The Retreat To Whiggery

If the latest wave of now-what commentary is any indication, it’s going to be a long electoral hangover for Republicans. Gripped with dismay over the allegedly excessive influence of “preachers” and “plutocrats,” a growing number of observers seem to be pushing Republicans to reconsider their Whig roots. This could be odd advice, insofar as Whiggery, organized around broad-based national projects for prosperity (infrastructure, eduction, etc.), happened to collapse in suspicious tandem with the rise of the GOP in the first place. On the other hand, a return to Whiggery basically implies that the historical conditions which created the GOP’s commerce-and-abolition coalition are going the way of the buffalo.

So, Joel Kotkin on Lincoln:

To reclaim its Lincolnesque transformation, the GOP needs to fundamentally pivot on the role of government. Laissez-faire ideology has its merits, but cannot compete successfully with a population weaned on the welfare state, whose members are keenly attuned to their vulnerability in our volatile era.

By admitting that government is sometimes a necessary partner in nurturing and sometimes financing infrastructure critical for economic expansion, Republicans can offer their own vision of what growth-inducing services such as new roads—as opposed to the increased regulation and transfer payments and pension bloat peddled by Democrats—government can and should provide. This could appeal to Hispanics, Asians, and younger people who would be the prime beneficiaries of tangible investments.

I have a lot of love for Kotkin, but this strikes me as tenuous ground for a Republican reboot. It makes a certain kind of sense that the current crop of reform-minded conservative wonks who want to go more populist look to Whig modes of framing national progress. But as Obama painfully revealed to Republicans forced to endure his protracted reelection-year appeal to winning the future with a new, nation-building brand of economic patriotism, the left has a pretty influential claim to the idea that anything a Whig can do, they can do better (or, you know, with more feeling).

To get out of the resultant position of weakness, Republicans could consider renovating a strangely neglected strain of thought on the right of center, a kind of libertarianism with foundations in political theory, not economics. As I try to develop over at Forbes, this political libertarianism

recognizes that corruption, corporatism, and the maximum security state are all political problems first, not economic ones. That’s important because it helps Americans understand the context of freedom even if they aren’t exactly hungering for more economic freedom from government. And it’s powerful because the context it reveals indicates where Americans can claw back freedom that doesn’t reduce to the exercise of mere personal choices, however important to their life plans. Political liberty is best understood as the precondition of that choice-making[.]

The surprise here to many, I think, will be that this kind of standpoint is far less apologetic toward “plutocracy” than many critics, on both sides of the aisle, currently suppose libertarianism necessarily to be. That alone ought to earn it a serious look on the right.

  1. KarlUB

    Sounds to me like you and Joel are making pretty much the same case. Joel just puts ends before theory.

    James Poulos:

    It makes a certain kind of sense that the current crop of reform-minded conservative wonks who want to go more populist look to Whig modes of framing national progress. But as Obama painfully revealed to Republicans forced to endure his protracted reelection-year appeal to winning the future with a new, nation-building brand of economic patriotism, the left has a pretty influential claim to the idea that anything a Whig can do, they can do better (or, you know, with morefeeling).

    I would argue that Obama has done no such thing. He pretends to care about what an unemployed blue-collar white guy in Michigan wants. And can do so passably as he gets all his talking points from Union leaders.

    But his policies do no such thing. Not even close. On matters of trade, industrial policy, immigration, vocational training, and financial bailouts Obama and Romney were pretty much indistinguishable, as are the Republican and Democrat parties.

  2. FloppyDisk90

    We keep thinking the problem is with the message and it’s not.  A large proportion of the voting population (and getting larger every year) *likes* big government, regulation and all the goodies of the welfare state.  Anything we say that is perceived to threaten that, and the message can be as innocuous and vanilla as “government spending is too high”, and that is immediately translated into “we want to cut your benefits.”

    I say all the money we’re feeding into the gaping maw of national elections would be better spent ramrodding conservatives into local school boards and university faculty.  Unless we are able to successfully influence a new generation we can frame and re-frame messages until we’re blue in the face and it will be like preaching abstinence to an alcoholic.

  3. Misthiocracy

    Which Whigs?

    The original Whigs were the classically liberal answer to the Tories.  In other words, the Whigs were opposed to abuses by an unaccountable governmental executive.

    Sounds like a good fit to me.

    The Democratic Party of the United States has become the American answer to the historical version of the Tories – defenders of an unaccountable, nearly all-powerful, (but oh-so benevolent and altruistic) executive.

    A “Whiggish” version of the Republican Party would be, presumably, devoted to tearing down the institutions that have made the executive all-powerful and unaccountable, rather than (as currently seen by many) a party that simply wants to direct that unaccountable power to different ends.

  4. Guruforhire

    Since when have the republicans been anything even remotely in the same zip code as Laissez-faire?

    Since when have the republicans been anything other than cheap democrats?

  5. Fake John Galt
    Guruforhire: Since when have the republicans been anything even remotely in the same zip code as Laissez-faire?

    Since when have the republicans been anything other than cheap democrats? · 3 hours ago

    I disagree, sir.  The Republicans are not cheap.  They just cost less than the Democrats.

  6. Scarlet Pimpernel

    Not sure Kotkin is quite fair to Lincoln.  The free soil, free labor, free men idea is very much at the heart of the Tea Party side of the GOP. 

    Consider unions.  Lincoln was in favor of the right of men to bargain collectively.  That was illegal in some places in the 1850s, if memory serves.  What being pro-union meant, in other words, was essentially the union laws we have in Right to Work states today–men are free to choose to join a union or not, they could not be forced to join and stay in a union as is the case in non-right-to-work states.  Similarly, they would oppose chard check on the same principles. (Heck, even McGovern came out against that).  They would oppose government workers unions, or finding them an established fact, they would seek reforms like those we have seen in Wisconsin, for the same reasons. Again, even FDR agreed with that.

  7. Scarlet Pimpernel

    P.S. Americans like the rhetoric of limited government and the money they get from big government.

  8. Randal H
    Guruforhire: Since when have the republicans been anything even remotely in the same zip code as Laissez-faire?

    Since when have the republicans been anything other than cheap democrats? · 6 hours ago

    Since the Coolidge administration, I’d say.