"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Is Conservatism Really Losing?

In light of the last election a lot of conservatives are going all navel-gazing on us. I’m not sure I share what appears to be the prevalent pessimism. But maybe I’m wrong. I came across an intriguing article at “The American Thinker” by Steven Warshawsky, and he argues that America is moving left, not in evidence because of the election, but because the left controls all the most powerful means of culture to influence Americans: academia, mainstream media, Hollywood, law, etc. This is otherwise known as the ubiquitous liberal message machine that is American culture.

I can sympathize with his concern, but the reason I don’t share his pessimism is that liberalism is a political philosophy today that dares not speak its name. Hillary Clinton may be a leftist, but she doesn't run as one, even in New York. If we look at modern political history, let's say post-WWII, then conservatism, which really didn't exist on a popular level before WFB came along, has done tremendously well. In poll after poll, self-described liberals are fewer than self-described conservatives.

What we are really talking about here is the great unwashed “middle”. These people are primarily apolitical and are most easily swayed by the soft sweet liberalism they’ve been swimming in since they hit kindergarten. He makes the irrefutable case that most conservatives are talking to themselves (all you liberals out there reading this please raise your hands). As a parallel example, Conservative Christians have been rightly accused of living in a “Christian ghetto” for years. Preaching to the choir, if you will.

His answer in the short run is advertising. Yes, you read that right, advertising. Maybe, but in the long run the only answer is to get more conservatives in all those places of influence. I believe most Americans would buy the conservative argument every time if those weren't so easily demagogued as they are in our political and cultural environment.

I grew up politically with the election of Reagan. I voted for Carter in '80 because of complete ignorance, but started not too long thereafter to read the WSJ editorial page and National Review. I wasn't ignorant long. It was interesting for me at the time to see the amount of effort put in to recruiting young conservatives into politics. Those young conservatives are now the ones who dominate the Republican Party.

We need to do the same today. Using a similar model we can recruit young conservatives into academia, journalism, Hollywood, law, and the arts. This can be done on college campuses and to those of college age. We simply, though it would not be simple, connect with all the campus conservative or Republican organizations and recruit young conservative firebrands into careers that will “make a difference.” We hold conferences, training sessions, basically whatever they did in the 70s and 80s to raise up a generation of conservative politicians and political operatives.

The 60s boomers who dominate culture today will be dead and gone in the next 30 or 40 years. I believe that the generations coming after them are not nearly as ideological, so as more and more conservatives begin to take over positions of power in our culture in the next decades the heyday of liberalism can be put in the trash can of history with its kissin' cousins, communism and socialism.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The structural problem is that, putatively per Churchill, leftism appeals to the young because it requires unbridled emotion and little information, both of which they have in abundance.

Hunter Baker said...

My wife once caused me to jump up startled out of near sleep when she (a not terribly political person) proclaimed, "The Democrats have all the good issues." We spent some time talking about that and I found what she meant was that she perceived them as the helping party. If people are poor, give them money. If race is a problem, decree it must be an advantage, instead.

The problem the GOP always faces on the domestic economic front at least is that it has to make the case that freedom will work better than government regulation the vast majority of the time.

The abortion issue was actually giving the GOP the "heart" it always needed in the period following the victory over slavery, but that has now been overlooked in favor of the stem cell controversy that I'm convinced only a small minority really understands.

And Iraq, well, Iraq may be necessary, but it took all the steam out of the combination of economic laissez faire and personal responsibility we had going with the welfare reform.

Michael Simpson said...

I'm much more pessimistic, if only because a conservative politics (at least in its American style) depends above all on the idea that individuals can more or less take care of themselves (whether on their own or in cooperation with family, neighborhoods, associations, etc.). That seems gone, and it's hard to see how it comes back. As the population ages, a higher and higher percentage of the population becomes dependent on the state via social security and state-insured medical care. As the income tax system has shifted, a smaller set of the population pays more and more of our taxes (meaning that a greater percentage of the population votes to tax others for their own benefit).

Think about perhaps the five signature domestic policy efforts of the Bush administration: "no child left behind", tax cuts, social security reform, faith-based initiative, prescription drug benefit. The social security reform died an ignonimous death at the hands of a Republican Congress and went some way toward undermining Bush's second term. Tax cuts were only temporary - and did little to change the underlying relationship between the state and society. The others were all effots at expanding the scope of federal political authority. (Even the faith-based initiative was just about sending federal monies to religious-based charities).

