Exaggerated Reports of the Death of Exaggerated Reports of the Death of Conservatism

Matthew Yglesias is convinced that this election doesn’t spell a permanent end to “Conservatism,” as is under discussion in the blogosphere. Perhaps a temporary retreat, he speculates, but nothing so devastating as “never again.”

I have a strange fascination with these pronouncements – as I guess anyone as interested in politics as I am should. It is clear to me that political thought does evolve with time, and so the idea of an end to “conservatives” as we know them isn’t that far off the charts for me. I can think of two convincing modern examples, in fact. The first is of course the death of Labour in the UK. As an undergraduate I read Margaret Thatcher’s first volume of memoirs, and while I can’t quote it exactly, not having the book in front of me, there was a line after the description of the confidence motion against Callaghan to the effect that thus ended Britain’s last Labour government, “perhaps its last ever.” And that struck me as the kind of thing that no American would ever say. It was just sort of unthinkable to me that there could be an America without Democrats and Republicans. As mercurial as those categories can sometimes be (no more so than at present!), surely they’re permanent?

But I’m not sure Thatcher was wrong in substance. It’s true that there’s still an active Labour Party in the UK, but it’s hardly the same hardline Socialist outfit that was such a fixture of post-war Britain. That group stumbled about the 1980s like a zombie (after having written a manifesto that Gerald Kaufmann famously described as the longest suicide note in history) until it finally became clear to it that the writing was on the wall. Tony Blair was elected to party head as an excuse for axing “Old Labour,” the party constitution was substantially rewritten, and though Old Labour still sits on the back benches, the party has taken to styling itself “New Labour” to underscore the split with the past. The label survived, but not the recipe.

There’s a similar example from Canada. Though the current Conservative Party of Canada occupies some of the same political space as its forebearer (the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada), Stephen Harper’s “Tories” are not the same Tories that Brian Mulroney headed. That party died in 1992, when it was reduced from an absolute majority to a mere 3 seats in Commons. “It” never recovered, and the 1990s saw the Bloc Quebecois, of all people, head up the official opposition – that thing which could supposedly “never happen.” What Canadians call “Tories” now is a party called the Canadian Alliance that changed its name when it digested the remanants of the old Progressive Conservative Party in 2004. The point is that Canada’s politics definitely shifted in the 90s, as did those of the UK.

Could it happen here? It’s an interesting question – one first posed to me in a talk I attended shortly after reading Thatcher’s memoirs, actually. The speaker was Bay Buchanan – yes that Buchanan – Pat’s sister. And she stood up in front of us and predicted in all seriousness that the Republican Party wasn’t going to last because it was an ideologically unstable coalition. You just can’t have social conservatives and libertarians sitting on the same bench, and she claimed that where it’s easy to bury the hatchet when you’re all in opposition together, it’s harder to smooth over your differences when you have to govern. This was 1995 or so, just after the so the Republican Party was at its most influential ever, so it was a bold prediction, but one I found completely convincing. Think of it this way – I can come up with a defining statement of principle that all Democrats will agree with, and it goes something like this:

There are social problems, and the government can and should intervene in the economy to fix them.

No Democrat worth his salt disputes this, and it’s a basic statement of principle. Whatever their superficial arguments on just how much to raise or lower taxes, just how much to charge for this that or the other tariff, just how much money to throw at national daycare or government housing projects, Democrats all agree with each other on fundamentals. They merely haggle over details.

Republicans haggle over a LOT more than details. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no analogous definitive statement of principle that one can reasonably expect all nominal “Republicans” to agree on. The Party is ideologically unsound, and the name “Republican” is really a shorthand for a collection of anywhere from 3 to 5 distinct groups of anti-Democrats who find it convenient to caucus together. From my perspective, these groups are National Greatness Conservatives (neocons), Social Conservatives< (religious nuts) and Libertarians. Others have added names to this list, but I’m happy with these three – which are broadly the three that Bay Buchanan pointed out in her talk. No matter – if we even agree on the three that I outlined, it should be clear that they have very little in common aside from an shared distaste for Democrats. The reason I am certain that there WILL be a death of “Conservatism” in America is because even now no one is sure what it means.

Yglesias bases his assurance that there will always be “conservatives” on this line of reasoning:

It’s in the nature of things that politicians and intellectuals whose ideas tend toward the preservation of existing wealth and privilege are going to manage to find money and institutions to support them.

