Is America a conservative nation?
posted at 4:10 pm on July 31, 2009 by Doctor Zero
A recent Gallup poll shows a majority of Americans reporting their political views are becoming more conservative. Conservatives naturally welcome such reports of movement in public opinion, but the question of whether America is a fundamentally conservative nation is not easily answered. Polls proclaiming us to be a “center-right” country have appeared for decades, even as the nation’s practical politics have moved inexorably leftward. There has never been a time, since the heyday of the New Deal, when liberal philosophy has received enthusiastic support from the public… and there has never been a time when liberalism has not grown in power and influence, except perhaps at the height of Reagan’s strength. American politics orbit on the right side of a center that has been creeping leftward for the better part of a hundred years.
The Gallup article includes a good deal of head-scratching about the obvious contradiction of an electorate that describes itself as generally “conservative,” but elected a leftist radical to the Presidency in 2008, along with solid majorities for the Democrats in both houses of Congress. A look at the disastrous politics of Obama’s most extreme initiatives, such as health care or cap-and-trade, suggests the public that voted him into office was fooled into thinking he wasn’t as far Left as he turned out to be. This is probably true for a certain segment of the population, which had essentially non-ideological reasons for supporting Obama: they enjoyed his speeches, they voted for him because he was black, they hated Bush or disliked McCain, or they followed the advice of media celebrities. Such voters were looking for ways to be comfortable with voting for Obama, and probably didn’t dig into his past, or the actual content of his speeches, as much as they should have. I think there is more to the story than mere deception or self-delusion, however.
How do we reconcile a public that claims to be increasingly conservative, with a government that has become increasingly liberal throughout our lifetimes? I think the key lies in understanding the increasing obsession Americans have with “crises,” and their belief that government should stand ready to take quick action in resolving them. Most voters are not ideologues. They haven’t invested much effort in putting together coherent philosophies of government. They generally think of both “liberal” and “conservative” as bad words, describing extremes they would prefer to avoid. They are eager to identify themselves as “moderates” or “independents,” and pride themselves on being thoughtful and flexible. A sizable portion of voters who do describe themselves as liberal or conservative hasten to add that they aren’t rigid extremists, and will consider good ideas from both sides.
In their personal lives, most of these people – including a great many of those who consider themselves proudly liberal – follow principles we have come to associate with modern conservatism. In fact, the idea of applying liberal principles to their daily lives seems absurd. Most of the conservative positions that saw the strongest gains in the Gallup poll can be viewed in the context of people thinking about their own lives, and answering in a manner consistent with their behavior, or at least their ideals. Of course most people would not sacrifice their economic success to protect the environment, or casually surrender their right to defend themselves from criminal assault, and they’re squeamish about relinquishing control of their health care.
In matters of public policy, however, Americans have generally accepted the idea that only government action can resolve the most serious problems we face… and a sensationalist media assures them we face many serious problems. The size, scope, and number of these problems seem overwhelming to the average citizen. He has no idea how to deal with the meltdown of gigantic financial institutions, heal the country’s racial divisions, or “save” the environment. He desperately wants to believe there are smart people in Washington who know how to handle these issues. A century of astonishing technological development has convinced us that every problem has a large-scale, scientific solution. There is no aspect of the future we don’t believe we can design and build, if we place our trust in the right group of social engineers.
The leftward movement of American politics has tracked almost exactly with the development of mass media, from radio to TV to the Internet. Overt political bias from the media is not as damaging as the general environment of permanent crisis they foster, accompanied by heroic narratives of brave and compassionate politicians with Big Ideas about how to rescue us from this week’s nightmare. This attitude is essentially inevitable from the media, because fearful crises and bold actions are the product they sell to their consumers. You’ll never see a news anchor kick off his nightly report by admitting nothing much happened today. Not even Fox News, routinely described as the “conservative” news network, is immune to sensationalism – far from it. Like all the other networks, Fox has a prestigious Washington bureau, staffed with people who are breathlessly eager to report on the latest adventures of our executive and legislative action heroes.
The idea that government is morally or legally prevented from addressing a major issue – the very heart and soul of the Constitution – is dismissed out of hand. James Madison’s assertion that “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on the objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents” would be a complete non-starter in today’s political climate. Rewrite that statement to make it sound like it came from a modern leader, and it would be swiftly denounced as uncaring and out-of-touch, the mutterings of a callous tool of the rich who foolishly thinks government should let poor people suffer, to finance tax breaks for his wealthy friends.
The GOP has not been vigorous in fighting the rising tide of dependence on government, or the disintegrating faith in private institutions. Republicans are largely willing to go along with the relentless accumulation of central power – they just have different ideas about how to use it. George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was an expression of this attitude. Even Bush’s tax cuts, like those Bob Dole half-heartedly campaigned on with his little “15%” signs, were presented without any connection to a larger conservative philosophy about the size and role of government… making them amount to nothing but a discount on the purchase of a deeply defective product.
As long as the basic principle of ever-growing, activist central government is accepted, the nation’s politics will continue to slide leftward, no matter how conservative the population thinks it is. Belief in the State necessarily requires diminished confidence in free enterprise. The most encouraging development for conservatives is the mounting sense of frustration with Obama’s clumsy policies, and their absurd price tags. The surest sign we are a conservative nation is that every Democrat since Walter Mondale has felt compelled to lie to the American people about the cost of liberalism, as well as over-selling its supposed benefits.
The challenge for conservative politicians is to express matters of national policy to the voters in the same terms which guide their daily lives. As the Gallup poll shows, most people find liberal ideas ridiculous or immoral when applied to the behavior of individuals and families. We should help them understand that liberalism does not become more efficient, or righteous, when it governs millions of lives and spends trillions of dollars. President Obama has done a great deal to help us make that case. The Republicans should build on the framework of Obama’s failures in 2010, and begin moving America’s center of gravity back to the right, where it belongs.
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