Symposium | First Principles: The Role of Government

Why Conservatives Won't Govern

By Alan Wolfe

Tagged conservatism

Testifying before a Senate subcommittee in May 2001, Joe Allbaugh, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), offered a short seminar in conservative political philosophy. “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management,” he said on that occasion. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”

I cited Allbaugh’s testimony in a 2006 essay in The Washington Monthly called “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern.” To major players in the Bush Administration, I argued, the national government’s capacity to save lives and preserve order, honed by economic and natural disasters over the course of decades, had been all but forgotten. In its place could be found an intense dislike of nearly all federal programs based on the proposition that ordinary people are not occasional victims of misfortune but unworthy claimants on the public till. Allbaugh’s views served as a perfect illustration of my essay’s thesis. Because of such deep ideological distrust of government, the Katrina debacle, I pointed out, was not due to administrative malfeasance but to deliberate design. “Conservatives cannot govern well,” I wrote in the most cited sentence in the essay, “for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”

Republicans are now back in power, at least in the U. S. House of Representatives. The question of what they will do with that power is so far largely unanswered. Still, we are not without clues: There is much to be learned from the way Republicans behaved during the first two years of the Obama Administration. If that history is any indication, the problem will no longer be that conservatives cannot govern. We are instead in for an era in which conservatives will not govern. In retrospect, I was too harsh on the likes of Joe Allbaugh. A profoundly radical shift has taken place in the way conservatives in government understand power, accountability, and policy. Rather than using government badly out of a conviction that it always fails, they now refuse to allow government to do its work at all. They have, in a word, become nihilists. When Nancy Reagan urged Americans to just say no to drugs, little could she have realized that her party would soon say no to everything.

Not governing because you will not is far worse than not governing because you cannot. Those who cannot govern out of a belief in smaller government at least believe in something. John DiIulio, former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, famously described the Bush Administration as filled with Mayberry Machiavellis for whom “everything, and I mean everything, [is] being run by the political arm.” But he was not quite correct. Bush, after all, took positions on domestic policy, such as the privatization of Social Security, that were due more to conviction than calculation. Like it or not, he also stood with his decision to invade Iraq no matter how much the public had turned against the war. In fact, it was because it did believe in something that an Administration that at the start seemed capable of creating a permanent Republican majority became one of the most politically unpopular in recent times.

The new Republican majority ensconced in the House is completely different. Over the past two years, Republicans opted to pay any price or bear any burden to stand in the way of the Obama Administration’s agenda. If doing so meant the abrogation of the laissez-faire principles to which conservatives have sworn fidelity, so be it. In March, President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In an effort to control costs, the Obama plan included cuts in what the government would pay to Medicare Advantage plans, which, for an extra fee, allow private insurance companies to provide benefits not covered by basic Medicare. Although the cuts would be phased in, and even though seniors would obtain coverage for their medications through other sections of the bill, conservatives jumped in as defenders of exactly the kind of governmental program they had long opposed.

The point was not to make better public policy; Republicans offered no serious ideas of their own during the entire debate. Nor was it to improve the party’s negotiating position; Republicans had nothing to negotiate about, preferring to vote against the final bill unanimously in both houses of Congress. The point instead was either to defeat the bill or, failing that, to blame Obama for any negative effects of its passage. On the issue of health-care reform, conservatives could have governed; to the surprise of many of his supporters, Obama offered them one chance after another to do so. But because they would not govern, conservatives put aside any convictions about the evils of big government to become unreconstructed supporters of the welfare state.

Every indication we have suggests that in the wake of their midterm success, Republicans will continue on the same path of just saying no. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all but gave the game away when he announced that “the single most important thing we want to achieve” was not the recovery of the economy or passage of any particular legislation but “for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The United States now has a major political party that has dropped policy entirely in favor of politics. The consequences for the future of American democracy will be serious indeed.

The Revolt of the Nihilists

It is commonly said that polarization has become the country’s most serious political problem. But polarization implies two poles, each of which is organized around ideas. The newfound opposition for the sake of opposition characteristic of the conservative movement suggests a far greater danger to democracy than polarization. That danger is not cynicism; even a cynic cares. What we witness instead is nihilism–and in the most literal sense of the term. Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine holding that because life lacks meaning and purpose, it is foolish to believe too fervently in anything. Of course, it strains the imagination to believe that congressional Republicans have read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and are familiar with his portrayal of Bazarov, the most insightful characterization of nihilism we have. But the conservative approach to politics these days comes close. Right-wing firebrands in the House promise that come hell or high water, they will not compromise. In any democratic political system, but especially in one with divided powers, no compromise means no governance. We can expect a significant number of House members to stand firm in their denial, no matter what happens to the economy, the environment, or the country.

Even the fondest hope of the new House majority, repealing Obama’s health-care reform, will fall victim to the party’s nihilism. To say no to a law that has already passed, after all, means to say yes to the legislative process. The Republican base’s anger at Washington will only be fueled if those elected as a result of its wrath get themselves immersed in the hearings, votes, and trade-offs–another term for compromise–that repeal will require. Republicans will also discover, as they did with Medicare, that there are parts of the law their supporters like and they will therefore seek to protect. It will prove far more politically effective to continue railing against the law as socialistic than to try and actually get it off the books.

