Senator Arlen Specter announced Tuesday that he was switching his party affiliation to the Democrats. Predictably, the self-appointed Republican advisers attributed his defection to the growing trend of intolerance among the Republican rank-and-file toward politicians whose views differ from their own. The Republican Party, we are reminded, is the party of the “big tent”, big enough to accommodate all species of political animals.
Big tents are fine, if you are running a circus. However, the Republican Party is not a circus; it just looks that way sometime. Tents are intended to be temporary structures, and are notoriously unstable in the face of a storm. If republicans (small “R”) are to regain the stature they have enjoyed in providing leadership for the American people over the past four hundred years they are going to need a structure somewhat more stable than a tent.
The Republican Party needs an edifice with a foundation strong enough to withstand any storm, even the “prefect storm” it is facing today. Historically conservatism has been the foundation of the Republican Party since its founding in 1854. The fortress of conservatism that protected the liberty of the people for more than a century began to be disassembled, stone by stone, in the Republican Party along with the rise of progressivism during the twentieth century.
Republicanism did not start with the Republican Party. The words most frequently used by the founders before and after the Revolutionary War in their political discourse were the words, “republican” and “republicanism”. These words are synonymous with what we mean when we talk about conservatism today—almost. Republicanism in the Founders generation was based on six principles, not just the three most often used today to describe the “three legs” of conservatism: small government, low taxes and private property. In fact, the three legs of the conservative stool are not the most important as understood and practiced by the Founders.
Those principles were:
- Faith in God and His divine providence.
- Rule of law and zero tolerance for corruption.
- Allegiance to the Constitution.
- Limited government powers delegated by the people.
- Powers to tax limited to those necessary to run government.
- Right to private property as the fruits of labor.
Too many conservatives seem to have forgotten the first three principles while focusing totally on the latter. While virtually all conservatives subscribe to these principles intellectually, few in the political class practice them in their public service. Unless the Republican Party and its conservative base wishes to follow the Whigs into the dustbin of history, they need to return to the principles that have been shown to work over and over again.
The fact that Arlen Specter decided to rejoin the Democrats in a last ditch effort to salvage his political career is significant only to the extent that it prompts the Republican Party to reexamine its position. From its inception, politics in America has been divided into two camps. Those camps were summed up by President Reagan as those who believe government is the answer and those who believe government is the problem. The departure of Specter is, hopefully, only the first step in the realignment of the two parties. That realignment would be helped along if others would follow Specters example and align themselves with the party that most reflects their worldview, particularly, Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and a few others.
As attractive as the idea of a “big tent” might be, we do not have that luxury at this time in history. We need to follow the example of Ronald Reagan in attracting Democrats and Independents to our side by converting them to republicanism not by compromising republican principles. It worked for Jefferson in 1800 and it worked for Reagan in 1980. It will work for the Republican Party in 2010 and 2012, but only if it restores the first three principles of republicanism to the party and uses those principles, as well as the latter three, to persuade others to join them.