep. Jay.
Jay Cost: Well, thank you, Peter, for that very kind introduction and thank you for the David Horowitz Freedom Center for inviting me out here to California and I mean that. Thank you. I just checked the weather where I live in western Pennsylvania and it is a balmy 29 degrees, so thank you, very much.
So the topic of our discussion today is sufficiently vague, the shape of politics to come, that I suppose I can make of it what I will, and having just written a sordid history of American political corruption, arguing that everything went wrong in 1791, I’m pretty uneasy about things, and actually I think we can all agree that we’re all pretty uneasy. I think we in the conservative movement are uneasy. You get that impression listening to talk radio and watching Fox News, reading the blogs, talking with your conservative friends and neighbors, if you have any here in southern California. My home county has voted Republican every time since 1856 except once, so I have lots of conservative friends and neighbors. And this unease is despite the fact that the Republican Party is winning, with apologies to liberal mainstream media. The GOP really is winning. If you look at where the Republican Party is in the broader political cycle, right now we’re in year seven of a Democratic presidency, the Republican Party has not been this strong in Congress, in governorships and state legislature since 1919. 1919. Moreover, President Barack Obama’s persistently weak job approval numbers -- he’s at about 44 percent today in the Real Clear Politics average -- suggests that the Democrats are going to struggle to hold the White House for a third consecutive term in 2016. Compounding their structural problems, they have to defend the White House for a third term, which usually fails. Their incumbent president is unpopular and no party has succeeded an unpopular president like that.
Compounding all of this, their would-be nominee, Hilary Clinton, likes to chat about income inequality with Alec Baldwin in Martha’s Vineyard, hardly conducive to the people-versus-powerful nonsense that the left likes to spout. Her husband is, let’s just say, a serial philanderer with more skeletons in his closet than you’d find at a Grateful Dead concert in 1977, and she is terrible on camera, she’s secretive to the point of paranoia and, oh, by-the-way, she just may have broken some pretty important federal regulations regarding recordkeeping with her emails, and yet, and yet, and yet, I don’t feel good about things, do you? I feel like something is slipping away.
So what is that something? Well, as Peter mentioned, I just finished writing a book. It was a way for me to sort of vent and explain and discover my own persistent unease. It’s called "Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption," and its argument is that we’ve lost something essential in our experiment in self-government. The notion inherent to small-r republican government is that public policy should be dedicated to public purposes. Instead, what I found is rampant, institutionalized, systemic worsening corruption. And by that I don’t mean law breaking, although if you read the news yesterday about our good friend, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, there is plenty of law breaking. I mean legal corruption. I mean using public resources to reward narrow and private factions. I think that is endemic in our system. And I also think that from this perspective, it doesn’t matter really all that much which party is in charge. The only difference is that the Democrats want to grow government much more quickly than the Republicans do, so they want to increase the scope of corruption much more quickly, but they both want to grow the government, of course, and they’re both happy to use the existing powers of the government to reward their friends and their cronies.
The second half of my book looks at farm subsidies, the pork barrel, Medicare, corporate taxes and financial regulations, and I was hard pressed to find much of a difference between the two sides. That helps me narrow down on the problem. The Beltway is now crawling with Republican legislators, more than at any point since Herbert Hoover was president. And what are they doing? Are they fighting the insurer bailout known as the Risk Corridor Program in Obamacare? No. Are they working to repeal the export/import bank? Nah. Are they rolling back farm subsidies? Course not. How about cleaning out the corruption in Medicare, which is substantial? No. How about standing up to Obama’s illegal amnesty? Of course not. They’re just going to kick that to the courts. And the Republicans in Congress today are more or less reliable to fight against the biggest ambitions of the most liberal Democrats but that’s just about it. Hence, my unease. I’m uneasy because I’m a part of a vast substantial reform movement, twenty-first century American conservatism which wants to reduce the size and scope of government, level the playing field and restore the nation’s founding vision and in our inept, incompetent president we have been given an enormous opportunity because he’s shown just how awful expanding government is. But we do not seem to have a viable vehicle for achieving those goals.
