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.