Carol Platt Liebau: Why Conservative Dominance?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Why Conservative Dominance?

David Brooks has a fascinating column in The New York Times today. It's about the reason for conservatives' strength -- relative to liberals -- in current American political life and thought. Here's the key passage:

Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they've found one faction to agree with.

It's an interesting theory. But as much as I respect David Brooks, I disagree. After all, there are fully as many "factions" within the liberal movement as within the conservative: You have the gender-obsessed (feminists); race-obsessed (Jesse Jackson et al.); civil-liberties obsessed (ACLU types); secular humanist/anti-religious; liberation theologists; environmentalists; pacifists; socialists; and leftovers (the best of the bunch for my money -- people who were Democrats when Democrats were the party of ideas and social justice, and who still cherish those ideals and -- wrongly, in my view, but understandably -- still see the Democratic Party as the best avenue for achieving them.

That's a lot of categories for someone potentially to agree with -- more, I'd argue, than those within the conservative movement.

But Brooks is right in dismissing the liberal theory, i.e. that it's all message discipline. After all, both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich took office in the days before the blogosphere; Rush Limbaugh had been on the air for six years in 1994 (but had virtually no imitators, compared with today). When President Reagan won on an explicitly conservative platform, there was no Fox News, no talk radio -- the networks and the big city daily newspapers were the only outlets disseminating the conservative "message" to great swaths of the public . . . and they were doing it even less fairly than today.

In my view, the reason for the conservative resurgence is primarily historical/cyclical. In the late '60's/'70's, the country was quite liberal -- partly in reaction to the buttoned-down '50's, partly because of a post-WWII sense of infinite American might and potential. This created nobly idealistic and well-intentioned but ultimately less-than-effective government overreach -- with the Great Society programs, for example. With this pro-redistribution tendency came an antiestablishmentarian current, created both by Watergate and by a widespread conviction that the public was misled during the Vietnam War.

But by 1980, people were beginning to wonder whether the anti-authoritarian but big government status quo had gone too far. Skyrocketing crime rates, monstrous marginal tax rates, even social phenomena like the widespread availability of abortion after 1972 had people uncomfortable and ready to retrench.

We are still retrenching. People have a vague sense that, with all the idealism of the '60's and '70's -- aside from equal rights for African-Americans and women -- a pretty big baby was thrown out with the bathwater. And depending on what one feels was lost the most, that's the kind of conservative that one has become . . .

In other words, feel like the government learned to intrude too much and take too much of your money? You're a libertarian or a free market conservative. Feel like too many "traditional values" were lost? You're a social conservative. Feel like government grew too big, too fast? You're a small government conservative.

For every reaction, there's an equal and opposite reaction. The forces of liberalism were massive about 30-40 years ago. The countervailing forces of conservatism are every bit as mighty.


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