can’t win by not losing
In shocking news, a conservative thinks that America’s political future is conservative.
Honestly, sometimes I think that the best thing going for liberalism is that conservatives are so busy declaring victory that they’ll have no time to campaign or govern. Of all the reflexive reactions to various political stimuli that you see coming from the right of center, constantly asserting the inevitable rise of conservatism is really the most innocuous and the most understandable. Everyone needs to feel enthused about their general political platform, we all feel a certain degree of optimism for some of our causes, and you certainly can’t say that the left is immune to this disease. Nor am I. I am an anti-teleologist, but there are among my causes certain that I think are only a matter of time. Still, what I think has been unique to the right is the frequency and insistence of column after column and blog post after blog post that insists that a certain set of factors are going to align to make conservatism’s rise a fait accompli. This tendency has grown, meanwhile, in a time of decline in partisan politics for political politicians, and I wonder where the utility lies for the right for this disconnect.
What disturbs me about Ross’s column– what would disturb me more were I an ideological fellow traveler of his– is that in his accounting conservatism’s rise among the young is defined entirely negatively. In Ross’s prognostication, liberalism fails to fix an unprecedented series of economic challenges (created by collection of laissez faire-proselytizing zealots and cynical opportunists), and conservatism reaps the whirlwind. You’ll note that Ross offers no prescription whatsoever for the right or the GOP to actually solve our deep economic problems. He only brags that as liberals lose, conservatism will be standing on the field. Which is great for partisans and hacks everywhere and terrible for those who genuinely love their country.
I find this is a common affliction in our political discourse. Conservatism need only watch liberalism lose; liberalism must actively win. Liberalism must solve problems; conservatism must only be willing to live with them. I hear a lot, from people like Conor Friedersdorf or Mickey Kaus or others, that there is something beneficial in a Democratic president and a Republican congress, because this is a combination that reins in the excesses of either. I think that there are members of this here League who would echo similar sentiments. Yet we need to be clear what such a situation actually privileges, which is the status quo. Now in some sense preserving the status quo does indeed represent victory for conservatives, but often the status quo is simply antithetical to contemporary conservative goals. You need look no farther than illegal immigration to see that. Republican gains in the Senate in 2010 makes immigration reform, of any flavor, a distant dream. And yet it is exactly the status quo that Republicans are supposed to hold as worst of all. Making the perfect the enemy of the good leaves only the bad.
When Ross speaks about Democratic failures opening a space for the GOP, he may be hearkening back to the grand old days of the Republican technocrat, when the GOP had a reputation for being full of hard-nosed bastards who knew how to get things done. But those days are long gone. I ask– I genuinely ask– what was the last major accomplishment of the GOP? What reason does anyone have to think that the GOP can get anything done at all? Ross hints at something I hear a lot from Republicans lately, that the left’s obsession with bashing George Bush keeps us from confronting the right as it stands today. But this obsession cuts both ways. If I were to tell you all the ways in which Republicans have failed to solve problems, there would invariably be people accusing me of obsessing over the now-gone Bush administration. Yet reckoning with the wider breakdowns in Republican leadership can’t happen as long as anything that happened during the Bush administration must be excised from analysis of the current GOP. If the Bush administration has become the convenient flogging horse of liberal pundits and bloggers like me, it has also become the convenient repository of blame for conservatives and the GOP, an edifice onto which problems can be conveniently fobbed off, as we have so many of us come to think of Bush America as a strange place disconnected from our current country.
Surely, legislation like the prescription drug benefit bill must inform our current legislative efforts– a victory for humanitarianism, surely, and for those among our most vulnerable, but a massive and hideously expensive entitlement that does not and never did have any consideration of paying for itself or reducing costs.
Whatever else is true, this is true: believing in and working towards limiting the amount of efforts the federal government undertakes is a principled and potentially profitable standpoint. Reflexive can’t doism is not. It is a glaringly sad statement about American affairs how much one of our two dominant political parties has become defined by what it insists cannot be done. Ross Douthat may be right that the Republicans can win by just not winning. But it’s a recipe for disaster for this country. Both parties need to have agendas, even if one is an agenda of scaling back and tamping down, and both need to equally be held to the standard of actually doing well for the country.