Archive for 2012

Why Conservatives Discarded Conservatism

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

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.”