Why Conservatives Discarded Conservatism


Our old friend Eugene Joseph Dionne has just published the first must-read opus of the campaign season, a brisk stroll through the history of American political ideas that shows just how radical mainstream conservatism has become.

E.J.’s classic “Why Americans Hate Politics” helped frame the 1992 presidential election; introducing the term “false choices” into the political lexicon to describe bitter binary partisan conflicts, it set the stage for Bill Clinton’s “third way” (aka “New Covenant”) style of triangulation.

Twenty years later, Dionne is back with “Our Divided Political Heart,” which provides a long-view frame for understanding the intractably polarized politics of 2012. Analyzing the death of compromise, he concludes that the crucial balance between the values of individualism and communitarianism on which the nation was founded, has been badly distorted, amid a false right-wing rewrite of American history:

Underlying our political impasse is a lost sense of national balance that in turn reflects a loss of historical memory. Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been…

 American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community. These values do not simply face off against each other. There is not a party of “individualism” competing at election time against a party of “community.” Rather, both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans.

From Hamilton and Jefferson, Clay and Jackson, Lincoln and both Roosevelts, Dionne traces the development of what he calls the “Long Consensus,” a “social contract for shared prosperity” that created the American Century, as government and markets complemented each other, and political leaders shared fundamental assumptions about the need for both public action and private economy:

American politics is now roiled because the Long Consensus is under the fiercest attack it has faced in its century-long history. The assault comes largely from an individualistic right that has long been part of American politics but that began gathering new influence in response to the failures of the Bush administration and the rise of Obama. After Obama’s inauguration, it became the most energetic force in the conservative movement and the Republican party…

 Because Democrats broadly defend the Long Consensus while Republicans, in their current incarnation, seek to overturn it, the parties are no long equally distant from the political center. We are in a moment of asymmetric polarization. Since Democrats believe in both government and the private marketplace, they are, by their very nature, always more ready to compromise. On the other side, Republicans (again given their current preoccupations) believe that compromise will set back their larger project of putting an end to a set of arrangements will set back their larger project of putting an end to a set of arrangement they no longer believe in. (emphasis ours).

E.J. is an upfront center-left liberal, but his treatment of conservative ideas and movements is so unfailingly earnest, factual, respectful, thoughtful and nuanced that it gives great credibility to his fact-based argument that the Tea Party/Fox/Palin/DeMint/Koch Brothers incarnation of the Republican Party, with its demonizations of Obama, purges of all strains of moderation and servitude to plutocracy, is a betrayal of conservatism as practiced by Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Reagan.

Partisans of this view are trying to break the links between the conservative movement and its more communal and compassionate inclinations…

In such circumstances, compromise becomes not a desirable expedient but “almost treasonous,” to use the phrase made briefly famous by Texas governor Rick Perry in remarks about the Federal Reserve. If everything that matters is at stake, then taking enormous risks with the country’s well-being, as House Republicans did in the debt ceiling battle, is no longer out of bounds. Rather, pushing the system to its limits – and beyond – becomes a form of patriotism. When your adversary’s goals are deemed to be dishonorable, it’s better to court chaos, win the fight, and pick up the pieces later.

Dionne’s analysis provides an intellectual lens for watching the real-life horror show that is the 2012 presidential campaign, as Obama trembles at the thought of standing up forthrightly for the value of government, while Mitt Romney eagerly abandons his past principles and runs away from his record in a desperate effort to please the extremist faction that has seized control of the ideology and values of the Republican Party.

Calbuzz sez check it out.

And now for some Actual Facts: By happy coincidence, the Pew Research Center’s just-out 25th anniversary study of American political attitudes, which is all you need to know about the national political landscape, provides reams of evidence in support of  Dionne’s thesis.

In 11 pages of data, charts and analysis, Pew’s researchers slice, dice and mince the electorate in every demographic category against 48 measures of political values, an exercise they first did in 1987, now reporting that “As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”

Here’s the nut of the matter:

Republicans and Democrats are furthest apart in their opinions about the social safety net. There are partisan differences of 35 points or more in opinions about the government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.

On all three measures, the percentage of Republicans asserting a government responsibility to aid the poor has fallen in recent years to 25-year lows.

 Just 40% of Republicans agree that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” down 18 points since 2007. In three surveys during the George W. Bush administration, no fewer than half of Republicans said the government had a responsibility to care for those unable to care for themselves. In 1987, during the Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62% expressed this view.

The whole survey is here.

Sally Quinn faces life: “The end of power in Washington,” DC doyenne Sally Quinn’s elegy for the declining state of self-important Beltway elites, is the most unintentionally hilarious piece we’ve read in a while.

After a nightmarish evening, during which she both comes face to face with Kim Kardashian and bumps her nose on Calista Gingrich’s hair, Mrs. Ben Bradlee has a blinding insight:

On the way home (we skipped the after-parties), I suddenly realized that this grotesque event signaled the end of power as we have known it. That dinner — which seemed to have more celebrities, clients and advertisers than journalists and politicians — was the tipping point.

