Election 2004

Republican Reality Check

With the death knell of small government pealing in the distance, will Republicans try to coopt progressivism?
On the day that the Republican National Convention kicked off in NYC, David Brooks, Senior Editor at the conservative Weekly Standard confessed an astonishing thing. In the New York Times Magazine cover article entitled, "The Era of Small Government is Over," Brooks wrote that conservatism's great cause for the past quarter century – small government – is dead and that "American conservatism is undergoing an identity crisis."
There used to be a spirit of solidarity binding all the embattled members of the conservative movement. But with conservatism ascendant, that spirit has eroded. Should Bush lose, it will be like a pack of wolves that suddenly turns on itself. The civil war over the future of the party will be ruthless and bloody. The foreign-policy realists will battle the democracy-promoting Reaganites. The immigrant-bashing nativists will battle the free marketeers. The tax-cutting growth wing will battle the fiscally prudent deficit hawks. The social conservatives will war with the social moderates, the biotech skeptics with the biotech enthusiasts, the K Street corporatists with the tariff-loving populists, the civil libertarians with the security-minded Ashcroftians. In short, the Republican Party is unstable.
Hard to imagine that just two years after seizing power in all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of governorships across the nation, that Republicans are already undergoing an identity crisis. Isn't now the time to institute all of those grand schemes they've been selling to the American public for the past three decades: crushing the welfare state; abolishing the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Education; and unleashing the powers of the market to bring prosperity and bliss to all Americans?

Moreover, what Brooks is suggesting is that conservatives ditch the raison d'etre of the modern conservative movement: small government. Whatever happened to the "leave us alone" conservativism that promised to reduce government, as Grover Norquist put it, "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub?"

What happened was that Republicans got a reality check. When conservatives became the majority in Washington, they discovered that public management is impossible without any governing principles. How does a movement that was built upon the premise that government is inept, wasteful, useless and downright evil actually govern? As we've found out over the past two years, the answer to that question is not very well.

Safe in the cocoon of minority status, never able to "fully" put their grand plans into practice, and always with someone else to blame, conservatives were free to spout their pie-in-the-sky ideology, attack their opponents as government-loving communists, and sell Americans on the conservative mythology of having it all for nothing. These miracles would all be made possible through a little something called the free-market, which would solve all of our nation's problems if government would just step aside and let the market work its magic. Mighty good salesmen, effective sales pitch, but it turns out they were selling snake oil.

The problem with modern conservatism is that while it may look pretty on paper, it doesn't work in practice. It's hardly surprising to discover that the conservative movement was started by a handful of intellectual elite. These conservative intellectuals, like Milton Friedman who prefers free-market fairytales over Keynesian economics' pragmatic approach, and Russell Kirk who advocated a kind of neo-feudal societal structure, lived almost exclusively in a world of ideas. Welcome to the real world boys.

Brooks, a pragmatist, sees the writing on the wall. In an era of globalization and fighting an international network of terrorists, small government is dead. Now, more than ever, our nation needs institution builders who believe in the transformative power of the public sector to bring about good, to protect the American people, and to ease the transition to a global economy. Brooks writes that "the old anti-statist governing philosophy exists in the airy-fairy realm of ideals," that "reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives," and calls on conservatives to adopt "a positive vision of government."

The problem for conservative politicians is that they have spent their lives in the airy-fairy realm of ideals and their careers demonizing the public sector and tearing down government institutions and programs for sport. As conservative commentator Tucker Carslon said, "A basic tenet of conservatism is that it's much easier to destroy things than to create them." He added, "much easier, and more fun, too." And that's exactly the point. Creating something in the public sector is enormously difficult. It requires vision, innovation, hard work, compromise and a fundamental belief in the potential of the public sector for good.

In looking at the voting records of members of Congress since the 1790s sociologist G. William Domhoff found that, by and large, conservatives have generally opposed all of the progressive changes in our nation's history such as worker protections, anti-trust laws, and voters' rights. Reform, innovation, and creation have long been the domain of progressives in America, while as Carlson says, in the name of small government, conservatives prefer to "destroy things."

With the death knell of small government pealing in the distance, unless conservatives articulate a new vision, they could find themselves faced with obscurity and irrelevance. What is this new vision? Not surprisingly, Brooks, in quite possibly the greatest oxymoron ever conceived, calls it "progressive conservativism." After decades of calling for a return to an idealized past, preaching the evils of government, and undermining Americans' faith in the public sector - all for their own political gains - Republicans now plan to repackage themselves as the party of progress with a positive vision of government. Slap me and then kiss me.

Once past the initial sting, if we pause to look at what is behind Brooks' "progressive conservatism," we find an acknowledgment that conservative ideology is history. What is needed today - and what Americans want - is a progressive, responsive government. Brooks co-opts "progressivism" with his oxymoronic "progressive conservatism," in an attempt to save the conservative movement from the dustbin of history, because on the eve of the Republican National Convention, Brooks sees a conservative movement without a governing philosophy, with bankrupt ideas, on the brink of collapse.

Whether or not the conservative movement actually collapses, the Democratic Party now has an opportunity, and an imperative, to take ownership of "progressivism," to define progressivism as a response to conservativism, and to clearly articulate a progressive Democratic agenda for the future. The stakes are now clear: if the Democratic Party squanders this opportunity, they risk letting "progressivism" be co-opted by the conservatives. The GOP will sap the life out of the nascent progressive movement and Democrats will be hard-pressed to define themselves. Democrats may very well find that they are the ones rattling around in the dustbin of history because what is becoming increasingly clear is that the future belongs to progressives. The question remains: will it be progressive Democrats or Brooks' progressive conservatives who lead the way?
Laurie Spivak is a regular contributor to AlterNet.
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