Now, I think the response of most conservatives lately in the last six to ten months has been to focus all the more relentlessly on the 2016 presidential race. If we study carefully, every nuance of every candidate, follow every dot and tittle precisely, we can nominate exactly the right person who can bring about real change. That’s where we’ve been putting our emphasis lately and I think, frankly, that’s the wrong approach, which is not to say it doesn’t matter. But I think that our problem as conservatives is that the Republican Party has become the party of Congress. The Republican Party has won the House of Representatives for 16 out of the last 20 years, which is an enormous hot streak, and it hasn’t been as good in the Senate, but on the other hand they’ve been winning the Senate more often than not since 1980. And the problem is, I argue in my book, is that Congress is a structurally dysfunctional branch and so its dysfunction has rubbed off on the Republican Party.
What do I mean by that? In my book I talk about corruption embedded in the rules of the game and they are indeed part of the rules in the Congress. The institution now is premised on a massive conflict of interest. Legislatures trade public policy to private interests that can help them win re-election, give them free publicity, employ their friends and relatives and give them a golden parachute for when they retire or lose. That was, to me, the most extraordinary thing about what Robert Menendez has been indicted for. You can line your own pockets in Congress without being arrested. There are perfectly legal ways to go about doing it and it is common. Theodore Lowi, political scientist writing about 50 years ago, called it interest group liberalism, the use of government services and benefits to favor active pressure groups, and I think that is exactly the right phrase. It’s all about using the power of big government to favor small, narrow factions. That is fundamentally antithetical to modern conservatism which wants to reduce the size and scope of the state and which wants to take away the power of legislatures to use government to secure their own future.
And I think that is part of the problem that we have with the Republicans in Congress is that they talk a good game about small government but the reality is, if you look at the way they do business, they are just doing the same things that Democrats did. If you think of interest group liberalism not necessarily as a policy outcome but as a process -- I will use my power and you will secure me with this private benefit -- they do that. That’s what they do. And I think it is unrealistic to expect any president to fix this. Separation of powers is a substantial roadblock in that endeavor, which, by the way, is a good thing. Presidential terms last four years, most of them last eight in effect. Presidents have substantial sway over Congress for maybe 16 to 24 months, so a year and a half to two years in an eight-year term they can actually get Congress to listen to them. And even then, it’s only on a narrow set of issues and even then, Congress will still play its interest group liberal games with the big presidential agenda. They’ll still misuse their power. So fussing over Walker versus Rubio versus Bush versus Perry versus Carson etc., etc., is inefficient, in my opinion. Not to say we shouldn’t do it, but it’s an inefficient use of our time.
So what, then? Well, the Constitution has this nifty little phrase in it. It reads, “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior and with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” So, what’s that mean? Simply this. If conservatives want to fix the House of Representatives, we don’t need the concurrence of Harry Reid or Barack Obama. We just need the concurrence of 218 House members. The same thing goes with the Senate. If you want to reform the Senate, you don’t need the House, you don’t need the President. So my contention is that a real problem, the real source of our unease, is this irresponsibility, particularly now that the Republicans are in charge of Congress because Congress systematically misuses its authority and if we’re going to address that, there is a relatively easy way to go about it. Let’s start putting pressure directly on Congress to start changing its rules. Public intellectuals and the American right should start thinking a little bit more about how to fix our process. We spend a lot of time thinking about good policies, but we don’t spend as much time thinking about good process and the two are intimately connected. It is very difficult to produce good policy from bad processes.
So we have to start putting pressure. The activist wing of the movement needs to put pressure on Congress directly to change its rules and stop worrying over what Jeb said or what Walker didn’t say, and start thinking about what those subcommittee chairs are doing, who is taking money from whom, whom should we primary, whom can we defeat in a primary, who looks vulnerable, who is a crony in Washington that comes from a safe conservative district and so on. Like I said, Republicans have controlled the House for 16 of the last 20 years and they’ll probably win it again in 2016 and frankly, if Hillary manages to win that year, they’ll probably win it again in 2018 and 2020. There are about 200 Republicans from safe seats but who have to run in primary elections in about a year. This is a great opportunity to push for reform. Make them fix the way they do business in Congress or threaten to boot them because, frankly, they’re not entitled to the job. We can replace them with people who would be willing to reform the institution. And the best part about that idea is that you wouldn’t have to defeat all 200 of them, although that might be fun. You only probably have to defeat maybe a dozen or so and it would scare the rest of them into fixing things. So that is my suggestion in terms of moving forward in the conservative movement. Thank you very much.
