The centrist policies of the Obama administration—as well as those followed by all the other major economies—got us out of a severe economic crisis but not into a decisive recovery. Problems not solved raise the ire of problem-solvers. Consequently, the left and right raise their voices and accuse each other of mindless intransigence and rote thinking.
Michael Tomasky let loose on conservatives in September 29th’s New York Review of Books. His opening target was the entertaining hater Ann Coulter and her latest book, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. However, he goes on to argue that the Republican Party itself is now so extreme that it has lost the flexibility to bargain in good faith, and that its radicalism is the product of self-hypnosis:
“How did this happen? Usually a political movement is driven by its ideas. Then it chooses the rhetoric it thinks best advances the ideas. I’ve long thought that sometime in the 1990s, this normal process reversed itself on the American right, and rhetoric began driving, and even elbowing out, ideas. Once this wall is breached, compromised on any important issue becomes impossible, and responsible policy-making nearly so.”
Ideas smartly dressed in clever rhetoric go further than ideas without a common language. However, does rhetoric really have a life of its own? Don’t old ideas have a natural advantage over new ideas? Don’t barkers on both the left and right use slogans because they evoke those ideas?
Let’s acknowledge that even talking about an idea over a considerable period of time creates an advantage for that idea in the market of ideas, and that successful slogans—Just Society, Missile Gap, Balanced Budget Amendment, New Deal, Silent Majority, Save the Planet, War on Poverty, Equality of Opportunity, for instance—make it easier to stop thinking and just hammer the other guy.
In conflict, we talk ourselves into extremes and we stay there until pressing circumstances make us feel a little uncomfortable and eventually open us to change.
The undeniable stridency of today’s leadership of the Republican Party, however, has as much to do with a change in the heartland of American conservatism than with how their heads are wired.
Northeastern conservative gentlemen were not tempered by electoral success—more often than not they lost national elections in the 20th century. And Southwestern conservative radicals have not been radicalized by the corruption of too many defeats. Rather, the power base of American and Canadian conservatism has moved to the younger, less timid, less compromising, and more adventuresome—less established—centers of power.
The conflicts within society and about the role of government are not any more extreme today than in the past—hopefully, still less so. However, conservatives today fundamentally represent less traditional conservative constituencies.
Former Canadian Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark was scolded for noting that he represented the “building end” of the Canadian federation. Yet, what he said about Western Canada was literally true. The businesses, the sprawling neighborhoods and the wealth of the Western and the Southwestern elites of North America were created over the last two generations, not over the last two centuries. And their reputations and power are less secure.
The upstarts today certainly believe that they succeed by more readily taking risks and by more enthusiastically taking up new ideas—and, in large measure, this is true. Older elites just as surely think that they have been able to keep their power by trimming others’ ideas as well as their own.
That these forces continue to talk to each other and influence each other’s opinions, of course, is critical to sustaining the civility and unified dynamism of this continent.