That’s indisputable, I think, but it’s beside the point. “Conservatives,” by this definition, can be anyone – including, I hasten to add, the barons of a Canadian-style welfare state who’ve been in power too long. If the Democrats were to govern uninterrupted for the next two decades, who can honestly doubt that in the US, like in Canada now, the prime concern of new college graduates would be getting “a government job,” and that there would be a serious vested interest in keeping the handouts flowing? This is a dictionary definition of “conservative,” but it isn’t a very useful one in the present context. It’s only in extreme leftist caricature (of the kind that turned Michael Moore into a person of privilege) that “conservatives” are all and only the rich people fighting to preserve their privileges, carried along by a band of dupes! In more serious discussion, it’s much more complicated than that.

And of course, the complication itself is the problem. “Conservatives” just don’t know what they are, and that’s what’s as likely as anything else to confine them to political oblivion.

The Democrats are now and always have been the majority party in this country. The ONLY place where Republicans have a competitive advantage is in winning the presidency, and even that advantage seems to have retreated. For that reason, contra Yglesias, I won’t be at all surprised to see that “Conservatives” vanish from the scene. Not completely, granted. The Religious Right has some hot air in its lungs yet (and the National Greatness crowd were all Democrats before they were Republicans anyway). But as a political force, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that the Bush Administration had finally dealt the dying blow to that ever-precarious coalition we called “conservatives.” He did it by pretending to be Reagan – that is, by pretending to be all three members at once – equal parts religious, national greatness, and libertarian. But really he himself was just religious, and his advisors were all national greatness, and the libertarians, having been shut out, responded by pulling the plug. The Party then completely misdiagnosed the problem, swapping the places of the National Greatness and Religious Right (McCain being Cheney as president, Palin Bush as VP), and everyone blaming the Libertarians for the crash. But blaming the Libertarians is a bit like scolding a worker for charging you wages. If you don’t pay someone, he’s right to walk off the job – and Libertarians got fed up with endless wars funded by deficit spending, unchecked expansion of entitlement programs, the compiling of a national database of information on innocent (everyone is innocent under the law until proven guilty) citizens without due process, the federalization of absolutely bloody everything, even education, the regulation of political speech and the use of government funded programs to spread President Bush’s personal religious feelings as far as they would go. Whatever these things are, they’re NOT libertarian. If the Republicans expected us to stick around, the least they could’ve done would have been to deregulate some things here and there. But quite the contrary, they just kept adding and adding pages to the federal books. Workers don’t work without paychecks, and coalition members can’t be expected to stay if there’s nothing in the deal for them.

Sooner or later the Republicans are going to discover that pandering to patriotism only gets you so far. I think McCain already appreciates this. In spite of myself, I genuinely like the guy, even though he’s not in my faction, exactly. But I don’t think the Republican Party appreciates this. I think the Republican Party thinks it wins by winking at anti-abortionists and scaring people about Supreme Court appointments. And I think that until that changes, until they get more serious about their platform, they’re going to have trouble recouping their losses.

I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen, least of all Matt Yglesias. Me personally, I haven’t even written off a McCain victory yet. I admit I like Obama’s chances a bit better at this point, but I think the current polls will turn out to be misleading, and (contrary to what I told Noah over coffee a week ago) even if McCain loses, it’s going to be a lot closer than people have been led to expect. So far be it from me to prognosticate about the future of the Republican coalition at this point! I just think that these reports of the death of these reports about the impending collapse of Conservatism are premature. It may well happen. We may indeed be witnessing a general realignment.

The emphasis should be on “general.” One thing I am sure of is that a lot of the people currently voting for Obama are not really his supporters. They like him because he’s hip, he talks pretty, and they hate Bush. I doubt that in two years they’re going to be anywhere near as enthusiastic about him as president as they are now about him as a candidate. And that’s yet another thing that Yglesias needs to factor into his calculations. If he’s certain the Republicans are going to survive this election intact, he should at least raise some questions about the Democrats. Two terms for Jimmy Carter (or, as I prefer to put it, McGovern gets his chance!) may be the last nail in Old Lab…the Democrats’ coffin too. Not for the same reason, of course. In the Democrats’ case, it would be that a politically weak and far-too-far-left president exposed the party’s philosophy for what it really is. People would have second thoughts about that in a way they would not have, say, about the more moderate, stronger Hillary Clinton.

So the points of departure with Yglesias are … as many as there can possibly be, really. The Republicans may indeed implode this year, the Democrats may soon after, and the chips may well fall in unexpected places. Keep your bets open; these are interesting times.

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