Ramblings & ephemera

Conservatives are more ruthless than liberals

From Alan Wolfe’s “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern” (The Washington Monthly: July/August 2006):

Political parties expend the time and grueling energy to control government for different reasons. Liberals, while enjoying the perquisites of office, also want to be in a position to use government to solve problems. But conservatives have different motives for wanting power. One is to prevent liberals from doing so; if government cannot be made to disappear, at least it can be prevented from doing any good. The other is to build a political machine in which business and the Republican Party can exchange mutual favors; business will lavish cash on politicians (called campaign contributions) while politicians will throw the money back at business (called public policy). …

Historically and philosophically, liberals and conservatives have disagreed with each other, not only over the ends political systems should serve, but over the means chosen to serve those ends. Whether through the ideas of James Madison, Immanuel Kant, or John Stuart Mill, liberals have viewed violent conflict as regrettable and the use of political institutions as the best way to contain it. Conservatives, from the days of Machiavelli to such twentieth-century figures as Germany’s Carl Schmitt, have, by contrast, viewed politics as an extension of war, complete with no-holds-barred treatment of the enemy, iron-clad discipline in the ranks, cries of treason against those who do not support the effort with full-throated vigor, and total control over any spoils won. From a conservative point of view, separation of powers is divisive, tolerance a luxury, fairness another word for weakness, and cooperation unnecessary. If conservatives will not use government to tame Hobbes’ state of nature, they will use it to strengthen Hobbes’ state of nature. Victory is the only thing that matters, and any tactic more likely to produce victory is justified.

The K Street Project, then, did not arise spontaneously out of the ether. When Republicans in Congress began to inform lobbyists that in return for influence they would have to fire all the Democrats in their firms, they may have broken with long-standing traditions, but they were simply carrying forward politics-as-warfare the way conservative political philosophers have historically understood it. Liberals do not generally have objections to working with conservatives; indeed, having conservatives sign off on any expansion of government adds to the legitimacy of that expansion. But conservatives tend to see working with liberals as corrupting; in the immortal words of conservative activist Grover Norquist, “bipartisanship is another name for date rape.” K Street is to lobbying what Fox News is to journalistic objectivity. In the world that contemporary conservatives have brought into being, rules are not applicable to all parties to a conflict. Rules are part of the conflict, and whoever wins the conflict gets to change the rules.

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