Peter Collier: I think we’re getting kind of low on time if we’re going to keep to the schedule at hand. I’m sure you guys out there have questions. I’m going to start though, with a question of my own. I’m prioritizing myself. It’s the only thing I get out of this experience up here today.
It has been kind of intrinsic in both what Bill and Jay have said, I think; we could probably extrapolate the answer, but I want them to be, if they could, kind of specific for a minute or two about what are the real challenges both in terms of the electoral landscape, but in terms of the larger intellectual landscape -- what are the challenges of the conservative movement, which Shelby Steele, some of you probably read the piece that he had in the National Review this week which is, I think, a stripped down version of his book, in a way, his new book that he has coming out, and he talks a lot about liberal culture hegemony and how conservatives have been evicted from their own culture. He uses the issue of American exceptionalism and the contempt that the liberal elite has for that concept. He uses that as the fulcrum to make this discussion, but what are the ideas that conservatives need to be thinking about? Bill, could you say a few words about that?
William Voegeli: I think the thumbnail sketch of the political divide ahead of us is between liberalism’s politics of aggrievement and conservatism’s politics of achievement. The two parties, the two movements will offer Americans the choice between how they want to understand themselves in their relationship to government. Democrats will say you’ve got a problem, we’ve got a program. If you’re suffering, if you are unhappy, if you’re discontented, it’s because somebody did something bad to you or somebody should have done something for you and let you down. We’re the party that’s here to fix that, to heal that. Republicans say, as we heard in a splendid speech this morning, yes, life is tough, bad things have happened, but this is still the country where people can make what they want to of their lives. The purpose of conservatism is to help them find opportunities and to equip them to take advantage of opportunities when they are presented. We want not just as a political agenda, but as a social movement to help people succeed, to get ahead and, therefore, we are not especially interested. You can debate all you want about the legacies of racism and slavery and oppression. The past is the past. Let’s move to where we can make our lives better and that means focusing not on what government can do for you but on what you as individuals, as members of families and communities can do for yourselves. So I think the future, the near mid-term political future, will be which of those arguments is articulated most persuasively and which one of them appeals most to our fellow citizens.
Peter Collier: Thanks, Bill. Jay, what do you think?
Jay Cost: Well, when I think about the current political situation that conservatives find themselves in, I think, like Bill said, I think that the left has this angle on the American electorate: I’m from the government and I’m here to help. If there’s a problem, we have a program. It’s difficult on a purely political basis for conservatives to respond to that in part because the left promises an immediate benefit. You have this issue, we’re going to effectively cut you a check. What the right promises is economic growth, deregulation, a more sensible tax base and so you will derive benefits, but it will be mediated by the private economy, so it‘s difficult for conservatives to claim credit. So how do we get around this issue?
Well, when I was working on my book, I was really struck by -- and this I think is the angle that the Republicans or conservatives should pursue -- the Republicans will be dragged kicking and screaming to this but they are susceptible to being dragged, I believe. This idea, that big government helps the little guy is relatively new in our country’s history. It’s about 100 years old, but if you go back to the 1780s and basically from the 1780s to the 1840s, so we’re talking like three generations, where the opposite view was the primary view. The idea was that big government favors entrenched interests and anytime the government does something beyond the Constitutional parameters, it’s inevitably going to favor people who are already pretty well off. This was a view that was espoused by the anti-federalists, it was a view espoused by Jefferson, it was a view espoused by Jackson who was a terrible human being in general but on this point he happened to be correct. And I think there’s something to be said to get back to this idea.
When I was researching my book and looking at modern political corruption, nine times out of ten in my study, it helped people who were plugged in, who were well connected, who were well heeled and often to the point -- and Bill makes this point in his book -- even when the programs themselves don’t help the intended beneficiaries, they help the people who are plugged into the political process. Medicare is probably a fantastic example of this. Medicare has all these perverse effects on health care, it can’t be reformed because it’s just entangled by these special interest groups. So what I sort of think about the great kind of re-imagining of the American political divide that Herbert Croly pulled off about 100 years ago when he said he wanted to pursue Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonians, which is to say he wanted to use the power of big government to generate greater equality. I think that we need to get back to the idea of Jeffersonian means for Jeffersonians and we need to reduce the size and scope of government and particularly focus on the ways that it benefits the well to do, the advantaged, the rent seekers in Washington, D.C. and I think there’s an angle here because there is this divergence and it’s something I don’t think conservatives are naturally comfortable talking about, but it’s really stark, this over the last 25 years or so the growth rate on the S&P has begun to dramatically exceed the growth rate of real disposable income per capita and they used to run in tandem. there is this disconnect and I think that the vast middle of the country is aware of this and I think that they understand that people who are plugged into the system get a better deal than they get and I think that’s an excellent opportunity for conservatives to run on smaller government and a way to say we’re going to get rid of their deals.
