alien & sedition.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
  Looking for the New New Right (Part 4)

Patrick Ruffini argues that compassionate conservatism was a form of Republican triangulation, undermining the party's core brand and opening up space for a new conservative movement to reject the Bush administration's domestic legacy and move the party back toward the right, by which he means back to a pure "smaller government" ideology.

Could that be the basis for a majority coalition? I think it's structurally and politically impossible -- if you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know why I think that, though I'll take a deeper look at it in future posts.

But does that mean there's no future for conservatism in America? Not necessarily. In his next response to Ruffini, Soren Dayton reminds us that conservatism is mutable -- it can be redefined. For instance, as Dayton points out, Reagan's supply-side policies represented a notable break with what had traditionally been considered "conservative" economic doctrine, which had focused on the importance of balanced budgets, low inflation, and truly "small" government. Indeed, it's worth keeping in mind that Reagan embraced supply-side in part because it promised to allow him to cut taxes and fight inflation without shrinking government, thus offering him the best of both political worlds. As Dayton puts it:
[The Reagan administration] found a "conservative" rationale for a politically attractive policy that had been "liberal" and redefined conservatism in the process. They found a new conservative principle that was in conflict with the old one.
Similarly, Dayton suggests, Bush has tried to redefine conservatism -- for instance, by making "accountability" rather than "small government" the key conservative principle as applied to education policy.

Now, if Dayton's right -- and I don't think he's entirely wrong -- then it's notable that, while both Reagan and Bush the Lesser tried to redefine conservatism along principles other than "small government," the promise of smaller government still persists as the definitively "conservative" ideal. Of course, both Reagan and Dubya claimed to be out to shrink government -- it's just that those claims had little bearing on reality.

At any rate, Dayton posits a couple of alternative ways to define conservatism:
There are a number of principles that we could change. "Competition" could replace "lassez faire." (for example markets based on complicated kinds of regulatory property like emissions trading, water or mineral rights separate from property rights, or IPR) "Accountability" could replace "small government." (like NCLB) Clearly, in many cases, "federalism" means more "bureaucracy," (more AFSCME socialism) when you are talking about 50 different state regulatory regimes of cable, credit cards, insurance, etc.

The upshot is that there are lots and lots of places for the party to go. Many of them do not lie on the left-right axis.
Dayton's post is written not just in response to Ruffini's but also to a post by Reihan Salam, who weighs in on Ruffini's criticism of "big-government conservatism." First of all, Salam argues, Bush's "counterprogramming" has in some instances been extremely popular -- for instance, the prescription drug entitlement. Moreover, as Dayton observes, even controversial legislation like No Child Left Behind, while it might not have shrunk government, did incorporate recognizably conservative aims like an increase in accountability (yes, I know -- the Bush administration talking about "accountability." Please hold your laughter until the end.).

But what really concerns Salam is that the failures of the Bush administration could discredit the broader "conservative reformist argument." Karl Rove's "idiosyncratic" demographic strategies, and Bush's lack of attention to the actual policy experts behind compassionate conservatism, have unfairly tainted the project as little more than a political strategy, a "savvy" form of rhetorical triangulation, as Ruffini sees it, purchased at the cost of grossly expanded federal spending. This is what many of the administration's conservative critics mean by "big-government conservatism," and it's what they mean to counter when they talk about erasing Bush's domestic legacy and making the GOP "more conservative" again.

But Salam argues that it's just not that simple:
What exactly does "more conservative" mean? In Ruffini's case, I have to assume it means more laissez-faire. And yet what does laissez-faire mean in the context of the vexing regulatory debates surrounding intellectual property and energy and even public order that will be the key questions for the next few decades? It means a lot of different, non-obvious things. To say the GOP must become "more conservative" is a bit of a non sequitur, as the meaning of conservatism (leaving those NYT types aside) is contested, and increasingly so. Note the fast rising relevance of self-described paleocons like Daniel Larison. Surely he can make a claim to the conservative mantle, right alongside Andrew Bacevich and Bill Kristol and dozens of other true believers.

I dare say that a socially conservative politics that aims to bolster families, whether through tax cuts or even quasi-socialistic departures from laissez-faire like the G.I. Bill, might have more relevance to the future of American conservatism than an essentially libertarian politics most closely associated with the American upper-upper-middle.
Salam insists that the meaning of conservatism is at issue, that its assumptions are not safe. For Salam -- who is collaborating with Ross Douthat on a book-length version of their "Party of Sam's Club" article (about which more later) -- a majoritarian conservatism would address many of the same issues that the compassiocons have tried to tackle. It would, at its essence, be "a social conservatism based on the defense of families," a formulation meant to incorporate a more activist role for government in economic policy than what conservatives have traditionally embraced.

We'll explore the details later. In the final two installments of this little series, though, we'll look at how the exchange exemplifies the increasingly contentious struggle between those with competing definitions of conservatism, even as the old conservative coalition crumbles around them.

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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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