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Just Like Old Times

Tuesday, October 25, 2005
I have always enjoyed critiquing David Brooks' pseudo-intellectual hackery, which is why I was so sad when the NYT (foolishly) restricted access to the op-eds. But now thanks to Max Sewicky and Matt Yglesias, I have a new opportunity. Thanks guys.

In his latest piece, Brooks responds to those who argue that Bush has betrayed conservatism. Instead, Brooks argues, Bush has just embraced the simpleminded anti-government conservatism of the previous decades in favor of a more reasonable form of conservatism that accepts the legitimate role of government in people's lives. In other words, Brooks is dusting off "compassionate conservatism" and the "opportunity society." According to Brooks, Bush's real failure has not been his policy, but his politics. By catering to his base, he has obscured his real accomplishment in crafting a new center-right coalition.

Matt Yglesias appropriately jumps on the key difficulty here. The one policy that Bush has hewed to most consistently, and the only one embraced by his entire coalition, is tax-cutting. Low taxes are the linchpin of the Republican governing coalition. If Bush abandons his tax-cutting mania, his coalition explodes. If he continues it, Brooks' pro-government conservatism remains unsustainable and reckless.

I would like to follow up by highlighting a revealing passage in Brooks' editorial. According to him, in the mid-1990's...

Voters preferred Democratic ideas on issue after issue by 20-point margins. The G.O.P.'s foreign policy views were veering toward isolationism, its immigration policy was veering toward nativism, its social conservatism had crossed into censoriousness, and after it became clear that voters didn't want to slash government, its domestic policy had hit a dead end.

And then Bush came on the scene with his compassionate conservatism and changed everything. So goes the fairytale, anyway. What I would like to suggest is that nothing has changed. The Republican party is imperialist now rather than isolationist, but the rest remains: nativism, social intolerance, anti-government mania, and the Democrats are preferred by 20 points on every issue. The only thing that allowed Bush to win elections was to dishonestly obscure the differences between the parties in 2000 and run a McCarthyite campaign in 2004.

The sad reality for Republicans is that they lead a fractious coalition that is finally beginning to realize that they disagree. And each element of the faction is pretty unpopular. The libertarians are socially tolerant and anti-government, but their tax cutting is bankrupting the country. The corporate wing is busy redistributing money upwards and getting handouts, but in the process corrupting the Republican party and undermining the economy and the environment. And the religious right is just wacky.

The problem that the Republicans face is that they cannot really implement any of their policies. If they really enforced their cultural vision on society, the country would rebel. The cultural hedonism they destest is in fact a product of a consumer society sponsored their coalition partners. To really shrink the size of government would be to cut very popular programs - as they learned with Social Security. And now that the corporate cronyism of the big business wing is going public, the whole party is in trouble.

So since the right can't actually push any affirmative agenda, they are reduced to divide-and-conquer nationalist appeals, smear campaigns, and just plain lying. It is the consequences of this necessity that are ruining the conservative movement. Conservatism's problem is that conservatism is an incoherent governing philosophy and an anti-democratic political strategy. It's going to take a lot more than a little rhetoric tinkering to fix this, no matter what Mr. Brooks thinks.

Ah. That's better.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:43 AM
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