After Conservatism

After a decade of conservative rule, a fair tally of claims and achievements yields a mixed picture. The major conservative strength remains foreign policy, where the right takes credit for the collapse of global communism as a military force and of Marxism as an ideal. Liberals are correct to respond that the policy of containment had liberal origins, that communism collapsed more from its own weight than from the Reagan military buildup, that many ancillary foreign policies -- Iran-contra; misjudging Saddam; bungling the trade round -- were debacles. But polls keep showing that conservatives, deservedly or not, win broad support for their foreign policy, of which the Persian Gulf War is only the most recent example.

Domestic policy, however, is another story. If the experience of the 1980s does not bring total discredit to the ideological pretensions of the Reagan revolution, it comes close. The right was going to restore growth. The growth rate of the roaring 1980s barely equaled that of the awful 1970s. The right was going to reduce tax burdens. For most working Americans, overall tax rates rose, thanks to payroll tax increases. Conservatives would rely on deregulation to discipline and energize diverse industries, from savings and loans to airlines. The result mocks the aspiration. Even the decade's one genuine achievement, slaying inflation, was the work not of the White House but of the Federal Reserve, a task made more arduous by the Reagan budget policies and more painful than necessary by the Fed's own conservative monetarist methods.

The right was going to honor the traditional values of work and family. The income of most working families declined, even as the hours worked by mothers and fathers increased; the various indicators of family health -- divorce, illegitimacy, domestic violence -- kept deteriorating throughout the decade. Conservatives were going to make Americans secure in their homes. Crime rates kept soaring, homeownership declined, city streets grew more derelict. Reagan was going to balance the budget, increase rates of savings and investment, restore integrity to government, and on and on. In almost every case, the opposite occurred.

Yet, oddly, conservative ideology reigns. Conservative officeholders seem immune from voter retribution -- it turns out that Ronald Reagan wasn't the only one coated with teflon. Liberals, at least judging by much of the Democratic Party, remain unsure of first principles, nervous about what is sensible politics, and hamstrung by several realities: the legacy of the federal deficit, the parochial imperatives of legislative incumbency, the persistent allure of free market economics, and the lingering public suspicion of public remedy.

During the 1980s, Democrats for the most part did not get to write the script. But as part of a perceived incumbency in a divided government, they shared the blame for bad policies although not the credit for infrequent good ones. Republicans, in their eleventh year of tenure at the White House, continue to run against the government and continue to get away with it. A prominent Democratic senator, seriously weighing a campaign for President, told me that any activist policy he might propose, no matter how sensible or popular in its own terms, was vulnerable to the Republican charge that the government -- or worse, the Democrats in charge of the government -- would invariably screw it up. Or that the liberals would pick your pocket to pay for it.

The very corruption of government and politics in the 1980s, even though perpetrated under conservative auspices, was yet another windfall for conservatives. Ordinary working families feel dreadfully vulnerable, as Stanley Greenberg's article in this issue so potently documents. Yet because public life seems so distant and public remedy so improbable, the voter does not blame the incumbent administration or look to the "out" party for alternatives. Rather, the voter concludes that government in general is largely irrelevant, if not part of the problem; the corollary is that anyone who proposes using government to repair the damage -- say, a liberal Democrat -- is suspect as naive or disingenuous. Too many shell-shocked Democrats, by offering an uncertain trumpet, fail to disabuse voters of these suspicions. Yet, as Greenberg suggests, most such voters would respond positively to a rhetoric and a set of policies that acknowledged and addressed the economic anxiety of working families.


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My account, thus far, is a blend of the ideological and the partisan. The fit is not perfect, for Republicans are not consistently conservative nor Democrats reliably liberal. Still, the past decade is about as close as American politics gets to the association of a governing party with an ideological creed. The Reagan and Bush administrations proudly and stridently claimed the conservative label and it is surely fair to hold conservatism accountable for the results. Now that we have experienced conservative rule and a practical test of conservative principles, conservative ideology ought to be in ruins. As the conservative wave recedes, what remains of the core set of liberal principles? How can those principles help to expedite the conservative departure?

Historically, liberals have stood for a few essential propositions: the rule of law; personal liberty; political democracy; a threshold level of social decency; economic opportunity. As Stephen Holmes and Paul Starr show, in companion essays in this issue, even classical liberals recognized the importance of a competent state, as both a guarantor of rights and an engine of public good.

