Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

It Could Have Been Worse. Maybe It Should Have Been Worse.

Election Day 2008 was a defeat for conservatism, but not the massacre that seemed in the offing two weeks ago. Considering everything that was working against the Republicans this year, for Sen. Obama to receive 52.4% of the popular vote to John McCain’s 46.3% is not underwhelming, but certainly a liberal victory no better than merely whelming. If Pres. Obama and the congressional Democrats find the right mixture of audacity and caution, they may succeed over the next four, and possibly eight, years in moving the country significantly closer to embracing the European social democratic ideal of governments that hector capitalists while accommodating terrorists. But this will be a process, not an event. The 2008 election revealed that America is more liberal than it has been since 1992, maybe even more than it has been since 1964. The election also showed, however, that the American and Swedish electorates remain readily distinguishable.

Come January, Democrats will control the House, Senate and presidency, something that has been true for only six of the past 40 years. This will be bad for the country but good, or at any rate necessary, for conservatism. It’s hard to rebuild the plane’s engines and instrument panels while you’re flying it. Conservatives need to consider fundamental changes in what they aspire to accomplish, and how they explain their aspirations, which will require a searching internal debate that is impossible to undertake while governing a nation. While they figure out destinations for the new tracks they want to lay, conservatives will, once more, be standing athwart history crying Stop.

The perception that the Democrats’ victory was quite a few boulders short of a landslide will lead some conservatives to believe that nothing more basic than better luck, better candidates and better circumstances is necessary for happy days to be here again. That would be a mistake. Compassionate conservatism, unveiled by George W. Bush when he was a presidential candidate nine years ago, didn’t turn out to be a very good answer, but it was an attempt to answer a good, and still pressing question: What is to be done when conservative conservatism is no longer a sufficient basis on which to campaign or govern successfully? It has been 13 years since Newt Gingrich lost the government shutdown battle to Bill Clinton. That’s a long time to be without a Plan B after it has become excruciatingly clear that Plan A cannot be made to work.

Discussions - 6 Comments

When you make a little snarky comment like governments 'accommodating terrorists,' I wonder what you mean. Do you mean governments in which terrorism has occurred? That would include a great many countries, including the US. Do you mean governments that allow terrorism to occur? Gee, that would include the US also, depending on your definition of terrorism. Do you mean governments that work to prevent terrorism, but acknowledge it cannot be prevented without an erosion of rights? I guess I will stop with the questions, because I am engaged with a demagogue still bent on exploiting language and phrases to cause fear, like 'with us or against us' or any criticism 'emboldening our enemies' or any of the other Bush classics. That language, and the fear - ideologies that supported it, just went down to defeat. So the first of the 'fundamental changes' your tribe might consider would be to purge yourselves of that loser rhetoric.

Hi, Ren. Always nice to hear from you. When I wrote about European social democrats accommodating terrorists I had two things in mind. The first was the conduct of Willy Brandt after the PLO killed 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. According to the Sunday Telegraph, "Brandt, who wished to rid his country of the three Munich terrorists held in a German prison, conspired with the PLO to arrange for a hijacking of a Lufthansa plane from Beirut carrying 11 German men and a skeleton crew. The German hostages were to be threatened with death unless the three terrorist prisoners were flown to freedom in an Arab country. (The Lufthansa flight had originated in Damascus with passengers and seven members and had picked up the 11 passengers and two hijackers in Beirut.) Feigning terror at the prospect of Germans being killed, Chancellor Brandt gave in to 'demands' of the terrorists. Thus the Munich massacre became an unqualified success." Secondly, I was thinking of the growing evidence, in opinion surveys and articles, that European voters and leftist writers and activists are as opposed to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. If their hopes are realized, and their arguments followed to their conclusions, the Taliban will once again be in a position to offer safe harbor to Al Qaeda.

My post is missing. Basically it says "BALLONNNEYYY" to the idea that 06 or 08 was a rejection of conservativism. Mr. Voegeli question is a Rockefeller GOP one, not a conservative one.

Mr. Voegeli, is it a server glitch or did you find my post offensive?

It must have been a server glitch, Chris. NLT's bloggers do not have the technical capacity or the authorization from the home office to delete comments we find offensive. (How could you think that we did, in light of Ren's frequent contributions to the website?)

As to the substance of your remarks, there is a big difference between saying X is a good thing and saying X is politically popular. That being the case, it is possible to note that conservatism is less popular than it used to be without implying that it deserves to be less popular. To take just one data point, the fact that a liberal Democrat is now the congressman from Dennis Hastert's district in northern Illinois strongly argues that the politics of liberty and the sociology of virtue is just not selling the way it did in 1984 or 1994. It will be a big, tough project to figure out what to do about that. Noting the undeniable fact that lots of liberal politicians are now winning races in states and districts that used to be partial to conservatives is the beginning of that project, not an act of disloyalty.

I would suggest that a big part of political conservatism's decline comes from the crisis in economic conservatism.

On the one hand economic conservatism as it is presented to the public by conservative politicians and talk radio hosts (the two most likely forums in which they are likely to encouter it) operates at an absurd level of abstraction. Struggling people hear conservatives talking about ending earmarks and getting back to their "roots" of restraining spending. Those might be fine ideas in themselves, but most people don't see how that directly connects to their own lives. The same problem occurred with the Joe The Plumber argument. Many folks agree that Joe's wealth should not be redistributed just for the sake reducing income inequality but that argument just doesn't get you very far. People still have problems (some caused by Big Government policies). They hear no answer to their problems in cries of "socialism".

On the other hand self described conservative politicians constantly violate their small government, low spending principles in practice. Maybe the problem is that we need a purer class of Republican, but I doubt it. The truth is that it would be politically suicidal for conservative politicians to stand against incremental government expansion IN THE ABSCENCE OF A FREE MARKET ORIENTED AGENDA THAT BETTER ADDRESSED THE PUBLIC'S VERY REAL CONCERNS. Health care is the classic example. Conservatives constantly fight liberal attmpts to expand the state's role in the health care industry. Every attempted expansion is labeled an attmpted government takeover of healthcare. The problem is that people have real problems with the current system and a conservative politician with a survival instinct will compromise on a slightly less statist version of a liberal proposal as a way of splitting the difference between his own principles and the public's desires. This means that the liberals get to win a slow motion victory on the health care issue. An alternative approach would be a more free market oriented health care system that offers people tangible improvements over the current system. McCain had such a plan but refused to sell it. Most conservative popularizers have a similar disinclination. Better to talk about that earmark for that projecter in Illinois. On this their is no division between a "maverick" like John McCain and a "real conservative" like Rush Limabaugh.

A revival of politcal conservatism is dependent in part on a revival of economic conservatism. This economic conservatism will have to sell its free market oriented policies on the benefits they bring to most people and actually have to follow through in practice so that people really see improvement in their own lives.

Mr. Voegeli,

Rockefeller Republicans are not "disloyal", they simply are not conservative (they are in fact liberal). My point is that you are drawing the wrong conclusions from the fact that liberals are winning in districts where "conservatives" won in the past. Mr. Knippenberg has noted how if McCain had simply had the turn out of Bush, he would have won Ohio (not that Bush or McCain are conservative).

The lesson that should be drawn from 06 & 08 is not the waining popularity of conservativism, but the failure of the GOP (94 - 06) and it's Rockefeller leadership. More broadly, I think it also raises the question as whether conservatives have put too much stock in the GOP, but such questions are hard because of the reality of the "two party system".

Was this election uprising? Not at all. On the one hand, you had the "base" of the GOP (which is broadly conservative) "holding their noses" and voting for McCain. On the other hand, you had the base of the Dem's (which is euro-socialist) excited about voting for one of their own. Who is going to win the turn out?

The searching question in the conservative movement should not be about "popularity" or how to sell it's ideas, it should be about how to get it's vessel (the GOP) to actually govern conservatively instead of campaigning conservatively and governing liberally. Conservatives are NOT going to win the media/popularity contest. The good news is they don't have to, because when they actually do conservative things they are popular (here too much has been made of the government shutdown as being evidence that conservativism is unpopular)...

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