In 2006 and 2008, Democrats gained control of Congress and the White House respectively. The majority of the American electorate had grown tired of Republican governance, which went hand in glove with unpopular wars, political scandals, economic recession, and Bush fatigue. Pundits quickly pronounced the death of conservatism, mistaking—it seems to me—the Republican genus with the conservative species.
But sixteen months into a unified Democratic government, the species is experiencing something of a resurrection, with Tea Parties rising first and pulling the fortunes of the Grand Old Party up with them, much to the surprise—and chagrin—of the pundits who had so recently announced their premature deaths.
As R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. demonstrates in his new book, After the Hangover, liberal pundits have been pronouncing the imminent demise of conservatism for decades: after Goldwater, after Nixon, after Reagan, after Bush 41, and now after Bush 43. Conservatism has been the longest dying movement in American political history. And yet it lives.
After the Hangover is partly history, partly definition of terms, partly policy proposal, partly score settling, and partly self promotion. The history, definition, and policy succeed to varying degrees, while the score settling and self promotion fail in the same measure. Tyrrell is, if his account of his own prognostications is any measure, the only political pundit never to err. When it comes to his foresight and the accuracy of his magazine’s reportage—his magazine is The American Spectator—Tyrrell sees no error, no doubt, and no need for second thoughts.
The score setting can be amusing. Tyrrell refers to young conservatives such as Ross Douthat who critique other, older conservatives as “Reformed Conservatives.” He dubs David Frum and David Brooks as “the Davidian Branch” of the RCs. But it can also be more than a bit personal. He has little regard for Christopher Buckley who, in his opinion, not only insulted his father—William F. Buckley Jr.—at the latter’s funeral, but who went on to pour lemon juice in the open wound by supporting Barack Obama in the national election. The score settling is also a bit off-putting because throughout the book, Tyrrell encourages conservatives to engage one another at the level of ideas. Douthat, Frum, and Brooks are nothing if not idea factories. Why not engage with rather than insult them?
But in recounting the history, definition, and policy proposals of conservatism, Tyrrell’s book does much better. Modern conservatism is a “fusionism” (Frank Meyer’s term) of social conservative values, libertarian economics, and Cold War foreign policy. Although there are tensions within this movement—which Buckley pere spent a lifetime keeping fused together—there are also natural affinities, especially when the state’s power over its citizens is waxing, as it is doing currently in the Obama administration. (To be fair, the trendlines were already rising in certain policies of the Bush administration as well, and Tyrrell is critical of those.)
The burden of the conservative movement in such times is to contribute to the rolling back of the state. This task is difficult because of a traditionally liberal press, which spews what Tyrrell calls Kultursmog into public discourse, constantly challenging conservatism, even where unwarranted, while treating liberalism with kid gloves, even when the opposite treatment is warranted. Libertarian blogger Glenn Reynolds has a running gag on his blog (Instapundit) that begins with this line: “They told me if McCain were elected (or some other republican), we’d have _____ (some violation of constitutional, civil, or human rights).” The story he links to is one wherein President Obama or some other Democrat has enacted precisely that policy, either to media acclaim or media indifference. That’s Kultursmog.
Rolling back the state is also difficult for conservatives because, let’s face it, most Americans have made their peace—to one degree or another—with the New Deal. Americans have paid into Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare for generations. They expect it to be there for them when they die. The Tea Parties may be changing some minds on this issue, as public entitlement commitments grow dangerously past revenues and as crony capitalism—i.e., TARP, “Government Motors,” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—threatens to send the economy into permanent recession. But still, in one form or another, the New Deal is here to stay.
In his policy proposals, even Tyrrell must take this into account. He favors Steve Forbes’s federal flat tax rate of 17%. Seventeen percent? That would better than what I’m paying now, but a limited federal government wouldn’t really need that much, would it? And while school choice is a winning policy proposal among conservatives, it assumes that the state government (and perhaps even the federal) has a legitimate role to play in disbursing public funds for public ends through private providers. And Tyrrell favors reining in health care costs by removing tax breaks for employer-provided health plans. Why tax any health plans at all?
And so, the conundrum for conservatives is this: Americans love the gift but despise the giver. Americans want Social Security and Medicare, they want the secondary market in mortgages that Fannie and Freddie provide because it helps them own houses cheaply, they want the intrusions into their personal lives that keep them safe from terrorists. But they don’t want to pay for these things, and when those things begin to cost them too much, Americans object. Conservatives thrive on opposition to the giver. Their task in the present must surely be to wean the electorate off the gift.
Unfortunately, despite the excellent history of conservatism and the useful policy proposals, Tyrrell doesn’t address this fundamental conundrum. And he sees a populist conservatism of Tea Parties, new media, and think tanks, but not a countercultural conservatism that challenges the majority’s favor of what the state provides. Until we see that kind of conservatism arise, my guess is that the hangover will continue for some time.
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