Now, the meaning has been inverted by the MAGA-nates to attack those who claim the Republican mantle without sufficient adherence to whatever passes for Trumpian coherence in political outlook. In our “Alice-in-Wonderland” politics, not only are moderate conservatives (e.g. Susan Collins, Jeb Bush) outed, but those of a more rock-ribbed stance (e.g. Bill Kristol, Susan Cheney) have earned the title as well. Donald Trump’s combination of populism, opportunism, and cult of personality should make him the real RINO. Mitch McConnell looks positively principled by comparison.
The implosion of the GOP has left our politics without a clear champion for an essential stance in our democracy. I realized this when reviewing my policy stances on a range of major issues. In terms of environment, inequality, data security/privacy, and education (just to name a few areas) there is a clear problem with the adequacy of market forces and a commensurate need for government intervention.
However, as I have studied the history of the “state” over the past several centuries I have been struck with the incremental, semi-conscious, and seemingly inexorable growth of government. This has usually been driven by the incremental, semi-conscious, and seemingly inexorable growth in population and social complexity.
If a society needs to act, the “state” has been its active embodiment and has swept all others to the side. Organized religion has fallen by the wayside, and a federalistic vertical distribution of powers has become tenuous (especially outside the US or Germany). Even our Montesquieuian separation of powers has become creaky.
Whether you are concerned about over-policing, the national security state, gratuitous bureaucracy, or a dozen other excesses, our politics demands some staunch defender of limited government. But more, it demands some creativity in devising means of addressing those major substantive policy concerns with a structure that limits the Leviathan. It will be interesting to see if the newly-hatched Conservative Climate Caucus in the House (any RINOs there?) can develop any ideas that are effective without relying on too much on traditional regulatory models. It’s quite a conundrum since, I suspect, a considerable part of the GOP climate-denial stance over the past decade or so has been driven by their inability to conceive of novel, small government solutions to these challenges. Subsidies for alternative power, cap-and-trade and other carbon regulatory regimes, targeted taxation—all run head-long into traditional GOP concerns.
Part of this set of concerns (well-embedded since the New Deal era burst of regulatory/interventionist policies) has to do with the sacredness of the private sector/free markets; part has to do with the growing cost of government (i.e., tax burden); part has to do with the distrust of “pointy-headed bureaucrats” (in the felicitous phrasing of the late Spiro Agnew). At the same time, there are plenty of folks on the “left” who are deeply concerned with the ever-expanding national security state (e.g. ,the NSA listening to everyone’s Alexa), the military-industrial complex, Presidential war powers, and other forms of government expansion and intrusion. And the situation gets more problematic when global problems arise and global solutions seem appropriate.
So, while it’s easy to be counter-reactive to the opposition to government solutions, there is nothing simple about designing solutions. Whether we’re talking big ticket issues like climate, health security, or public infrastructure, or more routine regulatory matters such as consumer protection, police oversight, or financial systems, we need to see if there is an alternative to a single big institutionalization of power. Such structures need to be imbued with some degree of ‘publicness,’ some scope of responsibility for and to the society as a whole. At the same time, they need to be out from under the general control of the existing state/government.
Some centuries ago, before the development of the modern state, alternate and independent power centers existed (e.g., the Church, free cities, and feudal nobles) whose submission to higher authority was carefully circumscribed. Some of this approach remains visible in the federalism embedded in the US (and a few other countries’) formal political structure. These federal models are, however, territorially defined, and so they seem plausible for only a subset of problems. Climate and commerce can only be addressed on a broad scale.
Another idea is the “trust,” a legally separable entity whose control by the trustor (i.e., the traditional governmental structure) is limited. Theoretically, this was the premise for the funding of Social Security and for highway construction/maintenance. However, the safeguards against interference and invasion, being only statutory, eventually succumbed to the political demands of Congress; to the point where they are now only budgetary conventions. A more rigorous structure, constitutionally-embedded, seems like a direction worth exploring.
There are a host of implemental issues to be worked out, but the essential point is that there really is something meaningful in the fear of Leviathan. It has animated political thinkers since Hobbes and Burke. It’s too bad that the previous champions of this stance have flushed their principles in their eagerness to MAGA. Thoughtful conservatives are an endangered species and we all need them to come back: to provide real debate, to protect against the ease of power accumulation, and to see if there really is something coherent in a 21C Republicanism (not “in name only”).