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