Conservatism in America has been on a long, steady retreat for over a century. The Presbyterian theologian of the last century, Robert Dabney, had concluded that conservatives acted to consolidate the gains of liberals and then resisted any further erosions of freedom from that point — until the next liberal victory. The process would then be repeated from the new point of liberal victory with the conservatives tagging along a respectable 20 years or so behind.
The last time I can find in our history a strong, winning program for conservatives was when the Whig philosophy dominated conservative thinking up to and just after the War for Independence. Whigs believed that the law is above the government because God is the King of Kings and he is the author of law. The eighteenth century Tory, the precursor of today’s conservative, believed that the government is over the law, having sovereign lawmaking authority.
The Tory view that pervades conservatism has neutered (Newtered?) its ability to confront the agenda of the liberal humanist. Both the Tory and the humanist views assume that the government has the authority to speak on anything and everything. The jurisdictional boundaries that enclosed government in the past are now being removed by the conservatives almost as quickly as by the liberals. We see the double mindedness spoken of by James in most conservative politicians (". . . a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways," James 1:8). Campaigns are waged and often won by proclaiming conservative rhetoric. But the Tory mentality is generally powerless to restrain the liberal agenda, let alone pursue a conservative agenda. A conservative agenda would set a course for dismantling most government divisions, bureaus, agencies and whatever else they are called. Once the Tory has been installed in office he succumbs to the pressures of the media, his colleagues and the interest groups — all of whom praise him when he "grows" in office. Growth is defined as betraying campaign pledges in favor of political correctness.
It must be said at this point that the politicians can and will behave better when their constituents do not ignore them after they are elected. What they lack in philosophical commitment can be replaced by the raw fear of losing their job. A dedicated, vocal minority can overcome, in many cases, the pressure from the establishment. The principle here was articulated by the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, one-time Republican minority leader: "When I feel the heat, I see the light." Biblically the principle is that of the woman in Luke 18 who finally got justice by persistently petitioning the judge who did not fear God.
The system can work; it can control a civil government that is now out of control. A good part of the reason we are in our present state is that not enough people are sufficiently dissatisfied with the excesses of civil government over against the perception of benefits being received. The constituents must return to a Whig philosophy if Whigs are going to be elected to office.
A look at some recent developments illustrates the need for not leaving Tories to themselves. We must not assume that a good speech before the Rotary Club back home automatically translates to constitutional action inside the Beltway. In 1934, Joseph Keenan, Assistant Attorney General under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, testified before Congress: "The federal government has no police power." The only thing surprising about his statement was that a spokesman for a radically anti-constitutional government would acknowledge such a plain and simple truth. What is truly distressing is that conservatives such as Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) have never seen a federalization of local police powers they did not like. In 1996, Barr introduced a repeal of the semi-auto ban (which by itself was good) but included language that would have federalized every state and local gun law in the country. This would have allowed the federal Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) to bring charges against someone accused of brandishing a firearm. After a tremendous pounding from constituents, Barr finally agreed to drop the federalization provision of his bill.
From the feds having no police powers in 1934 to having over 60,000 heavily armed paramilitary agents with arrest powers in 1997 is quite a growth. And the Republicans have been pushing that agenda as hard as any Democrat without ever so much as a change in the Constitution to permit it. Constitutional change has come by redefining words and observing restrictions on governmental activity in the breach.
President Clinton commented on the record following the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress that the firearms issue had cost his party control of the legislative branch. On this occasion the President was speaking the truth. In fact, in those races in which firearms became a defining issue, the gun banners almost always lost in both suburban as well as in rural districts. What was the Republican response? They did not want to have votes on gun issues. They specifically reneged on public and private promises to have a vote on repeal of the semi-auto ban (the so-called "assault weapons") enacted in 1994.
Why would the Republicans not leap at a chance to revisit one of the hot-button issues that helped bring them into power in 1994? Why not force the Democrats to vote on the record? This establishes an objective measure for which legislators can be held accountable. Then, at election time, they can be made to pay for their votes that violated their oath of office. The answer to the puzzle seems to be that the leadership is protecting the rather large number of Republicans who, in spite of their own campaign rhetoric, do not want to vote on the firearms issue. There are even a substantial number of Republicans who are not pro-Second Amendment at all.
The Tory mentality is so pervasive that many Republicans could be could be said to be suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome (captives identifying with the captor). Yes, the Republicans won the election, but they still behave as if they are a minority. That is why the Stockholm Syndrome seems to help explain their near total inability to advance their publicly articulated agenda.
Republicans have a fairly substantial pro-life majority in the House of Representatives, yet when Mother Theresa died, they were unable to pass a resolution celebrating her fight against the scourge of abortion. The best they could get through was a wimpy mention that she cared for the unborn. A resolution spends no money and punishes no criminals. It is just words. Even there, the accommodation to the committed humanists went unchecked.