Peter Collier: Very good.
Audience Member: George Will, a couple of decades ago, wrote a book called the "Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does." I had the good fortune to talk with him a few months ago on this subject and he was more pessimistic than he had been when he wrote the book. That’s one paradigm -- sort of, what the state can do to change the culture. The other one is the late Andrew Breitbart’s view that politics is downstream of culture. It seemed like there was a disconnect between our electoral success as Republicans and conservatives and they way the culture is going and I’m interested in what the place for government is in changing our culture and how we change our culture in a way that would be more in keeping with our conservative views.
William Voegeli: Well, I live in Claremont, where the management writer, Peter Drucker, used to live and teach. The business school there is named the Peter Drucker School. One of his aphorisms applies to corporations, but I think more generally is along the lines of what you said. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, that you can make all of the tidy plans about organizational chart stuff, but if there isn’t the right raw material in terms of people’s attitudes and habits and dispositions and expectations, nothing much is going to happen. I think there’s a limited role for government to alter culture, not zero, but it doesn’t seem to me that if we’re concerned about that, that this should be our primary focus. I think it changes mostly from the bottom up and to a far lesser degree from the top down. So I think statecraft is to some extent soulcraft, but soulcraft is really soulcraft.
So I think it’s through social movements rather than more narrowly political movements that the kind of habits and attitudes that are inimical to the success of our Republican experiment in self government will be pushed back and those ones that promote it will flourish. So, I don’t think there’s a five-point party program that you can follow that gets us there very far and I think trying to politicize it is largely counterproductive in that if you take the approach that we’re going to legalize and regulate our way out of this problem, you validate the idea that this is the proper thing for government to be doing and people we disagree with strongly are going to avail themselves of that premise and do very regrettable things. So, I think it’s better to work at the other end of the scale.
Audience Member: Hello, Michael Doherty from Atlanta, first time Horowitz attendee, nice to meet you all. Jay, could you talk a little bit about the realities about what’s going on in the House right now with Boehner? We’re in month three and people want to take his head off. Between Homeland Security and Immigration and everything else, I mean, how do you see this playing out? They’re already talking coup the last 24 hours and we’re in March.
Jay Cost: Well, that’s a good question. I think there’s probably two ways to conceive of this, or two frames that I would look at. I would say that, on the one hand, I do think that grassroots conservatives probably have their hopes up a little bit too high. Divided government is tough. I mean, we have the most liberal president easily since LBJ and I would suggest he’s even more liberal than that, and I don’t really think he cares anymore in the sense that I think he enjoys, he takes pleasure from getting a rise out of the American right, so I think if he’s indifferent about something I think he’ll veto it. As they say at Hot Air, he’s sort of in the YOLO phase of his presidency, you-only-live-once kind of phase, so I mean he is an implacable foe, we just have to wait him out.
And that is going to create political pressure for Boehner because he’s basically going to have to get his members to take tough votes on issues that have no chance of success. That’s just a problem. And on top of that, the House Democrats know there’s no chance of success so they’re not going to work in any kind of constructive way to guide legislation. I think, as a purely matter of tactics and approach, I think that he’s been very indelicate with that in the sense that, sort of, the fight over Cromnibus last year, suggesting that there was going to be some big fight over immigration in the winter and it didn’t come. People who looked at it closer got, well, it’s not going to come, they’re not going to shut down Homeland Security, come on, they’re not going to do that. So I think divided government creates complications, and I don’t think Boehner has dealt very well with it but I also think there’s a bigger dimension here and I think that there is.
