JS Trevino posed a question to me on Twitter yesterday:
Isn’t @davidfrum basically counseling a rule of thumb of acquiescence to the ratchet effect of leftist policy? http://bit.ly/9CQ64R
I’m quite serious: it’s difficult to see any meaningful proactive role for conservatism in @davidfrum’s analysis. That’s a problem.
I’d turn that question around: it’s difficult to see any meaningful role for conservatism in the pessimistic version of politics propounded by some Tea Partiers. If it’s true that we are minutes away from collapsing into soft tyranny despite the election victories of 1980 and 1984 and 1988 and 1994 and so on, then you almost have to wonder: what’s the point? We’re just doomed, history runs one way, the ratchet is always ratcheting. If our victories are only temporary, and theirs are always permanent, then they’re fated to win sooner or later.
I do not believe in the ratchet. I think conservatives have won big and enduring victories – and that they can win big and enduring victories again. We have a freer economy in 2010, despite President Obama, than we did in 1980, never mind 1960.
I don’t think it is “acquiescence” to urge an accurate assessment of conservatism’s real political strength. I want Republicans to win elections and defend limited government. But falsely telling yourself that there’s a tea party majority out there is not a way to accomplish these ends. It’s a way toward more debacles like the reverse Waterloo of healthcare.
Anyway, speaking of acquiescing … can we notice that one of the tea party’s major themes has been the preservation of Medicare in all its ever-increasing costliness?
As I’ve been arguing on this site since President Obama took office – for that matter in a book I published all the way back in 2007 – I see the role of 21st century conservatism as defending limited government in an adverse time.
(Footnote: The time is adverse (1) because of the pending retirement of the baby boomers, (2) because the trend to income inequality has corroded the constituency for limited government, (3) because family breakdown and unwise immigration policies have increased the number of people who will need government aid, (4) because the genuine need for environmental protection demands new forms of collective action, and (5) because after the post-1989 lull we are moving into a period of intensified great power competition with China and perhaps others too.)
Limiting government in the 21st century will not be easy. A conservatism that is oriented toward protest rather than governing – that is culturally reactionary – and that is uninterested in policy detail will not be able to do the job.
Much of government is an exercise in choosing the least bad option. A movement that demands everything and punishes any politician who strikes a bargain that is better than the status quo but less than libertarian perfection – well, we’ll have our chance to see how much that movement achieves.
The Wyden-Bennett health plan that wrecked the career of Senator Bob Bennett would have been better from a conservative point of view than Obamacare.
TARP and the rescue of the banking system are better from a conservative point of view than a new Great Depression that would have involved a decade of massive government support of the private economy.
Some form of consumption or energy tax will be better from a conservative point of view than what we are on our way to getting instead: the lapse of the Bush tax cuts on saving, work and investment – and new payroll taxes to fund Social Security and Medicare.
People are responsible not only for their actions, but for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions. What’s reasonably foreseeable is that tea party style conservatism will result in a gridlock during which government will continue to grow – ending in a crisis in which conservatives face no choice but to acquiesce in actions much more obnoxious to conservative principle than the creative compromises that may be available today if we work for them.
I’m for a politics that seeks positive results. That’s the very opposite of acquiescence. By contrast, the charge of the Light Brigade may look brave. But we know how that story ends.
The tea party may think they are ferociously resisting the trend of the times. We’ll see how long they stick around. We’ll see whether they show up if it comes time to defend budget reductions. We’ll see whether they have the savvy to understand that balancing the budget may require choosing the least destructive form of tax increase rather than opposing all tax increases equally. (For a glimpse of the unpromising future, see Kevin Williamson’s exchange yesterday on NRO with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform here and here.