Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Great De-Synthesis

Once upon a very recent time, two British journalists could write a book claiming that American conservatism was vastly different from its European counterpart, and that it was a growing and permanent force in American politics. But 2008 makes me wonder.

American conservatism was and is still premised on the Reagan synthesis. A Republican debate was held in May at the Reagan Library in California, and Reagan is still adored by the GOP faithful, even if they adore him for different reasons. But it is not Reagan’s world, or Reagan’s political terrain, anymore. The odes to Reagan remind me a lot of the way Democrats used to talk when Reagan was running for president in 1980, with a lot of reflexive references to past greatness under FDR and JFK, even though their era was over. It is worth remembering that Reagan was only electable to begin with (I can still remember my mother speaking with fear in her voice the morning after Morning in America began on Election Day in 1980) because the country was in such disastrous shape. There was economic disaster; journalists spoke of the “misery index,” the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates, which was over 20% on Election Day and is less than nine percent now. There was foreign-policy disaster, with American diplomats and an American president being humiliated by Iranian revolutionaries. And there was perceived social disaster too, with the concerns of social conservatives over abortion and school prayer (gay rights were hardly an issue then) finally being treated with respect by a major-party presidential candidate.

And this allowed Reagan to stitch a majority coalition out of the national-security hawks, the social conservatives and the economic libertarians, in addition to Americans who were not members of these camps but were alarmed by what America was becoming.

In part because of the Reagan agenda, with its permanent tax cuts and temporary tax simplification and its conquest of the Soviet Union, it ain’t that country anymore. And current GOP politics reveal that the Reagan coalition is gone. The favorite candidate of the social conservatives appears to be Mike Huckabee, who has no particular enthusiasm for small government, and even indulges in nanny-state tendencies with respect to health and social spending. (Perhaps his great weight loss gives him the zeal of the convert; he’s healthier, so that rest of us have to be made healthier too, freedom be damned.) Meanwhile, believers in smaller government, which Reagan believed in but could do little to achieve in the teeth of a Democratic Congress, have only Ron Paul - the only GOP candidate who appears to honestly believe in liberty - to turn to. He generates great enthusiasm among those who believe in freedom, but attracts a number of crackpot supporters who make libertarians nervous, and adamantly rejects the agenda of the national-security hawks. And, critically, there are fewer libertarians than social conservatives in the GOP electorate in any event, which is why Gov. Huckabee is polling so much more strongly than Rep. Paul.

These two constituencies, it seems, to me, are no longer united. The distinctive American form of conservatism was a product of a unique moment, and the groups who made the movement up in 1980 no longer speak the same language. The social conservatives are often not particular friends of limited government, while the libertarians do not like the socon tendency to use the state to further their own private ends, e.g. through “faith-based” big government. For the libertarians, as Reagan famously said, “government is the problem.” For the social conservatives, as Reagan famously said in the very same speech, “we are a nation under God.” With Reagan and the problems he inherited gone, never again the twain shall meet.



Post a Comment

<< Home