When a Political Party Abandons Its Principles

 [A political party is] a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed. —Edmund Burke

All too many people in the mainstream press, and even among the Republican Party faithful, have been expressing extreme relief that Republican Party leaders “compromised” with Barack Obama and Harry Reid to end the “shutdown”—or, rather, the partial shutdown that included the closing of national parks, web pages, and other federal “services” that cost approximately nothing. Some serious concerns were expressed, of course. The federal government’s credit rating has been an issue for some time, now—though one might think profligate spending and unimaginable debt might have something to do with that as well. Concerns over national security in times of financial disarray also have bothered a number of people.

Nonetheless, the notion that we all should be thankful that the “adults” in the Republican Party leadership were able to “rein in” those crazy Tea Party folks and “save” responsible government rests on assumptions about government and party that should not go unquestioned.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Burke penned the definition of a political party quoted above at a time of massive corruption, in which bribes were habitually used to gain votes, numerous seats in Parliament were controlled by powerful aristocrats, and the King maintained influence over legislation by naming members to meaningless but lucrative posts. It is said that we have no such overt corruption in our politics, now. Those who serve in our Congress claim to be above reproach even though, like Harry Reid, they may begin their public careers as paupers and end as multi-millionaires “in the people’s service.” But Burke knew the difference between principle and corruption, and so should we. Burke sought to shrink the list of “offices” the King could control and otherwise lessen the role of corruption in public life. He devoted years of his life and much political capital to the prosecution of Warren Hastings, the head of the East India Company, for his victimization of the Indian people, knowing that his efforts almost certainly would fail, but seeking to awaken the conscience of a nation before mistreatment of another people further corrupted its own.

Burke, at least, had principles. He sought to maintain balanced, limited government and Britain’s traditional way of life as he sought to ameliorate harms brought by corruption and abuses of power. In politics he was of the Whig party, the Old Whigs who put duty before profit. He sought to keep his fellow Whigs attached to their true principles and left them, in the end, when they had succumbed to the allures of French, Jacobin Revolution.

And what are the principles in which members of our own, contemporary parties are agreed?

We know the Democrats have principles, for we see their results all around us: increased government spending, increased regulation of our commerce, and of our private lives, all in the name of a “freedom” that means license to act without personal responsibility, so long as one bows to the opinions of the ministers of our therapeutic state. If we are willing to proclaim that all are equal, whatever their accomplishments or lack thereof, that all have the right to do whatever they wish, so long as they do not care what others do and do not cause them direct harm, well, then the government will help us with public funds, insure us against any harm, and bring up our children to be good citizens, by which we mean subjects of this same, therapeutic state. These are principles; the principles of European-style social democrats—the establishment inheritors of the French Jacobins.

As for the Republicans, in what do they believe?

It appears that the Republican Party is of two minds. The bulk of Republican Senators and Representatives believe that their purpose in government is simply to govern, to maintain stability and calmly further the interests of their constituents—which would be fine, if America were already a European social democracy. But, in the waning days of our republic, responsible governance of this sort translates into a consistent message of “whatever the Democrats propose, only a bit slower and a bit cheaper.”

The supposedly irresponsible members of the Party are deemed irresponsible precisely because of their very commitment to principles. The Tea Party caucus caused the shutdown, and refused to surrender at its end. Why? At least one major voice in the media “gets it.” On a recent cable news show, Brit Hume explained that the House Tea Party caucus, and Senator Ted Cruz,

look back over the past half-century … and see the uninterrupted forward march of the American left. Entitlement spending never stopped growing. The regulatory sate continued to expand. The national debt grew and grew and finally in the Obama years, exploded. They see an American population becoming unrecognizable from the free and self-reliant people they thought they knew. And they see the Republican Party as having utterly failed to stop the drift toward an unfree nation supervised by an overweening and bloated bureaucracy.

It was because of their (or their constituents’) adherence to the principles of limited government, self-reliance, and traditional, religion-and-family-centered values that “irresponsible” members of Congress launched the last substantial attempt to prevent the state takeover of our healthcare, and to bring discipline to the public finances.