If that's the best that a Republican President and a Republican Congress could do, why should I at all be optimistic about the prospects for conservative politics?

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Well, Michael, I can give you one reason: What other option do you have? As Frank said, are you gonna just "curl up in a big ball and die"? To be perfectly honest, I HATE pessimism. It's a relative of pity and nothing good comes of it. Please don't take this personally, because I believe the negative is ingrained in human nature via that minor event some time ago called The Fall. As I get older it's real easy to become a certified cynic, but I just can't afford to let that happen.

I just read a review in NR of John O'Sullivan's new book, "The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister." What made these three world changers? Look back at the late 1970s, and if you think it's tough now, well, you just weren't there then. And speaking of NR, what made WFB a world changer? How many conservative weeklies were there around in the 1950s? What made him think, given that conservatism had all but died, that he could stand athwart history and yell STOP!!! Conservatives taking over the Republican Party? Are you kiddin' me? I think the answer is obvious, world changers refuse to be confused by "the facts." They are inveterate optimists who refuse to give up in spite of impossible odds.

This isn't a positive thinking seminar, but those are the people who make things happen. As Teddy said, "It's not the critic who counts . . "

One more thing that both you and Hunter address. Conservatism is a tougher sell because it counters the worst in human nature. It's a whole lot easier to be on the dole than to be self-sufficient. But it's also an easier sell because it's right and brings out the best in human nature. I don't know if we'll ever be able to roll back the welfare state to any appreciable degree or advance liberty at the same time, but I can tell you what I do know: pessimists will certainly not be the ones to do it if it can be done.

Hunter Baker said...

Mike, the great temptation of every conservative (and some Christians, too) is to watch decline and fall occur with a sense of smug (and tragic) self-satisfaction, saying "I told you so."

The beauty of Reagan was that he just refused to engage in that behavior. He gave things their proper names and pushed cheerfully toward the light.

Mr. Simpson, is, I suspect, acting in his capacity as a cool observer rather than describing his own plan of action. I happen to know the guy and he is active for the good guys and as more than a cultural critic.

Anonymous said...


Token liberal here, back from the doldrums. I think Mr. D'Virglio touched on a key point here: People don't talk to others who hold different views as much anymore. Yell at each other, sure, but outright conversation? Not so much. I mentioned this to my Welsh soon-to-be brother-in-law over Christmas, and he had observed the same thing, and that it remains a real problem with the quality of American thought, discourse, and journalism.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to this, by Mr. D'Virglio: "Hillary Clinton may be a leftist..." Really? How so? Mr. Karnick wrote (a while ago) on the definitions of left, center-left, etc. and I found it to be one of the better things I'd read from him, ever (and he's a damn good writer). What is it about Mrs. Clinton's beliefs that make her "a leftist?" Here's a better question: What makes someone a "leftist" as opposed to a liberal? The last self-styled conservative I asked this question of gave me a partisan-line answer, not one having anything to do with public policy or political philosophy. Since I'm oft-accused of "leftism" myself without identifying as one, I'm rather curious.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Among other far-left writings of Hillary Clinton that were published before her true ideas became state secrets are:

A brief filed on behalf of Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund which argues that children have complete rights as citizens and there is no Constitutional basis for a parent ever demanding their children do anything.

The HillaryCare plan (a published book with all its details), which gives the government the power to decide who can study what medical specialty and who can treat what ailment, complete with quotas. ("Sorry, only 10,000 oncologists slotted nationwide; go cure cancer elsewhere.")

A staggering statement (the import of which was not absorbed at the time) during Bill's Presidency that Medicare is a "generational compact" where the society relieves children of the duty to care for their parents' ailments, freeing them up for more productive activities. (A Nexis Lexis search should find this easily. It was in an article covering one of Bill's Saturday radio addresses. I was literally flabbergasted that this passed without comment at the time, but the media was both dumb and fawning.)

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Hi James. Good question. The only reason I used the term "leftist" and not "liberal" is because the author of the original article I was commenting on used it and I didn't feel like quibbling with it at the time. I know this assumes folks will read the original, when I know they mostly don't, but I stuck with it.

