Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is Conservatism Obsolete?

Uncle Kevin had a good point in comments:

You would think that at some point someone would notice that the liberals are guilty of excess and the conservative are guilty of abject failure. There is a difference. One needs moderation, the other needs elimination.

I'm sympathetic to that point of view. With regard to the Republican party in its current incarnation, and to Conservatism as a brand, there is a lot of truth to it.

I would caution that there is a real reason that conservatism (as opposed, for the purposes of this comment, to Conservatism) exists. When solutions are implemented, those solutions invariably have flaws. Those flaws alienate people.

Chuck Klosterman wrote a brilliant article about his quixotic opposition to instant replay review in sports where he says: "And the reason I am willing to overlook what's obvious is because I would rather understand an old problem than feel alienated by a flawed solution. Which, I suppose, is precisely what conservatism is."

That's exactly right, in my view. And there's nothing invalid about the basic sentiment "I realize the old way sucked, but I liked it better." I feel that way about the BCS, for example.

The problem, electorally speaking, for modern Republicans is that at this point there's very little for them to push back against other than extremely ephemeral cultural factors that are only loosely connected to public policy. The main liberal development of the last 30 years is incremental cultural acceptance of same-sex romantic entanglements. Other than that, liberals haven't really accomplished anything significant since the 1960's.

So what Conservatism is left with is a pastiche of unconnected resentments - armchair Cold Warriors still seething over the raw deal Nixon got, aging Wall Street wannabes still bent out of shape over imaginary welfare queens, repressed sex fiends pissed off that Clinton banged a bunch of chicks, etc. There's just no significant constituency anymore for rolling back Great Society programs or busting up the excesses of the New Deal.

I guess what I'm driving at is, we're on the precipice, barring an almost unthinkable catastrophe, of the next great series of liberal policy developments in American society. From those developments will likely spring a new generation of conservatives who didn't much like the way things turned out. That's inevitable, and it's the way things are supposed to work. It's just been so long that what was once honest conservatism has morphed into this ridiculous Conservative homunculus that has no real purpose other than keeping toads like Jim Gilmore in cheap suits.


Uncle Kevin said...

I think you give conservatism too much credit.

Conservatism basically says that "the old way is better". The problem they avoid is that the old way they remember never existed. And what did exist was so disliked that it got changed. When conservatism does see a need for change, their solution tends to be to dream up some "old way" that never existed, and then create it.

People used to wax nostalgic about the '50s. That's ironic considering it was the excesses of the '50s that brought about the cultural revolution of the '60s.

Us old farts can wax nostalgic about the cars of our youths. I grew up dreaming of having a Vet or a Trans Am. A while back I got to thinking about getting one for fun. A friend who was a major car nut said "don't do that". He took me out so I could drive an old Trans Am. It was in "mint" condition. This wasn't some old beater. And man did it suck. Suspension was terrible, it was noisy inside, the steering was stiff, the brakes were hard etc. I was having a fantasy about a car that I had never really owned or driven. And really, it didn't exist. I had forgotten how good cars had gotten in the interviening 30 years. The car nut friend says they see this all the time. The car nuts know they suck, but appreciate them for what they were. Us old farts remember a car that never really existed and are disappointed when we actually try to own one.

The problem I have with conservatism is that when they get into power, they are forever trying to "recreate" something that never was. And their failures are always spectacularly large because it involves ignoring reality for too long.

I have no problem with stopping something new if it isn't working. But just going back to the old way is in essence "giving up". We wanted to change the first time for reasons. Those reasons won't have gone magically away.

There are no "good ole days". People were unhappy then too.

T said...