If we grade conservative success financially, then an F minus is the grade they have earned. Our Tories have not cut one federal agency, the deficit grows, and the funding for the countless unconstitutional programs balloons constantly. When it came to a showdown with the President, and part of the civil government might have had to stay shut down, the Republicans blinked. There were notable exceptions who refused to act like Tories, but it is on balance all too true that the Republicans surrendered and went over to the other side.
Conservative issue-advocacy organizations also inclined to the Tory mindset. In their case, the co-oping process can be understood by considering the words of Proverbs 23:1-3: "When you sit down to eat with a ruler, consider carefully what is before you; and put a knife to your throat if you are a man given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food."
The deception referred to here by Solomon is self-deception. Many observers assume that when an organization acts so contrary to its stated objectives, subversion must be occurring, but the reality is harder to deal with. People who still think of themselves as solidly and staunchly pursuing the agenda for their group do not often see that they have switched from lobbying for their constituents to lobbying for the politicians. That is the price of the ruler’s delicacies.
At a rally a few years ago, I condemned then Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) for having almost single-handedly used his considerable parliamentary legerdemain to allow the Brady Law to pass the Senate. After I spoke, a prominent board member of the NRA gave a spirited defense of Bob Dole, explaining the political realities that had "compelled" him to do what he did. Poor Bob Dole. Just a vector sum of forces in a universe of chance.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) gained some deserved notoriety when the conservative magazine National Review featured Mormon Hatch as a "Latter-Day Liberal." Hatch has become a personal friend of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). The friendship has paid numerous legislative dividends for Kennedy and the liberals. One of Hatch’s projects has been the promotion of S.10, a juvenile crime bill. The first objection to this bill is that the Constitution has not delegated police powers to the Congress. The Congress has no business legislating in this arena. It was intended to remain a state and local function.
Hatch’s juvenile crime bill would make a Racketeering in Corrupt Organizations (RICO) offense out of taking two or more of your kids out for handgun target practice — if they did not have written permission in their pockets even though you were with them the whole time! You could get 20 years for that threat to society, Bucko! There are other egregious provisions, but perhaps one more example will suffice. If you and a couple of guys regularly take your kids (a total of at least five persons) out to shoot without that permission slip, that is a criminal gang offense that could get you from a minimum of five years up to 20 years in jail. And the NRA urged its members to support the bill with this language in it.
The NRA is not alone in failing to heed the warning of Proverbs 23 cited above. They were joined by the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee in supporting Senator Dole in his Presidential nomination battle. They provided the critical support Dole needed to win the South Carolina primary which gave him the momentum to go on to win the nomination and lose the general election. Their chief argument was that he was going to win anyway. The often unarticulated premise was that access is critical; they would continue to have access to Dole; therefore, we should support him. These groups were not happy talking about his record that was contrary to their stated objectives.
Dole’s loss was quite predictable. He had no way to define himself as different from Clinton. When Dole was silly enough to criticize Clinton for his judicial nominees (which are a Constitutional abomination), Clinton was happy to respond immediately that if Dole had such a problem with Clinton’s judges, why did Dole vote for them? Indeed, as Senate Majority Leader, Dole could have blocked any or all of Clinton’s judicial nominees. After that episode, Dole barely raised any issues at all, because Clinton would have had the same easy comeback: "You voted for it."
What is remarkable, though, is that the Stockholm captives numbered among the conservative advocacy groups were unable to see that Dole, even if he had won, would have been as captive of the Beltway Barons (media, other legislators and interest groups) as he had been as Senate Majority Leader. Another indication of the Tory mindset of many conservatives occurred during a Heritage Foundation panel discussion on welfare. A number of conservative groups explained that it is possible to take federal money and maintain one’s fidelity to the principles of private charity. A question about legitimacy was raised: "If we find no grant of power in Article I, Section 8 for redistributing people’s money, and if charity is by its nature voluntary, not compulsory, how do you defend taking federal funds?" Here is the answer given by the Heritage Foundation spokesman: "Well, it’s being done." Did Mommy ever accept the defense when we were kids: "Everybody else is doing it?" The Tory mentality will continue to secure defeat until Whigs with resolve are elected who will then force recorded votes on controversial issues that rekindle the debate on whether civil government is our servant (the Founders’ idea) or our master (the current establishment’s idea). This goal can be greatly furthered when conservative advocacy groups are willing to confront politicians who vote wrong. The present desire to have access at any cost has only led to accelerating the erosion of freedom in America. Politicians understand that if all we want is to have a place at the table with their delicacies, they can knife us in the back and we will pretend that nothing has happened; we won’t even say: "Ouch!"
Confronting politicians gets them as upset today as was King Herod when John the Baptizer pointed out that the king had broken the law by marrying his brother’s wife. When enough of us get them upset, they either change their minds or we succeed in changing them. We ought to get serious about doing this lest we end up the way John did.
- Larry Pratt
Larry Pratt, Executive Director, Gun Owners of America (150,000 membership), has held elective office in the state legislature of Virginia and is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Gun Owners of America can be contacted at (800)-417-1486, web site http://www.gunowners.org.