Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Rauch theory

Hugh Hewitt is running another Vox Blogoli, in which he invites bloggers to comment on a specific topic. This time the text for discussion is a passage from Jonathan Rauch's piece in the latest Atlantic:
On balance it is probably healthier if religious conservatives are inside the political system than if they operate as insurgents and provocateurs on the outside. Better they should write anti-abortion planks into the Republican platform than bomb abortion clinics. The same is true of the left. The clashes over civil rights and Vietnam turned into street warfare partly because activists were locked out of their own party establishments and had to fight, literally, to be heard. When Michael Moore receives a hero’s welcome at the Democratic National Convention, we moderates grumble; but if the parties engage fierce activists while marginalizing tame centrists, that is probably better for the social peace than the other way around.
Hardly seems sporting to rip into such a passage. This looks to me like the sort of half-baked stuff you'd put forth in a late-night bull session, not a serious idea soberly held. Part of the charm of the thing is that you know that you are saying something slightly looney. On the other hand, Rauch was serious enough to put it in the Atlantic!

First, I think that the theory of "keep the crazies inside" is just flat wrong. To believe this theory, you'd also need to believe that William F. Buckley and all those who labored for a couple of decades to separate the conservative movement from the anti-Semites and the John Birchers, were wrong to do so. You'd have to believe that the leaders of the American labor movement who worked to exclude Communists from their ranks, were wrong. Human institutions should be open, yes. But every institution that hopes to endure must have an immune system, a way of keeping wicked and dangerous ideas from invading and taking over. In practice, that often means keeping the crazies out.

Second, I think that Rauch's implicit description of the pro-life/anti-abortion part of the Republican party is indefensible. You can see this by transposing it to other situations. It's better to have conservative Christians campaigning for the Federal Marriage Amendment than prowling gay bars and murdering homosexuals. It's better to have postmodernist professors deconstructing human sexual identities in their classes than seducing twelve-year-old boys on the school playground. The invidious element is the suggestion that, if these people weren't doing this, they would surely be doing that.

Representative democracy works in part because it fosters the skills of political compromise and tolerance. Any national party must earn the right to govern by building and maintaining a coalition among quite different groups of people -- even people who find one another distasteful. (I am sure that in the Republican party there are plenty of secular economic conservatives who find the culturally conservative Evangelicals a bit creepy . . . and vice versa.) Conservative Christians have become prominent in the Republican party in part because they have shown the ability to participate in such coalitions. This requirement of coalition-building is the cohesive force that counters the centrifugal pressures of ideological disagreement, and is a far more reliable basis for political stability than Rauch's plan for turning the parties over to the extremists.

At least, that's what I think. Rauch argues that, by including extremists in mainstream political groups, we actually help to domesticate them, at the cost of making our politics more rancorous and divided than society as a whole. (Much of the article is concerned with explaining why our politics is so divided, when survey data shows a less divided culture.) But why should the extremists be tamed unless they are forced to choose between wielding real influence and indulging in wilder and wilder fights of ideological fantasy? What happens when the leaders endorse the positions of the conspiracy theorists?

It isn't just that there is room for Michael Moore in the "big tent" of the Democratic Party. He receives, as Rauch notes, "a hero's welcome". That means something, surely, and it isn't good.


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