When I wrote my book about the Democratic Party, I sort of made this point that they were the sort of a motley crew of different factions and that nobody could really manage them all and at the time I sort of had this conception of the Republican Party as being reasonably homogenous and on an electoral level, it is. It’s, generally speaking, it’s the white, married, middle class, pretty much who we’re talking about, votes Republican. But, I think there is this divergence within the Republican Party that I learned about as I was researching my current book, which is that the Republican Party pre-dates American conservatism and there is this attitude in the Republican Party not just that, as Coolidge said, the business of America is business, which is something that I think we as conservatives agree to, but there’s also this other strain of thinking within it, which is that if it’s good for big business, it’s good for America, and I think that is a persistent sort of thread within the Republican Party. It doesn’t have a lot of plan on an electoral level but it’s very, very important in the donor class, particularly the Political Action Committees that basically fund re-election campaigns and Congress. And I think that with the economic collapse in 2008, and especially with the TARP, not just the TARP, but the lead up to the TARP, where we’ve gotten to the point now where the government is basically subsidizing very large businesses. Grassroots conservatives are very, very opposed to this, very upset by this and I think that there is this tension within the Republican Party and I think that Boehner represents one side, and I think that he’s probably on the other side of the grassroots, and I think that probably explains a lot of the distrust, which is Boehner doesn’t seem to get the benefit of the doubt anymore and I think that might be why.
Peter Collier: Ma,am?
Audience Member: Yes, Jay, you intrigued me with your comment about putting pressure on the different individuals both in the House and in the Senate and that we could probably have a more effective grassroots operation if we were to primary some of those individuals. Can you name names?
Jay Cost: Well, I don’t want to name names, but I’ll give you a proxy, okay? We all hear conservatives in Congress, members of Congress complain about food stamps. Oh, food stamps, it’s terrible! It’s encouraging dependency and I agree with all of that. But here’s the thing about food stamps. Food stamps are the product of a log roll that exist within the Agricultural Subsidies Bill that’s passed every four years and it basically was a deal that was cut 50 years ago between agri-businesses and advocates of the urban poor. They don’t belong together, but they’re passed every four years in the same Bill. And actually it has this sort of perverse kind of interactive effect. Agricultural subsidies increase the cost of food and they distort the economy; they have massive dead weight loss, which is to say that about $5 billion every year is just lost because of farm subsidies. And they’re packaged with food stamps. And so I would suggest that you should go and find out, in 2014, they passed a food stamp bill, and about half of the Republicans voted for it and I think they should all lose.
William Voegeli: Jay, if a primary challenge would have a catalytic effect on House Republicans, shouldn’t that have already occurred with Dave Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor? I mean that was a remarkable development.
Jay Cost: It was remarkable.
William Voegeli: And nothing in it -- it happened and everybody said, oh my gosh, and nothing much seems to have changed since.
Jay Cost: Yeah, I think it’s going to have to be more than a handful. I mean they defeated Ralph Hall, too, but this is a lesson that they’re going to resist learning and I thought that the Dave Brat victory was awesome. I was just pleased as punch by it and then, unfortunately, the way the media sort of narrates this, after the big coup that Dave Brat scored, Thad Cochran won re-election in Mississippi, or he won the primary and then Pat Roberts won in Kansas and it just sort of reaffirmed the narrative that the Tea Party is a spent force and I think that that’s not true, but I think that these members of Congress who are sort of in the pay-to-play side of the business want to believe it’s true, so they’re going to give more weight to the countervailing indicators than the vailing indicators, so I think it’s going to have to take more than Eric Cantor, unfortunately. I think it’s going to have to take -- look, I think it’s going to have to take sustained pressure because the way Congress does business is bad for everybody except members of Congress; it’s very good for them. If it wasn’t good for them, they’d fix it. So what we’re talking about is, for better or worse, Article One, Section One of the Constitution says all legislative authority shall be vested in a Congress of the United States and indeed, the geography of Washington, D.C. sort of indicates this place in Congress at the center. If you want to get real reform done, you’ve got to work through Congress and if Congress is the object of reform, then you're basically requiring Congress to reform itself, which it doesn’t want to do, so it’s going take a couple times at bat to actually make it happen.
Peter Collier: Paul, last question.
Audience Member: Thank you, Peter. Since we have such esteemed intellects on the stage this morning, Peter, Jay and Bill, a thought experiment. I share your fatalism about the ability to reform Congress. I’ve been involved in both politics around the country for over 30 years in international finance in various forms. I now no longer believe that there’s any combination of humans who can be elected to the Congress that will ever restrain federal spending. But the markets have a solution to this and the crash that’s coming in the next couple of years, because of monetization of debt and a range of things, may make all these points moot. If the Dow goes from 18,000 to two, and the United States loses its ability to borrow and sell bonds in the international market and we really have a re-structured debt, who would each of you pick as the new Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson to re-structure the United States government in spending in a way that makes sense to conservatives?
