September 13, 2005

Has Conservatism Died?

This entire debate about whether or not "conservatism" has advanced or declined under big-spenders like George W. Bush and Tom DeLay seems muddled to me. Here's another possible way of looking at it, which may or may not be right. Bush-style "conservatism" over the past decade, I think, has basically taken up the same aims as DLC-style "liberalism" (or even, in a sense, Lyndon Johnson-style liberalism): you have technocratic elites commandeering the resources of the administrative state to enact their preferred social policies and to steer taxpayer money towards their favored constituents. Obviously, the two sides have somewhat different constituents: Bush favors the capitalist class, the DLC favors the educated professional class. Or whatever. But there you go.

Bush's approach has, of course, succeeded on its own terms, and it's "failed" in the sense that it could be hijacked by a change in government. The Medicare bill really did steer lots of money towards the health care industry, but Democrats could easily retake Congress and steer that money back towards the elderly. In neither case, though, will you get truly "liberal" or "conservative" health care reform—Medicare has become at once too big and too industry-dominated. Likewise, No Child Left Behind, as a program, can be used to funnel resources towards either the testing industry or teacher's unions, depending on who's in power. But in neither case will you get truly "liberal" or "conservative" education reform, just more of the same. Social Security would be privatized by now if Martin Frost, Tom Daschle, and John Breaux were still in office, and if that had happened, well, same thing.

Basically, what the rise of Bush-style conservatism has helped preclude is the possibility of either serious libertarianism or serious progressivism. Libertarianism because, obviously, the state's never getting any smaller—Bush proved that can't be done. Progressivism, though, because the Bush administration has done very lasting damage to what few social democratic cornerstones this country once had. Republicans have delivered mortal blows to labor over the past decade from which it may never recover: unions will still live on, of course, but in their weakened state they'll pursue narrowly-tailored "business unionism" rather than broad-based social change. Ditto with the environment, which has suffered damages that will take years if not decades to repair—if that's even possible. Wall Street and the defense industry have become unimaginably powerful and self-perpetuating, with no countervailing forces in sight. Then you have the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, which, since 1994, have become so entrenched in our health care system that they probably can't ever be dislodged, which means that both Republicans and Democrats can tinker on the margins with health care policy, but that's about it.

Meanwhile, the "K Street Project" and the increased influence of the lobbyist class in Washington has likely created a self-sustaining entity: as soon as Democrats regain power they'll just drink from the same trough, slopping it about in a somewhat more liberal direction, but keeping the basic set-up in place. (My guess is that the growing influence of the financial industry within the Democratic Party will have very serious consequences in the future.) Ditto with the increasing centralization of presidential power. Oh, and the sham "reforms" wrought by McCain-Feingold probably killed off, rather than saved, any chance for a real campaign finance overhaul—money in politics is here to stay. Not to mention the fact that the prospect of endless instability in the Middle East (perhaps) and yawning long-term deficits (surely) have limited the ability to maneuver of any "liberal" government that might come to power anytime soon.

So yes, we'll get Bush-style conservatism vs. DLC liberalism for eons to come, thanks to the sort of state Bush and DeLay have helped reify—though they hardly created it. Over the long haul, neither side will gain an absolute edge: the Republicans have a rural-state advantage in the Senate, while the Democrats have popular opinion on cultural and many policy issues on their side. Nevertheless, we're looking forward to two patronage parties, frozen in power until the next major economic crisis hits and knocks over the whole damn chessboard. Obviously I wouldn't equate the two sides: the Republicans are doing real damage and need to be kicked out as soon as possible, and the Democrats can still do a great deal of good, but I'm afraid "conservatism" isn't in any more of a crisis, fundamentally, than "liberalism." Limited government (along with a return to 1950s social conservatism) on the right and social democracy on the left have both been throttled. Whether that's okay with people or not is another question.
-- Brad Plumer 4:33 AM || ||