Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Have Americans become more liberal?

The truth is, I don't know if Americans are becoming more liberal or more conservative. But I think one major miscalculation on the left has been interpreting Americans’ dissatisfaction with the Bush administration as resentment toward “conservatism” writ large. In fact, the opposite seems to hold true.

Whether they knew it or not, I believe that many Americans were reacting against the large-scale changes imposed by a Republican administration that was anything but conservative. It wasn’t a liberal impulse that caused Americans to become disenchanted with the Iraq War. It was genuine conservatism – a distrust of government power and large-scale foreign interventions – that ultimately compelled so many of us to abandon our support for President Bush.

“Change” was the theme of the 2008 campaign, but the underlying message was much simpler: putting things back to normal. The lesson that should be gleaned is not that Americans favor progressive – rather than “conservative” – policy solutions, but that Americans are skeptical of dramatic shifts in policy.

I think this is a big part of the reason why we’ve see support for many of the individual provisions in the health care reform bills that have been proposed in Congress, but an overall sense of opposition to comprehensive approach that would generate such sweeping legislation. Incremental reforms are fine, but package them together and you’ve gone too far.

In an era of change, conservatism makes sense. We are, after all, creatures of memory.

To quote Andrew Sullivan:

[I]n those moments of confrontation with time, we are all conservatives. Sure, we all move on. In America, the future is always more imperative than the past. But the past lingers; and America, for all its restlessness, or perhaps because of its restlessness, is a very conservative place. . . . Intrinsic to the human experience – what separates us from animals –is the memory of things past, and the fashioning of that memory into a self-conscious identity. So loss imprints itself on our minds and souls and forms us. It’s part of what we are.

There's a lot more to this, of course. In many ways, America is also a deeply progressive place. We've always had a complex political culture, and we've always tried to have it both ways.

Anyway, just thought I'd think "outloud" for a bit. I'll try to write more on this later.

Update: In his column today, David Brooks makes a similar point about the Tea Party movement:

[B]oth the New Left and the Tea Party movement are radically anticonservative. Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin — on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.

That idea was rejected in the 1960s by people who put their faith in unrestrained passion and zealotry. The New Left then, like the Tea Partiers now, had a legitimate point about the failure of the ruling class. But they ruined it through their own imprudence, self-righteousness and na├»ve radicalism. The Tea Partiers will not take over the G.O.P., but it seems as though the ’60s political style will always be with us — first on the left, now the right.

As I recently explained to a friend, modern-day conservatism traces its roots to Edmund Burke. But Burkean conservatism is nothing like today's Movement Conservatism, which seems to have spawned the Tea Parties. Burke was skeptical of large-scale policy changes, favoring an incremental approach. Many contemporary conservatives seem to have abandoned this skepticism, as they routinely employ reactionary language and endorse dramatic policy shifts. Today, congressional Republicans appear to be far more focused on achieving specific ideological priorities, even when that requires massive federal legislation or massive changes in the status quo. It's not conservative to totally dismantle the Social Security system, for example.

I think it's good to be skeptical of sweeping policy changes, but it's also important to acknowledge that even that skepticism must be questioned regularly. For example, would slow, incremental changes have been appropriate during the Civil Rights Era, or are there some issues so morally pressing that we need to push for immediate, broad-based changes in society?

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