The Public Eye: BTW, Conservatism is Dead

By Bob Burnett
Wednesday April 14, 2010 - 05:32:00 PM

Recently there’s been a lot of speculation about why the mood on the right has turned so sour. Some observers attribute it to the lack of leadership at the top of the Republican Party, the surreal reality that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have more influence than do elected Republicans. Others say it’s a poisonous combination of economic angst and racial hatred. But there’s a more obvious explanation: we’re witnessing the death throes of conservatism. The right-wing ideology that ran the US for thirty years has proven to be a total failure and the passage of healthcare reform was the final nail in its coffin. 

In case you’ve forgotten, classic conservatism promised to keep us safe, reduce the size of government, lower taxes, and manage the economy. Republican broke each of these commitments.  

Keep us Safe: Conservatives/Republicans used to poll much stronger than Liberals/Democrats on national security. Then came 9/11 and the debacle of the Iraq war, where the GOP lost credibility. Despite the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administration, there has been little change in the military budget (+ 3 percent). Not surprisingly, voters now see little difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. 

Shrink Government: Conservative ideologue Grover Norquist famously promised, “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Nonetheless, the Federal bureaucracy grew during the Bush presidency. Now the Republican base – frustrated with the failure of their leaders to follow through on this promise – has turned to the futile pursuit of “state’s rights” or, as Texas Governor Rick Perry has proposed, the notion of secession from the USA. 

Lower Taxes: Beginning with the Reagan Presidency, conservatives have argued that much of the Federal government is a waste of money and, therefore, Americans shouldn’t have to pay for it. As a result, the marginal tax rates for individuals and corporations were diminished until today they are roughly half of what they were in 1980. However, while Federal revenues diminished, expenditures surged. During the Bush Administration, the Federal deficit became a serious impediment to US economic growth. Not surprisingly, voters now trust Democrats more than Republicans on economic issues such as taxes, the deficit, and the economy, in general. While voters are suspicious of taxes, in general, they are now willing to tax the rich and to enact penalties on corporations that don’t play by the rules. 

Manage the Economy: Since the Reagan Presidency, conservatives have maintained that Democrats are “social engineers” who only know how to lash together ineffective Federal social programs. In contrast, conservatives claimed that Republicans are “professional managers” who know how to run government like a business. Eight years of George W. Bush – touted as America’s first “CEP president” – proved this to be a lie.  

The promise of competent management covered a more sweeping assertion: conservatives knew best how to manage the economy. The thirty years since Reagan was inaugurated witnessed the heyday of the Chicago School of Economics that promoted deregulation by arguing that markets were inherently self-regulating and no matter how severe the setback markets would quickly return to equilibrium. This conservative theory touted “efficiency.” “productivity,” and “trickle-down equity” as the inevitable byproducts of laissez-faire capitalism. The result was a savage increase in monopoly capitalism and inequality, and the loss of eight million jobs. The performance of the Bush Administration and 2008’s financial meltdown destroyed the last pillar of conservative orthodoxy. 

But it’s not only conservative ideology that’s failed. As UC professor George Lakoff brilliantly argues in Moral Politics, conservatives have a different worldview than liberals do. Conservatives believe in the “strict father” model: the world is dangerous – there’s an angry mob at the gates of fortress America – and what’s required are strong, righteous men to lead the US.  

The conservative worldview proved a delusion. The supposedly strong, righteous Republican leaders turned out to be incompetent. Worse yet, they often favored their own interests over those of then public, they abandoned the common good for the personal good. In reality the strict father was an abuser. 

During the past few weeks, the Catholic Church has been in the news because of continuing allegations of sexual abuse. The image of the strict religious father has been compromised. So has the conservative image of the strict political father: Conservative politicians have systematically abused the public interest. 

So it’s no wonder that the mood on the right has turned sour. Everything they were taught has proven to be wrong: the pillars of conservative ideology have crumbled, as has the dominant metaphor. Republican leaders have betrayed their followers. 

As a result, right-wingers are thrashing in pain from the death of conservatism. They don’t know what to believe in so they reflexively unite in opposing whatever liberals propose. It’s understandable, but it doesn’t contribute anything to our joint challenge to make the United States safe and prosperous. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at