Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Conservatism: Old, Gloomy, and Dead?

Is conservatism out of touch with today's needs to the point of anachronism? Fareed Zakaria thinks so in his piece, "The End of Conservatism":

Conservatism grew powerful in the 1970s and 1980s because it proposed solutions appropriate to the problems of the age—a time when socialism was still a serious economic idea, when marginal tax rates reached 70 percent, and when the government regulated the price of oil and natural gas, interest rates on checking accounts and the number of television channels. The culture seemed under attack by a radical fringe. It was an age of stagflation and crime at home, as well as defeat and retreat abroad. Into this landscape came Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, bearing a set of ideas about how to fix the world. Over the next three decades, most of their policies were tried. Many worked. Others didn't, but in any event, time passed and the world changed profoundly. Today, as [David] Frum writes, "after three decades of tax cutting, most Americans no longer pay very much income tax." Inflation has been tamed, the economy does not seem overregulated to most, and crime is not at the forefront of people's consciousness. The culture has proved robust, and has in fact been enriched and broadened by its diversity. Abroad, the cold war is won and America sits atop an increasingly capitalist world. Whatever our problems, an even bigger military and more unilateralism are not seen as the solution.

Today's world has a different set of problems. A robust economy has not lifted the median wages of Americans by much. Most workers are insecure about health care, and most corporations are unnerved by its rising costs. Globalization is seen as a threat, bringing fierce competition from dozens of countries. The danger of Islamic militancy remains real and lasting, but few Americans believe they understand the phenomenon or know how best to combat it. They see our addiction to oil and the degradation of the environment as real dangers to a stable and successful future. Most crucially, Americans' views of the state are shifting. They don't want bigger government—a poll last year found that a majority (57 percent) still believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life—but they do want a smarter government, one that can help them be safe, secure and well prepared for political and economic challenges. In this context, conservative slogans sound weirdly anachronistic, like watching an old TV show from ... well, from the 1970s.

"The Emerging Democratic Majority," written in 2002, makes the case that perhaps for these broad reasons, the conservative tilt in U.S. politics is fast diminishing. It gained a brief respite after 9/11, when raised fears and heightened nationalism played to Republican advantages. But the trends are clear. Authors John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira note that several large groups have begun to vote Democratic consistently—women, college-educated professionals, youth and minorities. With the recent furor over immigration, the battle for Latinos and Asian-Americans is probably lost for the Republicans. Both groups voted solidly Democratic in 2006.

Political ideologies do not exist in a vacuum. They need to meet the problems of the world as it exists. Ordinary conservatives understand this, which may be why—despite the urgings of their ideological gurus—they have voted for [John] McCain. He seems to understand that a new world requires new thinking.

So McCain's not that conservative after all, eh? He'll be the one to revive a fading, flailing movement, if need be.

But, first, I'm not so pessimistic on conservativism, especially if it means the opposite, the comeback of big-government liberalism. We've tried that approach as well, and the resulting social paternalism and welfare handouts have been expensive and counterproductive.

We do need competent government, but Michael Dukakis can tell you what it's like running on that platform. A little time away from the Bush administration, and we'll hear less attacks on incompetence and more demands for programmatic clarity, especially under a Democratic administration.

In foreign policy, Zakaria's area of expertise? We've never really been "conservative" in the Burkean sense, certainly not in the 20th century. Wilsonianism under both Democratic and Republican administrations has prevailed, and this strain will continue to some degree after Bush.

Hopefully, for American security, we'll have a more muscular national security neoconservative Wilsonianism under a McCain administration. The Democratic version will be truly like Wilson's foreign policy, relying on international institutions, and unable to get support to commit American muscle for the demands of world politics.

Conservatism's not dead, just in need of a half-time.