That attempt was turned into farce by Republican Party leaders who didn’t want to engage in the battle to begin with because they see those values as either unimportant or impossible to achieve. These Party leaders would rather govern (or help govern) than stand by principles they find foolish and/or outdated.

The “deal” by which Republicans surrendered on every substantive issue raised in the debate over the budget, was made in the Senate. But there was never any substantial support in the Senate for a fight over the budget—almost all Republican Senators believe that to be responsible means to simply respond to Democratic proposals, “a bit slower and a bit cheaper.” House Majority Leader John Boehner, too, is one of the “responsible” ministers of the party. He garnered some blame for his failure to control those who would “burn down” Washington, or at least its credit rating, by failing to bow down to the latest demands of a profligate administration. After all, why should a minority of the party keep it from “governing” by going along with an administration virulently opposed to American principles of self-reliance, faith, and frugality? Mr. Boehner salvaged something of his reputation for “responsible governance” by facilitating the recent surrender, in large part by joining with Democrats in the House.

Truth be told, it is surprising that Tea Party-types have managed to put together even the minority they hold in the Republican-controlled House. After all, the major form of corruption (excuse me, “responsible governance”) in our system is campaign money. And grassroots efforts and the occasional conservative group have much less of that than the “business” groups that want to simply make the best of Obamacare by using it to keep competitive businesses from forming, or surviving, and dumping employees off their own insurance roles.

Conservatives are accustomed to seeing themselves as a remnant, arguing for virtue in corrupt times. Rational analysis would show us that opposition to the ever-expanding therapeutic state stands, at best, at about one third of the electorate, with one third committed to the program, and one third lukewarm but willing to go along with the drumbeat emanating from the mass media. And the Republican Party for many years now has decided that it is politically safer and more lucrative to go along with the “progressive” third than to fight to conserve our way of life.

How, then, can a conservative, understanding that politics is “the art of the possible” avoid siding with the establishment Republicans who gave us Mitt Romney and a tepid “a bit slower and a bit cheaper, please” response to Obamacare and its ilk? By recognizing that we are getting nothing out of supporting them. We simply have no reason to support politicians who do not even try to protect us from the coming American social democracy.

What, then, of the art of the possible? Shall we support our principles, no matter what? In our given circumstances, we must find a way to protect what we can of our way of life and, while that should not mean self-interested surrender like that over the budget, it may, unfortunately, mean recognizing the limits of what can be done.

I do not blame our friends in the Tea Party for their last-ditch effort to lock out the coming leviathan. This attempt at least showed that some Americans remember what we are, or were, and what we should fight to retain. That said, going forward, even as we reject the complacent, ruling class mentality of “our” party, we should not forget that politics is the art of the possible and, given how little is possible in our corrupt times, we should concentrate on protecting some realm of freedom for the families, churches, and local communities that are the real victims of the therapeutic state.

Obamacare, along with many other bad things, now appears inevitable. Decades of establishment Republicans have helped see to that. And, this being the case, our representatives probably should stop expending their energy fighting a losing battle and switch to a strategy of carving out as many and as large exemptions as possible. In particular, what is left of our religious freedom requires protection from the secular, social democracy now being completed. Conscience exemptions need to be fought for so that people of faith will not be forced to fund abortion, abortifacient and contraceptive coverage. The right to life for sick and elderly people who “cost too much” must be defended as much and as effectively as possible. Room for a separate, religiously-affiliated system of healthcare (and education) free from the more draconian restrictions against expressions of faith and acts in accord with religious beliefs must be established and its protections strengthened. And the right to “opt out” of as much of the therapeutic state as possible must be established and formalized. These are relatively small things in an era of very big government. But we are not getting them, now.

Burke was accused of having changed his principles when, after supporting the American cause in conflicts leading up to our War for Independence, he vigorously opposed the French Revolution. He responded that he had never changed his ground, but only his front. He would defend his way of life against whatever forces assaulted it. Sadly, our way of life is changing in fundamental and reprehensible ways. But, if we cannot win the battle to stop these changes completely, then we should join our forces and expend our energy in carving out a space for the life of virtue in corrupt times. These are principles in which we should be able to agree, and for which we should fight.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared October 22, 2013 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...