A decade ago, American conservatism was riding high — so much so that two British journalists from the Economist published a book in 2004 titled “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America.” It chronicled the rise of “the most powerful and effective political movement of our age.”
George W. Bush won a second term in the White House that year. Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress. Here in liberal Minnesota, GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty was earning his reputation as the state’s most conservative chief executive since the 1920s.
Almost everywhere, conservative ideas seemed to be advancing. “[W]elfare is gone,” the authors of “The Right Nation” marveled; “the death penalty is deeply rooted; abortion is under siege; regulations are being rolled back; [and] the pillars of New Deal liberalism are turning to sand.”
Well, times change. For all of the Obama presidency’s problems, today it’s the foundations of the conservative movement that look a touch wobbly. Pundits now are competing to diagnose what’s gone wrong with the “right nation,” debating the true meaning of conservatism and handicapping an expected internal showdown this year — in Republican primaries across the country — between mainstream conservatives and Tea Party militants.
In part, of course, what went wrong is simply that stuff went wrong. America’s post-9/11 struggle against Middle East extremism turned difficult and divisive, and the economy suffered a severe crash and prolonged funk. And even though Obama and company are by now saddled with considerable ownership of those lingering problems, the problems by their nature erode the credibility of conservatism, a philosophy long identified with big-stick foreign policy and faith in the boundless buoyancy of capitalism.
These stresses also did a lot to break internal divisions among conservatives wide open. That rupture ought to concern anyone who thinks America needs some clear and constructive opposition to balance modern trends toward hyperindividualism on the one hand and overconfident government on the other.
Divisions on the right are nothing new. Conservatism is a delicate sauce, easily separated.
Conservatives tend to worry about the rise of “hyphenated Americans”: Asian- and African- and Mexican-Americans, etc. But hyphenated conservatives with mixed loyalties have long been plentiful. We’ve had social-conservatives and fiscal-conservatives, neo-conservatives and compassionate-conservatives, Christian- and establishment- and constitutional-conservatives.
But the basic divide — the one bedeviling conservatism today — was defined long ago by the great libertarian economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, in his 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”
Hayek described conservatism as a “legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” The trouble, he said, was that for libertarians (a label he only grudgingly accepted for his own views) drastic change was just what was needed — change to reverse the modern drift toward “socialism” and commence “a thorough sweeping-away of the obstacles to free growth.” Conservatism could only “succeed in slowing down current developments” because its adherents were “advocates of the Middle Way, with no goal of their own” … holding “merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of [their] time …”
Hayek’s complaint endures (he was one of his century’s most gifted complainers). To stop compromising and start sweeping is exactly the confrontational agenda that Tea Party fire-breathers from Ted Cruz to Michele Bachmann have pressed on the GOP with increasing success since the Bush era ended in disarray.
So this tension has been building a long time, through the insurgencies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan (though Reagan was radical mainly in rhetoric and often a compromiser in practice). The more combative themes of libertarianism helped fuel the political successes that produced the apparent conservative heyday of 10 years ago (not to mention the GOP gains in the 2010 midterm elections).
Yet unless one takes very seriously the hope of “sweeping away” most of modern government, it may be libertarianism that in the end has no reachable policy goal.
Old-school conservatism (what’s another hyphen among friends?) fails to quicken the political pulse because, as Hayek suggested, it is really more of a temperament than an ideology. Libertarians focus on “freedom”; progressives demand “equality” (now!). Conservatives — of the sort Hayek was not — seek the right kind and amount of both equality and freedom, which makes an uninspiring battle cry.
A more generous definition than Hayek’s would call the conservative temperament pragmatic, cautious and realistic — pragmatic (seeking what works); but cautious (about “drastic change”), because it is realistic (about flawed human nature and the limited wisdom of any one generation).
But this older style of conservatism also can be (and until recently was) fertile with ideas. Think welfare reform and No Child Left Behind, faith-based initiatives and Social Security privatization, among many others. All those ideas had problems — public-policy ideas always do — but they were attempts to improve modern government by applying conservative principles, not merely to repeal, blockade and sweep away.
Republican politicians still bring forward constructive conservative reforms, of course (often now at the risk of becoming a Tea Party target). But more are needed. Repealing Obamacare, for example, is probably fantasy, but the program desperately needs improvement. Conservatives would be best equipped for the job — not only because it’s true that conservatives originated the whole idea of using insurance subsidies to reform the health care marketplace, but also because, unlike progressives, conservatives actually believe in the marketplace.
Both Bush in 2007 and John McCain in 2008 offered serious premium-subsidy health care proposals, and Mitt Romney enacted one in Massachusetts. But the libertarian hijacking of the GOP produced the odd spectacle in 2012 of a presidential nominee having to spend what seemed like most of his time repudiating his main accomplishment in public life.
Meanwhile, the old-school conservative temperament will always tend to resist onrushing libertarianism in the broader sense — the general “sweeping away” of social norms and community authority. That may actually be the most powerful movement of our age. If progressives are celebrating stunning recent advances for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, they shouldn’t forget that in recent years every last state in the union has also liberalized its gun-carry laws.
As it happens, good arguments support each of those liberations. But the speed and ease with which they’ve come suggest a weary culture, often surprising even advocates of change with how readily it gives way. It’s a culture apparently long since resigned to, among other things, a simply decadent coarsening of popular culture, the normalization of gambling and the fragmentation of family, especially in lower-income communities — a surefire formula for poverty and social immobility if ever there was one.
Old-school conservatives will never fully accept (or shut up about) such things. This, too, makes them useful, acquits them of the heinous charge of mildness and moderation, and gives us another reason to hope they succeed in standing up for themselves.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.