The Magazine

A Crisis Republicans Should Not Waste

An Austen Chamberlain moment for the Democrats.

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By HADLEY ARKES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The points of caution have already been noted by conservative commentators: The public anger over the passage of Obamacare may well subside by November, especially if the economy continues its healing. And so the Democrats, having desperately gone for broke, may be delivered from their danger and find themselves surviving with wreckage vast, yet not terminal.

A Crisis Republicans Should Not Waste

But the tawdriness that attended the ramming through of Obamacare has had a mind-clearing effect for the public. Academics might find their surety in theories ever more inventive, but ordinary people, anchored in the world, trust in common sense: They cannot believe that their medical care will really be better when managed in the style of the Post Office or the IRS. They cannot believe that a new entitlement will lower costs and not raise taxes, that it will not lead to price-controls and rationing. 

My own reckoning is that the passions of this season will endure: that the Hand of Justice will pass over the house of Democrats and leave very few standing. Even Democrats who voted against Obamacare will not be spared, for the public seems to have been brought to the threshold of a judgment so binary that the choices before us now require the sweeping away of any Democrat. A vote for any Democratic candidate is a vote to keep in power Pelosi and Reid and the rest of the people who imposed this scheme on us. 

The current conflict may have brought us to one of those rare crises that produces a recasting, or realignment, of the political parties. At a similar moment, Margaret Thatcher destroyed Britain’s Labour party as a socialist entity, forcing it to abandon its schemes, long cherished, for nationalizing major parts of the economy. And so it should not be beyond imagining that today a conservative leadership, with wit and nerve, could bring an end to the Democratic party as it was recast in the days of the Vietnam war and George McGovern. The election of 2008 swept the American left into power with swollen majorities. The Democratic leadership was emboldened enough to offer an unalloyed version of its politics: antiwar, suspicious of American interests abroad, weak on protecting the lives of Americans, antireligious, pro-abortion, pro-racial preferences, beholden to the whims of the plaintiff bar and the teachers’ unions, and ever inclined to keep extending the reach of governmental controls and reducing the freedom of ordinary people to make their livings. These things have been revealed so clearly that it is not unthinkable that the public might be moved to do something decisive in November. 

There’s a suggestive analogy to our current situation: the crisis in British politics in 1923-24.

There had been a bruising general election in 1922. The Conservatives had won 344 seats, giving them more than the Liberal and Labour parties combined, but Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sought a fresh mandate the next year to deal with the problem of unemployment by a return of protectionism. This policy brought the Liberal party to close ranks in support of free trade. The Liberal share of the House of Commons increased in the 1923 election from 62 to 158, and Labour surged too, from 142 to 191. The Conservatives fell to 258, still the dominant party, but no longer strong enough to form a government on their own.

There had not yet been in Britain a Labour government. The dread of bringing forth the first one was an incentive to form a coalition between the “constitutional parties”—i.e., the parties not threatening to change radically the powers and reach of the state. This view was held by the Conservative leadership, including the Tory statesman Austen Chamberlain—older half-brother of Neville Chamberlain. Some of them were actually willing to have the Conservatives take second place and support a Liberal government with H.H. Asquith returning as prime minister. But the Liberal recoil from the protectionism of the Conservatives was so pronounced that Asquith went the other way. The Liberals would back Labour and in that way install the first socialist government in Britain. 

Austen Chamberlain saw with an uncommon clarity what this decision meant. Asquith, he said, “has taken his choice, and he has by that choice constituted his own immortality.” For “he will go down to history as the last Prime Minister of a Liberal Administration. He has sung the swan song of the Liberal Party”: 

When next the country is called upon for a decision, if it wants a Socialist Government it will vote for a Socialist; if it does not want a Socialist Government it will vote for a [Conservative]. 

Recent Blog Posts