Fifty Years of Frustration

As part of my “No, They’re Not Nihilists” morning, I’d point to Ross Douthat’s latest column, which squarely identifies another source of conservative frustration and disagreement on how to achieve their very real and concrete goals:

[There is a] deep, abiding gulf between the widespread conservative idea of what a true Conservative Moment would look like and the mainstream idea of the same. For the American mainstream — moderate and apolitical as well as liberal — the Reagan era really was a kind of conservative answer to the New Deal era: A period when the right’s ideas were ascendant, its constituencies empowered, its favored policies pursued. But to many on the right, for the reasons the Frum of “Dead Right” suggested, it was something much more limited and fragmented and incomplete: A period when their side held power, yes, but one in which the framework and assumptions of politics remained essentially left-of-center, because the administrative state was curbed but barely rolled back, and the institutions and programs of New Deal and Great Society liberalism endured more or less intact.

This divide, I think, explains a lot of the mutual incomprehension surrounding size-of-government debates. To liberals and many moderates, it often seems like the right gets what it wants in these arguments and then just gets more extreme, demanding cuts atop cuts, concessions atop concessions, deregulation upon deregulation, tax cuts upon tax cuts. But to many conservatives, the right has never come remotely close to getting what it actually wants, whether in the Reagan era or the Gingrich years or now the age of the Tea Party — because what it wants is an actually smaller government, as opposed to one that just grows somewhat more slowly than liberals and the left would like.

By “smaller government,” Douthat means one where major elements of the New Deal/Great Society safety net cease to exist in anything like their current form, and the presumption that basic functions of collective life like education will be publicly financed and delivered comes to an end.

That’s what conservatives want (among other reactionary things), so of course they need maximalist tactics and an atmosphere of crisis to make progress on such an agenda.

[W]hat you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today, what’s driving their willingness to engage in probably-pointless brinksmanship, is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat. Rather, it’s a revolt against the long term pattern I’ve just described: Against what these conservatives, and many on the right, see as forty years of failure, in which first Reagan and then Gingrich and now the Tea Party wave have all failed to deliver on the promise of an actual right-wing answer to the big left-wing victories of the 1930s and 1960s — and now, with Obamacare, of Obama’s first two years as well.

I agree. It’s the Goldwater campaign over and over and over again, with the same goals, the same demonology and the same frustration at Republican Establishment squishes who are willing to settle for what Goldwater himself (in referring to the Eisenhower administration) called a “dime-store New Deal” instead of a rollback of the whole welfare state. Indeed, the goals are so audacious and the frustration so intense that it can make conservatives look like “nihilists” if you miss the underlying patterns.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.