Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The death of conservativism?

We come not to praise the Conservativism, but to bury it

Conservativism has been the driving political force for the last 40 years. Formulated with Barry Goldwater, it found power in President Nixon, and flourished under President Reagan. According to recent examinations it has now floundered and perhaps failed during President Bush's watch. Writers are rushing in to give the eulogy.

"It is rapidly falling apart," George Packer proclaims in a piece entitled The fall of conservativism, available in the May 26 edition of The New Yorker magazine. "Have the Republicans run out of ideas?" He asks, and reading the article the answer is a strongly implied "yes!" All this barely four years removed from the 2004 elections where the conservative movement looked interminable. Nothing could stop it. Not even George W. Bush, who won re-election even after it was clear that the centerpiece of his presidency, the war in Iraq, was quickly becoming an unruly fiasco.

The 2004 elections were so mind boggling, conservatism's grip on society so strong, that I did what I had to do and started this blog as an attempt to work my way through a few key questions. Where did the country stand after the 2004 election? And which direction it was going? I seemed to be in the minority in thinking Iraq a mistake, Bush a fool, and conservativism an arrogantly faulty movement. But if writers like George Packer are to be trusted, maybe something is in the air for a big change. Not to be outdone, Michael Lind writes in today's Salon,"On every front conservatives have failed, completely, undeniably and irreversibly."

Whereas Packer retains his balanced approach to the question at hand, one cannot help but read Lind's article, Relax, liberals, you've already won without picturing a beleaguered progressive relishing what he predicts to be a dramatic turn in the voting population. It's hard to blame his burst of exuberance, as one liberated from of Vichy France. For liberals it has been a long time coming, and with the rise of political heavyweights like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, along with a string of electoral victories stretching back to the 2006 bellwether elections, the genie is quickly emerging from the bottle.

Bill Clinton's two-term presidency, undoubtedly a high point for liberals over the last 40 years, was certainly not idealistic, and now seems awkwardly placed in-between conservative victories. Clinton was hampered by a conservative congress and forced to triangulate to the middle in order to retain his presidency. This is how I remember it in its heyday. I was 20, and Republican, when Bob Dole stood up to challenge the crafty Democratic president but his doom was foreseen the moment the Senator from Kansas ended a debate by stumbling through his campaign URL. At the time URLs and the internet were a new phenomenon, and you knew immediately the Bob Dole had no idea what either were. But he was trying desperately to appear young, and sharp, and hip, but time was against him. I was appalled that he was the strongest person the Republicans could come up with. Dole lost in a landslide.

In 2000, I was 24, still Republican, and I assumed Al Gore would continue right where his predecessor had left off. I figured then that the Republicans were in serious trouble, out of gas, with a blooming economy staring them right in the face. But Gore proved to be unable to connect with voters, and Bush had a talented campaign team, and connections to steal the election if necessary, which he did.

But, as Packer writes, "Conservatives knew how to win elections; however, they turned out to be not very interested in governing. Throughout the decades since Nixon, conservativism has retained the essentially negative character of an insurgent movement."

Packer states that the idea of a permanent conservative majority not
only went against history, but was "blown up in Iraq and drowned in New
Orleans." This shattered the illusion that politics mattered more than policy. Iraq was the issue that woke me up and turned me away from conservativism. It seemed inept and inefficient. Both Packer and Lind argue that Americans want their government to be productive and they want their government to be, above all, capable. We want it to help, not hurt us, and after all this time, Packer writes that conservatives "hadn't made much of a dent in the bureaucracy, and they had done nothing to provide universal health-care coverage or arrest growing economic inequality."

And there we get back to Packer's central issue: do the Republicans have any ideas on how to confront the problems most American's face? More importantly: do Americans trust Republicans to help them? As he describes it, conservativism is now plagued with "a doctrinaire failure to adapt to new circumstances, new problems." And he points out that polls now show that Americans are siding with Democrats on almost every domestic issue, from social security to the environment.

It appears the stage should be set for a Democratic victory in the 2008 general election. But not even Lind is bold enough to make that prediction. Indeed both writers remain cautious, qualifying things by saying that no matter who is in the White House in 2008, it wont matter, the movement to the left is here to stay. I doubt many liberals will be buoyed by this in the event that they do lose in November. Both writers allude to the greatest benefit of winning elections: stocking the judiciary to your side of the political scales.

Has 40 years of conservativism battered the hopefulness out of liberals? Even Michael Lind, who declared liberal victory in the title of his article, a venerable "Mission Accomplished!" ends his article with a warning about the potential rise of a "more formidable and competitive version of American conservativism" liberated from neoconservative ties. Ah, that's the skeptical liberalism I've tied myself too. You're never too far ahead to prepare for failure. The "win" Lind refers to is simply the chance. "The prospects for the moderate, reformist center left are better than they have been in nearly half a century" he concludes.

George Packer's writing has always had an everyman view that I find appealing. His own speculations about conservativism are not without talking to actual conservatives. Following a rally in the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky, Packer spoke with a few McCain supporters over beers about Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Packer recalls how they unapologetically refuse to ever vote for a black man. "No speech, on race, on elitism or anything else, would move them," Packer solemnly writes. "Here was one part of the white working class--maybe not representative, but at least significant."

My optimism for Obama in 2008 lies somewhere in-between Lind's exasperation and Packer's acumen. It's part emotional and it's part logical. I feel the average American has moved to the left on cultural issues, on race, and on ideals. In 2008 this began to make major headlines as Obama, an African American, and Hillary Clinton, battled for the highest office in the land. I feel the movement is here. It has taken root despite years of conservative victories. In my bones I feel it may be about to bloom. But in my heart I know a large swath of the population may forever be stuck in the past.

No comments: