When Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, and again when Barack Obama won the Presidency in 2008, many observers made foolish predictions that conservatism as a political movement had come to an end. Certainly, none of them mourned the presumed death; rather, they did everything but dance on its supposed grave. However, those reports turned out not only to be exaggerated, but self-delusional, as Peter Berkowitz explained in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:
In late October 2008, New Yorker staff writer George Packer reported “the complete collapse of the four-decade project that brought conservatism to power in America.” Two weeks later, the day after Mr. Obama’s election, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaimed “the end of a conservative era” that had begun with the rise of Ronald Reagan.
And in February 2009, New York Times Book Review and Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, writing in The New Republic, declared that “movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead.” Mr. Tanenhaus even purported to discern in the new president “the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.”
Messrs. Packer, Dionne and Tanenhaus underestimated what the conservative tradition rightly emphasizes, which is the high degree of unpredictability in human affairs. They also conflated the flagging fortunes of George W. Bush’s Republican Party with conservatism’s popular appeal. Most importantly, they failed to grasp the imperatives that flow from conservative principles in America, and the full range of tasks connected to preserving freedom.
Well, to be fair, they weren’t the only ones conflating conservatism with big government, either. Congressional Republicans did a good job of it, too, along with Bush and his “compassionate conservatism” that favored big-government solutions rather than traditional, limited-government approaches that keeps government from causing more problems than it solves. Big government and conservatism are diametrically opposed, as Berkowitz explains:
It is always the task for conservatives to insist that money does not grow on trees, that government programs must be paid for, and that promising unaffordable benefits is reckless, unjust and a long-term threat to maintaining free institutions.
But conservatives also combat government expansion and centralization because it can undermine the virtues upon which a free society depends. Big government tends to crowd out self-government—producing sluggish, selfish and small-minded citizens, depriving individuals of opportunities to manage their private lives and discouraging them from cooperating with fellow citizens to govern their neighborhoods, towns, cities and states.
And to be even more fair, I do recall that a few people on the Right made similar proclamations about progressivism in the wake of the 1994 midterms. Even Bill Clinton famously and unfortunately incorrectly proclaimed that the “era of big government [was] over.” It was akin to Francis Fukayama’s laughable assertion that we had reached the end of history at the conclusion of the Cold War. Both ignore the fact that both movements address natural sympathies and issues in governance, and that we will always have people who either want people to govern themselves, or believe that people are incapable of effective self-governance.
We certainly have seen that latter impulse from the progressive commentariat in the wake of the failure of the Democratic agenda, and the resistance to its more radical elements from the American people. How many times since town-hall meetings became forums of voter anger last year have we heard from mainstream opinion journalists that the US has become “ungovernable”? Voters made clear that Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid were not qualified to make their personal choices for them on health care in particular, and their failed Obamanomics showed that they’re incompetent at running a top-down command economy.
But that doesn’t mean an end to progressivism, either, even if the GOP wins 100 seats in the House, takes control of the Senate, and Obama becomes the second coming of the post-1994 Bill Clinton. As long as poverty and perceived injustice exists, there will be people who believe that the only way to address it is to spread both over the nation equally through government redistribution, and to address poor personal choices with nanny states designed to prevent every bad outcome by mandating mediocrity across the board. And as long as progressivism is allowed to control public policy, as it has over the last four years in Congress, conservatism will appeal to freedom-loving people who just want to be treated as adults and be mainly left alone to create real opportunity, prosperity, and liberty.