Nihilism is as dangerous a political stance as one can find. Unlike polarization, it guarantees that words become divorced from any underlying reality they are meant to describe, that those watching the spectacle turn away in disgust, that tactical maneuvering replaces all discussion of substantive policy issues, and that political opponents are to be treated as enemies to be conquered. Lacking regenerative qualities of its own, nihilism can never produce new sources of political energy. It does not result in gridlock but shutdown. Grids can be unlocked. We will soon see what shutdown means when conservatives remain true to their strictures against compromise. The last time they tried shutdown, under Newt Gingrich, they blinked. This time we should take them at their word.

The shift from polarization to nihilism is well illustrated by the pre-election fate of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” Ryan is one of the few Republicans in the House of Representatives who has managed to persuade himself that his party still actually cares about policy. His roadmap is not especially original, but it does suggest a certain familiarity with the ideas of Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman. If we were still living in the era of Joe Allbaugh, Republicans would have been lining up to praise Ryan for his determination.

During the campaign, however, conservatives shunned Ryan’s plan like a virus. “Paul Ryan, who’s the ranking member of our budget committee, has done an awful lot of work putting together his roadmap,” then-Minority Leader John Boehner told a press conference in February. “But it’s his. And I know the Democrats are trying to say that it’s the Republican leadership. But they know that’s not the case.” Will Ryan become a conservative hero in the new House? Don’t bet on it. Once your purpose is to say no to everything the other side proposes, you do not want to put yourself in the position of saying yes to anything else, lest you actually have to spend your energy defending a position. Ryan and his plan will be trotted out at news conferences to prove that his party contains members who can read. But none of his policy prescriptions, any of which could be used to paint Republicans as opponents of programs upon which their constituents rely, will make it out of Congress.

A better guide to the immediate political future than Ryan’s roadmap was the GOP “Pledge to America” issued this past September. Widely criticized for its lack of any details, the pledge perfectly captured the Republican Party’s unwillingness to advance any ideas, even conservative ones. Combining the usual attack on out-of-touch elites with vague promises of rapid economic growth and lower taxes, the pledge never got around to discussing any of the tough choices that the United States would have to make if it were to actually bring its federal budget into balance. What new ideas will conservatives advance now that they control the House to prove their dedication to fiscal discipline? Will Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, find enough allies in the House to consider major cuts in Pentagon bloat? I would no sooner bet on that than on the possibility that the current generation of Republicans will follow Ronald Reagan’s lead and raise taxes (which he did, several times). The current House features ideologues without ideology. One feels almost sorry for the genuine libertarians in the new House. When the Speaker lines them up to vote, they will find themselves more often voting against their principles than in favor of them.

There was a time when liberals would have been pleased to see Republicans divided between those with ideas to offer and those who care only about politics and not about policy; one party generally prefers to see the other party split itself ideologically into factions. In reality, however, conservative nihilism poisons the soil that allows any set of ideas, liberal or conservative, to grow. Ryanism in power would try to roll back government. The coming nihilism, by contrast, will mean that conservative energy in the House will lack the philosophical and administrative muscle memory necessary to do anything in any direction. For the next two years, and possibly well beyond that, Republicans will have a perch that will enable them to watch the other branches of government for any sign of governance–and then quash it.

Nihilism, we will soon discover, is a politics without meaning and without fulfillment. If the result is endless deficits, Republicans will find ways to excuse them away. If nihilism instead produces dramatic cutbacks in services, they will blame them on liberals. When nothing is done, anything is possible, and any explanation will suffice. But whatever happens, the new majority will never take responsibility for its inaction. All the features that make democracy work–mandates, procedures, accountability–are absent when nihilists are put in charge. We can expect investigations aplenty; using the power of committee assignment to blame others is the one thing these conservatives know how to do well. We should just not expect any of those investigations to produce ideas about how to make things better.

America has flirted in the past with parties that would not govern–and the experience was not a happy one. Perhaps the closest parallel to the situation we find ourselves in today was the “gag rule” period between 1836 and 1844, when anti-slavery forces tried to introduce resolutions in Congress calling for the abolition of the peculiar institution. Led by Southern Democrats, Congress passed a series of rules designed to table any such petitions, thereby preventing any discussion of them. Because Congress would not settle the issue of slavery, other means had to be found, means that proved to be the bloodiest in American history. Thankfully, no Civil War is at the moment in sight, although talk of secession (the form nihilism takes among Republican governors) is all too common. The fact that we know what happens when a party refuses to govern makes it all the more remarkable that so many political leaders can contemplate the idea today.

Creating Crisis

Conservatives who cannot govern still allow for the possibility that others can. Privatization schemes, vouchers, a preference for state action over federal programs–all such traditionally conservative and libertarian notions attempt to weaken federal policy-making without necessarily abolishing policy-making completely. But a party that will not govern does not wish to replace strong government with weak and decentralized government in order to show how often the public sector fails. It instead much prefers to make it impossible for government to carry out its functions in the first place. If its political strategy is nihilistic, its ultimate outcome is anarchistic.

