The Triumph of Conservatism?

THE TRIUMPH OF CONSERVATISM?…. David Brooks writes today that one of the reasons conservatives have triumphed in recent years is because they argue a lot with each other:

This feuding has meant that the meaning of conservatism is always shifting….Moreover, it’s not only feuding that has been the key to conservative success ? it’s also what the feuding’s about.

….Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement’s views about human nature and society are true.

Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate.

Mark Schmitt thinks Brooks has a good point: far from being an echo chamber, conservatives have gained strength from their constant internecine warfare.

I don’t want to wade into this argument right now except to make one point: any essay about the triumph of conservatism is bankrupt unless it takes into account the two charts above. What they show is simple:

  • Conservatives have outnumbered liberals for a long time, and that hasn’t changed much in the past three decades. In 1976, they were ahead 31% to 18%. Today they’re ahead 33% to 18%.

  • At the same time, Southern conservatives have left the Democratic party in droves. In 1976 Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 23 points. Today they lead by only 5 points.

For now, that’s the only point I want to make: the past three decades haven’t seen a conservative triumph. They’ve seen a Republican triumph. Anyone who tries to make a point about the health and vitality of conservatism without taking into account both Southern abandonment of the Democratic party and the astonishing stability of liberal-conservative self-identification over the past half century is talking through their hat.

UPDATE: By the way, Brooks also complains that he called up some prominent liberal last year and asked who his favorite philosopher was. The prominent liberal was stumped. Stupid liberals! For future reference, I refer all aspiring liberal talking heads to my personal guide to philosophy, written especially so you can answer questions like this. Enjoy.