The New York Times has an op-ed today that talks about the starting success of movement conservativism over the past 40 years, but it only tells half of the story. Here’s the crux:
To consider the ground that liberals have ceded, one must look back at the union’s founding in a cramped living-room in 1964, a few days after Lyndon B. Johnson had thrashed the first fully paid-up conservative presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. Back then, the self-styled “Mr. Conservative” seemed to come from another planet. “When in all our history,” asked the political theorist Richard Hofstadter, “has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus got so far?”
Fast forward to today. A Republican Party that is more conservative than Mr. Goldwater could have imagined controls the White House, Congress, many governors’ mansions and a majority of seats in state legislatures. Back in 1964, John Kenneth Galbraith smugly proclaimed: “These, without doubt, are the years of the liberal. Almost everyone now so describes himself.” Today, a Gallup poll tells us, twice as many Americans (41 percent) describe themselves as “conservative” than as “liberal” (19 percent).
The story goes on at length about how liberalism has been crushed under the boot heel of conservativism over the past few decades, but conservatives are winning the fight for an increasingly shrinking piece of ground. Look at the changes in America over the past 40 years. There’s no question that the biggest losers have been leftists — communism and socialism have been rightfully discredited, and have given way to capitalism in all but a few of the most backward countries in the world. However, most liberals are not leftists.
Behind the leftists, the next biggest losers have been movement conservatives. Let’s start with war. For America, there isn’t a place for mass casualty warfare any longer. People who miss sending Americans off to die by the thousands often encourage people to toughen up, after all, we’ve only lost a few hundred in Iraq. But the American people aren’t buying it — sending hordes of US soldiers to die in large numbers in foreign lands just doesn’t play any more. Conservatives will tell you that’s because we’re a country of wimps now. Chalk it up as a win for liberalism.
Bigotry has gone out of fashion in a big way since 1964 as well, hasn’t it? The racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry that were core values of the conservative movement are obviously taboo these days. It’s hard to remember that 40 years ago a major linchpin of the conservative movement, at least in the South, was segregation. Liberals never got the Equal Rights Amendment, but women have made amazing progress in the fight for equality, rolling back conservatives every step of the way. A “southern” Republican President has a black Secretary of State, and a black woman serving as National Security Advisor. People have grown so sensitive about identity issues that conservatives are relegated to combatting oversensitivity, i.e. “political correctness.” That’s massive progress.
You can credit environmental progress over the past 40 years or so to liberals as well. Liberals advocated a regulatory agenda for the environment that has cleaned up the environment in this country to an amazing degree. We’re actually taking species off of the endangered species list. There’s a ton more work to do, and ground has been lost since Bush became President, but science and liberalism have teamed up to completely redefine how people understand our relationship with the environment. Even Republicans advocate environmentalism, they just call it conservation.
I haven’t even gotten to the fun part yet — social issues. On church and state issues, the conservatives have been beaten back at every turn. We’re actually having a debate in this country about whether it’s even OK to include “ceremonial deism” in government. Not only does abortion remain legal in this country, but the majority of people intend for it to remain so. Homosexuals are getting married in Massachusetts today. Forty years ago, there was no such thing as “gay rights.” Many things that were stigmatized in 1964 are perfectly OK today.
I could go further, but why bother? Despite all their organizing, spending, and bullying, conservatives have succeeded at slowing the forces of liberal progress, but even under the Bush administration, the constant retreat continues. The assertion that conservatives are the ones with all of the ideas is absurd on its face.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that conservatives are always wrong by any stretch of the imagination. Thank goodness somebody was willing to stand up for private enterprise and limited government all these years. I think that marriage and the traditional family are undervalued these days. The point here, though, is that to paint the past 40 years as a big success for conservatives is to miss the forest for the trees.
By the way, I should mention that the biggest winners of the past 40 years have been libertarians. They’ve been on the side of progress on both economic and social issues.