I can’t really explain this phenomenon. It’s like a magic black box. I can only tell you what the output is.
When an anti-establishment movement starts, it isn’t picking at the edges of the establishment belief. It disagrees with a few of the fundamental axioms of that establishment. This means that it intends—literally—to remake society. Revolution isn’t a necessary outcome, but big changes are if it is to have any meaning.
When the Conservative movement that we now know started, it disagreed with the fundamental axiom of the New Deal that government—specifically the federal government—needed to play an active role in our economic world. When that idea was later expanded to the social world, the Conservative movement was born.*
As movements such as this go on, they get concretized in policies and laws. For the New Deal, it was Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act on the economic side and the Civil Rights Act and Court-based school integration on the social side that had the most profound and lasting effects. As opposed to the abstract ideals that put these laws into effect, it’s a lot easier to criticize something once it’s in effect. Sure, some people are able to game the Social Security system etc.
As these systems ossify into concrete structures, the people who put them in place trim around the edges but never call into question the fundamental axioms and dismiss as heretics those that do. When the system stops trimming around the edges in any substantial way, the fundamental axioms become subject to debate. It must be that the fundamentals of the system are broken since we can’t seem to make it work, hmmm…..
This coming decade is the 1970s of Conservatism. It is intellectually dead. Asked David Frum. Frum isn’t even questioning one of the fundamental axioms of conservatism. He’s just suggesting that they try and achieve it differently. It’s sort of like suggesting that it might have been a bit silly and counterproductive to make people change the name that they called another race all the time would get you in big trouble with liberals in the 1980s (and even among many today).
At some point these systems are unable to respond to change and the undermining of their axioms seems to become self-fulfilling. Free market dogma has even been abandoned to some extent by Alan Greenspan. Failure after failure with increasing severity has caused big problems for the axiom of the free market.
Yet there is no cogent response from the conservatives. They just say more deregulation and more tax cuts even though taxes are at a very low rate in comparison with the 50s.
I don’t know why these people’s minds harden, but they do. I don’t know why the philosophies can’t adapt, but they don’t.
The result is a set of knee-jerk responses to problems whose time has passed, or perhaps whose old solutions generate even more problems. America has a deep ingrained history of tax revolts. It is unsurprising that the very high taxes of the 1950s generated axiomatic revolt. But during the 1980s, the knee-jerk axiom of tax cutting started causing massive damage to our economy and our social fabric. That’s one thing that fueled it. To deny that resentment over wealth transfers to minorities was a part of this “revolt” is as dishonest as to say that race alone was a sufficient condition for it. It was certainly part of the mix. But huge decades-long intellectual-political movements rarely, if ever, are fueled by one thing. Even the Civil War (war being a political conflict in kind) was about more than abolition, no matter how heroically we like to paint it.
Massive income inequality that has only been treated (but never cured) by massive debt bubbles is one of those effects. The erosion of public institutions of all kinds like schools, libraries, roads, and other kinds of infrastructure is another. The fact that all of this upheaval is connected in people’s minds with changing social norms regarding women, minorities, and gays is somewhat hard to deny and the argument is too complex for most people who simply see a cause that is part of a correlation, or even an effect.
Income equality has forced more women into the workplace, which has resulted in more women demanding economic and social equality. It isn’t the pink Betty Friedan mafia that forced these women to work. Similarly, abortion and gays aren’t responsible for divorce and drug addiction. Economic forces torquing social relationships are at the bottom of these issues. The fact that some people are able to withstand these forces further and longer (i.e. are “moral” and “personally responsible”) earns them a merit badge, but only delays the onset of the blowback.
Thus, the 50-year old conservative movement is not only no longer able to address our current problems, it is exacerbating them and people know it. The panic on the right is not so much about a political reversal, but about the fact that it is becoming apparent that they are not trusted to solve problems any more at all. A New Synthesis is trying to come forward, just as it tried during the 90s before sustained right wing pressure and a series of unfortunate events (the stock market crash of 2000 and 9/11 are the primary ones) caused people to revert to the Conservative axioms of the then-recent past. The New Synthesis lacks the ideological purity of the old conservative movement or the old liberal movement.
The New Synthesis is wonderfully stated in the health care bill. It is a largely liberal end—affordable, sometimes free health insurance, and therefore health care, for all—carried out through a complex set of conservative means. The “exchanges” are more or less “markets” and the whole idea is that they will provide people with enough information equality to allow market forces to drive prices down. Indeed, the mandate generates a larger market, which, according to Neoclassical economic theory should make it both more efficient and more information equal.
An earlier example of the New Synthesis was “welfare to work.” There was a liberal goal—employment and a good standard of living for all—that was done in a conservative way, namely by forcing people to quit accepting direct wealth transfers. The theory was that the increased transaction costs, or friction, from all the moving parts would more than sustain itself by keeping people from being sucked into a permanent dependency on welfare. Liberals to this day curse this program and point out its flaws. But very few of them criticize the Section 8 program which sends the poor out to rent housing on the market thereby deghettoizing them to a significant degree (not totally to be sure) and tearing down the theoretically more direct wealth transfer of public housing and all of its other social ills.
The trouble with this synthesis or any other is that it is difficult to explain. Politicians explaining it end up saying too much and say nothing at all. It’s too easy to pick at the parts. Welfare queens. How is that fair? Simple things like “how is it fair” are how anti-establishment axiom-questioning movements get started. It seems that syntheses suffer from being a kind of dipole product of two establishments and when people belong to neither establishment, they don’t really care.
In other words, people who aren’t part of the conservative movement don’t care that the health care law uses markets and people who aren’t liberals don’t care that it gives almost everyone health care. They mostly care whether it will work. When a movement’s axioms stop generating solutions, the begin to crumble. Until a new one comes along, there is some kind of synthesis.
The Old Synthesis was embodied in a number of liberal goals also done in conservative ways. For example, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are liberal goals: clean the environment. But at the time they were implemented, the primary responsibility was given to states, therefore they were done in a conservative way: not by federal power. When most states just left implementation to the federal government, this aspect of the Old Synthesis (so-called ‘New Federalism’) fell apart.
The thing is, I have no idea whether there really is a new liberal movement, or the other pole of the New Synthesis is simply the old liberalism. It definitely rejects the notion of everyone being left to the fate of markets, and it definitely rejects any kind of “market” or judgment based on genetics and victimless lifestyle choices, but I simply can’t say if this is just a long term oscillation or something new. The New Synthesis, as I’ve called it, is definitely part of an oscillation, but I just have to think about whether the poles oscillate or generate. I have written before that there is an equilibrium to American politics, but I’m not so sure now, and I’m not sure that the dynamics are one dimensional so as to say there if there is a natural equilibrium along one axis that it exists along the other.
An early sign of the problems with liberalism was when liberals began rejecting liberal ideas put forth by Republicans. It was Ted Kennedy who killed Nixon’s health care reform plan. It failed a purity test, perhaps simply because of its source. It was an sign of the conservative movements ossification that the Clinton presidency was rejected by conservatives just because he was a Democrat. Similarly, the total rejectionist approach of Republicans to Obama’s health care overhaul, it being so conservative in implementation, tells you that conservatives are spent as a movement and to the extent Republicans are conservatives, they are just about holding up purity tests to conform with the old solutions.
* N.B. That the Conservative movement did not come to power on the basis of making the military more robust. It was not until the 1970s that Democrats as a party were considered weak on military matters.