Dynamically, the liberal or reformist impulse has sought to expand the domain of these basic principles. If liberty and democratic deliberation are good for a small class of property-holders, they are even better for the whole of society. If education enhances civic virtue and, economic development, then it is too good to restrict to a narrow class of gentry. Liberals have always held that an economic floor above the level of destitution is a self-evident moral imperative in its own right, as well as prerequisite to a functioning political community; it was entirely in character for twentieth-century liberals to extend that floor to include such common amenities as universal pensions and health insurance. Liberals fight poverty not by being generous to the dependent poor, but by striving to eliminate the poor as a distinct class.

In other words, liberals, besides holding fast to a set of core principles, have generally believed in the idea of progress. That, historically, is why the words "liberal" and "progressive" have often been linked. The liberal idea of progress is not the sentimental or mechanical notion that history keeps unfolding to higher and higher levels, but rather the idea that public improvement and the expansion of core principles to a broader public are at least possible; and that enlightened leaders pursuing enlightened policies can help achieve a social broadening of core principles. This civic ideal, not just of liberty and democracy, but of steady public improvement, is what unites, say, Thomas Jefferson and John Kennedy across the centuries. It is not just "liberal," but emphatically American.

As Albert Hirschman explains in his splendid short book, The Rhetoric of Reaction, what unites conservatives is their skepticism that political intervention can yield social progress. Hirschman dissects three staple elements of conservative argument that have kept recurring ever since the French Revolution. He labels them Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. The Perversity thesis, common to Edmund Burke and Charles Murray, holds that naive, even well-meant interventions often achieve their opposite. The French Revolution only led to tyranny. Efforts to improve the lot of welfare mothers via Aid to Families with Dependent Children only enslave them. Attempts to tax the rich only harm the poor. Seat belts, argued theorists opposed to regulation, will only encourage people to drive faster and possibly increase the accident rate while diminishing liberty.

The Futility thesis, according to Hirschman, holds that do-gooders are oblivious to deeper social laws that defy naive attempts at public betterment. (These laws are known only to the privileged conservative theorist.) Thus, Pareto claimed, echoed by George Stigler, that the distribution of income has a natural character which resists tampering. Finally, the Jeopardy thesis holds that naive attempts to expand prior reforms will only overwhelm them. Nineteenth-century reactionaries warned that attempting to expand the suffrage would wreck liberty. Neoconservatives similarly held that attempts to expand equality via affirmative action would only wreck the older ideal of equal justice as well as the liberal ideal of merit. These three rhetorical devices boil down to one: better to leave things alone.

As Hirschman so persuasively demonstrates, these rhetorical claims overreach at the level both of logic and of history. Why on earth should a social intervention yield the precise opposite of its intent? That is only one out of an infinite range of possibilities. Surely there have been cases where policy interventions did some good. Conservative rhetoric also ignores the possibility of social learning -- the prospect that people will learn from their mistakes and that leaders will make course corrections. As a creed, conservatism is pessimistic, most especially about public endeavor. In this sense, it contradicts the fundamental optimism of the American idea.


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Against this background, contemporary conservatism has been persuasive, precisely because it claims (falsely) that conservatives are the true heirs to the liberal tradition. Where liberals once believed in free markets, freedom from an overweening state, equality rooted in individual rights, and economic possibility, they have now allegedly become socialists, statists, collectivists, stagnationists. This is a very damaging allegation. For, as countless political theorists have observed, the liberal tradition is the quintessential American tradition. There was never a true American conservatism, except as a chaotic and contradiction-ridden body of anti-liberalisms, since America was never a feudal, theocratic, or monarchic nation. It was, in Louis Hartz's oft-quoted phrase, "born free."

Thus, the resurgent conservatism of the 1980s drew its strength in part from the contention that liberals had abandoned their own rich tradition -- to conservatives, who began with the advantage of being more faithful to the most classically liberal of economists, Adam Smith. In addition, conservatives claimed, the real threat to liberty was now statism. The real threat to economic opportunity was the dead hand of taxation. The real threat to democratic equality was collective remedy. Even the ambiguously liberal ideal of a strong state (which in turn required a secure nation), though embraced by such twentieth-century liberals as Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, had been abandoned by the likes of McGovern and Carter. In short, the threat to traditional American liberalism was none other than & the liberals. To the extent that liberalism was America's true creed, it was conservatives who had picked up the fallen banner. As supply-siders threw fiscal caution to the winds, and self-proclaimed Keynesians became advocates for fiscal prudence, liberals and conservatives even seemed to switch camps on the issue of economic possibility.

