Traditionally, the left-right bifurcation of American politics is understood in reference to the federalist system. Conservatism upholds the sovereignty of individual’s judgments. Government it views as inherently limiting. To the limited degree government is a net positive, it is solely in its role as arbiter of disputes where one individual charges another’s actions have violated his rights. In all cases, organs of state and local governments as the superior means by which to rectify political problems. Here, the individuals whose affairs are most directly affected by the vacillating direction of public policy are most likely to be involved in the legislative process. Tying interests to outcomes is an effective check on power.
Liberalism takes exactly the opposite view. It sees federal power as an effective tool to distribute resources and iron out the iniquities of life. Individual interest and discretion create motives too powerful to prevent the strong from praying on the weak. The regulatory power of federal agencies is not a threat to individual liberties, but an aid to them. By insulating power from the self-interested power of individuals, the federal government can be used to create more fair social conditions, which insure that rights are not just held but can be exercised.
This dichotomy, however, is antiquated. The questions surrounding the nature of federal power are no longer a function of fundamentals, but semantics. Whether various federal bodies have the authority to act in a manner that vastly expands the role delegated them by the Constitution is no longer a matter of contention; federal intervention has won the day.
Rather, federal politics is a question of efficiency: whose policy agenda better serves the interests of the largest swathe of the polity? Politics is a ceaseless war of attrition between parties vying to convince the electorate their particular pet projects serve the noble ideals of democratic parity and justice.
It is right-wing thought that has been most devastated by this genesis in attitude towards federal power. The GOP has quietly adopted a series of policy proposals that are fundamentally liberal in their attitude towards the federal government.
Take, for instance, the dramatic shift in conservative rhetoric on government-run healthcare. The Affordable Care Act is anathema to traditional conservatism as it ignores the boundary between private and public action and restrains individual choices by creating standards for legal conduct that are defined by Congress. And while the GOP has rejected the particular means chosen by Obama and the Democrats, they have not rejected their ends: creating a healthcare system that is affordable and pays deference to the poor and ill.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s A Better Way plan, perhaps the most cogent case for modern conservatism, addresses what an acceptable GOP solution might look like. Ryan talks a good game — the white paper for healthcare is littered with the language of choice, autonomy and deregulation — but his words are belied by the actions he recommends.
According to Ryan, the problem with Obamacare was its one-size-fits-all approach, which shunted the vulnerable onto Medicaid. Ryan still wants to serve the same goals as Obamacare, but to utilize different tools:
“Patients with pre-existing conditions, loved ones struggling with complex medical needs, and other vulnerable Americans should have access to high-quality and affordable coverage options. Obamacare’s solution was to force millions of people onto Medicaid, a broken insurance program that has failed lower-income families. We reject this approach. Instead, we believe states and individuals should have better tools, resources, and flexibility to find solutions that fit their unique needs.”
But paradoxically, those with unique needs are not the generators of the solution. Congress is. Ryan goes on to tout the 21st Century Cures Act, a 2016 law that, according to the FDA, is “designed to help accelerate medical product development and bring new innovations and advances to patients who need them faster and more efficiently.”
Now, traditional conservatism would argue that, left to their own devices, market incentives and individual need would naturally cause such things to arise. Regulation is simply a barrier to innovation, because it requires new products be put through the ringer of federal approval, which involves cost and time. And makes new products subjects to conditions set by the federal government.
The GOP’s argument against Obamacare was that it impinged private actions by making them subject to the state’s approval, pending their ability to meet certain conditions. But Ryan, though he descries this, offers no alternatives. He embraces the idea that government has the authority to regulate the conditions of healthcare markets, then, because he favors indirect forms of coercion, such as subsidization, rather than more direct forms of coercion, terms his solution more free. But there is still a central authority exerting influence over various actors. When individuals and states are incentivized to behave in a certain way and to pursue certain actions, that’s not true choice. Nor is it conservative.
In the face of this, it’s time to consider changing the dialogue of political left and right. Localism versus federal-control is no longer a viable dichotomy, nor is freedom versus statism. Modern thinking often binds freedom up with statism, returning to an ancient conception of political theory. Freedom in the abstract is irrelevant; the ability to exercise freedom is what matters politically, which requires an overarching framework where conditions are stable. Thus, freedom is often seen as a production of state regulation.
What passes for modern conservative thought actually embraces this.
Ryan’s A Better Way is run through with references to a nebulous “we.” The vagaries of “we” are a boon to political rhetoric. They call upon a sense of harmony and inclusivity, without getting into the pitfalls of specifics, wherein a politician risks offending a key constituency group. Rather, “we” allows individuals to project their own ideas onto the prevailing authority, to see politics at large as an extension of themselves.
Paradoxically, the individual’s identity is derived from the collective: from a sense of belonging with a certain group, from a sense of contrast with a different group. Political action subsumes the individual. It claims the individual’s actions as a catalyst and this is a substitute for one taking action on behalf of oneself. Take, for instance, Ryan’s championing of subsidies for innovative healthcare solutions. The assumption is that actual self-interest is not enough of an incentive to lead people to take risk; federal aid is required, which renders null the concept of variability Ryan claims to tout. A centralized body, which has conditions that must be met in order for its resources to be extended, cannot advance pluralism.
Politics has become inherently collective. And this might conceivably form the basis of a new system of divide.
One cannot even call most partisan differences ideological these days. There is very little of fundamental to politics. Values are assumptions; weighty, complicated subjects have become legislative buzzwords: check as many boxes as you can if you want to win people over to your side. Political arguments occur around the margins: who best applies the values democratic consensus has advanced. Nowhere is the consensus questioned, nor are values examined to determine whether they are actually as beneficial for the polity as the seem or whether legislating values is within the government’s purview.
A left-right divide makes sense only when philosophy is being debated. Short of this, the only way to make sense of the political landscape is with reference to the system. The sides, then, are that which is outside the state — namely the individual — or the collective. Only the former is absolute. The latter is relative. The individual has a deterministic character; the state finds expression in the individuals who enervate its organs. It reflects their judgment. But their judgment is focused on divining and servicing the collective needs of the people: exportation compounds exportation. There is no core to such a politics. This is made most obvious in the wildly vacillating messages of the major parties. Democrats and Republicans are mere substitutes of each other, oriented around the pole of federal power. When Republicans are in power, the champion the messages they derided when Democrats were in power. The reverse holds true for Democrats. Even the state is simply a tool, a mere means to an end.
And herein lies the real irony of collectivism: While the federal government is sought out as a way to insulate public action from narrow, private interests, it ultimately becomes the most powerful tool by which political parties can advance themselves in the quest for power.