When Congress recessed for Memorial Day in 2002, only 13 of the nominees that had been submitted by George W. Bush had been pending for more than two days. Eight years later, when the same recess took place, 120 of Obama’s nominees had not yet been confirmed. (Those who had been were forced to wait more than 100 days on average for the honor.) No party has a monopoly on using Senate rules to slow down the appointment process. But the refusal of Republicans to allow so many nominees to assume their positions in the first two years of the Obama Administration is unprecedented. In most cases, moreover, the holds were put in place for no particular reason at all, other than to send a message that key Republican senators simply did not accept the idea that the winner of a presidential election ought to be able to try to govern the country he was elected to run.

Had Republicans won the Senate as well as the House in the 2010 midterm elections, their efforts to block appointments would have intensified to the point of trying to turn Obama into a lame-duck president only two years into his first term. Yet Democrats cannot take much comfort from the fact that their Senate majority is intact. Democrats won enough Senate seats in 2010 to make it difficult if not impossible for Republicans to recruit a Joe Lieberman or a Ben Nelson into the cause of nihilism. Nonetheless, Republicans in both houses will surely continue to claim that because of their political success in 2010, President Obama no longer has a mandate to govern, and they are justified in using their veto power over his appointments as an expression of the popular will.

This way of thinking is likely to produce a full-scale legitimacy crisis when it comes to the courts. By October 2010, fewer than 50 percent of Obama’s nominations for judgeships had been approved, by far the lowest percentage of any recent American presidential administration. There can be little doubt that conservatives will now feel emboldened to continue and even ratchet-up their policy of judicial refusal in the next two years. It is, after all, a near-perfect expression of their nihilism; the best way to stop judges from interpreting the law, as conservatives like to call decisions they happen to disfavor, is to have fewer judges. Many critics on Obama’s left felt that the President did not pay sufficient attention to these obstructionist tactics on judicial appointments. After 2010 the President may well pay more attention, but the obstacles already in place to keep U.S. courts understaffed have been raised.

All this suggests that Elena Kagan will be the last judge Obama gets to place on the high court. This is not because openings are unlikely to occur. It is instead because Republicans, confident that Democrats will never come close to the 60 votes necessary to stop them, will use their veto power to block any Supreme Court nominee they dislike, which amounts to anyone Obama selects. On the court, if not in Congress, conservatives believe in an active government; they need judges who will say no to every piece of legislation they want to block.

Liberals and Governance

Say this much for conservatives who will not govern: they are proud of their conduct. Speaking of the Democrats, McConnell told Carl Hulse of The New York Times in August 2010, “I am amused with their comments about obstructionism.” He added: “I wish we had been able to obstruct more. They were able to get the health-care bill through. They were able to get the stimulus through. They were able to get the financial reform through. These were all major pieces of legislation, and if I would have had enough votes to stop them, I would have.” In McConnell’s world, a party’s achievements are calculated by what it tried to prevent rather than by what it tried to accomplish. One can just imagine the pride Republicans will take in all the issues they will have the power not to address now.

There are times when it makes sense to be obstructionist; Democrats rightly opposed the Bush Administration’s plans to privatize Social Security, and Republicans can and should stand firm against policies that violate their ideological convictions. Obstruction without regard to the merits or demerits of the policy under consideration, however, is not about making the country work better so much as preventing it from working at all.

With respect to the family and other social institutions, conservatives frequently express the concern that untrammeled individualism will eventually result in nihilism. Yet when it comes to government, they are as nihilistic as Abbie Hoffman. One finds among the no-sayers who are now triumphant in the House no Burkean appreciation of experience and no Disraeli-like sense of responsibility. They are instead proposing a vast experiment in human nature: A party that refuses to govern society encourages individuals to refuse to govern themselves. No 1960s radical ever went as far as so many twenty-first century conservatives are going now. Should Americans look to these leaders for guidelines about how to act, they will come away convinced that cooperation is a sham, endless conflict a source of joy, and the end of winning always trumps the means used to do so. By any means necessary–when the Black Panthers said it, it sounded revolutionary. When conservatives practice it, it is just as radical.

Once upon a time, liberals needed to come up with more appealing policies than those proposed by conservatives. In the present political environment, the task will be to contrast a party that still believes in ideas with one that believes in nothing. The fact that liberals will be facing a far more divided government than the one that greeted them in 2010 gives them the opportunity to spend less time trying to please an opposition party that does not wish to be placated and more time reminding themselves why they became liberals in the first place. American politics being what it is these days, voters will discover soon enough that anger is no substitute for good roads, decent health care, and all the other benefits government can help provide. They will turn to leaders who can and will govern. One can only hope that the liberals will be ready.

From the Symposium

First Principles: The Role of Government

It might seem an odd time to make a case for government. After all, government, its scope and role, was at the center of the recent election campaign, and voters unequivocally said enough. But progressives aren't going to give up...


The "More What, Less How" Government

By Eric Liu Nick Hanauer


See All

Read more about conservatism

Alan Wolfe is professor emeritus of political science at Boston College.

Also by this author

The Eternal Power Elite

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus