what douthat gets right and wrong about conservative politics

In a recent essay in the NY Times, Ross Douthat explains the motivations behind conservative politics. This clip nicely summarizes the issue:

… For the American mainstream — moderate and apolitical as well as liberal — the Reagan era really was a kind of conservative answer to the New Deal era: A period when the right’s ideas were ascendant, its constituencies empowered, its favored policies pursued. But to many on the right, for the reasons the Frum of “Dead Right” suggested, it was something much more limited and fragmented and incomplete: A period when their side held power, yes, but one in which the framework and assumptions of politics remained essentially left-of-center, because the administrative state was curbed but barely rolled back, and the institutions and programs of New Deal and Great Society liberalism endured more or less intact.

I think that’s a good summary … for one small part of the conservative movement. And it is true. There is definitely an anti-statist element of the modern conservative coalition. There are people who genuinely think that more services should be shifted to the private sector and that the size of the tax obligation and the federal government should be shrunk.

However, the committed anti-statist part of the conservative coalition is only a small part of the story. When we take a broad look at policy, we see that conservatives routinely support all kinds of government services. For example, calls for shrinking government almost always exclude the military. Then, if we look at Medicare we find that conservative voters do not favor privatization. In other areas, conservatives have no problem expanding the size of government – building walls on the Mexican border, jailing millions of African American for drug possession, or creating more and more regulation of reproductive medical procedures such as abortion, stem cell research, and birth control. All of these require massive intrusions on the safety and privacy of millions of people who are doing no wrong to others.

So what’s the real story? I think it’s fairly simple. Committed anti-statists are the “beard” for other factions that really don’t care about the size of government. A theory of personal liberty is important and draws attention from what might be the ulterior goal. And these other factions have all kinds of goals. National security conservatives love war because it shows that they’re tough. Social conservatives simply want to roll back, or circumvent, the progress made by women, minorities, LBGT people, immigrants, and other groups that were openly repressed and discriminated against in previous eras. And there’s what I call the business conservative, who just wants tax breaks and could care less about anti-gay crusades, but has to tolerate the social conservatives in order to get these perks.

Whenever I hear a conservative claim they are for liberty or limited government, I’m always a little skeptical. The arguments for liberty, tolerance, and protection from government harassment apply to themselves, and others like them, but are rarely applied with the same vigor to people or social practices they find distasteful. The bottom line is that I’m willing to engage with writers like Ross Douthat, but not until they tell their fellow travelers that gays and Mexicans are really nothing to worry about.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2013 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Ahem, read to the end.
    “And if this attitude sounds more like a foolish romanticism than a prudent, responsible, grounded-in-reality conservatism — well, yes, unfortunately I think it pretty clearly is.”

    Ross isn’t saying this is the whole conservative movement, only the right flank that controls the primaries, calls people like him are RINOs, and thinks that the only reason the Great Society hasn’t been repealed is because they keep getting sold out by people seduced by the allure of Georgetown cocktail parties.

    Also, you’ll like Josh Barro’s response to Ross (which I see as complementary, not contradictory).



    October 4, 2013 at 2:57 am

  2. When it comes to conservatism in the United States and its ascendancy following the New Deal through the election of Reagan, I have always liked Sara Diamond’s Roads to Dominion: Right Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States.

    Admittedly, it reads as a progressive take/history about conservatism in the U.S. during this time period. But I think it does a good job of classifying some key factions and coalitions that comprise that fit under the banner of conservativism in the U.S. She highlights four key movements on the Right: Antistate, anti-communist, Christian Right, and racist right. I think she also does a good job demonstrating the difficulties that political parties face in a two-party system when trying to elicit support from factions and coalitions that sometimes make strange bedfellows. Written in the 90s, I still think it’s a good read.


    Scott Dolan

    October 4, 2013 at 7:34 pm

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