No Conservative Commissars!
by RALPH PETERS
April 30, 2012
Conservatives speak a great deal about freedom, but do we really mean it? Freedom of action begins with freedom of thought, while enforced conformity that bullies political beliefs and private lives should be viewed as the enemy of true conservatism. Nowadays, the insistence by some on the far right that ideological purity trumps all raises a host of red flags for me. I'm an American, not a Republican or Democrat. I don't toe anybody's party line. Litmus tests for ideological purity stink of left-wing fanaticism. Citizens should judge candidates on their character and each political issue on its own merits-not on what a self-appointed band of commissars insist is the only true path toward an intolerant utopia in which I, for one, have no desire to live.
What's happening to us? Rigid ideology has always been the specialty of the Left, here and abroad (even the most-notorious fascist movements had left-wing roots). One of the greatest strengths of our elections-guided republic has been the traditional pragmatism of the American people: We want to know what works, not what some august thinker insists would work in a perfect world. From the words of an early New England primer that taught children "In Adam's fall, we sinned all," to our tripartite system of national government, American democracy has been based upon, and thrived under, the recognition that this mortal world is inherently imperfect; that no one ethnic, religious or interest group has a monopoly on wisdom; and that only reasoned compromises allow us to endure and thrive.
Until now, rigid ideology never really caught on in the United States, remaining the bizarre addiction of a handful of hard-left extremists with unwashed hair. Even at the depths of the Great Depression, Communism and other isms never captivated the American worker or the American family. We didn't sign up for lofty promises of utopia, but had the sense to recognize that hard-won, incremental progress was more genuine and enduring than intellectual schemes concocted by European egomaniacs. When the "Bonus Marchers" camped out across the Anacostia River during the Depression's grimmest period, Communist organizers tried to exploit the poverty of our veterans. The veterans' response? They chased the Reds out of the camp and kept them out (nonetheless, reactionary elements painted the veterans as radicals and the end of the affair was an American tragedy).
Pragmatism was especially strong in the Republican Party from early on, and that bias toward practical solutions long served our country well. In recent years, though, an alarming number of my fellow conservatives-who usually vote Republican--have begun to mirror the hard left in their behavior, attempting to enforce strict party lines, litmus tests and a stern refusal to compromise. To me, that's un-American.
In our robust, magnificent and, yes, endlessly frustrating system, nobody gets all the toys. The kids have to share. And nobody gets to dictate political dogma to the masses (if elements of the masses want to sucker for somebody's dogma, that's their right, of course-but it's irresponsible, cowardly and mindless). Perhaps it's my background as a Soviet hand, but having studied totalitarian and authoritarian systems for much of my military career and adult life, I'm allergic to any hint of central committees and commissars telling the rest of us what's politically acceptable.
Take the destructive term "RINO." When a professed Republican deviates from the new party line, he or she is castigated as a "Repubican in Name Only." I cannot imagine many things that are politically dumber than such fratricidal name-calling. Do conservatives really want to drive away generally like-minded voters because they differ on an issue or two? That's leftist behavior, not the response of those who value the American tradition of freedom of speech and reasoned debate. And who, exactly, appointed anybody to be Republican commissars? Since when does the Republican Party have a clandestine Central Committee to determine, in fine Stalinist fashion, who's a "left deviationist?"
Let me make it personal. I'm a conservative for conservation. I believe that many of my fellow conservatives have been suckered by Big Energy and its massive spin machine (the tops of mountains do not grow back, and BP couldn't care less about Louisiana's fishermen). Well, that's another column, but my point is this: Since I don't toe the ideological line on this particular issue, do you really want to reject my support on other issues? And my vote?
The Tea Party movement began with many genuine concerns and legitimate grievances. But the movement's intolerance toward any alternative views and the refusal to consider beneficial compromises has pushed me away. The moment of truth for me arrived last year, when we could have had a great deal in Congress with math that was 80% spending cuts and tax cuts for fiscal conservatives, and 20% loophole closures for the other side (and for God's sake: Not all loopholes are noble or good-most are ugly scams against you, the taxpayer). For serious conservatives, that was a deal made in Heaven, giving us a four out of five win. But the new Tea-Party-backed members of Congress killed the deal.
That's not democracy. That's spite.
Again, our democratic republic requires intelligent, if sometimes grudging, compromises. Nobody gets his or her way in all things, and we're better off for it. It's legitimate to fight for the best deal you can get, but, in the end, you have to make a deal. Don't dress up as one of the Founding Fathers for a demonstration unless you're willing to accept their approach to government-one that has always been about trade-offs and enlightened compromises that delivered the greatest good to the greatest number.
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't fight the hard-left's un-American agenda of elevating special-interest groups above the average American family or subverting the constitution by the selective enforcement (or non-enforcement) of laws. But it does mean that we must beware of elevating special-interest groups of our own above the citizenry. The left has always been about forcing group solutions on individuals. Conservatives must remain the champions of the rights of the individual-even when some of those rights leave us troubled.
For its part, the Obama administration has, skillfully, undermined basic rights and liberties in the name of rights and liberties. But anyone who wants to see a change of administration in Washington has to appeal to a wide range of voters, not just to the ideologically pure. Sorry, hardliners, but that means sensible compromises.
The growing intolerance among conservatives has had a dreadful effect on the process of selecting candidates for national office, too. Some on the far right seem happier to lose an election with an ideologically sound candidate than to win with a candidate with whom they don't agree on every last issue. One result is that candidates feel they must pander. I find that despicable. Another is that men and women of high quality decline to run for public office, repulsed by the inanity and the intolerance. I find that a danger to our system of government. (We should all be appalled by the pathetic mediocrity of the leadership in both our political parties.)
For myself, I line up with conservatives on more than two-thirds of the major issues, but not on every issue. And I'm perfectly willing to vote for a good man or woman who disagrees with me on a number of those issues. But I would like that man or woman to have integrity-the integrity to stand up and say, "I disagree on issue X, and here's why." Instead, we get candidates who try to be all things to all people, and who make impossible-to-realize promises, spinning things one way to a Tea Party rally then shifting their tone to appease an immigrant forum.
We should respect the candidate who takes a clear stand-even when we disagree. And we conservatives must be willing to listen to arguments contrary to our positions. We do not have a monopoly on wisdom or on virtue-only God is perfect. While some on the left are mindless conformists or brutal cynics, others hold carefully considered beliefs. They simply have a different view of the world (and, in most cases, less real experience in it). Better to try to win them over than to drive off our own allies by deriding fellow conservatives as "RINOs."
Most American voters occupy the middle ground and millions shift their allegiances from one election to another. Those "swing voters" decide elections. If conservatives behave like Maoist party cadres enforcing a cultural revolution, our candidates will lose at the national level. Is that what we really want?
Certainly, we all have trigger issues. I turn rabid over actions that threaten our national security or abuse our troops. But I can live with centrist or even liberal positions on a range of other issues (I can't be called a RINO because I'm not a Republican-I view both major parties as woefully corrupt and self-interested). Fiscal matters? I'm to the right of Paul Ryan. Foreign policy? I'm to the right of Ronald Reagan. Illegal immigration? I'm to the right of Jan Brewer. Law and order? I'm to the right of Anthony Scalia. The environment? I'm to the left of Nancy Pelosi.
Does that mean you don't want my vote?
Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer (and former enlisted man), and the author of the new bestseller, Cain at Gettysburg.