Are Conservatives Dead or Resting?

The first boss I ever had, in 1968, was a Nixon-hater.  A Democrat from upstate New York, he kept a coffee mug emblazoned with a Nixon $3 bill, and he could recite the litany of Nixon's red-baiting campaigns.  First there was Jerry Voorhees in 1946, then there was Alger Hiss and the pumpkin papers.  Then there was Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950.  You can imagine that I was surprised when Nixon won the presidency that November.

We learned later that Richard Nixon's victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968 was the first victory of Nixon's "southern strategy," a deliberate attempt to woo Southern Democrats in the years after the passage of the landmark civil rights acts of the mid 1960s.  "States rights" and "law and order" were racist code words calculated to appeal to the racist hearts of white Southern voters.

Over the years this meme seems to have become all-consuming and all-explaining for our Democratic friends.  On the net there are hundreds of liberals for whom politics is defined by the Democrats' support of civil rights versus the Republicans' racist Southern Strategy. In Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America Rick Pearlstein tells us that today's divisive politics is all the result of Richard Nixon's cunning rise to power.  We are the divided nation that Nixon created.

Even John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in The Emerging Democratic Majority,a generally optimistic prophecy of future Democratic dominance, need to poke Republicans in the eye on civil rights.

After 1964, the Democrats embraced, and the Republicans rejected, the cause of civil rights. The new conservative movement took root in opposition to the federal civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965.

(In the Chicago Spring of Reverend Wright and Father Pfleger, the above statement is hereby declared inoperative.)

Now comes The New Yorker's George Packer to expand on this in "The Fall of Conservatism." Pat Buchanan and Richard Nixon, he writes, saw the potential for a right-wing coalition back in 1966.

"From Day One, Nixon and I talked about creating a new majority," Buchanan told [Packer]... "What we talked about, basically, was shearing off huge segments of F.D.R.'s New Deal coalition[.]"

So off they went to sow division in the Democratic Party, using a politics of "positive polarization." It "ensured that American politics would be an ugly, unredeemed business for decades to come."

But now in 2008 "the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought to power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Gingrich radicalized, DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces" is over.  America is moving on into a new political era, for neither John McCain or Barack Obama got signed up in the Sixties for the culture war.  According to David Brooks, "there's just no driving force, and it will soften up normal Republicans for real change."

It is certainly true that conservatives and Republicans feel disoriented and confused this election season.  But it misses the point to say, as Packer does:

Now most conservatives seem incapable of even acknowledging the central issues of our moment: wage stagnation, inequality, health care, global warming. They are stuck in the past, in the dogma of limited government. 

On the contrary, conservatives have rather clear ideas on the "central issues."  Conservatives have a cure for wage stagnation and inequality.  It is called education reform.  Conservatives have a cure for inequality.  It is called Social Security reform and aims to get lower-income Americans onto the wealth creation ladder.  But we can't enact reform because Democrats won't let us.  We'd like to reform health care by curbing the wasteful third-party payment system, and we are making some progress under the radar with Health Savings Accounts.  But Democrats are pushing one-size-fits-all top-down changes to health care policy instead.

If you look back over the last 30 years, back over the record of conservative reform, there is one thing that stands out.  Conservative reform never had a chance unless there was a crisis.  The Reaganomics of hard money and low tax rates only got done in the crisis of Carter inflation/recession.  The Bush tax cuts only got passed in the tech meltdown.  Welfare reform only got passed when Newt Gingrich put a gun to President Clinton's reelection prospects in 1996.

The problem that today's conservatives face is that things aren't bad enough on the Social Security front, on the education front, or on the health-care front for the American people to be ready for "change."  So Republican primary voters sensibly nominated John McCain, a man to fight the war on Islamic extremism while holding the line on domestic issues.

If you want to be cheered up about conservative prospects, you need only take a look at the resurgent Conservative Party in England.  Eleven years ago Tony Blair got elected as "New Labour" to improve public services, supposedly wrecked by "Tory cuts."  But after a doubling of health care expenditure and huge increases in education costs there is no improvement and the voters are hopping mad.

Now that he is 20 points ahead in the polls, what are the "central issues" for Conservative leader David Cameron? School choice, welfare reform, and police reform.

Christopher Chantrill  is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and usgovernmentspending.comHis Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.


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