Democrats Can’t Win for Losing

Matt Yglesias, responding to my statement yesterday that “We’ll always have a strong ‘conservative’ movement. It’s just that Ronald Reagan and Alex P. Keaton wouldn’t quite recognize it,” one-ups me and posits that “American politics in the future will mostly be dominated by a center-right political coalition just as it always has.”

While he’s riding the progressive horse and yelling “Faster! Faster!” and I’m sitting athwart history  yelling “Stop!” we’re essentially in agreement.   The fact of the matter is that conservatism, within the American political context anyway, is mostly reactive and the question is not whether they’ll lose on public policy but by how much.   Yet, “conservatives” nonetheless manage to win more national elections than not because the movement simply absorbs the status quo as the new thing which must be conserved.

1920s or even 1970s style conservatism simply no longer exists as a national force in American politics.  Furthermore, mainstream conservatives now hold views on homosexuality, gender, and race that no serious liberal politician would have espoused publicly in 1972.

As Matt puts it:

If we succeed in achieving major progressive reforms in 2009 and 2010, we’re going to create a situation in which the existence of a workable national health care system deprives the Democrats of a winning electoral issue. A certain number of voters who have conservative views on some other topics but who liked progressive ideas on health care will vote for more Republicans.

It happened decades ago in Western Europe.  Even thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher wasn’t trying to undo the National Health Service.  British conservatives simply accept that socialized medicine is the norm and the bickering is on the margins.

It’s probable that American conservatives will stop Obama from going nearly that far — indeed, the American political climate is still conservative enough that he won’t even try — but we’ll edge closer than we’ve ever been to government-guaranteed health care for all.   What that means, from a conservative standpoint, is that we’re never going to be more free with regard to health care than we are right now.  Once Obama and the Democrats get whatever compromise that they can passed, we’ll never undo it; indeed, we’ll almost surely edge further in that direction with the next Democratic administration.

But, yes, to the extent that middle-of-the-road Americans are demanding just a little more government involvement in health care, that issue will go away until such time as a groundswell builds up for another surge.

Similarly, the Andrew Sullivans of the world may give the GOP another look down the road once, inevitably, gay marriage becomes normalized.

For “progressives” to win, they need to constantly come up with ways to change the status quo that a plurality of voters want.  More importantly, they have to do it without creating a cultural backlash. “Conservatives,” by contrast, can win either by appealing to the extant culture or charging that the “progressives” are moving too fast.

UPDATE: My colleague Dave Schuler offers a useful addendum to the above:

[J]ust as 1920’s conservatives wouldn’t recognize the conservatives of today the progressives of 1920 would scarcely recognize today’s progressives.  Yesterday’s progressives believed in eugenics and free speech. Today’s progressives reject both, the latter in favor of political correctness and laws against hate speech.

The shorter way of saying this is that things change but the labels stay around forever, becoming less true to their original meanings with the passage of time.

That’s quite right.    While conservatives have permanently lost quite a few fights, we’ve actually permanently won a few, too.  We tend to remember our losses more clearly than our victories.

Cartoon: RWeiser @ Michigan Republicans

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think you’re implicitly accepting the progressive narrative, James. The problem with it is that just as 1920’s conservatives wouldn’t recognize the conservatives of today the progressives of 1920 would scarcely recognize today’s progressives.

    Yesterday’s progressives believed in eugenics and free speech. Today’s progressives reject both, the latter in favor of political correctness and laws against hate speech.

    The shorter way of saying this is that things change but the labels stay around forever, becoming less true to their original meanings with the passage of time.




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  2. sam says:

    1920s or even 1970s style conservatism simply no longer exists as a national force in American politics.

    True dat. Requicat in pace WFB.




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  3. So, if I understand your argument correctly, progressivism is winning all the battles but losing the war. It certainly doesn’t feel that way from where I sit.

    How exactly is this conservatism different from a progressivism that gets what it wants and then ratchets up the demands based upon the new facts on the ground? If your definition of conservatism allows it to reboot with a new status quo every few years then you can have it. I want nothing to do with it.




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  4. Raoul says:

    After this term is finished, the Dems will have held the White House 52 out of the last 100 years. We will not even address the House of Representatives which in fact has included a lot of conservative democrats. I do not agree with the premise since history shows the country moving mostly progressively forward. The point here seems that when republicans become progressives, progressiveness is estopped- but that sounds like semantical nonsense.




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  5. “Conservatives,” by contrast, can win either by appealing to the extant culture or charging that the “progressives” are moving too fast.

    Another thought, the latter appeal essentially concedes defeat to progressivism as it implicitly allows that conservatives want the same things as progressives, just perhaps not as quickly, whereas the former appeal essentially concedes defeat as our extant culture vlaues nothing as much as the next big thing.

    Again, if this is conservatism, you can have it.




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  6. Floyd says:

    Sadly your article contains much truth, America is ratcheting downward and selling all principle for a few worthless lies.
    Flexible principles and equivocation is leading to a nation that ridicules honesty and self reliance while encouraging usury, irresponsibility, and every form of dissipation, and calling it progressive.




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  7. James Joyner says:

    Another thought, the latter appeal essentially concedes defeat to progressivism as it implicitly allows that conservatives want the same things as progressives, just perhaps not as quickly, whereas the former appeal essentially concedes defeat as our extant culture vlaues nothing as much as the next big thing.

    I’m arguing that, when progressives win, they tend to change the culture that conservatives are trying to preserve and, thus, change conservatism. Occasionally, we’ll keep fighting losing battles long after they’re lost — abortion, e.g. (although we’ve actually make some important inroads on the issue). Often, as with racial integration and women in the workplace, we change our mind and decide to “conserve” something new.




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  8. Bithead says:

    In passing:

    If we succeed in achieving major progressive reforms in 2009 and 2010, we’re going to create a situation in which the existence of a workable national health care system deprives the Democrats of a winning electoral issue

    Rather meshes with an axiom I’ve long held and one I mentioned the other day, somewhere… that being that the worst thing you can possibly do to a Democrat is offer them a real solution for a problem, particularly when the issues the solution is designed to cure, are being used as a wedge for increased political power.

    Interesting that MY would confirm that point so clearly.




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  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    James, these battles are not lost, (abortion et al) but they are on hold for the minute. Seems we are currently struggling to save our liberty from those who would replace responsiblity with a big government nanny state. The leftists have inflitrated our educational systems and have allied themselves with unions and others who want what someone else has earned. (When a union or association protects someone like Ward Churchhill, I have an unpleasant use for them). Further, they have gotten themselves elected to high office. I think we are on the way to a second civil war. Pay attention April 15th. Then watch July 4th.




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  10. sam says:

    The thing I’ve always found the most interesting about conservatives, not all, but most, is that they seem oblivious to the contradiction that is at American conservatism’s heart. The best statement I’ve ever read of that contradiction was in column by George Will during the Dukakis-Bush pere campaign. He looked at the platforms of the two parties and concluded that the Republican platform was the more interesting, but for the wrong reason: Because of the contradiction it contained.

    While the Republican platform was strong on conservative, family values, it was equally strong on the glories of capitalism. But, as Will pointed out, capitalism destroys capitalist values. And how could it be otherwise? Capitalism empowers individuals, and they go on to act and politic out of their individuality. I don’t think it’s too much to say that the successes of capitalism directly fostered the gay rights movement, feminism, and all the other movements that conservatives of yore deplored (and not a few today still do).

    Economic power leads to existential assertion and the breaking of custom. It’s way, way too harsh to say that all conservatives fall under George Bernard Shaw’s definition of a barbarian as someone who believes the local customs are laws of nature, but a great many seem to, judging from the rhetoric. Capitalism dooms those folks to continual disappointment and dissatisfaction.




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  11. Billy says:

    Economic power leads to existential assertion and the breaking of custom.

    I’ll use this as a shorthand to your entire comment, which is very well-stated indeed.

    I think it’s a fluke of American conservatism that economic “conservatives” (i.e., free-market capitalists) have been joined to cultural conservatives in the sort of unholy matrimony that has existed for the last thirty-odd years. The two are not inextricably intertwined from a policy standpoint, and I think the modern democratic party is more of an amalgamation of opposing parties than it is a cohesive ideological bloc. You’ve got some very socially conservative members in the old guard rust-belt union workers segment (opposed to the corporate-statists who have traditionally run the republican party), while you have other free-market types who simply cannot stomach the Jerry Falwell wing of the GOP.

    It is a shame that the republican politicians have been generally willing to compromise their free market values while pandering to the worst bigots in their midst (and while similarly doing nothing to solve the actual problems of the country) rather than to adhere to a truly free-market approach and leave cultural wedge issues out of the debate. The Rockefeller wing of the GOP is cold in its grave at a time when we could use it the most.




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  12. Franklin says:

    Another thought, the latter appeal essentially concedes defeat to progressivism as it implicitly allows that conservatives want the same things as progressives, just perhaps not as quickly, whereas the former appeal essentially concedes defeat as our extant culture vlaues nothing as much as the next big thing.

