Two criteria for membership in the new conservative “in-crowd.”
Don’t Crash My Party
Today's Republican Party demonstrates the problem of putting new wine into old bottles.
Those who occupy the commanding heights of established authority are usually boring personalities by necessity, institutional design, and supporting culture. Mediocrity is the rule for the gatekeepers of established power.
Think of onetime RNC chairman Reince Priebus—with his Pee Wee Herman good looks, wit, and charm—fielding candidates like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, trying to appeal to just enough rank-and-file Republicans in the primary and then general election voters in November to win.
My position on the idea animating this symposium is the following: it’s to be expected that the RNC, like any established, institutional political player, will try to exclude folks whom it doesn’t like and who threaten its enduring interests. To do so is to fulfill its cornerstone, self-preservative function. It’s even a term of political science: “The Law of Conservative Exclusion.” (Pure Theory of Politics, Bertrand De Jouvenel, Part IV, Chapter 2, Liberty Fund Press.)
The basic idea is that political entrepreneurs—dynamic personalities with a public design and purpose—give rise to movements that eventually transform into established institutions, eventually to be guided by folks like Reince Priebus. A modern party competing at all levels of government to run something as complex and powerful as the United States of America needs binders full of predictable, qualified, company men and women. The type of candidate who can satisfy the diverse and often warring internal interests that rage within a major political party is very rarely an exciting personality.
Think of the retail political skill set required to found the Republican Party itself. It’s populist to the core. It takes a pretty dynamic and dangerous, “Here I stand and can do no other” type to found a new party, or a social or economic power. Men like Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Gompers, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs all hailed from the tribe of disrupters—better to meet them in history books than to have to deal with them when they manifest themselves in the flesh.
Such characters are always resisted by the establishment. And the disrupters understand this. They know who they are. They expect those being overturned to fight for their status. Most disrupters fail. The establishment wins more then it loses. Those few who do succeed, and help build or rebuild institutions in their name, are always outnumbered by lesser types like Mitt Romney, Al Sharpton, and Tim Cook. This is a datum of politics.
There is a tragedy in the Law of Conservative Exclusion. It can be too successful in keeping out the new blood—the dynamism—that it requires to fulfill its charge of maintaining institutional continuity and vitality in the face of change.
The Kristol family offers an instructive example of how movements are born, and, when poorly managed, die. Irving Kristol was an intellectual entrepreneur who created first a neo-conservative persuasion and then a movement. Bill, his son, was not a creator like his father but a mandarin. His judgment was consistently poor up until Donald Trump forced himself upon the Republican Party, at which point things went terribly for Bill. He did everything in his power to deny Trump the Republican nomination, and, when beaten, shifted allegiance and made common cause with Democrats to purge Trump and his MAGA ilk. Sadly, the neoconservatives of days gone by are now neoliberals. There exists no circumstance under which they will be allowed to return to the Republican fold, let alone to leadership.
Trump is presently knee-deep in trench warfare to remake the Republican Party into a populist party—an effort being resisted internally, though to little public note. After Trump won the White House, many of the establishment folks who opposed his hostile takeover became more open to the Republican populism. Trump saw cracks in the Democratic Party’s working-class blue wall and gave a Republican voice to their concerns with his candidacy, and later with his presidency and policies. He brought new life into the Republican Party—a popular energy and rootedness— that could transform it into a genuine rival to the Our Democracy Party and its progressive arc-of-history claim.
My sense is that Ronna Romney McDaniel sees the enduring value of opening the Republican Party’s vision to more populist expressions. She is a respectful niece of a Republican aristocratic family, but at the same time she seems to understand that the future of the Republican Party is in becoming more populist.
My two cents on the midterms.
If you want to know what happened on a candidate level, follow the money. We are all talking about “candidate quality” as the reason behind the trickle instead of the wave. But it’s hard to accept the candidate-quality mantra, particularly when the only example that we can hang on is Dr. Oz. Fact: the Democrats got behind John Fetterman and outspent Oz, and won. Fetterman was certainly not a better candidate than Oz. Yes, Oz was a carpet bagger. In contrast, Fetterman is a Carhartt bagger—a trustafarian with a series of numbers on his arms that I believe is a running IOU list to his rich daddy. When a renowned heart surgeon and TV doctor does not win against a disabled stroke victim, it’s about money and organization, not candidate quality.
I’d like to see a number on how much Republicans spent compared to the Democrats on the races that mattered. Mitch McConnell managed his chip count as you would expect, spending just enough to keep the narrative going on Donald Trump’s inability as party leader and stock picker of talent, and sowing a post-midterm division between Trump and Ron DeSantis. And, in Mitch’s defense, if Trump’s picks had won, he would be out of a job.
Trump lacked the discipline to put his own sizable war chest where his mind, reputation, and populist future were on the line. It appears that Trump doesn’t know what he is up against, which does not inspire confidence.
If the Republican Party allows itself to be outspent in Georgia for the December 6 run-off, then the message is clear: its leadership has its own priorities, and needs suffer some conservative exclusion at the top. The Left wins because it networks; the Right loses because it competes against itself. Unless that changes and shows itself in Georgia, the Republican Party deserves to go the way of the Whig Party, and to be replaced by something more deserving of the American people and this House Divided Moment. But it’s easier to reform than replace.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.