Advancing Conservatism: Is It Possible?
Imagine, for the moment, the following scenario. It’s 2012. Bobby Jindal has just been elected with 61% of the vote. The Republicans have taken a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and have a forty seat advantage in the House. Also, assume that all these Republican Congressmen are staunch conservatives—there aren’t any “RINOs” here. (This isn’t a very likely scenario). So Republicans have both a near total control of the government and a national mandate.
What would they do? How would they change the country? I don’t know what they’d do to advance a really conservative agenda. And worse, I can’t even begin to imagine what they could do to advance that agenda. Reform Social Security? Roll back the welfare state? Reduce the ease of abortion? Is there anyone, even the most optimistic conservative, who actually thinks that it would be possible for the Republican party to make a meaningful difference on any of those issues?
If so, they are very wrong, because the GOP has tried to do all of those things in the recent past. In 1996, congressional Republicans—with a great deal of controversy and trouble—managed to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. It was hailed as a great victory for Republicans.
And what did this bill change? Most importantly, it decreed that welfare wasn’t an entitlement program. And it put limits on the amount of federal aid individuals could receive. (No federal aid for more than two consecutive or five total years). And it tried to discourage out-of-wedlock births.
All good things, to be sure. But hardly enough to start rolling back the New Deal or Great Society. This bill didn’t slow down the advance of government in the least—it merely made government welfare smarter and more effective. And while that is good, that sort of thing won’t create a classically conservative nation.
Reform Social Security? George W. Bush pushed for a plan that would give Americans more flexibility regarding Social Security. The plan would have let workers open investment accounts, which would serve as a substitute for Social Security payments. Not drastic stuff (certainly nowhere near ending the program). But voters were horrified, and the notion was quickly dropped.
Ending abortion? Bush appointed constructionist Supreme Court justices, and has appointed mostly conservative judges to the lower courts as well. And Republicans have done what they could to reduce abortion for years—repealing the Mexico City policy and passing parental notification laws. Yet the status of abortion in the United States is nearly identical to what it was forty years ago. The abortion rate is similar, and it is every bit as easy to get an abortion (easier, really) now than it was then.
All three of these efforts weren’t (in the big picture) very effective. But they represented the best the Republican party could do. Why couldn’t the GOP do more to push back liberalism? Quite simply, because liberal (or statist) policies have become so ingrained the U.S. (and all Western democracies) that they now represent the status quo; the default setting for political debate. It would be literally impossible to push them back—about as difficult as it would be to abolish Congress.
But if Social Security, Medicare, and the rest of Big Government aren’t going away, what are conservatives to do? Most conservative thought assumes a universe where, if conservatives work hard and make progress, it would be possible to create a truly conservative (low taxes, low welfare, low regulation) state.
If we assume (and I think it’s a safe assumption) that this isn’t possible, what are conservatives to do? The first option is to keep trying, which is a noble but quixotic policy doomed to failure. The second option is to accept big government as a fait accompli and try to make it work unintrusively and efficiently, which would spell the end of conservatism as we know it. Neither option is good—but conservatives have to choose either one or the other.
And a semantic point: it there a bigger misnomer in politics than “conservatism?” Whatever conservatives are trying to “conserve” passed away before the last World War, if indeed it ever existed, and it probably didn’t. Liberalism is the status quo, and leftists are the true conservatives.