As we stand on the threshold of an election year, the campaign for the presidency is now moving forward in earnest–at least on the Republican side. The Democrats already have Hillary Clinton’s crown polished and ready for the formality of a purely ceremonial anointing in August. For the party of Lincoln, several candidates have dropped out of the race and several others will soon join them (SPOILER ALERT: John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki). Between now and the Iowa Caucus, much can and will change–at this time in 2012 Newt Gingrich was leading the field and in December of 2008 Mike Huckabee was up by double-digits in some polls. Still, the dynamic of this race is unequivocally a contest between the grassroots of a more libertarian and populist strain and what they perceive as an out-of-touch “establishment.” For both principled and pragmatic reasons, conservatives should side with the latter.
Above all, conservatism relies on principles to judge the best course of action. Politics is a messy business full of compromises, so by its nature conservatism is wary of political solutions to human problems. It is far better to build up civic virtue in the first place through enrichment of religion, morality, culture, and institutions than to rely on the government to punish the unvirtuous after the fact. Furthermore, the Catholic Church teaches that subsidiarity should be the organizing principle of society. Insofar as the national government has a proper role beyond the scope of its constitutionally enumerated powers, it should be to calm popular passions. During the constitutional convention of 1787, James Madison argued:
Another reflection equally becoming a people on such an occasion, would be that they themselves, as well as a numerous body of Representatives, were liable to err also, from fickleness and passion. A necessary fence against this danger would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number, and firmness might seasonably interpose against impetuous councils. It ought finally to occur to a people deliberating on a Government for themselves, that as different interests necessarily result from the liberty meant to be secured, the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.
George Washington is reputed to have laconically summarized this sentiment by comparing the Senate to “the saucer that cools the tea.” If the anti-establishment crowd wishes to question the conservative bona-fides of James Madison and George Washington, by all means, go right ahead.
Today, the GOP “establishment” serves much the same purpose. Congressional leadership, party committees, think tanks, conservative media elites, and yes, even the loathsome lobbyist and consultant class of sycophants and doorstops are all vital checks on the inevitable tendency of a democratic society toward majoritarian misrule. In the United States we do not have an aristocracy of birth (the Clintons and Bushes notwithstanding), but an aristocracy of ideas. Like any aristocracy, the GOP “establishment” is rightfully skeptical of new ideas and drastic measures. In the fullness of time, some of the more worthy ideas and policies will come to be accepted, but there is no guarantee, nor should there be. The reason is more practical than philosophical. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his magnum opus:
The omnipotence of the majority appears to me to be so full of peril to the American republics that the dangerous means used to bridle it seem to be more advantageous than prejudicial…There are no countries in which associations are more needed to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince than those which are democratically constituted. In aristocratic nations the body of the nobles and the wealthy are in themselves natural associations which check the abuses of power. In countries where such associations do not exist, if private individuals cannot create an artificial and temporary substitute for them I can see no permanent protection against the most galling tyranny; and a great people may be oppressed with impunity by a small faction or by a single individual.
The structure of the federal government is deliberately complicated and power is intentionally set against power so that organizational inertia and inefficiency might serve as built-in safeguards of our liberty. The federal government is larger than the population of some countries, but happily this vast apparatus cannot be easily directed to act towards a common purpose. Even with control of the White House and supermajorities in both chambers of Congress, the Obama Administration has had many political and bureaucratic setbacks and reversals for which we should be thankful.
As we look to the upcoming election, we must not lose sight of this bigger picture. Sooner or later (SPOILER ALERT: it will be sooner if Donald Trump is the nominee), liberals will again have unified control of the executive and legislative branches–not to mention the ever-present danger of tipping the scales of the judiciary irreversibly in their favor. In all that we do to advance conservative priorities and causes, we must be careful not to create tools that can–and will–later be used by the enemies of liberty to aggrandize their power and subjugate the citizens of the Republic. If that’s not a principled conservative position, then nothing is.
The views expressed are of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policy of CatholicVote.org