Mark Lilla writes:

Reagan did in fact restore (then overinflate) America’s self-confidence, and he did bequeath to Republicans a clear ideological alternative to Progressivism. But he also transformed American liberalism. . . . Reagan won the war of ideas, as everyone knows.

Except conservatives. The most important thing I [Lilla] learned from Kesler’s book is just how large a stake conservatives have in convincing themselves and voters that Reagan failed. Think about it: if they conceded ideological victory they would have to confront the more prosaic reasons that entitlements, deficits and regulations continue to grow in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. . . .

Lilla argues that it’s easier for intellectuals (conservative or otherwise) are more comfortable viewing themselves in opposition than in power: “conservative intellectuals and media hacks have realized that it’s much easier to run a permanent counterrevolution out of their plush think-tank offices and television studios than to reflect seriously, do homework and cut a deal.” This may be so, or maybe not. Right now, a government job might be more secure than anything on offer at a television studio, and in any case I think that discussion of office-plushness is a distraction from Lilla’s more serious arguments.

What I really want to explore here, though, is why it might make sense for conservatives not to want to agree with Lilla that Reagan “won.” Here’s the problem: if it’s true that Reagan restored America’s self-confidence, then this self-confidence can be used by his successors in power. Reagan’s success in Grenada begat Obama’s drones, Reagan’s sense of national greatness allows Obama to say that everyone in this great nation of America should have access to health care and a college education. I think this is one reason that conservatives in recent years have been dialing it down, saying that we’ve lived beyond our means, that, in Tyler Cowen’s words, we’re in a great stagnation. Sure, part of this is a response to the 2008 economic crisis, but I think a larger reason that many conservatives have switched from America the Bountiful to Age of Limits is that, the better we’re doing, the more the government can afford to spend.

Coming at it from the other direction, liberals have long argued that it is their economic policies that created the prosperity leading to conservative complacency. This started as a post-FDR argument that the New Deal gave Americans the security to feel middle-class enough want to vote Republican, and the argument reappeared a few years ago with the claim that Clinton put in all sorts of hard work to get a budget surplus that G. W. Bush blew on wars and tax cuts.

From either direction, the idea is that “we” made America strong but, by doing so, provided the opportunity for “them” to screw everything up. Sort of like that chess variant where you turn the board around every 10 moves.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.