Running Out of Steam
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: December 8, 2005
Conservatives are in power but out of sorts. Fifty years after the founding of the modern right, conservatives hold just about every important government job, yet the conservative agenda has stalled. Federal spending has surged. Social Security reform is dead. And when voters are asked which party they trust on key issues, they decisively reject conservative ideas.
On the economy, Democrats are trusted more, 56 to 34. On education, it's Democrats 55 to 32. On taxes, Democrats 48 to 38. On health care, Democrats 54 to 29.
For members of a movement that is supposed to be winning the battle of ideas, conservatives are in a mess.
So what's gone wrong? First, most of the issues that propelled conservatives to power have been addressed. Modern American conservatism was formed by people who wanted to defeat the Soviet Union, reduce crime, reform welfare, cut taxes, deregulate the economy and reintroduce traditional social values. All those problems are less salient today.
Second, conservatism has been semi-absorbed into the Republican Party. When conservatism was in its most creative phase, there was a sharp distinction between conservatives and Republicans. Conservatives chased ideas, while Republicans were the corporate hacks who sold out. Now that conservative Republicans are in power, that distinction is obliterated.
There are a number of consequences. A lot of the energy that used to go into ideas is now devoted to defending Republican politicians. Many former conservative activists have become Republican lobbyists. (When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it's a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs.)
Most important, there is greater social pressure to conform to the party's needs. Even writers and wonks are supposed to stay on message. In the 1970's, supply-siders mounted an insurgency against the Republican House leadership and against some sitting G.O.P. senators. If any group tried that today, it would be crushed by the party establishment.
Third, conservative media success means intellectual flabbiness. Conservatives used to live in a media world created by people who thought differently than they did. Reading certain publications and watching the evening news was like intellectual calisthenics. Now conservatives can be just as insular as liberals, retreating to their own media sources to be told how right they are.
Fourth, conservatives have lost their governing philosophy. In 1994, the Republicans thought their purpose was to reduce the size of government. But when the government shutdown failed, they never developed a new set of guiding principles to clarify which things government should do and which things it shouldn't. George Bush came up with a philosophy of compassionate conservatism, but it remains fuzzy and incomplete.
Fifth, conservative Republicans have lost touch with their base. To win, Republicans depend on white rural and suburban working-class voters making $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Conservative Republicans offer almost no policies that directly benefit these people. Americans at that income level tend to be financially risk-averse. But the out-of-touch Republicans offered a Social Security plan that increased risk.
Sixth, conservatives have not effectively addressed the second-generation issues. Technological change has really changed the economy, introducing new stratifications. Inequality is rising. Wage stagnation is a problem. Social mobility is lagging, and globalization hurts hard-working people. Global warming is real (conservatives secretly know this). The health care system is ridiculous. Welfare reform is unfinished. Conservatives have not addressed these second-generation issues as effectively as their forebears addressed the first-generation ones.
The good news is that we are about to enter a political season with no obvious conservative standard bearer, leaving plenty of room for innovation. Also, the current conservative crisis has produced some new thinking. A few weeks ago, two young writers, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (my former assistant), unveiled a fresh conservative agenda in a Weekly Standard essay called "The Party of Sam's Club." These writers, 26 and 25 years old, are closer to the future than the party leaders.
And the final bit of good news for the right is the left. No matter how serious the conservative crisis is, liberals remain surpassingly effective at making themselves unelectable.
Give Brooks credit that he seems to recognize the fact that since they control the government and the media, conservatives have little cause for crying the blues, and that their agenda is stumbling largely on account of their own failures.
What I think Brooks fails to acknowledge is the inherant contradictions between the movement's libertarian and authoritarian wings, specifically between its "less government" and christian taliban sections.
And Brooks is probably too grandiose about the conservative movement's supposed accomplishments. Welfare is dead, yes, in the sense that AFDC was radically altered. But AFDC was never the big ticket item of the social welfare state. Those would be Social Security and Medicare. And this conservative government EXPANDED Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit. Yeah, this addition might have been more geared to the drug companies than to the recipients, but the point is it was a major addition, both financially and substantively, and the government is picking up the tab.
And as Thomas Franks pointed out in What's The Matter With Kansas?, the conservative movement's Cultural War has been a complete bust. Since the conservative movement's modern inception in about 1954-1955 the country's become more secular, individual freedom has been increased, and restrictive social mores have loosened. The country's better educated, more urban, and well, by definition, younger. And the television/movie/music industries have exploded since the 1950's, providing, ironically, ample competition to conservative "ideas". And now of course, we've had the whole information revolution thing, another development that has not boded well for conservative attempts to make the country conform to its worldview.