A RESPONSE TO ROSS

We’ve been becoming our own version of a mini-Corner recently. Lovin’ it. Ross makes several excellent points below. I only differ with a couple. The first is about conservatism’s relationship in America with the cultural and social realities in certain regions, namely the South and West. Because I seem to leave out the West in my reading of recent Republican history, Ross and Ramesh think I’m off-base. I agree with Ross that the 1980s were conservatism’s intellectual apogee in both America and Britain – and as a young right-winger interested in ideas, I can only tell Ross what bliss it was then to be alive. The fight against the Soviets and the welfare state united all of us. But I believe the golden age of governing conservatism was actually in the mid-1990s, in that blissful period when welfare was reformed, taxes kept relatively low, spending restrained, the budget balanced, and a blast of technological creativity transformed our economy and ways of life. Yes, we even had a president then who could actually insist that “the era of big government is over.” If Bush said today what Clinton said a few years ago, he’d be laughed off-stage. Unless they’d stacked the crowd with the usual Bush-bots.

SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT: But you’ll notice something interesting about the conservative 90s. The West – the former balwark of conservatism – shifted profoundly toward the Democratic party. Reagan was unimaginable without California. Today’s GOP is unimaginable with it. And that’s the big shift of the last decade or so. The South is a powerful force, and it swiftly forced the West out of the Republican column. Only the pathetic Democrats kept the more socially liberal or libertarian wing from full defection. Maybe if McCain had won in 2000, he might have kept the Western-Southern alliance alive a little longer. But fundamentalism is an inherently expansionist philosophy. It cannot tolerate dissent the way easy-going California conservatism once did. With George W. Bush’s ascent and a fully-evolved policy of not merely coopting the South, but becoming a Southern party first and foremost, Republicanism shifted with speedily away from its previous principles and balance. War accelerated the process. The GOP is now a fundamentalist, Christian, Southern party first – and tries to cobble some more slices of the pie onto that base. With war behind it, and gay-baiting for good measure, it still managed to pull together barely 51 percent of the electorate in 2004.

WHAT WORKS: Ross’ deeper point, however, is that conservatism shifted to big-government meddling, fiscal profligacy, and religious fundamentalism because that’s where the votes are. This is a poor argument both empirically and normatively. Why, for example, did Clinton announce the “end of big government” as a way to shore up his second term? Because it would hurt him? Why did Bush’s tax cuts prove so popular? Why did a balanced budget constitutional amendment come within a whisker of passage? These, of course, are unanswerable hypotheticals. You can’t run history again; and we can argue about what might have been forever. But the second point is that a political movement, while taking note of public opinion, should say what it believes, not what people want to hear. Does Ross believe that the pro-life position should be abandoned because it doesn’t command a real majority? Or does he think that the job of political leaders is to persuade people, rather than to merely follow them? Maybe this is what sets my generation apart from Ross’. He grew up observing Clinton and the first Bush. I was lucky enough to witness Thatcher and Reagan. What Ross is telling us now – that the public wouldn’t stand smaller government – was what everyone told Reagan and Thatcher then. They took that as a challenge, not as a road-block. I’m with them; and one step in arguing for a different brand of conservatism from Bush’s is trying to explain how it coheres, what its premises are, and why it’s still very relevant. We may succeed; we may not. But if we don’t try, we’ll never know. My book is an attempt to make the case. I write it with no expectation that its outlook or recommendations will ever be implemented. But I can hope.

– posted by Andrew.

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