I had the good fortune yesterday afternoon to attend a panel discussion on the future of conservatism featuring Ross Douthat, David Frum, Daniel Larison, and Virginia Postrel. It was a rather enlightening discussion, but at the same time also a discussion that drove me to the conclusion that we are a long way from seeing a Republican Party capable of garnering a coalition that is serious about the task of governing.
One thing that made this panel so worthwhile was that it provided a good cross-section of the various schools of thought that have largely made up the conservative coalition for the last 30 or so years. Equally notable was that even though each speaker represented an individual strain of conservatism, each speaker was also something of a dissident that would be readily labeled a RINO by most movement conservatives.
Douthat opened the discussion by arguing that in many ways the Age of Obama presents a golden opportunity for conservatism because it is causing many Americans to at least temporarily shift rightward on issues after a long trend of the country moving to the left that was briefly interrupted by 9/11. However, because of the witch hunt that has come to increasingly characterize the Right, he argued that conservatism is ill-equipped to take advantage of this opportunity. For Douthat, the key to the future of conservatism is not one particular conservative vision, but instead whether conservatives will find politicians willing to act on ideas that are well-suited to their natural constituencies. He argued against the idea of a single blueprint for a conservatism of the future, but instead for a heterodox conservatism that is willing to accommodate Western Libertarians, Upper Midwestern Sam’s Club Republicans, and Southern Evangelicals, to name just a few groups.
Frum spoke next, arguing that conservatism has failed to adjust to the issues of the time, noting that many of the people who would benefit most from the small government philosophy of the 70s and 80s have turned their backs on the GOP beginning in 1992. Because of social and cultural changes, the Republican Party has three options for returning to power: 1. Remain the party of talk radio, which may work for another election or two but is ultimately unsustainable due to the aforementioned social and cultural shifts; 2. Become essentially an American version of the Christian Democrats; or 3. Adopt an economic dynamism based on a reinvigorated Hamiltonian vision that emphasizes repairing the national deficit (even if this means tax increases) and meaningful health care reform, while integrating environmental concerns, ratcheting down the emphasis on social conservatism, and reconnecting to a tradition of integrity and competence in administration.
Next up was Daniel Larison, who was significantly more pessimistic than Douthat or Frum, noting that movement conservatism lacks direction or influence and has created a self-imposed exile from the national conversation. For Larison, conservatism needs to be more a temperament than an ideology, and that temperament can be found only in traces in both political parties- specifically in foreign policy with the Democratic Party and in other areas within the GOP. If conservatism means anything, it must be a return to an emphasis on decentralization because of power’s ability to corrupt. For the most part, GOP reformers fail to recognize that they are captive to unconservative interests, chief among them a nationalism that, while politically useful in the short run, leads to extraordinarily un-conservative policy that ultimately turns the public against conservatives while masking long-term weaknesses. The problems with movement conservatism are made most apparent by the fact that the “far right” is now characterized by being conspiracy theorists who hate liberals more than they love liberty rather than by merely being a position of extreme prudence.
Finally, Postrel spoke, noting that her particular agenda is to revitalize liberalism rather than conservatism. However, to the extent that we are attempting to discover what can reunite the conservative movement, we should all be able to agree that in a conservative society of any strain, it would be impossible to pass a law banning incandescent light bulbs in the name of lower greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not to say that movement conservatives must necessarily be opposed to greenhouse gas reductions, but that conservatives should all be able to unite against a sort of top-down, technocratic style of management. For Postrel, the ban on incandescent lightbulbs represented the nadir of decadent conservatism – it was supported by big business, “National Greatness” conservatives thought it unimportant and unworthy of opposition, while K Street viewed it as a crass opportunity to get on the right side of the environmental issue while pocketing some cash. In essence, movement conservatism can remain united because it does not need any core values, unlike liberalism. For Postrel, conservatism’s problem is that it has ceased to be friendly to policy and intellectual entrepreneurship, instead replacing it with an emphasis on media entrepreneurship in which politics is entertainment, a team sport dominated by personalities.
As interesting as I found the panel, I couldn’t help but come down on the side of Larison’s pessimism. To be sure, in the short run at least – and, pace Frum, I think probably in the long run – the coalition of the American Right will creep its way back into power, if only by virtue of the fact that we have a two party system in which one party is not the Democrats – inertia can be a powerful force. What is difficult to conceive, however, is how that coalition can conceivably govern well once it is returned to power.