I would consider Sen. Clinton a pretty doctrinaire liberal. I wouldn't not consider her a "leftist" in how I see the term. I guess this is analogous to what a "right-winger" might be vs. a conservative. In one way it's a continuum. The further left one appears to me, the more likely I am to call them a leftist. On the other hand it can be purely rhetorical; I call somebody a leftist when I'm ticked off, or they say one of my guys is a radical right winger. It also might be a psychological or emotional response to the mainstream media tending to identify conservatives as right-wing, or extremists, etc., but those on the left are never referred to in such a way. If so, you show it to me, because in 25 plus years of being engaged in this stuff I don't think I've ever seen it.

I know this is not a very buttoned down definition, but it's an honest one.

Anonymous said...

It also might be a psychological or emotional response to the mainstream media tending to identify conservatives as right-wing, or extremists, etc., but those on the left are never referred to in such a way.

I'm really rather shocked to read this. It's really not all that true. I tend to see "Left" used with modifiers far more often. In either direction, it tends to be opinion writers who use the terms. And if someone says Ann Coulter, Hugh Hewitt, and Bill O'Reilly (to name three) aren't mainstream, I'll eat my left foot. Which might be amusing in and of itself.

But then, that's part of the problem with "objective" media - it never is, and when people embrace the subjective out of a feeling of persecution, it tends to swing the pendulum farther toward extreme rhetoric.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

Shocked? it doesn't take much to shock you, now, does it James. I guess that mainstream means just whatever we want it to mean, hey? Well, not really. If you think that ABC, NBC, CBS, the LA Times, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, NPR, and, well, that's enough, aren't mainstream then the word doesn't mean much of anything. I hope that left foot of yours is tasty.

Anonymous said...

ABC, NBC, CBS, the LA Times, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, NPR, and, well, that's enough, aren't mainstream then the word doesn't mean much of anything.

I think you misunderstood my point (I'll forgo accusing you of creating a straw man to whack around): Of course those are mainstream; however, one cannot contend that Fox News, The Washington Times, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc. are not mainstream either (my point).

Also, I think you'll find that editorial pages aside for a few of them, those news organizations are rather fair in their coverage. People read opinion writers to nod their head along with, not looking for challenges to their thinking. Presumably you wouldn't argue with the fact that the Wall St. Journal, whose reporting is generally excellent, has an editorial page second to none in Republican partisanship.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

James, I'm not sharp enough to create straw men. I wouldn't know what one looks like, and I do my best not to be disingenuous. It amazes me that liberals on this issue can deny the undeniable. If Fox, et. el., are in some sense mainstream, it is not in the same way as ABC, et. el. The reach and influence of the latter are infinitely greater than the former, and overwhelming tilt liberal left. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Cheers!

Evanston said...

Mike D'Virgilio mentioned the 1970s. Let's face it, ladies and germs, if you were a teenager or older then you KNOW what it means for liberal politics to be the only politics. Everyone else was considered to be a looney with soon-to-be-extinct values from a bygone era. The whole Ronald Reagan thing came out of nowhere, and never would have succeeded had not Jimmy Carter been so incompetent and boring too watch on TV. I mention the latter because I believe we underestimate the need for politicians to provide "entertainment value." After all, if we turn on the TV we're bound to see their ugly mugs and hear their irritating voices sooner or later. This particularly applies to "swing voters." I believe Gore lost to Bush because he is excruciatingly boring to watch. John Kerry always came across as a prick. Bill Clinton and George Bush are both relatively smooth talkers. We'll see what happens in 2008, but I believe "entertainment value" (which is more than telegenics) will be the key factor in the Presidential race and the various gubernatorial elections. Regarding non-executive elections (House and Senate at both Federal and State levels) this is more purely "party line" politics. The key question is whether the Democrats can actually act like centrists in 2007. We shall see...but conservatism will not be as discredited as it was in the 1970s. Virtually impossible.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Evanston is exactly right about the 70s and Ronald Reagan's emergence. Look at how many votes William Buckley got when he ran for Mayor of New York City.

Anonymous said...

The "entertainment value" of politicians and that relation to their electability is a good point, and something that needs to be highlighted further.