Next up: Sally scoffs at far-fetched tales of a place called “the West Coast.”

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There are 16 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    The chief problem is that the Republicans call themselves conservatives, and they are not at all. True conservatism makes a lot of sense, but conservatives have no where to go. Just like progressives have no place to go because the Democrats are so stuck. Watch the Elephants Resign video:

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    The problem is that conservatives are no longer individualists. Instead, they want government to enforce religious beliefs on citizens who don’t share them. They want these beliefs to intrude on everything from education to private medical decisions. They want a muscular military that can intervene in internal conflicts in other countries or regions around the world. They want corporate bailouts and subsidies.

    None of these positions represent the streak of individualism they claim. I’m sorry, they just don’t.

    In addition, as Ezra Klein pointed out last while guest-hosting the Rachel Maddow show, their actions belie their stated beliefs as well. Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush all increased government payrolls during recessions when they were in office. They either hired federal workers, or increased funding for a variety of state programs. Though few “conservatives” will admit it, president Reagan increased taxes 11 times during his 8 years in office. None of these presidents wanted to go down in history as the man who ushered in another Great Depression. So they did what they had to in order to avoid it. But, as Klein pointed out, now that there’s a Democrat in the White House, they’re doing everything in their power to keep him from doing what they themselves did.

    This isn’t conservativism. It’s out and out, rank hypocrisy.

    • avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

      Chrisfinnie-Your unreal version of history is shameless.
      For example your claim that Reagan increased state and federal employee headcount conditioning that is totally misleading.

      During the 16 years Reagan was governor and president it was mostly the Democrat dominated lawmaking bodies that created the headcount increase he signed into law. (And don’t forget his vetoes that prevented increases.) Finally, population growth drove some of it such as teachers needs in California and employees to give away more foodstamps for the Nation’s less fortunate. Same goes for Bush ’41.

      Demonizing these great Republicans just makes you look silly!

    • avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

      @ Ernie Konnyu: did you even READ what Christine wrote? Where does she demonize Reagan and Bush?

      And FYI, Reagan DID increase the size of federal government, and further, you oh-so-conveniently forgo to mention in your little screed that it was the GOP — NOT the Democrats — who controlled the U.S. Senate for the first six years of his presidency (1981-87).

      So, to hang the blame for increased taxes during Regan’s presidency upon “Democrat dominated lawmaking bodies” is patently disingenuous on your part at best, or just out and out ignorant at worst.

      This is EXACTLY what E.J. Dionne and Cabuzz meant, when they noted “a false right-wing rewrite of American history.”

      As the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan once sagely noted, while we are each entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts. The sad part about it all is that, truly, people like you are really only fooling yourselves.

      Steven Colbert told President George W. Bush to his face a few years ago that “reality has a liberal bias.” And he could have added, reality tends to bite the willfully ignorant in the a$$ particularly hard.

  3. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    I know E. J. Dionne, the Liberal intellectual who thinks his excess brains give him the right to redefine truths as we used to know it.

    A good one to look at is the plutocracy charge against Republicans. During the 8 years I was a lawmaker I can honestly say that except for one bill, the S&L Cal law which I alone among Republicans opposed, that charge against us is false. What Republicans do with the help of some Democrats is lead in creating dollar incentives to steer corporations and rich individuals to behave in a certain preferred public good way.

    For example, create a tax deduction for charitable donations to help the poor. Create a tax break for oil companies to increase their U.S. based oil production. These government goodies for the rich and the corporations are for the public good that both parties end up supporting. It is not rule by or dictated by the rich classess that the Liberal ideologues claim or infer.

    E.J. Dionne is a nice guy who spreads liberal poison. If you are a fair person I would stay away from him.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      Hi Ernie,
      I find it interesting that you say I’m demonizing politicians who took sensible steps to prevent an economic depression. Especially since you admit that president Reagan signed the bills. He didn’t have to. He did it because he knew it was necessary. That was a reasonable decision. All I want to know is what happened to that willingness to accept sensible solutions? I haven’t seen it in evidence in years.

      I do disagree with you that tax breaks provide oil companies with incentives to increase production. I guess I’m the true conservative here. I think they do it for profit. Prices are high. So they’ll invest in more exploration and production.

      Plus, I fail to see how this natural profit motive is for the public good. It benefits management and stockholders, not the general public.

      I’m sorry. But your arguments simply don’t hold water. Chris

  4. avatar JohnF says:

    To my dear friend Ernie, (even if I do not know you)
    I am afraid you are living in the past. At one time the republican party had a number of people in it who actually thought of the good of the county and tried to solve problems. Sometimes their ideas and solutions actually worked. But in past 1o to 12 years they have moved to right for the reasons that EJ Dionne categorizes and that I can not fully understand. I think that your party is slowly driving itself into oblivion. It cannot even agree within its own ranks on immigration policy. It is oblivious that just saying no to everything gets your party NOWHERE. Your ideas on tax policy are correct, we use tax to try and direct private investment to help out our economy. The problem is that once a tax break gets into the code it stays after it outlives it usefulness because lobbyists work to ensure that it stays there, if needed or not.

