01/28/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

The GOP's Real Problem? It's Not Conservative Enough

The Republican Party has simply become too conservative. This diagnosis of the right's electoral woes is ubiquitous. Polls show that a majority of Americans now agree.

With the rise of the Tea Party, it is hard to argue against the contention that the GOP has drifted significantly to the right in the Age of Obama. Talk radio, Fox News, and right-wing online news outlets like the Drudge Report have ensnared the party base in a nexus of what David Frum smartly called a "conservative entertainment complex." Red-state politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) who toe the ideological line have been rewarded by that complex. But their brand of right-wing populism is as far removed from the true philosophical tenets of conservatism as the liberalism that it loathes.

The guiding principle of philosophical conservatism is prudence, or, applied wisdom. It's not a sexy term, and it doesn't elicit the sort of passionate reactions seen and heard at Tea Party rallies and on talk radio. It bows to circumstance, does not shun compromise, and is in touch with the lived experiences of individuals. It rejects radicalism and abstract ideology in the name of a down-to-earth realism that recognizes that the world's complexity and diversity. This is fundamentally a disposition -- not a bullet-point agenda: unlike right-wing populists, real conservatives can disagree amongst themselves without threatening purges and excommunications.

This disposition has its modern roots in the speeches and writings of the 18th-century British statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke. In his most famous work, Reflections On the Revolution In France, he wrote:

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

In other words: conservatism is practical. It's not a my-way-or-the-highway, all-or-nothing approach to governance -- which is what makes the continuing influence of Tea Party radicals on the GOP so repellant.

Burke is also proof that conservatism proper is not socially reactionary or blind to the experiences of minority groups. He was an early opponent of slavery, spoke out against colonial abuses in India, and even supported the American Revolution. He stood opposed to abuses of power -- and to those who treated other people like pawns on a chessboard to be manipulated in the name of a grand ideological vision.

Seen through a Burkean lens, the GOP's radicalized elements are simply not conservative. When Congressmen attempt to hold the country's financial system hostage to make a short-term political point about the national debt, that's not conservative -- it's radical. When state legislatures insist on pushing through bills that require drug-testing for welfare recipients in spite of the fact that it wastes money on a problem that exists only the margins, that's not conservative -- it's radical. When politicians refuse to admit that it is simply impossible to deport twelve million people to Mexico, that's not conservative -- it's radical. The problem is not that right-of-center positions on the national debt or illegal immigration are illegitimate -- it's that the approach that the far-right takes to governance on these issues is out-of-touch with its real-world consequences. There is nothing conservative about that.

Philosophical conservatism is not a panacea to our nation's problems -- it can be too stuffy, too trusting of tradition, and too attached to visions of a mythical past. But it is a vital component of a healthy political system. If the Republican Party wants to become nationally competitive again, it will have to rediscover its virtues -- and marginalize the radicals who deny them.