In a 1995 essay titled “America’s ‘Exceptional’ Conservatism,” Irving Kristol argued the principle difference between American and British conservatism was that America’s was offensive; it was “active and responsive,” while Britain’s tended to be “defensive” and therefore “enfeebled.” Tories seemed content to slow the inexorable march of contemporary liberalism where they could, while American conservatives wanted to drown it in the bathtub.
Looking at conservatism in America and Britain today one could argue the GOP and Tories have switched places, and not just because David Cameron is prime minister and Mitt Romney is working for Marriot.
Many Americans, particularly those who tend to think Europe more progressive than the U.S., might be surprised to learn that neither the UK nor the majority of European Union member states recognize same-sex marriage.
The reason for the apparent contradiction is simple. Unlike the GOP, Tories proactively embraced substantive civil partnerships in 2004. These partnerships granted same-sex couples in the UK rights and responsibilities identical to civil marriage for opposite sex couples. These included identical property rights to married straight couples and the same exemption on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits, to name but a few.
By being “active and responsive,” the Tories made the argument for same-sex “marriage” in the UK more about semantics and less about equal treatment under the law.
By contrast, instead of trying to preserve traditional marriage by granting same sex-couples equal rights through substantive civil partnerships, most American conservatives spent the past decade wishing gay people would simply turn straight.
When the Supreme Court recently declared section three of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, it did not do so out of sympathy for any semantic argument. It did so because same-sex married couples in the United States, unlike their British counterparts, could legitimately claim over 1,100 federal benefits granted to straight-married couples that were denied to them.
The problem of the uninsured in America is another issue in which American conservatism has been more “defensive and enfeebled” than “active and responsive.”
Before Barack Obama and the Democrats won sweeping majorities in 2008, the Republican solution to the millions of uninsured in America was essentially “get a job.”
It took the specter of Obamacare for conservatives to come forward with “better, free market solutions” to the problem of the uninsured; solutions like portability, allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines, and reforming the tax treatment of health insurance.
In fairness to conservatives, there were a few poor schlubs slaving away in the basement of the Heritage Foundation throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, offering these solutions then. But the fact is GOP leaders never made the uninsured a priority until the Democrats gained complete control over Washington and set about making their long-standing dream of socialized medicine a reality.
Much has been made of the GOP losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and what it must do to become nationally viable again. Some think the problem is superficial, like messaging, others think the party must abandon its core principles and become Democrat-lite.
Both theories give too much credit to the Democratic Party. Barack Obama received 10 million fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008. A Pew poll conducted earlier this year showed 40 percent of Americans self-identified as independent, 31 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican. Additionally, more Americans still self-identify as conservative than liberal.
Americans are not enthralled with Democrats, merely exasperated with Republicans.
Today, there is a lot of sound and fury issuing from the right that is widely mistaken for that “active and responsive” conservatism invoked by Kristol. But the reality is the GOP and its invigorated conservative base are still just playing defense, still just reacting to a Democratic Party agenda rather than setting and pressing forward with a conservative one. Until this changes, the GOP isn’t likely to win another presidential election.
Stephen Carter studied European History and Politics at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He lives in Ooltewah. Follow him on twitter @jstephencarter.
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