News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The Elephant in the Room

By describing various parts – deregulation, media consolidation, pre-emptive war – Americans fail to grasp the problem as a whole: failed conservative politics.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Americans have been ignoring the elephant in the room. It's that huge thing that's in front of everyone, but that no one mentions by name. Most people can't see it, while others intentionally disregard it, but many people just have a hard time articulating what it is.

Even its opponents direct little attention to the elephant itself; at best they tend to describe its various parts. Its ears are deregulation, its trunk trickle-down economics, its mouth media consolidation, its tail a pre-emptive war in Iraq, its legs record deficits, and its feet cutbacks in education, social security, America's safety net, even veterans' benefits.

Yet, by only describing its individual parts, Americans fail to grasp the massive weight and dimension of the elephant. The big picture is obscured. We can't see that what's in front of us is all part of the same beast: failed conservative policies.

Search on Lexis-Nexis for the phrase "failed conservative policies," and you'll turn up a grand total of three articles: two in British newspapers and one magazine article, all referring to the conservative Tories in England.

Now try the same search but replace the word "conservative" with "liberal." You'll find that the phrase "failed liberal policies" has been echoed by a slew of conservative commentators and politicians including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Dan Quayle, George Pataki, Rudy Guiliani, Ralph Reed, and Tom DeLay. For more than a decade, "failed liberal policies" has been the conservative revolution's official unofficial mantra.

In 1988 at a rally for George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan asked his audience, "Do we want to risk going back to the old, failed liberal policies of the past?" to which the crowd in unison responded, "No!" Throughout the rest of the Bush campaign, the phrase made regular appearances on the stump. Then, in the final days before the 1988 election, Bush delivered the wholesale indictment and definitive declaration, "If I win this election, it will be a rejection of the failed liberal policies of the past."

George H.W. Bush did win, but just four years later, after only one term, voters elected to reject Mr. Bush and arguably his failed conservative policies as well. Today, little more than a decade later, voters are being asked to weigh in on the performance of Mr. Bush's son, who according to George Will is the most conservative president in living memory next to Ronald Reagan, "and not second by much." Yet critics of the 43rd President, the second most conservative president in living memory, rarely, if ever, criticize failed conservative policies.

With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952, more than ever, this election is a referendum on not only George W. Bush but on conservative policies. Without any meddling from pesky Democrats, Americans have finally gotten an opportunity to really take conservative policies for a test drive. No sharing of the spotlight, no diffusion of responsibility; at last, conservatives can finally take credit where credit is due.

So how have Americans been faring under conservative policies these last couple of years?

Let's start with the basics. Conservatives turned a $127 billion budget surplus into record-shattering deficits with reckless tax cuts; in 2004 alone, the deficit is expected to reach $500 billion. Poverty is on the rise with more than 34 million Americans living below the poverty line, including 12 million children. As for the first job-loss recovery since the Great Depression, it's an "upside down recovery" according to the Center for American Progress, meaning that corporate profits have risen at the expense of wages and employment. At the same time the costs of housing, gas, and medical care have all surged by double digits, not to mention that 20 million working Americans have no health insurance. Conservatives' answer? Not surprisingly, Washington's one-trick ponies call for more tax cuts for the rich. More of the same failed conservative policies.

The WMD-less war in Iraq has become a seemingly inextricable quagmire with taxpayers spending about three dollars on Iraq to every one dollar spent on our own homeland security. Now over a year out from the start of the war, the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project finds that America's image has plummeted across the world. But the icing on the cake? Former General Anthony Zinni recently said that the war in Iraq has not only undermined the war on terror, it has actually made us "far less safe." Despite these concerns, a White House memo leaked to the Washington Post last month reveals plans for $1 billion in cutbacks to Homeland Security in 2006 – cuts needed to pay for those tax cuts. Sure enough, more of the same failed conservative policies.

A Pentagon report states that global warming "should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern." Salmon is loaded with cancer-causing PCBs and chickens are rife with arsenic, both from feed approved by the FDA. Earlier this year, the EPA warned children and women of child-bearing age to avoid eating tuna because it contains dangerously high levels of mercury from industrial pollution from coal-fired power plants; mercury is known to cause brain damage in infants and children. All the while conservatives are chanting the tired old mantra of "more deregulation," gutting the Clean Air Act, and promoting "voluntary compliance" by industry, not only doing away with regulations but also decreasing the number of public guardians who enforce compliance. Predictably, we see the results of more of the same failed conservative policies.

In 2005, states' deficits are expected to exceed $35 billion, in part the result of two decades of "devolution," forcing almost every state in the nation to make drastic cutbacks. Last January in Alabama, public schools ran out of money for textbooks, state troopers were cut back to a four-day work week, and plans were made to release 5,000 nonviolent felons from prison in the coming year. In Oregon, some schools shut their doors a month early, courthouses went to a four-day week, and thousands lost prescription drug coverage. Conservatives responded with multi-million dollar anti-tax campaigns against commonsense revenue reforms that could have saved these fundamental services. Just more of the same failed conservative policies.

If the '60s and '70s were the decades of failed liberal policies, then the '80s, '90s, and the beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as the era of failed conservative policies. What America is experiencing today is far more than policy failures under the leadership of George W. Bush. It is the impact of more than two decades of ascendant conservative ideology – a legacy of extreme individualism, deregulation, and anti-tax zealotry. It is this wholesale failure of these conservative policies that has led to today's record deficits, state budget crises, collapsing public schools, cuts in funding for domestic security, a besieged environment, and crony capitalism.

The trouble is that Americans haven't started connecting the dots between these failed conservative polices. Too often critics either portray these failures in isolation or as some aberration of the Bush Administration. They are neither.

These are the policies of the broader ascendant conservative movement espoused by the multitude of conservative think tanks, commentators, intellectuals, and politicians across America who have been hard at work for more than two decades designing and implementing the conservative agenda. These are not the policies exclusively of the neocons, or the radcons, or the tradcons, or the paleocons: they are the prevailing policies of today's conservative movement.

If progressives want to stem the conservative tide, then it is essential that they begin to make these connections. The breakdowns in our communities, states and nation are all linked – they are the result of more than two decades of failed conservative policies. Progressives need to start painting this big picture in broad brush-strokes for Americans to see, as only then will they create the necessary opening for a new political paradigm – a modern, progressive movement – to emerge.

Laurie Spivak is a fellow with the Commonweal Institute .