Conservatives, Libertarians, and Herding Cats

Conservatives, Libertarians, and Herding Cats

By Heather Wilhelm - February 18, 2013

More than three months ago, just hours after the U.S. election results rolled in, something rather stunning occurred. On media outlets throughout the nation, before the scarred and trampled body of Campaign 2012 even went cold -- indeed, while some votes were still being counted -- conservative pundits turned from the too-blue electoral map, flicked the memory of Mitt from their shoulders like a piece of high-end lint, and declared their hope for the future: Marco Rubio.

There was no stop to the campaign season. No time to take a breath. Facing a disappointing loss, many in the right-leaning chattering classes promptly moved on, lining up, as Time magazine recently put it, like ready apostles for the next “Republican Savior.”

Or, as I like to more precisely phrase it, like “slightly crazed 12-year-old girls outside a Taylor Swift concert.” (Ms. Swift, it should be noted, likes to take down her enemies with coy lyrics tied to saccharine songwork. Republicans, as of late, seem to prefer mild panic and a defensive crouch.)

So when (dare I say “if”?) Marco Rubio runs for president in 2016, will his party -- torn by squabbles over messaging, marketing, policy priorities, and various factions of social conservatives, libertarians and tea party movement loyalists -- finally get their act together? In his new book, “Constitutional Conservatism,” Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz attempts to chart a way forward.

This is an ambitious task, given that the mixed bag of American right-wingers is the political equivalent of The Bickersons. Hard-core social conservatives tend to think of libertarians as a motley group of impractical Randian atheist anarchists (but then, I repeat myself) who want to start their own country just so they can grow a bunch of drugs.

Libertarians tend to think social conservatives are a bunch of uptight, repressed preppies who mess up every important election with their laser-beam fixation on gay marriage, school prayer, and squelching fun of any kind. (They are also likely annoyed that I haven’t mentioned Rand Paul by now, and fine, I get that. So here’s a big shout-out to Rand Paul and his love of liberty!)

Tea Party activists, meanwhile, tend to think that anyone who is not a Tea Party activist is a weak-kneed, sell-out, establishment pansy-pants.

But without each other, Berkowitz argues in “Constitutional Conservatism,” these groups can do nothing on the electoral stage. The Bickersons are going to have to get along, he notes, or get kicked to the proverbial curb. Tracing evolutions in political thought from Edmund Burke to William F. Buckley Jr. to, yes, George W. Bush, Berkowitz argues that the top priority for conservatives of all stripes is to secure “the principles of liberty embodied in the American Constitution and to pursue reform in light of them.”

The key to political success, he asserts, is moderation: “I do not mean that conniving and cowardly offspring of expedience and ambition that betrays principle to get ahead or just get along. I refer instead to political moderation well understood, which accommodates, balances, and calibrates to translate rival and worthy principles into practice.”

Among other examples, Berkowitz cites the many compromises and balances that went into the making of the Constitution, noting that complete ideological purism can sabotage greater goals.

This translates, he argues, into two big takeaways for today’s right-leaning frenemies. Libertarians need to “come to grips” with the fact that “the era of big government is here to stay.” Any attempt to significantly dismantle the welfare state, for example, is likely to fail, he says; clear-eyed attempts to limit and reform it will be more successful. Social conservatives, meanwhile, need to accept that the sexual revolution has significantly changed our nation’s mores, and that using the federal government to force-feed traditional values is likely to fail, or, worse, backfire.

Berkowitz aims to resolve a dilemma that has faced conservatives for centuries: “reconciling liberty with tradition, order, and virtue.” In broad strokes, his approach makes perfect sense. When it comes to gay marriage, the cultural ship has sailed; social safety nets, it seems obvious to say, share near universal approval.

But the devil, as always, is in the details: “moderation” -- whether regarding taxes, spending, or the issues of culture, life and death -- is often in the eye of the beholder. In Ye Olde Valley of Unherdable Cats, a cogent, unifying agenda will be difficult to pull together -- that is, at least, until the liberal, “blue state” model completely falls flat. Berkowitz also admits the darker side of compromises made in the past, most notably regarding slavery and the ratification of the Constitution.

Quibbles aside -- and everyone who hails from the Bickerson family will likely have some small policy bone to pick with this book, ranging from school prayer to the value of George W. Bush’s “freedom and democracy” military agenda -- conservatives and libertarians could certainly stand to chill out, step back, and assess Berkowitz’s advice, particularly regarding what government can’t do.

Constitutional Conservatism” repeatedly notes what Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out nearly two centuries ago: A strong civil society (family, religion, and community groups) is an absolute necessity in a healthy democracy. America’s civil society, at least in terms of competing with the government, seems to be flailing. For people on both sides of the aisle, D.C. often reigns as the go-to, universal problem-solver, which is rather remarkable given that Congress can’t seem to find time to, oh, say, learn math.

So we have our work cut out for us. But to cut everyone a little slack, it’s kind of hard to concentrate these days. Using analysis from the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, the U.K. Guardian recently graded the reading level of every U.S. State of the Union address. The highest score went to James Madison’s 1815 speech, with a grade level of 25.3. It’s all been downhill from there. In 1911, William H. Taft scored a 16.8. In 1963, John F. Kennedy hovered around 12. Barack Obama’s address last week scored a 10.2. “The State of the Union,” the Guardian concludes, no doubt in a self-satisfied, smug British accent, “is dumber.”

Meanwhile, the top media moment from Marco Rubio’s Republican response was his awkward mid-speech gulp of water, which promptly blew up on Twitter and reportedly looped on cable news networks over 200 times. (Keeping things subtle, CNN ran its coverage of “water-gate” with the blazing headline, “CAREER-ENDER?”)

The good news, however, is that Rubio gets the joke. Immediately after his “drink heard ’round the world,” he took to Twitter himself and shot out a close-up photo of the tiny bottle of Poland Spring that started it all. The next day, his campaign started offering Rubio water bottles to donors.

This all may seem silly, given that we’re going bankrupt, watching a North Korean dictator toss nukes around like a crazed drum majorette, and maybe even realizing that the frozen lasagna we ate on our low-budget European vacation is made of horsemeat.

But as the rapper Ice-T once said, “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.” Or, as author Peter Berkowitz recently told The Washington Post, learn to embrace “the perennial clamor and cacophony of public debate in a free society” and accept “the nature of human beings -- very often contentious, narrowly self-interested, and in the grips of passion and poorly-thought-out opinion.”

That, Berkowitz argues, is “for whom the Constitution was designed.” 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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