Is There a Progressive Conservatism?
Commenting on the Taibbi discussion, "Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher
The value I see in Taibbi's essay is his sense that the left doesn't have a lot to offer now -- that it's populated by a bunch of cranks and juveniles who are great at whining and complaining, but who don't offer much practical help. Ross has said that it's ridiculous for a leftie like Taibbi to complain about the worthlessness of the left when everything's coming up roses for them in advance of the 2008 election.
I just don't see this. If Ross is right, would he have instructed the disillusioned rightists of The American Conservative to quit complaining about conservatives in 2004, because the GOP was doing well at the polls?
To which Douthat responds
I don't just think that the left is doing well politically; I think that they may get the chance to enact a pretty substantial and wide-ranging policy agenda if things go well for them in '08. Taibbi (and Rod) think liberals don't have anything substantive to offer; I think that's plain wrong, and it's a dangerous delusion for conservatives, in particular, to entertain. True, what the left has to offer now is roughly the same thing it offered in the 1970s and '80s, which is to say a dramatic expansion of the welfare state - but the ideas for how to go about this are much sharper than they used to be, thanks to years in the wilderness and a greater appreciation for free markets, and the political climate is a lot more favorable to a renewed push for social democracy than it was in, say, 1979.
I'll head off in the direction Douthat's going here, but take it farther than he probably would. Dreher's analogy is flawed because the GOP, winning in 2004, faced a broadly different set of circumstances than did the Democrats in 2006. I think it's beyond serious question that Bush's re-election was a factor of war and terror; even then, the margin was smaller than an incumbent party at wartime might expect to win -- a sign that the tide of public opinion on the war was already turning against the Republicans.
Likewise, it's a truism to say that the Democrats won last year because voters were rejecting the GOP, not because they were embracing the "Democratic agenda." That's how elections always work.
But the underlying evidence
suggests that the American public is, by a growing majority, more favorable to basic Democratic philosophies on the role of government, and is increasingly liberal-minded on social issues (I'll leave foreign policy out of this discussion). Structurally speaking, the Republicans' 2004 victory looks a lot like an anomaly made possible by the politics of war. If even in the most conservative times Americans tend to be "ideologically conservative and operationally liberal" (meaning they like the idea
of smaller government but resist actual efforts to reduce its size), there's good reason to believe that, these days, they're increasingly liberal in ideology, too.
I bring this up for the nth
time because, having just finished Jacob Hacker's book
, I'm struck by the pseudo-parallels between his work and the work being done by the few conservative intellectuals -- Douthat is one -- who have been engaged in serious efforts to re-imagine conservatism so as to account for those underlying structural issues. Yet -- and I'll elaborate in later posts -- many of them seem to be stuck in a sort of limbo between the orthodoxies of fiscal conservatism and the sensible social insurance ideas advocated by people like Hacker.
The cumulative effect of conservative government since 1980 -- and particularly of the Bush administration -- has been to grow the size of government and the national debt, even while undermining social insurance: the worst of both worlds. Compassionate conservatism, in its misguided obsession with "weaning" people off of government, managed to expand spending vastly while failing to address in any effective sense the various sources of insecurity plaguing Americans. At the root of the problem has been the conservative tendency to atomize the public -- whether into individuals or families -- to undermine solidarity and to break up the broad risk pools that make effective social insurance possible.
Again, I'll analyze this in greater detail later, but it looks to me that these new conservative "reformers" seem poised to make the same mistake -- and that's a shame, since it seems as though there could be some points of cooperation between the left and this right when it comes to using government to help foster the economic security that makes true freedom possible. But to do this effectively means preserving those broad risk pools and emphasizing progressivity. Would the new social conservatives be willing to support a Universal 401(k)
or Medicare Plus
(pdf)? If you're going to risk the wrath of the fiscal conservative enforcers and support the use of public funds to enhance economic security, why be hobbled by the ideological habits that have undermined that security in the first place?
Labels: conservatives, Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat