A Principled Conservative

2012-11-02 11:38

Reading round-the-world media would give you the impression that Australians are yobbos, the British are made up of a nose-in-the-air upper class and the football fans who work for them, and that America is basically the refined and sophisticated Union versus the spitting, shooting, racist Confederacy.

Contrary to popular belief, the USA is not an army of liberals against a similar-sized army of conservatives. Liberal influence has a far greater clout in the USA than its numbers should suggest, in spite of most of the USA living outside the strong liberal centres of New York City and buddies, Chicago, Washington DC and Los Angeles.

In fact, although there is a lot of overlap between liberal and Democrat, and conservative and Republican, the reasons people vote for either party are not homogenous.

News24 decided to ask about this in depth, and spoke to conservative political commentator Joshua Treviño, vice-president of external relations at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Treviño is a former US army officer, and served as a speechwriter within the President George W Bush administration.

According to Treviño, the organisation he works for stands for "small government, free market, pro individual responsibility, pro entrepreneurial", and their work aims to influence Texas policy.

As you might know, Texas is the most successful (admittedly, an open-ended term) large state run by Republicans, in contrast to the other two powerhouses, California and New York, which are both Democrat leaning states (although there remains significant Republican influence in the latter). Treviño claims Texas' move to the forefront is due to its commitment to "founding" ideals:

Why Texas?

"[Texas] is one of the states with the lowest per-capita state spending, it is one of the nation's leading manufacturing states [which a lot of people don't know], tied with California for Fortune 500 companies headquartered here. We've been responsible for roughly half of the US job growth in the Obama years [since January 2009], so what you see in Texas is in many ways reflective of the vision we have."

Treviño is thoroughly researched, and delved into some Texas history to contextualise the principles he was about to outlay, namely that "the good things about Texas are not uniquely Texas qualities, they are uniquely American qualities".

The enduring wars that Texas underwent, and eventually won, Treviño says, are representative of the "expression of the wild frontier nature, the starkly individual nature, the combative nature, the very hopeful nature of the original American character". 

"When you see Texas prospering, especially in the last half decade – accounting for half of the job growth, attracting 1 000 migrants a day – the reason isn't that Texas is different. It's the rest of the country that's different.

"Texas, for all of its virtues, is not the most blessed spot in the United States – you can argue that's a place like California. California has better weather… better geography, better internal communications, it's arguably got better national resources.

"And so the historical pattern in the United States has been to places like California, or places with older and more established industrial bases, like the American northeast, which are the engines of prosperity.

"It's only been in the last decade that Texas has risen up to challenge directly places like California and places like New York. And as much as we would like to think it is because Texas is just that much better… the sad reality is that the other states have veered so far left that they have kind of abandoned – and this is true at the federal level as well – abandoned their heritage."

Founding principles

I asked Treviño about how one gets back to American ideals, as I don't really believe that state or federal governments who believe in reducing the size of government actually ever do.

His lengthy answer referenced the War of 1812, essentially the last war between the USA and Britain, one facet of which was an attempt by the USA to invade what is now Canada. A British tactic back then was to lure Americans to immigrate into Canada with promises of assets including land and housing, at the expense of some of "the life, liberty and autonomy" on which America prides itself.

"Unfortunately, and you can argue about when this starts… Americans have become used to the safety net. They have become used to entitlements. And a lot of what we are doing – those of us on the right, and those of us on the policy side of things – is we end up figuring out ways to reform or save entitlements."

"Most states don't practice liberty, and both benefits and freedom, in the way that Texas does. Do I think they can again? Yes, I do. I don't think history goes in any one particular direction, and just as bad things can happen so can good, but we have to recognise where we've gone as a country, and it is well to the left of where we started."

It is probably worth noting here that although Democrats do pretty well in presidential and other federal politics, Republicans currently hold sway in 26 state legislatures and local governments across the USA, while Democrats control only 15 and eight are split.

There are 29 Republican governors, only 20 Democrat governors and 1 independent (in Rhode Island, which is an overwhelmingly Democrat state anyway). Republicans also hold a majority of federal congressional districts – they have 242 seats to 193 seats for Democrats.

So if Republicans have all this dominance, then why isn't government shrinking, liberty expanding, or entitlements being reformed like they promise?

"Republicans and conservatives are not the same people. They overlap, considerably, but are nevertheless not the same. Look at the record of people who Republicans have nominated for president for the last 25 years. You've got Mitt Romney, George W Bush twice, Bob Dole, George H W Bush twice – the most conservative of that group is George W Bush – by the way he is responsible for the largest entitlement expansion prior to Barack Obama [Medicare Part D]."