Modern American conservatism enjoys other advantages over its foreign counterparts. For one thing, American liberalism itself has a conservative streak. The Constitutional founders, as relatively conservative liberals, had a dour view of human nature. Their creation, a political system of separated branches of government and divided state and federal authority, was particularly fearful of majorities, never mind whether the actual electorate included 1 percent of adult males, or potentially all adults. Their fear was not misplaced, for temporary majorities can trample minorities. Twentieth-century progressive liberalism, with its belief in activist government, cuts against that grain. The legacy of the Founders impedes government's ability to fashion coherent, activist policies. Conservatism enjoys the ability to invoke the tradition of restraint on government, to utilize those restraints to hobble liberal policies, and then -to ridicule the muddled result.

America's true creed may be liberalism, yet liberalism is itself ambivalent -- about strong central government, about free markets, about mass movements. At its apex in the early 1960s, a new liberal consensus seemed to embrace a mixed economy, full expansion of the suffrage, Hamiltonian ends for Jeffersonian means, and a high level of comfort with the kind of mass movements -- organized labor, militant minorities -- that troubled the Founders. Yet this new consensus proved fragile, opening the way to evocations of the more conservative strains in the liberal creed.

Our populist heritage is also ambiguous, often economically radical and socially reactionary. Americans resent concentrations of wealth, yet the American dream is to become wealthy. We are skeptical of big business, yet recognize that business provides jobs. In private moods, Americans often conceive liberalism more as the equal freedom to be outrageous than as a common desire for social or civic uplift. The easy transition of 1960s individual radicalism into 1980s radical individualism suggests these double edges in our national character. At times, as in the 1930s and early 1960s, liberals have captured the public mood and defined the responses to these complex public aspirations. When they failed, conservatives have played all too well to the uglier face of American populism.


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The full-employment welfare state, so seemingly impregnable a quarter-century ago, was the product less of ideological revolution than of historical accident. Franklin Roosevelt, the very embodiment of modern liberalism, was a pragmatist and not the architect of a coherent ideology. Americans, to amend a famous remark of the political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, remained "operational liberals but ideological conservatives" -- or at least their ideological liberalism had a conservative undertone. Support for active government involvement in the economy remained instrumental, not fundamental. The voters endorsed it only as long as it delivered.

Yet judged according to that same pragmatic criterion, conservative policy and conservative dogma are both vulnerable in the 1990s -- as practical failures. Moreover, after more than a decade in office, American conservatism, as John Judis has written in these pages, has reverted to its usual condition as an uneasy amalgam of opposites rather than a coherent ideology or movement. As usual, what unites it is nothing but a series of anti-liberalisms: Wall Street internationalists in bed with nativists; right-to-lifers and thought police under the beds of libertarians; bleeding-heart Tories wrestling social Darwinists. These people have no lock on the American political soul.

Liberals, therefore, need to be true both to their first principles and to the progressive tradition of public improvement: expansion of political democracy; of personal liberty; of social decency and economic possibility. We need to reclaim what is ours. We are, as Emerson wrote, the party of hope. Under conservative rule, economic horizons have dimmed for ordinary Americans, not just for the despised dependent poor. Conservative policies and conservative judges are constricting rather than defending liberties. Behind the foreign policy triumphalism is the degradation of the core of our own economy and even of our political democracy. That is the conservative legacy.

Liberals need only to hold conservatives properly accountable, and to offer something better. Several articles in this issue suggest some of the particulars. Governing in the wake of conservative misrule will not be easy, given the accumulated damage. But it will not be impossible; indeed opportunities for long-deferred reform abound -- of taxes, of health care, of banking, of environmental regulation, of education, and of public investment, and of the ground rules that make possible political democracy itself. We need to pick up where we left off, as liberals did so compellingly in this century after previous periods of conservative interregnum.

The last thing liberals should do is to emulate right-wing dogma or seek to co-opt some of its appeal. Conservatism had its inning -- several innings, actually -- and came up scoreless. It is tempting to invoke Albert Hirschman again and suggest that most conservative policies of the 1980s produced exactly the opposite of what was intended. But the Perversity argument is a conservative rhetorical trick, not a liberal one. We liberals do believe in public improvement; there is no natural law of bad policy. The problem is rather that public improvement seldom occurs when conservatives reign.

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