Every society needs a center-right political party. No society can be successful if the only answers come from the center-left, for the simple reason that no single perspective can provide the best answers to every problem. For this reason, the self-destruction of either party should be cause for widespread concern. The rehabilitation of the Republican Party and its rescue from neoconservatives and Tea Partiers should therefore be a priority for progressives as well as conservatives, regardless of which party they actually claim membership in and vote for. The sickness of Republicans is not the health of Democrats.
The challenge for the Republican Party after the 2012 election is to find a way of advocating for small government and encouraging private enterprise while de-toxifying the Republican Party’s reputation amongst the various groups it drove into the Democratic Party’s arms over the past several years. To do this will require a positive vision for the party’s future – no easy task considering the pall of bigotry hanging over the party after four years of racial written and verbal abuse towards Barack Obama and openly misogynist Senate campaigns by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.
In addition to cleaning up its rhetorical act, the party also needs a new intellectual standard by which to judge its ideas. The party of Milton Friedman had, by the George W. Bush years, become the party of Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist whose ideas on economics and liberty were predicated upon a demonstrably incorrect reading of pre-World War Two Austrian economic policy. With the rise of the Tea Party, the intellectual standard of the Republicans has deteriorated even further. Now Ayn Rand’s advocation of naked self-interest and the triumph of the strong over the weak has replaced even these other, shaky economic philosophies while driving out any sense of Christian charity and justice from the Republican campaign.
This need not be so, and another German-speaking voice may provide a way out of the wilderness. In the late nineteenth century, the German sociologist Max Weber responded to what he saw as the deterioration of the quality of German life through the bureaucratizing policies of Otto von Bismarck. The bureaucratic state, Weber argued, was adept at providing material security but in the process encouraged passivity amongst its beneficiary recipients. By removing the individual desire to seek self-improvement, Weber held that Bismarck’s reforms did great damage to the nation. Individuals accustomed to economic passivity and the satisfaction of ambition by placement into bureaucratic managerial positions, rather than charismatic leadership in business and politics, were destined to lead unfulfilled and meaningless lives. Weber’s thinking on the bureaucratic state came not from a theory of ideal power but from an attentiveness to the value of life. The “Protestant ethic” about which he wrote so extensively was one worth having – the constant striving as part of a professional vocation gave meaning to life.
This ought to be a worldview attractive to those who consider themselves conservatives. Weber emphasized hard work, individual responsibility, and the positive influence of religion in individual behavior. He was not, however, an intellectual bigot who sought to impose his ideas through state coercion. Indeed, state coercion was synonymous with the bureaucratization that he opposed. He would most likely have looked askance upon what the Republican Party has become.
The utility of Weber’s ideas has not gone unnoticed by conservatives in other countries. In Britain, the Conservative (Tory) Party came to power as part of a governing coalition in 2010 pledging to institute a “Big Society”. The Conservative candidate for Prime Minister, David Cameron, explained in a TED Talk earlier in that election year that his party sought to modernize the British state. Echoing Weber, Cameron presented a three-stage interpretation of British history: pre-bureaucratic, bureaucratic, and post-bureaucratic. Each age was linked to an era of technological progression. While the pre-bureaucratic age was one of small agricultural communities, the Industrial Revolution necessitated bureaucratic states in order to manage the new flows of population and production. The post-bureaucratic age for which Cameron was so enthusiastic would be one resulting from the Information Revolution. The new information available to people through the internet and other information technologies would, Cameron posited, enable large areas of human activity that had been regulated by centralized control to be devolved to individuals making informed decisions.
In addition to the overtly Weberean categorizations, Cameron’s outline was notable both for eschewing reaction and appropriating elements of liberalism. As far as reaction, nowhere in Cameron’s presentation was there any sense that the bureaucratic age was evil, or even avoidable. It simply was one way of organizing human affairs that made sense in its technological context. Furthermore, Cameron did not foresee the post-bureaucratic age as entailing the devolution of authority back to pre-bureaucratic local governments. Instead, he saw post-bureaucracy as a movement forward, moving the locus of authority directly to the people rather than the former local, oligarchic intermediaries of the pre-bureaucratic stage. Finally, Cameron utilized the iconography of liberalism by referencing the words of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and his choice of the “Big Society” consciously echoed the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson. By referencing emblems of 1960s progressive liberalism, Cameron was able to emphasize the non-ideological nature of his own program. It was a message that helped propel the Conservatives into office as part of a coalition in the 2010 general election.
The Republican Party could learn several lessons from Cameron’s successful reformation of the Conservative Party. First, Weber provides a credible worldview that fulfills Republican preferences for small government and free enterprise without being historically incorrect (Hayek) or morally grotesque (Rand). Second, unlike many Republican “Tenthers”, with their fetish for states’ rights and the inescapable 19th century corporatist worldview which that entails, Cameron was not trying to re-empower antiquated authorities, he was trying to empower individual persons themselves. Third, this empowerment was portrayed in the language of classical liberalism, which values personal autonomy in all parts of life, not just in economic decision making, as Republicans value, or in social decision making, as Democrats do.
How can Republicans utilize the lessons taught to them by Britain’s Tory prime minister? To start, they might abandon their focus on state government in favor of individuals and dynamic local associations, both through local governments as well as non-profits and “fourth sector” organizations. The individual American state is an increasingly antiquated entity in a country with a national economy and high population mobility. Reliance upon the local elites within state governments is exactly the kind of reversion to pre-bureaucratic age structures that Cameron explicitly tried to avoid. Meanwhile, economic corporatism must be abandoned alongside state corporatism. Rather than design their economic policies to benefit large international corporations with little or no patriotic stake in the success of American society, Republicans might instead pursue policies that will help individuals, both entrepreneurs and available-for-hire professional workers, to enhance their ability to pursue their goals through the marketplace. In this respect, the state exchanges set up through Obamacare are an opportunity, not a curse. If fully implemented, these exchanges will allow workers to sever their reliance on employers for health insurance, thereby freeing them to participate more actively in the free market on their own terms. The employer-provided health insurance model is a recipe for continued corporatism.
Finally, there is an important distinction that may be lost on American conservatives who belittle government as a concept and seek to defund and otherwise undermine it wherever possible. At no point in Cameron’s speech did he denigrate government or question the constructive role of the state in society. Instead, he focused specifically on bureaucracy, and advocated the transference of government responsibility from bureaucracy to people. He didn’t question that there are things of public importance and deserving of public attention, he questioned whether the bureaucratic mechanism is appropriate for addressing them. That is a major conceptual difference that American conservatives must address if they wish to adopt a similarly Weberean outlook for the Republican Party.
Adopting Weber as the party’s intellectual patriarch would provide a positive vision for the Republican Party’s future, but in order to emulate the success of the British Conservatives this change will have to be accompanied by a change in self-identification. No longer can the Republican Party be the party of white America alone, or of rural America alone. Republicans must adopt a platform capable of winning votes inside cities and in the suburban belts that host centers of innovation, such as universities and tech startups. It is also worth noting that, for all of the attractiveness of Cameron’s message to British voters, the implementation of his “Big Society” has been undermined by his party’s focus on austerity budgeting, which has deprived many of his favored initiatives of the funding needed to succeed. In that respect, it is the Conservatives who have followed the lead of the Republicans, to disastrous effect. That final point is worth considering for supporters of both parties moving forward.