Thatcher, Republicans, and Conviction Politics

As Hollywood’s awards season builds to its glamorous finale, actress Meryl Streep has garnered critical acclaim for her role in The Iron Lady. In the film, Streep portrays the groundbreaking and controversial former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who has been characterized through the years by her staunch conservatism as much as her trademark hairstyle. Perhaps in part due to the film, the polarizing and decisive Thatcher has regained a place in both the popular and political consciousness, most notably in the Republican primary race, where candidates have held up Thatcher as an ideal leader. Thatcher’s career was shaped by conviction politics, meaning that she campaigned and governed with an emphasis on principle and adherence to ideology regardless of the cost. A brand of politics similar to the one she espoused has resurged, especially within the Grand Old Party. Such politics have their benefits, among them bolstering the support of a party’s base. But as Thatcher’s example shows, and as Republicans would be wise to take note of, conviction politics have their limits.

During her short-lived campaign, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann used Thatcher as a paragon of conservative female virtue, voicing her aspiration to be America’s own Iron Lady. Bachmann’s references to Thatcher had the added obvious benefit of tying the former candidate to a high-profile, accomplished conservative woman who held her country’s highest office. Thatcher is the figure that Bachmann’s supporters wished she had turned out to be: a smart, tough, and galvanizing conservative woman, poised to lead conservatives out of their latest wilderness.

Other Republicans have also praised Thatcher for her conservatism. They use references to her as a simple way to attach themselves to a proud conservative tradition, replacing “Reagan” with “Thatcher” when the former name seems overused. Of course, Bachmann’s prolific references had limited success in producing electoral victory using Thatcher’s legacy. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why Republicans on a larger scale have gravitated to the Iron Lady, who earned her nickname from her tough opposition to communism and underscored it with firm leadership through the 1980s.

The primary race is now devoid of a possible American Iron Lady, but much of the GOP still wants a comparable male nominee to oppose President Barack Obama in November. They want someone with a consistent record as a constitutional, fiscal, and social conservative who is unwilling to compromise right-wing principles in any context. This largely explains why the relatively liberal Mitt Romney has not yet been able to wrap up his party’s nomination. Despite his proven ability to fundraise, organize, and present a platform likely appealing to general election voters, he has faced continued opposition from those like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who are seen as more unapologetically conservative. The rest of the Republican field has appeared more proud and forthcoming than Romney in their respective political convictions, including the libertarian ones of Ron Paul, and they have all benefited from preaching the gospel of conviction politics, gaining support and slowing what had once been seen as Romney’s all but guaranteed run for the nomination.

Conviction politics carry appeal with a large segment of today’s Republican voters, but they are unlikely to have such a strong resonance with general election voters. That is not to say that conviction politics can never win races. As the 2010 midterm elections demonstrated with the influx of Tea Party-associated candidates into Congress, displaying unwillingness to compromise can bring electoral success. But this success is often highly limited, particularly when it comes to actual governance. Conviction politics are at the heart of major problems with how the US government, specifically Congress, works. Lack of compromise between the two major parties has resulted in less effective legislation being passed and the popular perception that the parties are too wrapped up in politics, bickering, and ideologies to listen to the American people and do what is best for the country.

There is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher was a bold, trailblazing leader whose controversial legacy will live on. Her relentless dedication to conservative values both drove her rise and prompted her downfall, creating divisions between her, the British people, and her own party. Conviction politics in the right place at the right moment can excite an electoral base and sweep a party into power. But they have their limits as well. They can be polarize, stall legislative progress, and create the kind of political environment that we have today. As Republicans look to Thatcher and other conservative lions, they would do well to recognize that there is more to effective governance than unwavering adherence to an ideology. Compromise is vital.

Morgan Wilson ‘14 is a history concentrator in Currier House.

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