20 November, 2008

Why did conservatism fail?

First, did it fail? The conservative movement did succeed to a large extent in forcing thinkers across the political spectrum to realize the benefits of market-based policies. No one proposes price controls anymore, the leading candidate for a global warming solution is cap-and-trade, not pure regulation, free trade is the assumed position of all presidential candidates. But conservatism also failed in a big way. I don't think that the Bush disaster and the financial crisis actually repudiate conservatism in the way that many people do. They do repudiate the Republican Party in it's current form. I'll agree that the Iraq War is a huge demerit on the record of neo-conservative foreign policy. But Bush never actually tried conservative economic policies. With the exception of his tax cuts, he increased spending dramatically, expanded Medicare, passed a steel tariff, etc. So conservatism did not fail because it enacted its policy agenda and the agenda led to bad results. Rather, it failed because it could not convince even Republicans to follow through on conservative principles. Why? Nate Silver has the answer:

There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.

John Ziegler is a shining example of such a conservative. During my interview with him, Ziegler made absolutely no effort to persuade me about the veracity of any of his viewpoints. He simply asserted them -- and then became frustrated, paranoid, or vulgar when I rebutted them.
He goes on to blame talk radio for these failure, but I think it's much broader than that. Here's Grover Norquist:
...he suggested that some calls to update conservatism — by taking global warming more seriously, for instance — were essentially disguised calls to move the party to the left.

“They will be cheerfully ignored,” Mr. Norquist said.
There once was, I'm told, a cadre of conservatives who thought it of the utmost importance to persuade people of the virtue of conservative principles. People like William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Russell Kirk had to persuade, because so few agreed with them. Conservatism's failure is not political or economic, it is an intellectual because the movement could not sustain the persuasion after it won political power.

This is ultimately, I think, because conservatives became blind to the fact that decent people can disagree. If you believe that your intellectual opponents are bad or evil, you cannot engage them. You cannot persuade them, or even attempt to do so. They must simply be stopped at all costs. And thus we have a decade of corruption, lies, and political bad faith. We have the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Bill Ayers, and "Drill, Baby, Drill".

I don't think this believe is inseparable from conservatism, but it has been part of it since the beginning. Communists were pure evil and had to be defeated. Terrorists, now, are simply pure evil and must be defeated. Abortion doctors are pure evil and must be stopped, imprisoned, or even killed. Ahmadinejad cannot be reasoned with--he is pure evil and must be wiped off the face of the planet. You get the drift. The doctrinaire approach to the world is not just bad politics, it's bad policy as well.

Tyler Cowen has a nice concept for dealing with emotionally-charged rhetoric from otherwise cogent intellectuals:
When I see people writing sentences of this kind, I imagine them pressing a little button which makes them temporarily less intelligent. Because, indeed, that is how one's brain responds when one employs this kind of emotionally charged rhetoric.

As you go through life and read various writers, I want you to keep this idea of the button in mind. As you are reading, think "Ah, he [she] is pressing the button now!"
As liberals hoping for a long and fruitful reign of power, we should learn from the history of the conservative movement. We are ebullient now, full of arguments and new ideas. Let that this enthusiasm for persuasion continue for many decades...and always remember when someone is pressing the little button.

2 comments:

Elliot said...

"But Bush never actually tried conservative economic policies. With the exception of his tax cuts, he increased spending dramatically, expanded Medicare, passed a steel tariff, etc. So conservatism did not fail because it enacted its policy agenda and the agenda led to bad results. Rather, it failed because it could not convince even Republicans to follow through on conservative principles."

There are two different questions here: why don't conservatives govern according to conservative economic principles (the Andrew Sullivan question) vs. why have conservatives come to suck at the arts of persuasion. Silver and Grover and your analysis of the good/evil mindset all get to the second question, and I think you're pretty much right - with the addition that prolonged access to power exacerbates those tendencies. And progressives must absolutely learn from that.

But as to the first question, Bush didn't implement conservative economic policies because the whole point is to stay in power, and so policy followed politics. The government shrunk when it was convenient - tax cuts, katrina - and grew when it served a constituency.

And to be fair, one should note that our system handicaps conservative economics (to the extent that it means less spending and less entitlements). The structural bias is towards more spending to please constituencies and get reelected (especially in Congress) and so "small government" types are always having to make deals with the devil.

This is also why foreign policy was the area in which neo-conservative doctrine was applied so purely and allowed to fail so spectacularly, because fp is the area most - though not totally - removed from domestic constituencies and the Congress.

spencer said...

Yes...excellent point! There is another piece to the puzzle. Once in power, political coalitions tend to do what's needed to sustain the coalition, which is not necessarily the same as enacting the principles that got them there in the first place.

It's interesting that you say out system handicaps conservative economics. A point Yglesias makes a lot is that the system handicaps progressives. It's very hard to push big programs past the House, the Senate with its filibuster, the veto pen of the President, and judicial review. Combining those two arguments, I guess what we end up with is a federal government that is neither liberal nor conservative, but is mostly a tool for redistributing to skillful lobbyists.