In the Amash-Ellis throwdown, a chance to get back to conservative basics

There are few things more tedious than American politics today, particularly the banalities bound up with House of Representative primary races. Take, for instance, the ongoing sparring between Republican 3rd District incumbent Justin Amash and his lead challenger, West Michigan businessman Brian Ellis.

Amash, a Tea Party darling, presents himself as a Washington outsider despite the fact he’s vying for his third term in Congress, while castigating Ellis as an “establishment guy.” Why? Because Ellis once sat on the East Grand Rapids School Board? Surely Amash’s swipe at Ellis couldn’t refer to the latter’s heavy backing from business dollars, for Amash himself has enjoyed his fair share, at least until he alienated a notable portion his donor base by joining hardline House Republicans in a game of budgetary chicken, which briefly shut down the federal government last October.

All of this carping, which presents Amash as beholden to the rigorous logic of a libertarian madman and Ellis as a corporate “in-the-pocket” politician who will do everything in his (admittedly limited) power to maintain America’s onerous system of “crony capitalism” (the unholy union of government power and big business interests), does more than just reveal the deep fissures which exist within the Republican Party. It demonstrates the paucity of the American conservative imagination, one which still remains hewn to the philosophically suspect ideals of the Enlightenment while promoting, with varying degrees of sincerity, socioeconomic paradigms drawn from contestable, if not discredited, economic schools of thought.

Amash, for example, keeps photos of heterodox economists and ideological extremists such as Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand on his office wall.

None of this is to say that Ellis deserves to depose Amash. To the extent he plans to fall behind the mainline Republican platform, Ellis can be counted on to vote on the side of corporate interests while dangling pro-life, pro-family, and pro-gun carrots in front of social conservatives.

Neither man has the temerity, nor the sense, to suggest that America’s political duopoly is irreparably broken or that the style of self-absorbed individualism all “good citizens” are expected to genuflect before has gutted what an earlier generation might have called our country’s “moral outlook” and today’s sociologists label our “collective consciousness.”

If either man holds to a higher value in the public sphere, it is the value of a distorted conception of “the market” which privileges capital over labor without any recognition that the economy ought to be subordinate to a higher chain of ends.

For orthodox American conservatives, I am speaking heresy of course, but so be it. As the 3rd District Republican race well attests, the battle to be fought within conservatism today is not for the renewal of the American experiment in what the late conservative thinker and Michigander Russell Kirk called “ordered liberty, (which is) designed to give justice and order and freedom all their due recognition and part.” Rather, the Amash/Ellis race is a profane game of sound bites and cheap shots, all for the amusement of moneyed interests wondering whether a Leviathan federal administrative apparatus will or will not deliver a proper return on their campaign investment.

Amash is pitching the idea that it cannot; Ellis, the more pragmatic of the two, appears to be keeping his options open. Both are committed to the goodness – or at least utility – of the amoral market, with nary a glance toward its distributive consequences and whether the present economic order provides a head-of-household, without recourse to dual incomes, transfer payments, or usurious credit, to comfortably support a family while establishing sufficient savings to acquire property.

Such concerns are alien to the American conservative imagination, but they are not alien to the history of conservative thought writ large. The idea that the economy should be for the good of workers and families is drawn from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), which itself rests not on Catholic dogma but rather a dictate of natural justice – a concept clouded by the contemporary conservative fetish for the “original meaning” of the United States Constitution, and an exuberance for unfettered capitalism at the expense of any higher standard.

If following the words of a Catholic Pope is toxic for some conservatives, then perhaps they can mull over the sentiments Thomas Jefferson expressed in his October 28, 1785 letter to James Madison, specifically his suggestion to use the taxing mechanism as a “means of silently lessening the inequality of property” while recognizing that “it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land” for “small landholders are the most precious part of a state(.)”

Some might object here and say that these matters are too “big picture” to think through in the context of a Michigan congressional primary race, but why? Should the conservative imagination begin to once again incorporate a thicker understanding of what it is we, as a society, ought to be conserving and promoting without recourse to shopworn Republican ideology or the barking-mad tenets of libertarianism, then there is no principled reason why it shouldn’t start in the palm of the Mitten State.

No, the Amash/Ellis campaign fisticuffs, whatever the outcome, won’t change the status quo, but the failure of both men to transcend marginal ideological quibbles while simultaneously making their ultimately low-level disagreements out to be a high-stakes engagement of diametrically opposed principles should leave all conservatives, if not all the good citizens of Michigan, longing for so much more.

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Leonard Wood Gr...
Sat, 06/07/2014 - 5:43pm
A Libertarian masquerading as a Republican running against a Republican masquerading as a conservative in an electoral process masquerading as meaningful. Ah, democracy! Corruptio optimi pessima.
Phil Anderson
Sun, 06/08/2014 - 10:01am
Gabriel Sanchez is a pompous a$$
Sun, 06/08/2014 - 2:49pm
In a district with a strong bias to the Republican Party, the primary is the de facto election of the candidate (sorry Bob Goodrich!). Reducing the race to political reality show to see who is "the most conservative" misses the point. For the 40+ percent who will not vote Republican, those living say in Grand Rapids or Battle Creek, watching Ellis and Amash is akin to watching two thugs debate who gets to burn down your house. The problem for conservatives (and so of the GOP) is the confusion that "conservatism" is not an end, but a tool for the pursuit of the Good.
Sun, 06/08/2014 - 4:30pm
Most of the discussion about “conservatism” is carried on at a very high level of abstraction, which is not helpful in making real-life policy decisions. Look at the Asian carp problem. One way Asian carp can enter the Great Lakes is as part of a mess of bait fish collected in a State that Asian carp have already colonized. Such packages can contain immature (small) carp. There are at least three ways of combating this problem: 1)ask Michigan anglers to inspect the contents of any bait fish from Ohio or Indiana, identify and destroy the carp 2)require sellers of bait fish to remove any carp from bait fish packages that they sell 3)ban the import of bait fish from any where that Asian carp are endemic. These three possibilities vary in their effectiveness, but the idea that one or the other is more “conservative” or more in accord with the opinions of James Madison is a useless way to think about it.
Tue, 06/10/2014 - 12:00pm
While I agree with you that discussions concerning conservatism can be, and often are, carried out at a high level of abstraction, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Developing, or refreshing, the principles upon which good politics is built upon is an under-valued project, or so I would argue. With that noted, I would politely disagree with you that political ideology doesn't inform practical policy choices, sometimes without regard for effectiveness. For instance, a libertarian/Tea Party-type is going to look askance upon any government regulatory action in the Asian carp matter whereas more mainline Republicans who are less gun-shy about governments addressing collective action and common-good problems would likely look to the regulatory option which passes a simple -- and in certain instances more formal -- cost/benefit analysis.