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December 08, 2005

David Brooks: Running Out of Steam.

I’m not sure I would agree with David Brook’s’ analysis here. In part, yes, now that the conservative Republicans are in power they are indeed stymied slightly, cannot renew the intellectual juices quite so well.

But I also think that part of the problem is the very fact that it is indeed the conservatives in power. I’d (and on many issues in the US this is true of most Americans as well) rather have the liberals. No, not liberals in the American sense, but good old fashioned Classical Liberals. That’s got nothing to do with the social authoritarianism of parts of the Republican party, nor the protectionist instincts of some (like Buchanan say).


Conservatives are in power but out of sorts. Fifty years after the founding of the modern right, conservatives hold just about every important government job, yet the conservative agenda has stalled. Federal spending has surged. Social Security reform is dead. And when voters are asked which party they trust on key issues, they decisively reject conservative ideas.

On the economy, Democrats are trusted more, 56 to 34. On education, it's Democrats 55 to 32. On taxes, Democrats 48 to 38. On health care, Democrats 54 to 29.

For members of a movement that is supposed to be winning the battle of ideas, conservatives are in a mess.

So what's gone wrong? First, most of the issues that propelled conservatives to power have been addressed. Modern American conservatism was formed by people who wanted to defeat the Soviet Union, reduce crime, reform welfare, cut taxes, deregulate the economy and reintroduce traditional social values. All those problems are less salient today.

Second, conservatism has been semi-absorbed into the Republican Party. When conservatism was in its most creative phase, there was a sharp distinction between conservatives and Republicans. Conservatives chased ideas, while Republicans were the corporate hacks who sold out. Now that conservative Republicans are in power, that distinction is obliterated.

There are a number of consequences. A lot of the energy that used to go into ideas is now devoted to defending Republican politicians. Many former conservative activists have become Republican lobbyists. (When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it's a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs.)

Most important, there is greater social pressure to conform to the party's needs. Even writers and wonks are supposed to stay on message. In the 1970's, supply-siders mounted an insurgency against the Republican House leadership and against some sitting G.O.P. senators. If any group tried that today, it would be crushed by the party establishment.

Third, conservative media success means intellectual flabbiness. Conservatives used to live in a media world created by people who thought differently than they did. Reading certain publications and watching the evening news was like intellectual calisthenics. Now conservatives can be just as insular as liberals, retreating to their own media sources to be told how right they are.

Fourth, conservatives have lost their governing philosophy. In 1994, the Republicans thought their purpose was to reduce the size of government. But when the government shutdown failed, they never developed a new set of guiding principles to clarify which things government should do and which things it shouldn't. George Bush came up with a philosophy of compassionate conservatism, but it remains fuzzy and incomplete.

Fifth, conservative Republicans have lost touch with their base. To win, Republicans depend on white rural and suburban working-class voters making $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Conservative Republicans offer almost no policies that directly benefit these people. Americans at that income level tend to be financially risk-averse. But the out-of-touch Republicans offered a Social Security plan that increased risk.

Sixth, conservatives have not effectively addressed the second-generation issues. Technological change has really changed the economy, introducing new stratifications. Inequality is rising. Wage stagnation is a problem. Social mobility is lagging, and globalization hurts hard-working people. Global warming is real (conservatives secretly know this). The health care system is ridiculous. Welfare reform is unfinished. Conservatives have not addressed these second-generation issues as effectively as their forebears addressed the first-generation ones.

The good news is that we are about to enter a political season with no obvious conservative standard bearer, leaving plenty of room for innovation. Also, the current conservative crisis has produced some new thinking. A few weeks ago, two young writers, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (my former assistant), unveiled a fresh conservative agenda in a Weekly Standard essay called ''The Party of Sam's Club.'' These writers, 26 and 25 years old, are closer to the future than the party leaders.

And the final bit of good news for the right is the left. No matter how serious the conservative crisis is, liberals remain surpassingly effective at making themselves unelectable.

December 8, 2005 in Politics | Permalink


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I’d (and on many issues in the US this is true of most Americans as well) rather have the liberals. No, not liberals in the American sense, but good old fashioned Classical Liberals.

Sadly, you greatly overestimate the appeal of Classical Liberalism. For example, both US parties are far less protectionist and anti-immigration than the public. (See some of the papers by Bryan Caplan for some of the evidence.) If the public favors the Democratic Party's solutions on education and health care, then they certainly don't favor classical liberalism either.

Please show me evidence that the majority of American people really favor classical liberalism solutions on lots of issues. I'd love for that to be true, but I don't buy it.

Posted by: John Thacker | Dec 8, 2005 7:28:59 PM