Peter Collier: Bill, you start and take enough time that I won’t have to answer that question.
William Voegeli: So there’s an asteroid that wipes out civilization as we know it. What recipe would you use to prepare Chicken Marsala in the immediate aftermath? Well, you’re not to suppose to quarrel with the premise of a thought experiment, but I don’t quite see things happening that drastically that quickly, so I don’t think we should devote a lot of synapse space to picking out the next George Washington who will rescue us. Since we probably live in a situation that’s still retrievable, I think we should focus our energies and thoughts on retrieving it rather than on post-apocalyptic expectations. I’m sorry to disagree with you, I mean, I think.
Peter Collier: The part of the question is, who are you looking at as you look at the intellectual bench out there, hopefully on our side? I think part of Paul’s question is, who are the people that you are reading that have potential and have theoretical chops, so to speak?
William Voegeli: Well I think if a dictator did everything Thomas Sowell said he should, this would be a pretty good country.
Peter Collier: Jay, what do you think?
Jay Cost: Well, I’ll play along with the premise of the question and I have a sort of a surprise conclusion, but let’s accept the premise or let’s maybe generalize to say that the existing regime, so to speak, the rules of the game end up producing some sort of cataclysmic result and the status quo hits a crisis point and our side is presented with an opportunity for reform. So something similar to 1932, something to that effect. Who do you want? I don’t think that that’s the right way to look at it -- who do you want?
I’ll give you an example in terms of talking about real lasting reform. In the 1870s and 1880s, the civil service was totaling undermined by the Patronage Regime which it started benevolently enough, rotation in office and this idea that the president should have authority over offices and he should be able to reward his loyal supporters with jobs because presidential campaigns are expensive and there’s a collective action dilemma, you have to pay for it somehow so, let’s just socialize the cost and give the workers jobs. It just sort of transformed into this monster, that rather than becoming the side benefit of politics, it becomes the entire point of politics itself and under Ulysses S. Grant, these awful political machines were developed in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, basically all of the northern states, and the southern states were worse, by the way. It just seemed insuperable. It seemed like nobody could get over it. And then, James A. Garfield was shot waiting for a train in 1881 and he lingered through the summer and he died at the end of the year. And that was the moment, the crisis point where the current regime was undone because the person who assassinated him was a crazy man, but he had this note in his pocket aligning himself with the Patronage Faction in the Republican Party. The entire political war -- we have never experienced anything like that in our lifetime. The left tried to import meaning onto the Kennedy assassination, sort of shoe horn in this idea that it was senseless, but this actually had sense to it, and the status quo was completely undone and there was a reform passed and the reform was a Pendleton Civil Service Act. And it was signed into law, not by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, but by one Chester A. Arthur, who had been -- his previous qualification for the job was that he was the collector of the Port of New York, the biggest spoils job in the country. He had been vice-president and Garfield was assassinated and he signed this bill into law, not because he was a great man, but because he was a scared man and the Republicans in Congress who passed the law did not pass it because they were great far-sighted, forward-looking -- no. It’s because they had their pants handed to them in the 1882 mid-term election and they were scared to death that they were going to get cleaned out altogether in 1884.
See what they did was, they dusted off a really good reform law that had been completely ignored with the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which was promulgated by George Pendleton, a Democrat of Ohio. And see, that I think is the way to think about things. Think less about the personalities and think more about -- in other words, the Civil Service reformers had one shot in 1883. They got one law. What are you going to do with it? And they got this law, and it was a great law and it solved the problem once and for all. It created a whole host of new problems, but that’s the way it goes in life. And that I think is probably the best way to think about it. Rather than thinking about the personalities, sort of who do we want up there when we get our shot, we want to be able to hand them a package and say, you do this. I think that is probably our best approach.
Peter Collier: Well, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been intellectually elevated today and we owe a debt of gratitude to these two guys and one of the ways you can pay your debt is to buy their books. I am unaccustomed to shilling for other people’s books, actually, but I actually read both of these books and they are really fine. So, let’s give these people a round of applause, even if we don’t buy their books.
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