An Endangered Species

“If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy and the world a desert.” -Alexander Hamilton

After a week in the Welsh countryside, my family and I are staying in Oxfordshire for a few days prior to our departure for Scotland. Today we took a trip around the Cotswolds, a string of verdant hills approximately 60 miles in length that surrounds this English county. During our drive through the picturesque landscape, I fell into conversation with our local contact, a retired geography teacher of 30 years who resides in Abington, a small town in the vicinity of Oxford.

As is my wont, I directed the discussion toward politics, asking him to describe the fissures that divide the Conservative and Labour parties. The Conservatives (a.k.a. Tories), as their name might suggest, hue more closely to our Republican party in their fiscal policy, whereas Labour adopts the conciliatory attitude toward regulation reminiscent of our Democrats. I should note briefly that Britain’s third major party, the Liberal Democrats, entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives several years ago (the British government is a parliamentary as opposed to a presidential system, whereby the majority party in the legislature appoints the executive branch, often requiring parties with a plurality but not an outright majority to join hands with their competitors before “forming a government”).

I mentioned in passing that our liberals and conservatives seem to be torn by a fundamental disparity in their outlooks on the rightful scope of government. He corroborated this observation, describing the Tories as a party that frowns upon regulation and closer ties with the European continent. He identified the Conservatives’ austere handling of the economic crisis precipitated by the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the turmoil which followed on the Continent as a point of departure from Labour’s greater faith in Keynesian economics and proactive government investment in infrastructure, healthcare, and education.

None of this should come as any surprise for anyone with a cursory knowledge of British politics. What stood out as a point of empathy for me was our friend’s frustration with the disappearance of moderate Conservatives, nicknamed “one nation” Tories over here. Apparently, the far right has become more popular in recent years, capitalizing on the cultural anxieties which inevitably accompany a massive influx of immigrants to legitimize ideologies that ring faintly of neo-Nazisim (one assumes that the gruesome murder of a British soldier in London by Islamic extremists will only further inflame the contretemps between assimilationists and isolationists).

This trend has made Conservative politicians who assume a less confrontational attitude toward taxation and regulation less viable, and has even encouraged a Labour attempt to capitalize upon latent animosity by aping far right arguments. (Perhaps it would be prudent to inform readers that this account came from a man who takes an admittedly left-leaning newspaper; though the broad scope of this summary should be taken at face value, its disapproving tenor should be approached skeptically).

Any one who is familiar with the Tea Party’s open disgust of moderate Republicans, who assumed for conservative grassroots activists the moniker R.I.N.O.’s (Republicans in Names Only) following President Obama’s elevation to the presidency, alongside the mainstream Republican party’s accommodation of that truculence, will recognize patent similarities between this island’s political plight and our own. Laying the totalitarian sensationalism that accompanied the 2009 town hall meetings aside, a more recent example of this drift away from compromise involves the Republican establishment’s disillusionment with New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose praise for Obama’s handling of the federal response to Hurricane Sandy represented for some a pivotal bump for the president in his reelection campaign.

The far right’s usurpation of the Republican banner should strike those with a grasp of the party’s history as supremely unfortunate. With the notable exception of Ronald Reagan, most Republican presidents who have served successful tenures in the Oval Office have done so by urging moderation and ideological restraint. Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose wariness  of the adventurism that followed in the wake of the military-industrial complex should endear him to Tea Party patriots of the Ron Paul variety, was largely responsible for the construction of the interstate system. Occupying the opposite end of the foreign policy spectrum, Theodore Roosevelt catapulted the American conservation movement and laid the progressive regulatory foundation of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

Contrarily, ideological purists have a record of underperforming. Despite the benevolence that his efforts on behalf of World War I refugees bespeaks, Herbert Hoover’s utter refusal to parcel out emergency assistance to the unemployed at the outset of the Great Depression accentuated much of the suffering which occurred during the 1930s and has earned him the near universal condemnation of professional historians. Reagan’s legislative partnership with House Speaker Tip O’Neil, his insistence that an executive should take 80% of what he wants if offered, and George H.W. Bush’s habitual raising of taxes belie their more avidly free market rhetoric.

This spirit of pragmatic reconciliation seems to have evaporated. Though President Obama and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid have a dispiriting tendency to cast the blame for their legislative shortcomings on Republican obstructionism instead of just getting on with it as LBJ would have done, conservative recalcitrance on many of Obama’s judicial nominations epitomizes the political calculus currently in effect: unadulterated opposition to the White House has become the default position for Republican congressmen and women.

More concerning, though, is the rampant rise of far right extremist groups, the Paul family’s sky-rocketing personal appeal, and all such strains of ultraconservatism. Compromise and concession, the inseparable concomitants of participatory democracy, have yielded to paranoia and epistemic narrowness. A vocal albeit limited minority has shaken the trajectory of a party that used to appeal to a more diverse and open-minded electorate. Legislative and political progress is impossible if the unwavering orthodoxies of the few predominate in Congress.

Hamilton’s quote, excerpted from Federalist number 66, merits a broader audience. R.I.N.O.’s are being marginalized. Ideologues benefit. The country does not.

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