Going to War with the Ideology You Have
No political ideology lives in isolation. We judge communism by how Mao and Stalin implemented it, we judge 60s-era liberalism by how LBJ and the Democratic Party implemented it, and we judge social democracy by how Western Europe has implemented it. That’s how you judge movements: by how their real-life adherents put them into practice, not by reference to a utopian vision of how they should be implemented if only we lived in the best of all possible worlds.
Nonetheless, now that the Republican Party has been brought low, an awful lot of conservatives are jumping ship, claiming that it really doesn’t represent them at all. But look: when the GOP made common cause with evangelical extremists, conservatives cheered. When the GOP accepted Grover Norquist’s tax jihad as sacred writ, conservatives cheered. When Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay all but declared the GOP the party of corporate welfare, conservatives cheered. When George Bush declared war on the Middle East, conservatives cheered. Somehow Burke never really entered the discussion. But now that it turns out these positions have been pretty much played out, Burke is back in and Karl Rove is out. That’s just a little too convenient.
That’s exactly right. Especially when, in the same three-paragraph piece, Goldberg does exactly what he accuses Packer of: “[L]ast I checked liberals are not exactly churning out a lot of policy brilliance either. Their rising fortune has almost entirely to do with the political failures of the GOP and the natural cyclical nature of politics generally.”
Goldberg, incidentally, hits the nail on the head with that one. Even though Democrats control Congress again, the American people have been trained to view both history and current events in presidential cycles. We’re in a down cycle right now so, naturally, George W. Bush and, by extension, the Republican Party, get the blame and the opposition party’s calls for change naturally have tremendous appeal.
It’s true, too, that there’s not a perfect overlap between conservative/Republican and liberal/Democrat, although it’s much closer now than it was even ten or twenty years ago. For example, the highly touted Democratic pickups in recent special elections were achieved by finding conservative candidates to wear the Democrat label. Still, the parties, especially the Republicans, brand themselves by their ideology. (The Democrats have shied away from “liberal” in recent years, as Ronald Reagan successfully turned that into an epithet. But they’re still selling the same soap in a “progressive” wrapper.)
Modern American conservatism is a strange coalition between social conservatives motivated by a fear that they’re losing the cultural wars, national security hawks of various stripes, and economic libertarians. With the right standard bearer and set of external circumstances, that’s a winning message at the presidential level. All three groups are necessary for Republicans to win in the Electoral College even though they (especially the first and third group) tend not to like each other very much.
The social conservatives are in the most trouble of the three groups. First trimester abortion will never be illegal; indeed, the ability to terminate pregnancy safely at home will continue to increase, making it a moot point. Homosexuality is rapidly mainstreaming and gay marriage will achieve the status of interracial marriage through some combination of judicial action and social change within the next 10-15 years. Women’s equality is long established now, with the remaining battles taking place over relatively small issues. Prayer in school is a dead issue. It’s not clear what’s left, really, of the movement as it existed when Ronald Reagan was its secular standard bearer.
The economic libertarians continue to carry the day on the macro level but lose on the margins. Institutionally, rent-seeking behavior is all but impossible to eliminate. And, as Kevin suggests, we’re near the end of the days where calling for tax cuts is a sure-fire winner. Not because people don’t like low taxes, incidentally, but because, relatively speaking, we already have them. Cutting the top marginal rate from 90 to 70 to 35 all make sense. It’s hard to morally justify confiscating the lion’s share of a person’s income, regardless of their ability to pay. But arguing about the difference between 35 and 33 just isn’t very sexy. And the demand for government programs is increasing, not decreasing, and somebody has to pay for it.
Despite the incredible unpopularity of the Iraq War, the hawks are in the best shape. They dominate both parties, with the difference being what the legitimate reasons for military intervention are. And even that difference has been blurred with the rise of the neocons and their “national greatness” agenda. Rhetorically, it’s light years from the liberal interventionists; practically, they’re all but identical.
All that said, I’d put the odds at John McCain nonetheless winning the presidency in November at something like 40:60. He’s fighting an uphill battle because of Bush, the war, his age, and Obama’s enormous personal charm and charisma. Despite many conservatives’ distaste for him, McCain will run under the conservative banner and sell soft versions of all three pieces of the movement. The fear of further losses under Obama will motivate an enormous number of people but McCain will need some help from external events for that to be enough this go-round.