  5. avatar tegrat says:

    When Obama (or any Dem for that matter) proposes the exact same thing that was proposed by the “conservatives” it will now be opposed by them. Why is that? The individual mandate was an idea championed by the Heritage Foundation as they rightly saw that the private health insurance industry was in a death spiral without it. As soon as Obama puts it in the ACA it is now anathema. Frankly I am kind of gunning for the Supremes to strike it down. Then we can have (some form of) single-payer health care financing like most civilized wealthy countries do and stop floundering around like idiots.

  6. avatar GeoHagop says:

    “[Sally] [..] bumps her nose on Calista Gingrich’s hair..” …in the Chaucerian sense?

  7. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    “What Republicans do with the help of some Democrats is lead in creating dollar incentives to steer corporations and rich individuals to behave in a certain preferred public good way.” Oh, right. Like donating millions to Newt Gingrich. There’s a public good if I ever saw one. Ernie, wake up and look around. Your beloved party is becoming a clique of oddballs. And by the way, E. J.’s truth-telling doesn’t make him “poison.” It’s just that Republicans regard the truth as poison.

  8. avatar JohnF says:

    Hello Everybody, but especially Ernie,
    Today Bruce McPherson former Republican state assemblyman & senator from Santa Cruz, just became an independent or decline to state. He is running for board of Supervisors in Santa Cruz County. He will most likely win. Most people like him, even if for Santa Cruz County he is rather conservative. The GOP is intent on chasing everybody out, The State Registration numbers of GOP’ers has been and still is dropping like a Rock. Being ideologically pure may not be as much fun as you think it is. Just lost another good person.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      No. Most people do not like Bruce McPherson. Not even half the voters in the 5th district like him. And there are probably more Republicans in that district than anywhere else in Santa Cruz County. McPherson had to win 50% +1 in June to avoid a November runoff. He did not. Considering he had a 7x money advantage over his nearest opponent, that says something. We were inundated with mailers from McPherson. And he still didn’t win.

      Personally, I think he’s a jerk. I once approached him as he was walking into an event where Carley Fiorina was speaking. Some friends of mine were picketing her. But, since we were all over 50, we weren’t exactly a raucous crowd. I walked up to him, smiled, and politely said, “Mr. Secretary, would you like one of our fliers?” He turned his head away, waved a hand in front of his face as though swatting a fly, and kept walking.

      As for his supposed change in political orientation, I don’t believe it. He may have changed his registration, but I doubt he’s changed his stripes.

      He’s still the man who:
      As California Secretary of State, certified the easily hacked Diebold voting machines, and disqualified 40% of newly registered voters in Los Angeles (mostly Latino) as part of national pattern of Republican voter suppression.

      As a state legislator, refused to help his Felton constituents (FLOW) win back control of their water supply from German multinational company, voted AGAINST state laws expanding domestic partner rights, outlawing bullying in schools, and other GLBT rights, received a 50% rating from Planned Parenthood–identified as “leans anti-choice,” and voted against state laws banning sweatshop conditions in state contractors’ workplaces.

      As editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Bruce McPherson campaigned against preserving Wilder Ranch, and in favor of building a nuclear power plant near the Loma Prieta fault on the coast in Davenport.

      I also did some online research and discovered that, as a state senator in 2002, he accepted $15,000 in campaign donations from the phone company, a multinational oil company, and the prison guards’ union–and passed all of it along to an unsavory, right-wing group called Capitol Ministries that advocates legislating “according to the Jesus of scripture.”

      Now, do you really believe a man with this record is not a Republican? Or, like me, do you think he’s trying to make just a few more voters believe he’s a moderate in a deeply Democratic county so he can win in November?

      As I said, I already thought he was a jerk. His record shows he’s a typical GOP tool of monied donors. And now I believe he’s also a liar. He’s about as moderate as Paul Ryan.

  9. avatar JohnF says:

    I did not know any of the negative information on Bruce that you just passed along. Since I live next door in San Benito county I do not have the chance to vote against Bruce. However sleazy he is, he still makes my point, that most people can no longer exist in the Republican party. My previous post was really more of a slam against the State GOP than a letter of support for Bruce McPherson. From what I read, however I still think that he might win the Board of Supervisor election. I hope not.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      Since Bruce McPherson has already raised more money than any other candidate for supervisor in the county’s history, and can probably raise more for the November election–you might be right that he could win.

      We have two things going for us: the turnout will be bigger and different in November, and volunteers will be more engaged. San Benito isn’t too far away. We’ve been phonebanking from Santa Cruz. Just look up Stop Bruce McPherson on Facebook and get involved. We’d love to have you.

  10. avatar JohnF says:

    I will see what I can do. We will keep in touch on Calbuzz. I come to Santa Cruz on a fairly regular basis for entertainment. (Rio Theater, etc)

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