Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Conversation--Not Cocoon

As election day draws closer, tensions are increasing on the right about Donald Trump and (a distinct topic) the futures of conservatism and the Republican party.  Following in the tradition of Edmund Burke, I thought it would be worthwhile to outline a few reasons why excessive rancor would be both intellectually and politically counterproductive.

Many of Trump's opponents, especially on the right, have offered numerous scapegoats for the rise of Trump: among them, talk radio, racism, and the American public's supposed lack of virtue.  However, one of the single most important structural forces that allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination was the combination of elite incompetence and extreme cultural cocooning.  Incompetence and cocooning have served as compounding forces; without a rigorous internal debate, technocratic myopia sets in, often leading to political disaster.

The toxic combination of incompetence and cocooning has been problematic for the nation as a whole, but it has been particularly poisonous for both the Republican party and the conservative coalition.  Various efforts to purge dissenters have sapped the intellectual vitality of the right and caused a fixation on certain policy buzzwords.  A facile framing of too many debates as TrueConservatives v. the Establishment has often intensified this policy stasis.  When prudential compromise is made the enemy of intellectual principles, our thinking becomes sloppy and we set ourselves up for a politics of bad faith and rancor.

If intellectual cocooning has been a major problem for our politics, efforts at purges (whether directed by #NeverTrumpers or passengers on the #TrumpTrain) are likely to prove counterproductive.  Spraying vitriol at factional opponents is likely also not to be very helpful.  Intellectual charity usually helps advance a thoughtful discussion much more than does personal venom.  (Efforts to target folks like Laura Ingraham for supposedly being "responsible" for Trump are especially bizarre; if the GOP had listened to Ingraham more on certain issues, Trump would not have had the political opening he did in 2015-2016.)

In addition to the intellectual reason for the importance of charity, there is a partisan reason for conservatives, too.  Trump voters are an important faction of the GOP.  In a crowded primary, he won about 45 percent of the primary vote.  John McCain won 46.7 percent of the primary vote in 2008, and McCain benefited from perhaps his strongest rival (Mitt Romney) dropping out partway through the campaign.  Facing a sustained #NeverMcCain movement, Senator McCain would have likely gotten even less of the primary vote in 2008 than Donald Trump in 2016.  Trump voters are not some fringe of the Republican party, so trying to purge them all would be a dismembering of the political right.

However, the #NeverTrump and #AlmostNeverTrump factions are an important part of the Republican coalition, too.  As recent polls have suggested, the GOP will have a hard time getting to a majority without at least some of those who have been resistant to Trump.  A Trumpian GOP that hopes to purge itself of all current Trump skeptics is one that has more of a future as a rump than a national party.

Whatever happens in November, both sides will have to be able to work together to help either gain or defend a governing majority.  If the personal divisions become too hardened, that cooperation will be extremely difficult to achieve.  Keeping the current squabble from turning into an undying blood-feud is, then, another reason why those who support, oppose, and are skeptical about Trump should emphasize the virtues of courtesy and intellectual charity (and, yes, those still are virtues).  Keeping divisions from becoming too rancorous also provides a reason why there's a place for some on the right to claim a neutral ground in intrafactional debates (Switzerland, as Hugh Hewitt has termed it).

If the right wants to renew itself, it will need to be able to handle broad debates, which in turn demand intellectual diversity and a tolerance for disagreement.  The right can have a place for both Mona Charen and Michelle Malkin, for both reformocons and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and for both RedState and (The Journal of) American Greatness.  (I would add that National Review and The Weekly Standard also have a place at the conservative table, but that should be obvious!)*

*See sidebar.

(Crossposted at Praxis)

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