The overriding ideology which drives the Republican Party today is not conservatism. In fact, it's more radical than anything a prudent, cautious, skeptical conservative would support.
Instead, it's a philosophy which sees most problems, social, economic, and otherwise as stemming from government that is too large. It rejects the capacity of government to substantially protect the well being and interests of citizens.
Its narrow focus on negative liberty leads it to marginalize positive liberty and to neglect the freedoms that government actively enables - from education and the engaged citizenship it helps realize to public health and the freedom to enjoy a safe, thriving, and clean environment in the city and rural areas alike. Government programs that enrich children and enable them to develop in a healthy way in a safe environment maximize the freedom of children and their families to fully actualize their potential as do social programs that provide support services to the elderly, the disabled, and veterans suffering from war wounds and trauma.
One of the problems with this philosophy is that it's reductionist in the extreme and monistic. Social, economic, and other challenges American society faces are not mono causal. Certainly government often acts in wasteful, incompetent, and dysfunctional ways. But so do corporations and other societal entities - governments do not have a monopoly on imperfection and failure.
Sometimes governments are highly effective, other times less so. But they are not demonic in the way that Ronald Reagan and his heirs have characterized them.
Conservatism has become intellectually dishonest because of its insistence that all problems stem from government and that government is intrinsically bad.
And because of this ideological rigidity contemporary Republicans have killed conservatism and placed themselves in a straitjacket when it comes to delivering effective government that respects the rights, needs, and desires of American citizens.
How is this so?
Consider a social problem, such as the lack of health insurance from which over 45 million Americans suffer.
Democrats have offered their policy response to the problem of how to insure these Americans in the form of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have not. Instead, they urge rejection of the Affordable Care Act and provide no alternative that will guarantee every American healthcare without discrimination on the basis of wealth, age, health status, or disability.
What has happened as a result of the radical anti-government ideology is that Republicans have made it impossible for themselves to offer practical policy solutions informed by conservatism on a range of issues. They ignore or violate the principle of equal opportunity which necessitates government activity and protection - so essential to the foundations of democracy - across a wide range of domains from education to healthcare and housing.
Often, when Republicans introduce new social polices they are disingenuous; just another attempt at privatization of public services and the stripping away of a guarantee and the security it affords, as with Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plans which won't reform Medicare as much as eviscerate it.
Sometimes privatization may be prudent, but often times it is not, anymore than creating a government program is always the best solution to a social problem.
We may recall that prior to September 11th private security companies provided most security protection at American airports - generally providing a very poor service that put US citizens at risk. The TSA was created in large part because these private firms with their focus on profit rather than citizen protection failed the American people.
The private sector is capable of the most abject dysfunction and corruption absent democratic accountability through government regulation, as the current banking and economic crisis painfully illustrates.
US private health insurers for decades - until the government stepped in under the Affordable Care act - unconscionably discriminated invidiously against individuals with disabilities and pre-existing illnesses causing immense, pain, suffering, poverty, and often premature death of many Americans because of their refusal to provide them with medically necessary care.
If liberals have been guilty of sometimes having utopian visions of what government can achieve conservatives are guilty of the opposite - being excruciatingly pessimistic and creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy because of the tyranny of low expectations which they espouse.
America desperately needs a conservative party that can move beyond a fixation on size and 'shrinking government' to one that puts certain positive outcomes such as non-discriminatory universal quality health care, reduced poverty, child welfare, safe streets and communities, support for senior citizens and other potentially vulnerable populations, improved infrastructure and higher graduation rates from school and college as aims of government.
We need a conservative party that offers its own solutions to social problems and that will cooperatively work with Democrats to find solutions that meet the needs of most Americans and that entail compromise and elements of both conservative and liberal philosophies of governance.
How will conservatives lower our infant mortality rates and raise our life expectancies so that we don't languish behind our colleagues in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and Canada who do far better on these measurements of human well being? How will they reduce poverty and improve early childhood care? How will they address the mental health crisis facing veterans and ensure that the medical care veterans receive is timely, of a high quality, and reliable? How will they maintain the Medicare guarantee rather than destroy the security Medicare affords and offer a far less generous health plan which will not come close to replicating the dependable care from which seniors on Medicare today benefit?
The charge that government is the problem is a shirking of responsibility and is becoming a form of the boy crying wolf. Government is not always the problem. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's the answer, or part of the answer. Reality is not so facile and polarized.
American tax rates as a percentage of GDP are not large in comparison to the governments of other OECD countries nor are effective American corporate tax rates high in comparison to other OECD countries. On the contrary, the evidence consistently shows otherwise.
So Republican claims are off the mark on the honesty test.
It makes no sense to be a democratic representative of US citizens and attack the very expression of democracy itself which is the government. It's like being a surgeon who believes hospitals are intrinsically bad and works to undermine them and neglect patients, a lawyer who has no faith in the justice system and who tries to dismantle it and refuses to represent clients with competence, a teacher who refuses to do his or her best in the classroom because he or she has no faith in the capacity of students to learn and who consequently lowers the quality of their educational experience and thwarts their potential.
Such attitudes are destructive and inimical to a healthy polity.
What may have originated as a necessary critique of liberal excesses and government waste has become an unmoored and false religion with a broken moral compass and a cynical and self-defeating intellectual orientation.
Americans of all persuasions deserve better and American democracy can only thrive when conservatives offer real solutions to social problems that involve more effort than swinging a sledgehammer at taxes and axing essential services.
It's easy to be angry - and for decades Republicans have been angry about the size of government. They have harnessed that anger and applied it to governance - but the social results have proven to be less than encouraging, at best. Poverty and inequality are up and both seriously harm the well being of the American people. The middle - class is struggling and getting smaller and working class people are increasingly disadvantaged, economically and socially.
It's time to channel conservative anger constructively to address the social issues that threaten social cohesion and the rights and welfare of American citizens.
Republicans should be as indignant about these concerns if not more so than the alleged whopping size of government.
Conservatives have something valuable to offer.
They need to end the self-imposed exile and come back to the civic table for the greater good of all Americans.
To offer and do justice to conservatism that is wise, thoughtful, and responsive to citizen needs, confident but humble, and working in critical partnership rather than intransigent antagonism.
Conservatives need to unleash the creative and constructive tendencies within conservatism which have gone sorely missing for too long.
That is their greatest test.