"At least at the presidential level, Republicans have a generational propensity for nominating moderates. In 2012, there was only one contender in the Republican Party who could not attack Barack Obama on Obamacare, and he was nominated." (As governor, Mitt Romney authored a Massachusetts healthcare bill on which Obama's healthcare reform legislation is based.) "I'll be blunt with you: I don't fully understand it. The process for those of us that really do value the more ideologically pure accomplishments – it continues to elude us and it may be systemic of the party. I don't know. But after 25 years we have to acknowledge this is how it fashions."

The Media

One of the great ways politics plays out in the USA is through the media. Republicans often decry liberal media bias in the mainstream, which, to an extent, is fairly arguable.

Treviño sums it up bluntly: "You are more likely, although there are a few exceptions, to get good coverage of US politics from a foreign correspondent than you are from domestic US correspondents, and here's why. Media in the United States… is merely just another interest group. We can debate the reasons for it, but when you look at their partisanship they are invariably 70% with Democrats… It is inevitable when you have a media establishment that is concentrated on the coast, mostly in the north-eastern corridor, with a sizeable collection in California, that are of a certain class, that have never done anything in their professional lives except for work in journalism. That coverage is going to get skewed."

"Conservatives who win, and who know how to win, don't really care what the media think that much anymore."

A good example to explain this sort of thing is the recent comment by Republican candidate in Indiana for the US Senate, Richard Mourdock, who said last week during a debate that he didn't believe in abortion even in cases of rape.

Mourdock said, "I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have for an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realise life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." 

Contrary to popular belief, a fair summary of Mourdock's point of view is not that God sometimes intends rape, but that he doesn't believe in abortions under any circumstance, except to save the life of the mother.

According to a Gallup poll taken in May, 50% of Americans describe themselves as pro-life, with only 41% claiming pro-choice. Fifty-one percent claim abortion is morally wrong. And nearly half of the pro-life quotient doesn't believe abortion should be permitted under any circumstances whatsoever. Treviño expanded: "The specific policy Mourdock advocates is only supported by around 20%-25% of Americans. However, 50% agree with his premise to protect human life. That being the case, you get the tale of Mourdock being some kind of crazy extremist, but in fact he's in the mainstream. It's really just a shining example of what has gone wrong with American media. It's more mainstream than the belief held by Barack Obama."

Social Issues

Surprisingly, however, social issues seem to have become a platform on which Democrats think they can win. Obama has strongly backed a woman's right to choose, while also endorsing states' rights to legalise same-sex marriage and the federal government to acknowledge those marriages. This is part of a platform on which Democrats might very well win this election.

"That's one reason this election may be a lot more consequential than most," says Treviño, "when you look at the history of social issues in American life and politics, social conservatism, in spite of what the media will tell you, is usually a winner for Republicans.

"Gay marriage has failed in every state-wide vote it has been put to [which has happened 32 times]. Steadily more Americans describe themselves as pro-life every year – that number used to be down in the 30s and now it is up to 50%... if the president wins this that's a big deal.

"Politically, it may mean that the tide is turning for them [Democrats], and what has been a victorious theme for Republicans really since 1980 may no longer be a hope for us… it is a heck of a gamble for [Democrats] and you have to respect the chutzpah of going down that road. It has not been fruitful for them in the past."

A Libertarian Wing?

When Ron Paul was on the campaign trail in his fourth attempt at the Republican presidential nomination, the difference between him and the other candidates was stark.

Paul is a devout libertarian and had a majority of support from voters under the age of 30 in virtually every state he contested. To me, this makes it look as if this is the way the Republican Party will turn – it is a significant voting bloc within the party (not so much outside – the Libertarian Party should give itself a medal if it polls at more than 1% in this election).

Treviño disagrees: "As time goes by I think the chance of true libertarian sway grows smaller and smaller. I really do."

He explained that the Club for Growth, a lobby group that ranks congressmen and women by their votes for or against policy facilitating growth, and endorses solely on that basis, has ended up endorsing candidates who are socially conservative anyway.

While libertarians, in principle, take no stance on social issues, Treviño argues there is a combination appropriate for the USA – "over the years it has emerged that the single most reliable indicator that a congressman is strong on social issues, is a Club for Growth endorsement. That's just how it's worked out. You can bank more on a Club for Growth endorsement than you can from a pro-life group.

"So for whatever reason, social conservatism and fiscal conservatism in the United States go hand in hand. They tend to occur in the same places. They tend to reinforce one another. They tend to draw on similar premises of individual responsibility, and individual autonomy. A libertarian party in the United States would be a much more profound development than I think is commonly appreciated."

By Treviño's assertion, the establishment is set to stick around for quite some time, in spite of a succession of moderate presidential nominees, and mainstream media that caters to a specific audience, which isn't really Republican. 

If Josh Treviño is right, the true bearers of small government, less regulation and less burden on the state will happen at the state and local level – much like his home ground of Texas.