Don't confuse "conservatives" with "republicans". Republicans haven't been conservative in any meaningful way since 1999. W protected the steel industry with protectionist tariffs inside his first year. He increased the role of the federal government in education (leaving children behind in the process). He expanded Medicare with prescription drugs. He tried (thankfully unsuccessfully) to turn the US government into the number one shareholder in every publicly traded company (think Calpers on steroids) and had the gall to call in social security "privatization." Since that failed he had to settle for buying only the banks. If that's not socialism, I don't know what is. So real conservatives didn't like W for a number of reasons. Liberals didn't like him for his attitude and his social policies. He and his party were resoundly booted from office at the end of his term. Meanwhile a man gets into office without ever actually saying anything (which is great way to get into office if you can get away with it) and everyone supports him because they project their own beliefs into this empty Obama vessel. I would be a mistake to read this set of circumstances as real evidence of a dramatic and permanent shift to the left just as the 2002 post 9/11 republican election victories did not in fact provide evidence of a dramatic and permanent shift to the right, as was the common wisdom at the time.

Of course if you ask someone would you like free health care and free unemployment insurance, they will say yes. But if you look at where most Americans would come down on the real trade-offs between social justice and economic growth, they would be center-right. Anyone who has spent any time in center-left Europe can verify that the difference is real.

Uncle Kevin said...

Republicans have never been conservative in any meaningful way because to govern requires one to abandon conservative principals. The conservatives were the "anti-federalists" and they lost then and they've been losing ever since because the very structure of government is "unconservative". One cannot run the government as it is designed and be conservative.

Raul Groom said...

"Republicans have never been conservative in any meaningful way because to govern requires one to abandon conservative principals."

About that we can wholeheartedly agree. "Conservatism" is not a governing style, it's a reactionary impulse. It's useful in generating support for platforms that claim to strike at unpopular manifestations of liberal programs, but it tells you nothing about how to actually reform those institutions. In fact, history shows that conservative ideology is often a barrier to change, even of a regressive sort.

T said...

Also, Am I the only person who actually thinks the BCS is a better system?

Raul Groom said...

T seems to be making Uncle Kevin's point by illustration: the nature of American conservatism is to attach the "Conservative!" brand to some politician and then when his policies fail (in fact usually after a long period of shouting loudly that his policies are in fact succeeding) abandon him on the pretext "He wasn't REALLY a Conservative!"

That's a good way to protect your ideological sacred cows from ever being slaughtered by events. It's not such a good way to participate in a democratic political system.

Look, George W. Bush was from Texas. His principal backers were oilmen and finance wizards whose entire careers were made in pursuit of deregulation, lower taxes, and barring access to the courts for "frivolous" plaintiffs. His key policy arguments were that tax cuts for extremely wealthy people would cause ginormous economic growth and that America was being ruined by profligate liberal judges who needed to be replaced with "strict constructionists."

If that's not Conservatism, the word really has no meaning in modern American politics.

Raul Groom said...

To clarify a bit, look at Reagan. You could assail Reagan's Conservative credentials pretty easily if you wanted to. He presided over payroll tax increases (designed to perpetuate Social Security,) massive state intervention in both the high-tech economies and the finance sector, a big escalation in federal law enforcement responsibility for the drug war, etc.

Had Reagan been a giant failure, conservatives could easily disavow him. Instead, since he left office as a reasonably popular president, he's the standard-bearer of the Conservative brand.

Raul Groom said...

As for the BCS, I feel like it has a lot of defenders. For me personally, I never really saw a need to crown a One True Champion* of college football, and even on those terms the BCS doesn't really accomplish anything, since after all we've split the title during the BCS era.

It's nothing but an arcane tiebreaker system, and as such when there's some question as to the two best teams, it sheds no real light on the subject.

The way football used to be, the teams in conferences competed for conference championships, and then the bowls were an opportunity for us to watch some unusual cross-conference matchups during the holidays. It was fun! The new system is worse.

Now you have One True Championship game, which game has a pall of illegitimacy about half the time because pretty clearly the two best teams are not actually involved.

Now, of course if you accept the need for a One True Champion, then you have to do something, and the BCS is a reasonable, if flawed, step in that direction. And we'll never go back to the old way, of course.

But I wish we would. Conservatism!