    Again, if this is conservatism, you can have it.

    Oh, c’mon. So you can’t admit there’s been one ounce of progress made in any area since the beginning of conservatism?




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  13. Franklin, I have no idea what your point is or how you deduced that from what I wrote. At best, I can only conclude that what you think is conservatism differs substantially from what I think is conservatism. I can only assume that I’ll be accused of missing slavery next.




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  14. Democrats Can’t Win for Losing

    I think the title should have been: Democrats Can’t Not Win for Losing

    While conservatives have permanently lost quite a few fights, we’ve actually permanently won a few, too. We tend to remember our losses more clearly than our victories.

    Maybe that is due to a variant of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.” Oh perhaps it is because, in your words, that conservatives have a lost quite a few fights, while winning a few. Hitting .300 is only worthy of consideration for the Hall of Fame in baseball.

    As I believe you have noted before, perhaps the most pernicious aspect of President Obama’s deficit spending spree is that it will likely establish a new baseline moving forward, even when Republicans take power again. So, tell me again how conservatives are winning… or are Republicans just turning into Tories before our very eyes?




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  15. sam says:

    the most pernicious aspect of President Obama’s deficit spending spree is that it will likely establish a new baseline moving forward, even when Republicans take power again.

    Well, Charles, in fairness, when the Republicans were in power not that many years ago, they set a pretty good new baseline for deficit spending, right?




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  16. James Joyner says:

    So, tell me again how conservatives are winning… or are Republicans just turning into Tories before our very eyes?

    Conservatives almost inevitably lose in the end because we defend a set of cultural ideals that are under constant assault. Liberalism is like terrorism in the sense — and only in the sense — that they can win by an attack here and there while we have to defend successfully each and every time.

    My point and Matt’s is that “conservative” politicians nonetheless win more often than not because they simply conserve a different status quo.




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  17. Grewgills says:

    As always social norms change as time progresses and so by some measure progressives will always win on social issues.

    That said, there seems to be a bit of definition switching for the terms progressive and conservative. Per JJ’s article the definition seems to be straight out of Webster’s rather than modern political usage. If using the terms progressive and conservative as they are in common American political parlance, each is a combination of regressive, conservative, and progressive principles. The two definitions come closest to matching on social issues, but even there the match is wanting.

    On social issues “conservatives” are often as not regressive rather than conservative, whereas “progressives” are often as not conservative rather than progressive. Abortion is a high profile example of this.




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  18. Tano says:

    Basically I agree, but I find this so bizarre:

    “we’re never going to be more free with regard to health care than we are right now. ”

    More free? Is that your conception of freedom – some right to be uninsured?
    The freedom of the American people, in any sane sense of the word, will increase dramatically once we have a system of guaranteed health care. No longer will people be trapped in jobs, unable to change them for better ones, or to go off and start their own businesses because their health, or the health of one of their family members is such that no insurer would cover them on the free market. No longer will the vicissitudes of health determine the nature of ones possibilities and opportunities.

    And you will still get to choose your own doctor!




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  19. Sam, you’ll get no argument from me on the depravity of deficit spending by Republican bastards when they were on charge. But somehow, President Obama’s immediate desire to triple the deficit out of the gate bothers me a little bit more.




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  20. Steve Plunk says:

    Tano,

    Once we have guaranteed wages we could change jobs and start a new business as well. Should we guarantee a wage?

    I would assert being free from an onerous tax to pay for that universal health care is more important. That’s my kind of freedom.

    The free market has taken a pounding lately but it is still the best system for individuals and our society as a whole. History proves it.




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  21. I doubt that there’s much point in arguing it here, but it wasn’t the free market that got us into the problems we are having now.




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  22. sam says:

    I doubt that there’s much point in arguing it here, but it wasn’t the free market that got us into the problems we are having now.

    You’re right about that, Charles, it was the freebooters market that got us into this pickle.




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  23. Starting with Dodd, Frank, etc. Thanks for helping to make my point.




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  24. An Interested Party says:

    I guess just about everything wrong in the world is the government’s (and, of course, the awful people who run it) fault…we would all be so much happier if we could just kill the damn thing and let the free market run everything…then everyone would get magical little ponies and we’d live happily ever after…




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  25. Given the choice of a free market or the direction our government is headed, I’ll take the free market. Nonetheless, your false dichotomy is silly.




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  26. An Interested Party says:

    No more silly than your claim that it wasn’t the free market that got us into the problems we are having now…it was all the government’s fault of course…




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