alien & sedition.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
  Looking for the New New Right (Part 5)

I'm determined to finish this thing, because it gets more interesting as it goes on...

Soren Dayton observes that conservatism is subject to redefinition -- just as Reagan redefined it around the notion of cutting taxes, so his inheritors can redefine it according to the imperatives of the present day. Reihan Salam makes the case that the "Sam's Club Republicanism" he and Ross Douthat advocate represents just such a path to revitalization.

But Patrick Ruffini is not convinced. And he makes a valid point: you can't redefine the movement if the base won't come with you. The conservative base, as Ruffini sees it, cares deeply about three main things right now:
  1. Winning in Iraq

  2. Stopping the spending

  3. Border enforcement.
Ruffini is the kind of Reaganite neo-traditionalist who dismisses compassionate conservatism and Sam's Club Republicanism as so many exercises in "big government conservatism," dreamily positing "a lower-middle class majority held in place by government largesse with a conservative face."
I’m here to break the news to them that it won’t work. Republican voters are not motivated by a sense of entitlement. (That might be why they’re Republicans.) Whenever we’ve tried to give away the goodies (Medicare Part D, NCLB, etc.), we have not succeeded in creating loyal new Republican constituencies. The activist base that listens to Rush and dials Congress is up in arms about a bridge in Alaska and the 2% of the budget that is education spending. They won’t take kindly to a beefed-up version of Big Government Conservatism. [...]

What the welfare state Republicanism that Douthat and Salam advocate (in the name of the “base” no less) most resembles are the economic policies of Richard Nixon and the One Nation Conservatism of Ted Heath in the U.K. Which is precisely what the New Right in America and Thatcherism in Britain rose in opposition to. The revolt against Country Club Republicanism and its accommodation with government is one of the few reasons why we can speak of a “movement” and a “base” today.
It's intriguing, of course, that Ruffini applies the "country club Republicanism" tag to the one kind of conservatism that claims to make the social and economic well-being of the working classes its central concern. But this, to Ruffini and the neo-traditionalists, is a decadent conservatism, perverted and confused. It's the Republicanism of the feckless northeastern aristocrats who made their peace with organized labor, government regulation, and internationalism after the Second World War. It's a conservatism without the clarity or the courage to actually be conservative. Compassionate conservatism and Sam's Club Republicanism are simply latter-day outbreaks of the same heresies Goldwater aimed to correct. In Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater -- through his ghostwriter Brent Bozell -- had declared:
I have litle interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.
By contradicting the core message of the modern conservative prophet, "big government conservatism" discourages the base, muddles the message, and undermines the right's brand. It weakens the movement. Conversely, "when the movement is strong, the GOP becomes more conservative and government gets smaller." For Ruffini, then, conservatism is the movement, and Goldwater's disciples are its base.

Ruffini argues that Reagan's redefinition of conservatism worked only because it kept true to the core principles of Goldwater Republicanism. In a sense, it was hardly a "redefinition" at all -- Reagan simply recognized new policy avenues for the movement to pursue. If Goldwaterism was concerned above all with liberty, cutting taxes was clearly in keeping with its spirit. "Reagan's changes," says Ruffini, "had buy-in from the base" -- because they didn't change the core brand around which the base was ideologically constituted. Reagan redefined conservatism, but on the movement's terms.

Salam offers the obvious rebuttal: that may be so, but "the movement is aging and dying." Pointing to this Pew Poll chart, which shows Americans under 30 skewing sharply toward the Democrats, Salam warns:
The "Movement" is old. The salience of "Movement" concerns is declining. So if Ruffini defines the Movement as those preoccupied by these particular issues, some of which I consider very important, he's not talking about a constituency that will be vitally important in twenty years time.

So while he is more than welcome to consider the fate of this group, it is no longer the fulcrum of American politics. Conservatism is a situational doctrine that has always been attuned to new threats -- to security, to economic freedom. As Soren rightly points out, the old threats aren't always and inevitably the same as the new threats.
The movement's base may want what it wants, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to translate the base's priorities into a majoritarian politics.

Arguably, the conservative base is not, in any case, what many conservative elites tend to think it is. Consider Pew's 2005 Political Typology: of the three groups Pew identified as constituting "the right," only one -- "Enterprisers," accounting for just 11% of registered American voters -- held to the standard fiscal conservative ideological line. The others ("Social Conservatives" and "Pro-Government" conservatives) favored government intervention in the economy well beyond what any self-respecting AEI fellow would be willing to tolerate. It's true that neutrally-posited ideological questions produce different results than well-crafted campaign rhetoric -- "lower taxes" is a pretty effective slogan -- but there's pretty good evidence that the conservative movement's base is not nearly so committed to fiscal conservative orthodoxy as the movement's leaders presume.

Salam defines Douthat and himself as social conservatives. "Pretty straightforward," he says. This means, in part, that "while I think we're both concerned with defending a free enterprise system, we're also keenly aware of another kind of economic freedom." He defends the notion of using the state to redistribute income -- though by "conservative" means, like the negative income tax or the Earned Income Tax Credit:
Hayek, for instance, defended a basic minimum on the grounds that expanding the "choice set of the poor" will contribute to the defense of economic freedom. Some would argue that this "choice set" is an essential part of economic freedom rightly understood, and that some trade-offs are necessary.

Our goals are familiar -- thriving families -- and our means are familiar -- competitive markets. The fact that our tax code punishes, for example, stay-at-home mothers and other conservative constituencies means that a certain kind of government activism is needed to counteract these effects. [...]

One can imagine a "Movement" that would expand rather than contract the choice set, and speak to the interests of small-scale entrepreneurs and aspirational blue-collar workers: key parts of past Republican electoral success.
The burden Salam and his fellow "conservative reformists" are forced to bear is the failed Bush presidency, particularly since the influential neo-traditionalists in the conservative movement tend to blame that failure on the administration's attempt to pursue the very same goals by the same sorts of means. Salam's only defense in this post is that Bush merely "gestured in the direction of the white working class," that he failed in the event to actually "deliver policies." The basis of Reagan's success, like FDR's, was that he delivered on his promises (taken for the sake of argument). Bush II has failed to do so.

The question for Salam, then, is why did he fail? Was he really just insufficiently committed to the policy agenda? Or were there structural reasons for the failure of compassionate conservatism? And if there were, what's to say that "Sam's Club" conservatism would fare any better? The neo-traditionalist conservatives have their own set of answers to those questions. I won't suggest my own until I take the time to engage the substance of the "Sam's Club" argument myself. In the meantime, we'll finish this particular thread tomorrow, with a postscript on some of the implications for Democrats.

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

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