The End of Conservatism?

Along with Ross, I’ve argued that movement conservatives have been pretty glib in casually separating themselves from the failures of the Bush White House. (“But he wasn’t a real conservative!”) This in part represents an effort to reinvent conservatism along the lines of what Tim Montgomerie calls the And theory.

But I have to say, I also find Michael Tomasky unconvincing when he argues that Americans have rejected conservative governance in some sweeping way. Chances are we’re in for a period of government expansion. It’s already started. Once Democrats complete the incomplete New Deal project, by establishing universal healthcare as the baseline, what comes next? Will the argument over healthcare be settled in one fell swoop? Will we see a massive Hacker-style transfer program? Baby bonds? A series of high-speed trains financed and operated by the federal government? Free higher education for all? A steep carbon tax?

Please consider the costs and likely (unintended) consequences of all of the aforementioned measures, and then ask yourself if this looks like an uncontroversial political platform. In unvarnished form, as imagined by the brightest policy wonks of the left, this certainly looks attractive, at least to a certain kind of urban liberal. It also involves giving handouts to the same people you’re taxing, so you have cash on the government’s schedule and not yours. It involves a massive increase in centralized authority, in a sprawling and diverse continental republic of over 300 million. It involves intrusive, slow-moving regulation in an economy that is being constantly transformed. And it cuts against the same antipaternalism that has fueled the rise of social liberalism and secularism.

Tomasky is sensitive to this concern about what comes after a mere political victory, as James W. Ceaser notes in an excellent (and unfortunately titled) essay.

“What the Democrats still don’t have,” Tomasky wrote, “is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society.” Even more disturbing to Tomasky, however, is that the party has lost the capacity to engage in this kind of thinking; its spirit is now anti-intellectual. “The party and the constellation of interests around it,” he writes, “don’t even think in philosophical terms and haven’t for quite some time.” Tomasky is one of the brave hearts not only to propose the idea of finding a “big idea,” but also to offer a version of a new public philosophy, in a plea, reminiscent of Michael Sandel’s, for “civic republicanism.” As he might have foreseen, his attempt to rekindle a debate has generated a smattering of commentary, but mostly indifference.

So what do I think will happen when the netroots, a political movement that, as Matt Bai and others have argued, self-consciously eschews Tomasky-style big-think, achieves its most popular political objective, namely universal healthcare? My guess is that the right, ironically enough, will be renewed. The theory of the left, of course, is that like the New Deal generation, millions of grateful American families will stick with the Democrats for years to come. This, of course, assumes that the Democratic healthcare solution will be as universally popular, administratively efficient, and unambiguously beneficial as Social Security.

I know plenty of conservatives who would be happy to take that bet.