Why today’s Republicans are ‘more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

Over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat has penned a thought-provoking column on “The End of the Catholic Moment.”

He covers a lot of theological ground, but Douthat was especially insightful in describing how our our political culture has changed in the last few years:

Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.


Indeed, between Mitt Romney’s comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House’s cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good.

As usual, I’m more interested in how this impacts conservatism than liberalism. For one thing, the secular Left is doing just fine all by itself. They are winning the culture and elections. But it is conservatism that has faltered since this ideological shift (as I have argued, compassionate conservatism is a better electoral message), and thus, that is my focus here.

Douthat seems to believe the phenomenon is tied to the decline of Catholicism, which is, in turn, tied to its sex scandals. That’s no doubt part of the story, but I suspect a smaller part than Douthat’s narrative implies.

* * *

So why did this happen?

As I have noted, even as conservatives were winning elections, they were losing the culture. Is it any surprise that conservatism itself would eventually evolve to mirror a society that is rapidly becoming more secular and less traditional? The Overton Window is moving — and it’s dragging conservatives along behind.

This is, no doubt, the most significant factor.

But I also think that just as our nation must welcome immigrants and also assimilate them, the conservative movement is struggling to overcome the zealotry of its converts.

Today, the level of a given person’s conservatism is directly tied to how angry they are (that — and a willingness to call Obama a socialist.) Thus, a pro-abortion lesbian who is really pissed off at Barack Obama will be deemed more conservative than, say, a devout traditional mother who is a philosophical heir to Edmund Burke (this isn’t a value judgment, as much as it’s an observation of how things have changed.)

America is conservatism writ large, and big tents, if we’re not careful, quickly become like nations without borders. And a nation without borders becomes a nation without traditions, without a common language. Without an identity.

This is not to say that political movements shouldn’t grow and acquire new adherents. New people (and ideas) are vital. But it is to say that this process is more dangerous than we want to admit.

* * *

Consider a recent history of conservatism.

Many would argue that George W. Bush’s greatest failings (spending and military adventurism) inexorably sprang from the addition of neoconservatives — liberal intellectuals who moved to the right as the Democratic party became radicalized in the late 1960s. (Note: Many of these folks were Jewish, but — fitting in nicely with Douthat’s thesis — some were Catholic.) This group made conservatism more intellectual, but might have also inadvertently helped plant the seeds for today’s troubles.

That wasn’t the only influx of “immigrants” into pre-Reagan conservatism. Evangelicals joined the movement in the late 1970s, providing necessary ground troops — but also changing the GOP’s identity (for good and bad.)

But in recent years, additions to the movement have largely served as a backlash against the family values stressed by this Judeo-Christian coalition.

After 9-11, a lot of Americans were shocked out of their reverie — and into the conservative movement. Some of these folks have gone on to play key leadership roles in conservatism. This is fine, in and of itself. But being conservative is about more than being anti-terror.

The election of Barack Obama, coupled with a huge debt and the stimulus, led to the rise of the tea party movement — bringing a lot of new activists into the fight. But despite the fact that many of these same tea party members were also Christians, there is little doubt that the movement adopted a much more Randian ethos.

Because politicians eventually adapt to please their base, some Republicans adapted to this new brand of conservatism with a little bit too much gusto. And so you had Mitt Romney making “you didn’t build that” the theme of the convention. And, of course, there was the “47 percent”…

To be sure, this message plays very well within the base of the movement. But if it were possible to make conservatism even less appealing to average Americans (not to mention Hispanics), overemphasizing the rugged individualism aspect of conservatism, and downplaying its communitarian aspect, was the coup de grâce.

* * *

(This could have happened earlier, by the way. Conservatism might have looked very different had a devout Catholic named William F. Buckley and his National Review magazine not purged elements like the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand from the movement. But our modern society tolerates no such leaders. And regardless, as I’ve written before, I’m not sure even Buckley could pull it off today.)

And so, I return to Douthat’s observation that today’s Republicans are “more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas.”

This phenomenon, I think, represents why I feel increasingly disenchanted with politics — and disconnected from today’s “conservatism.”

Matt K. Lewis