alien & sedition.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
  Looking for the New New Right (Part 3)

It may seem odd to give such a detailed account of an exhange between bloggers that took place a week ago, but stick with me -- these are some of the smartest conservative analysts out there, and what they're debating has major implications for the future of their movement.

We left off with a quandary: if conservatives are to revitalize the Republican party, they need a revitalized movement. And if they're to rebuild their movement, they need Big Ideas. Those Big Ideas must provide a foundation upon which conservatives can both unify their base and build a majority coalition. But this is where they're stuck. What could those foundational, majority-making ideas be?

Conservative bloggers Patrick Ruffini and Soren Dayton have agreed that immigration is not an issue that will provide any good Big Ideas for Republicans. But their dilemma becomes considerably more complex when they turn to a discussion of the central issue in American politics: the role and size of government. Politically speaking, conservatives have been well-served by their "limited government, low taxes" mantra. But as this blog has discussed extensively, Republicans -- even in their periods of greatest power -- have failed to shrink government appreciably. Meanwhile, polls indicate that Americans, by significant majorities, favor a much more activist approach to government than what conservatives will abide. The failure to shrink government despite the right's noisy insistence on the importance of doing so has brought frustration and discord to the ranks of the conservative coalition, and damaged the Republican brand, making them look both incompetent and, in Ruffini's words, like a party of "stingy Scrooges eager to starve grandma."

Ruffini notes, as I have, that compassionate conservatism as embraced by George W. Bush and his advisors was meant as a way out of this dilemma (though he addresses it primarily as a communications device, a "a savvy tactical response to Republicans constantly getting cut up by the rhetorical meatgrinder of the Clinton presidency," while I think it was also meant to address underlying structural problems with the Republican coalition). But he figures it for a kind of triangulation, with the same serious drawback progressives ascribe to Bill Clinton's practice of the same:
The problem with this strategy is that it was counterprogramming. It undermined our core brand (where movements are all about distilling the core brand). And it not only nudged us in the direction of government action; at times it jerked us violently in that direction. Being sympathetic to the needs of seniors became a $400 billion prescription drug plan. Being more attentive to public schools meant doubling the Department of Education. New look immigration policies meant treating enforcement as an afterthought. A needed tactical response to the Clinton era became an attempted long-term redefinition of the Republican Party that nobody, right or left, really wanted. It all seemed very, very extravagant.
Ruffini points out that it was the vacuum created on the left by Clinton's triangulation that led to the rise of the progressive netroots. If compassionate conservatism is a form of triangulation-from-the-right, might we expect to see a revitalized conservative grassroots in the next few years? As Ruffini puts it:
A new conservative movement would, as the gravitational pull of these things go, make the GOP more conservative. And that would mean largely undoing the Bush legacy in domestic policy.
Liberals are adamant that the right not be allowed to wash its hands of the Bush legacy -- Dubya was, after all, the inheritor of decades of conservative movement-building, and to liberal eyes he looks like probably the most right-wing president in American history. Yet conservatives insist that, on the core issue of the role and size of government in the domestic sphere, Bush has plainly abandoned them. If this is the case, there may well be space on the right for a new conservative movement. But would a movement based on traditional conservative hostility to "big government" have any chance of building a majority coalition?


My chief political concern at the moment is that neither the Democratic Party nor the press seem willing or able to tie Bush's disasters to conservatism or the Republican Party more generally. It seems to me that Bush's low numbers and the weakness of the Republican Party is driven almost entirely by the Iraq War. Should we ever get out of that conflict, I can imagine a scenario in which Republicans quickly put themselves back together again through a policy of pure obstructionism - a strategy for which thus far they have payed no price. For all the Democratic institution-building and the takeover of Congress, I don't seem much evidence of our ability to counter conservative spin. And in political conflicts, perception is usually reality.
Agreed completely. I don't get enough readers to have much impact, but if I could accomplish one thing with my writing, I'd like to encourage Democrats to recognize the opportunity they have to use the disasters of the past few years to comprehensively make the case against conservatism and for a bolder progressive politics.

Luckily, I don't think I'm the only one trying to do that. But that's not to say the Dems will learn the lesson.
Well it's awfully tough with this pro-Republican media filter. Watching the absurdities of the presidential race coverage so far, it seems as entrenched as ever.
Well it's awfully tough with this pro-Republican media filter.

A pilot project I have in development aims at eroding that dominance over time. (More later.)

In the meantime, Paul, thanks for these pieces this week. (I'm just reading them at the end of a short workweek, i.e., only 40+ hrs thru tonight). And they dovetail into a conversation I had with a blogger at Drinking Liberally tonight who asked why I would bother still working inside the Democratic party.

Like many progressives, he's ready to bail after the disapointment of the Iraq funding vote (and giving the familiar third party argument). What many fail to appreciate is - as you said a couple of weeks ago - that this about is making politicians' lack of backbone irrelevent. It's not about any particular vote or candidate/official. It's about taking the long view and building a movement.

As evidence of progress, tonight I too cited Dean's insurgent candidacy for national party chair, and thirty-something Jerry Meek here in NC, whose grassroots/netroots campaign for state party chair in 2004 defeated the handpicked candidate of the governor and the state Democratic establishment (Jerry's profiled in Crashing the Gate).

What old-guard Democrats count on is that progressives will live down to their reputation, i.e., cranky, inexperienced upstarts who show up just long enough to try to ram their agenda down everyone else's throats, but who don't show when there's real grunt work to be done; who will take their balls and go home the first time they don't get what they want or get their issue the attention they KNOW it deserves. Establishment Democrats count on that. And when progressives leave, the old guard gets back control of its comfy social club and nothing changes.

Why aren't progressives taken seriously? Because the old guard expects them to be a passing fad with no staying power. Until they prove they have it, they'll never be taken seriously.

The secret to building a progressive critical mass capable of reforming and reinvigorating the Democratic party is showing up day after day and outlasting the traditionalists.

Why is that so hard to understand?
What an excellent comment, blue. I'm going to quote that on the front page.
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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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I Was a Mole at the Conservative Summit, Part One
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