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April 15, 2008

How Conservatives Lost Their Way

posted by Alan Greenblatt

GoldwaterLately, I've been working on a project looking at political demographics and how voting patterns are shifting if you look at people by race, age, geography, etc. One thing that's striking is that if you think back 50 years or more, what we've seen is a great American square dance, with lots of groups crossing over and switching sides.

During the 1950s, the Northeast was the most loyal bastion of Republican support, while the South was solidly Democratic. The reverse is basically true in both regions today. Both parties before 1960 competed effectively for the Northern black vote, while Catholics voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Again, the reverse is now true. Recall that in earlier times William Jennings Bryan, three times the standard-bearer for the Democrats, was lead prosecutor in the Scopes monkey trial, citing biblical arguments against evolution. Back then, Republicans were the party of science.

We've had a lot of other culture wars since then, of course. I don't think it's because white working class voters are bitter. I think a lot has to do with a kind of stasis in our arguments about government and its proper role.

Following the Great Society, voters grew largely skeptical about the wisdom of expanding government's reach even further into society. Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich won a lot of political ground by arguing against Washington and government. For the most part, though, they were defeated in any attempts to reduce government's role very much. People didn't want more government, leaving Democrats without much intellectual fodder, but they seem to want less government, either.

Republicans in recent years have given up on this kind of fight. And conservatives have lost touch with something fundamental as a result.

Republicans have turned from calling for the abolishment of the federal Department of Education to vastly expanding its role. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act represented a massive federal intrusion into education policy and local decision-making -- something conservatives of the 1950s resisted staunchly.

Bush's presidency has sometimes been described as pursuing "big-government conservatism." The label seems to fit. He has presided over the largest increases in government spending since the Great Society, as well as the creation of the largest entitlement program since then (prescription drugs for seniors).

Conservatives have learned that if they can't kill the beast of government, they might as well use it for their own purposes. One reason even Republicans will grant for the party's loss of Congress two years ago was their growing addiction to pork barrel spending and other government goodies.

There's a case to be made that even in his expansive use of government power, Bush was pursuing conservative ends. No Child Left Behind was an attempt to instill competition and accountability into education, while the Medicare drug entitlement blocks the government from negotiating on price, leaving that up to the market.

But I think as conservatives have learned how to stop worrying and love government they've lost sight of something that used to be essential to their natures. Old-school conservatives feared government because they knew it to be a Leviathan that, left unchecked, would demonstrate an unslakable appetite for power and against liberty. When I was growing up, that's what being a conservative meant -- you didn't trust government. That was the fundamental appeal of Reagan and his followers.

There are still some conservatives who argue against the expansion of governmental power under Bush. Within Republican ranks, however, they are shouted down by those who see any such criticism as misguided.

I was thinking about all this after reading the comment section9 posted after I wrote about the dearth of coverage of Bush's torture policies. "This is only a scandal among people who already hated Bush before the Iraq war made him unpopular with most of the country; i.e.: the liberals," section9 wrote.

He (I assume) goes on to say, "Obama hasn't said much about this for one reason: he thinks he should have the same power."

That's precisely why conservatives always feared expansive governmental authority. It might be all right when their guy does something -- their own ends might justify the means -- but they recognized that eventually the other party might come into power, or that there could be bad apples within their own party who would be tempted to use vast governmental powers for bad ends. Or well-intended ends that would turn out badly.

I can remember covering Congress after Gingrich took over. Republicans had a real problem running things because they still thought of themselves as the opposition party, opposed to government and Washington. Well, they have grown perfectly comfortable since then.

Comfortable enough to believe that worrying about the broadest reach of governmental power imaginable -- secret prisons and torture -- is now strictly the purview of liberals. Times have certainly changed.

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