There is nothing easy about being an ideologue. The rhetorical slings and arrows of a political faction on offense are always aimed towards the ideologue. Impugning epithets like “intransigent” and “extremist” fly thick and fast in the midst of the internecine fray. Should the party’s fortifications collapse and the last bastion of defense fall, it is always the ideologue who is named at saboteur; it is far easier to blame the abstract idealism of the ideologue than to seriously survey the party’s arsenal and risk revealing some paralyzing defect.
This is the all-too-vulnerable chink in the ideologue’s armor, whose faith and motives are wrapped up in an idea that could be, not in the logistics of the reality of the here and now.
Even the victories of the ideologue are rarely total.
Nothing demonstrates this as much as the indefinite tabling of the American Health Care Act. Members of the conservative-dominated House Freedom Caucus succeeded in sinking the disastrous bill, which reneged on the GOP’s eight-year old promise to repeal the repugnancy of Obamacare in toto and offered up watered-down versions of the same policies that originally made the legislation unpalatable. The coup d’état was a momentous victory for the right; it not only forced the leadership to abandon its legislative redoubt but stood in defiance of their self-insulating moral stance that the outcome fell squarely on the shoulders of all challengers.
And yet, what was actually won? Nothing of substance. Obamacare is still the law of the land, impressing the polity with its abrogation of rights and disastrous economic diktats. The leadership has retreated to nurse their wounded price and will not work towards a bill that contains workable policy solutions. Even if they were in a mood to parlay, it is unlikely any hard-line repeal effort would escape the gauntlet of the reconciliations process unscathed. Actually, the Freedom Caucus accomplished even less than it seems as the Senate, whose slim Republican majority was already divided by conservative Senators disavowing the compromise bill, would not have pushed if forwards.
But substantive policy wins have never been the impetus of the hard right; they are a welcome boon when they can be attained, when they but only to the degree that they embody their ideological principles. Principles are the omnipresent law by which the life of the ideologue is guided.
And that is why, even though the position in which conservatives find themselves today—as effectively marginalized as they have always been—is no different than it was at the beginning of the week when it seemed the vote would squeak through the House, there is cause for celebration.
The principal opposition to Obamacare for those on the right was abstract ideology. It was about the federal government intruding into an area of business where, by the Constitution and by individualist epistemology, it had no right to be. Yes, the issues of lack of coverage options, high costs and businesses being driven to bankruptcy were also troubling, but to a lower degree.
Conservatives have been let down time and time again. Despite wave elections of self-professed crusaders against government overreach in 2010, 2012, 2014 and even, to a more limited extent, 2016, have largely conceded ground when challenged. Debt ceilings have collapsed, fiscal cliffs have crumbled and continuing resolutions have been extended in perpetuity. But this time the right’s vanguard in Congress held and proved positive to battle-weary conservatives that victories—even small ones—are possible.
It may be a small-order victory, but it is nevertheless of first-order importance to the grassroots faithful. In principle, it is a tremendous triumph against the smear tactics of party elites, and conservatives are very much creatures of principle.
This small stand for the right may have advanced no policy, it may not have changed anyone’s conceptions of them—to the contrary, it has likely hardened opinion against them—but it proved that a few committed individuals who remain true to the cause for which they were granted power can cripple the machinations of the vastness of Washington’s aristocracy. And that, in itself, is enough to re-steel the resolve of even the most cynical of ideologues.
Also published on Medium.