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The World’s Dumbest Conservatives

How to turn a successful majority coalition into a perpetual election-losing machine

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Sarkozy’s surrogates denounced Le Pen’s extremism, but not that of Hollande’s Stalinist allies. Le Pen’s policies might be regarded as conservative in France, but her views on regulation, protectionism, and immigration would place her firmly in the ranks of Blue Dog Democrats here: Recently she demanded a government takeover of France’s biggest automaker, Peugeot. For that matter, the UMP’s official observers at the Republican convention this August informed American reporters that their party was to the left of Obama. Nonetheless, had Sarkozy and Le Pen reached a private accommodation, a right-of-center government would now be presiding. Sarkozy’s capitalist and neoliberal supporters would have had to join hands with Le Pen voters, Catholic and Protestant traditionalists, French patriots who deplore the expulsion of French history from the schools and the rush to multiculturalism. Both sections would be glad to come to terms on immigration, which has never been put before French voters, and in any case, 93 percent of France’s Muslim citizens support the Socialists.

Such an alliance is in fact all but impossible in France, not because of the inherent differences, but because the cultural left won’t permit it. According to the historian and law professor Frédéric Rouvillois, it was the cagey old socialist François Mitterrand, himself a colleague both of Pétain and de Gaulle, who devised the divide-and-conquer strategy in the ’80s. There was a social and educational split between the urban, civilized, and business-oriented conservatives and
the rural, religious, and patriotic right-wing. Institutionalize this split, and the left would rule. Now, as Rouvillois observed in April, “the conservatives, even when they’re in the majority, continue to be paralyzed by the political-moral malediction laid against the so-called ‘extreme right.’ The Machiavellian genius of Mitterrand allowed the FN to siphon votes from the center-right, and at the same time [taught elites to utter] perpetual anathema against any alliance between the UMP and the FN. This weakened the conservatives and regularly opens the doors of power to left-wing governments supported by electoral minorities.” Now an unquestioned aspect of French public life, Mitterrand’s strategy ensures that conservatives who have every incentive to work with one another and learn to tolerate one another’s differences have become estranged from one another and beholden to elite opinion-makers. The UMP remains what Le Figaro columnist Ivan Rioufol calls a machine à perdre.

Watching the collapse of these European governments​—​either losing power or becoming slightly more buttoned-up versions of the left​—​should be instructive to American conservatives now engaged in a furious battle to blame someone for the failure of the GOP’s closest shot ever at defeating a Democratic president running for reelection. The GOP’s Sarkozyites now blame House leaders who didn’t treat the Democratic House minority as if it were a majority. Of course the minority status of the House Democrats is a direct result of the electorate’s militant unhappiness with President Obama in 2010​—​an unhappiness expressed again last Tuesday by cutting Obama’s popular vote margin from over 9 million in 2008 to 3 million in 2012. GOP Sarkozyites deplore the effective and venerable compromises that have been reached between social conservatives and accountability-based policy wonks in education, health care, and other areas.

Our Sarkozyist Tendency seems ready to declare that opposition to open immigration​—​or legal abortion​—​should not be tolerated. They are willing still to accept the votes of conservatives who have a negative view of immigration, but they read the polls and believe that many Hispanics are pro-immigration, and they yearn for the votes the GOP is not getting. Although they are pro-business, it’s unlikely they know the profit and loss ratio of courting Hispanics in this fashion. There is a “revenue upside”​—​how many votes the party will gain with a grand immigration reform​—​but there is also an expense side, i.e., how many votes would be lost by alienating anti-immigration conservatives. Our Sarkozyites shun the intellectual work of understanding how they might alleviate the concerns of anti-immigrationists. Might some acknowledgment that promises made to them, even by such honorable Republicans as Senator John McCain, have often been broken? Might they recognize that Hispanic “targets” are also perfectly capable of discerning when opportunism and insincerity drive a political decision, rather than conviction?

Pro-choice and pro-life Republicans​—​both of whose voting blocs have propelled conservative presidents to office​—​have a common interest as well. Both need a political regime that allows their arguments to be heard, because both groups want to persuade voters to adopt their view, rather than leaving such matters to a coin-toss from a judge’s bench. Those, like me, who tend to favor immigration, need to assure those who think that’s crazy that we are absolutists about the right of the nation’s voters to determine immigration policy, and no one else. We ought all to agree that we demand legislative solutions accountable to voters, not merely fashionable notions that appeal to an unaccountable elite.

Even those who live in Cambridge might recognize something else. The concern social conservatives have with the definition of marriage and exactly when a child’s life begins is an expression of something all conservatives and even mainstream Protestants share: that the family is a crucial but terribly fragile institution with an enormous impact on human well-being and economic success. Social-science-oriented free-market types know this about the family as well as committed Christians: They merely approach the issue from a different direction. We need to fashion a moral and intellectual Hyde Amendment (the fiscal Hyde Amendment wasn’t a bad idea either) to allow both sides in the GOP coalition to converse with one another rather than despise one another​—​or, worse, to think they can win elections or govern the country without one another.

Sam Schulman, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, last wrote on the right to die.

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