Douthat’s emphasis on a heterodox conservatism that leaves room for regional differences sounds wonderful until you recognize that it turns conservatism and/or the GOP into a coalition with no truly unifying themes beyond opposition to liberalism. This is problematic because political movements largely operate on consensus, and there is little way that a movement can govern well if it cannot agree upon what “governing well” actually means in even a meta sense. In this sense, and despite some initial reservations, I now have a hard time disagreeing with Freddie’s argument that modern conservatism bears at least some of the blame for the disasters of the Bush years; while many conservatives may have criticized Bush at the time for various actions inconsistent with their particular brand of conservatism, the fact is that they largely failed to provide alternative visions of what should have been done to address problems, a failure that has for the most part continued through the first 9 months of the Obama Administration.
Even Postrel’s argument, dynamic as it was, and close to my own worldview as she is, not surprisingly worked better as an argument for libertarian-liberal fusionism than as a philosophy of governance for conservatives. While it’s true that most conservatives could get on board with a bottom-up emphasis within government, this still ignores that the deep philosophical divisions within modern conservatism are such that conservatives are unlikely to come to agreement on which goals are worth pursuing from even a bottom-up level in the first place. Moreover, how does one have a “bottom-up” foreign policy that can bridge the gap between the Frums and the Larisons of the world?
Frum, to his credit, proposed some principles that, if implemented, might form a basis for good governance once in power: deficit hawkishness combined with a de-emphasis on tax cuts; an acceptance of environmental problems that allows those problems to be integrated into GOP policy thought; taking the emphasis on social issues down from an “11” to a “6”; and reconnecting to a tradition of integrity and competence in administration. But even here, there is no way to implement these core principles without consciously abandoning one or the other element of the infamous three-legged stool. While I think it completely plausible to de-emphasize tax cuts, any move to an emphasis on deficit hawkishness is meaningless without addressing the elephant in the room that is defense spending. Addressing that element requires abandoning nationalism (aka “defense” conservatism) as a fundamental tenet of conservatism. Obviously the de-emphasis on social issues will give social conservatives free reign to look at the Democrats who are ultimately more in tune with the economic message of the Bible. While integrating environmentalism may help conservatism’s ability to connect with the educated classes for electoral purposes, it is difficult to see how this can be an issue that unites the old three-legged stool in a way that allows it to govern effectively in general. Finally, as I note above, reconnecting to a tradition of good governance requires at least some minimal level of agreement of what constitutes “good governance” in the first place.
Ultimately, this all boils down to the fact that the old “three-legged stool” is unsalvageable because, as Frum notes, the issues have changed. Where I think Frum and Douthat, and to a lesser extent Postrel, go wrong is in the assumption that “salvageable” means “capable of winning elections.” The old coalition will remain capable of winning elections, if only because of the inertia of our two-party system. Where it is unsalvageable, however, is in its ability to govern well on a federal level once it is in power unless and until it can chop off one of those legs and replace it with a leg that is currently compatible with the other two. It doesn’t much matter which leg gets chopped off (that leg, I assure you, will wind up swapping places with a group in the Dem Party), just that it gets chopped off.
The problem is that chopping off a leg of a coalition is a messy process that doesn’t happen overnight, and definitely doesn’t happen consciously. Until that process is complete, it’s difficult to see the coalition of the Right coming together as a group capable of good governance on the national level. A year ago, with Bush’s foreign policy and fiscal recklessness, I argued repeatedly that the libertarian-ish leg of the stool would wind up getting the axe, and in fact was well in the process of heading left. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Where Obama has most disappointed liberals is where he has least disappointed national defense conservatives, who never had much concern for social and economic policy. Perhaps it will be they who depart, leaving a rump of libertarians and social conservatives united around a notion of anti-corporatism and non-interventionism that has appeal to some sects of modern liberalism. Indeed, at the end of the panel discussion, Douthat made note of the fact that the one element of Glenn Beck’s rantings and ravings with a grain of truth in them was his penchant for attacking corporatism, while Larison noted the devastating effects of big business on the GOP’s natural constituencies.
Regardless, realignments don’t happen overnight, and until this one is complete – which will take a good decade or so, I suspect – I don’t see movement conservatism being in a position where it is capable of governing competently beyond existing as a possible legislative check against Democratic overreach.
ADDENDUM/UPDATE: Shorter me: Individually, each of the various forms of conservatism can present a viable philosophy of governance such that no individual strain of conservatism can bear the brunt of the blame for conservatism’s failings. Collectively, however, the need to keep each strain within the tent leaves conservatism as a movement incapable of governing well on the national level based on the issues this country faces at this moment.