The Mythical Mandate of 2008

The Mythical Mandate of 2008

By James Piereson - December 20, 2010

LESS THAN two years ago, as Barack Obama moved into the White House, the conservative movement in the United States was in disarray, at war with itself, uncertain about its future, and badly damaged by events it did not foresee and could not explain. An unpopular war in Iraq and a financial crisis coming to a head in the middle of the presidential campaign seemed to discredit two foundational pillars of postwar conservatism: a nationalistic foreign policy and a reliance on free markets to spur economic growth. Naturally, there were those eager to overinterpret the results of the 2008 election, declaring the death of conservatism as an influential movement in American politics. George Packer wrote in the New Yorker, E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post, and Sam Tanenhaus in the New Republic (and later in a full-length book) that the conservative era that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had now come to an end with the failed administration of George W. Bush. All three writers, and many others too, argued that Obama's victory marked the beginning of a new liberal era in American politics.

Today, only eighteen months or so into this new age, all the doom-and-gloom forecasts appear in retrospect to have been premature, misguided and based more on wishful thinking than on careful analysis. Going back at least as far as Theodore H. White's award-winning chronicle of the 1960 campaign, journalists have been tempted to turn every presidential election into a historical turning point of some kind. Obama's triumph may yet turn out to have marked such a crossroad, but probably not of the sort these writers imagined.

The premise that the period from 1980 to 2008 was in fact a "conservative era" in national politics is greatly exaggerated. It is true, of course, that conservatives achieved groundbreaking victories in the 1980s by restoring national confidence, igniting a stagnant economy, restructuring the tax system and engineering a military buildup that played a large role in bringing down the Soviet Union. It is also true that conservative ideas had a greater influence in national affairs during this period than at any time in the nation's history-even to the point where a Democratic president could declare in 1996 that "the era of big government is over." Nevertheless, during this so-called conservative ascendance, the federal government's share of GDP was not reduced but merely stabilized, no major domestic social or educational program was terminated, and only one (welfare for the poor) was substantially reformed. More so, the libertarian revolution in cultural affairs launched in the 1960s proceeded apace. In the five presidential elections from 1992 to 2008, Republicans captured a popular majority exactly once, while the Democrats managed to turn several major states (California, Michigan, Illinois and New York) into one-party jurisdictions. Indeed, ever since the late 1980s, American politics have resembled a stalemate more than anything else; the two sides have implicitly agreed to follow conservative policies to promote economic growth while allocating the proceeds to bolster and expand the welfare state. This particular era may have come to an end two years ago, but largely because the engine of growth needed to sustain an expensive government establishment has run out of steam.

The election of 2008 was not a public endorsement of liberalism and a repudiation of conservatism. Perhaps believing that the election gave him an ideological mandate, and blessed with liberal majorities in both houses of Congress, President Obama decided early in his term to govern from the left instead of trying to split his opposition by moving more to the center. As he did so, his approval ratings steadily fell until they reached a point where today more than half of all voters disapprove of his policies and many of his fellow Democrats now refuse to appear with him when he visits their districts. The two signal achievements of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress-an $800 billion stimulus package and the health-care-reform act-are now so unpopular with the voters that those officeholders on the left do not dare bring them up. In the meantime, Republicans have been reenergized by the "Tea Party" movement. More significantly, popular doubts about growing federal deficits and looming tax increases grow unabated. The mythical mandate of the 2008 election collapsed with surprising speed.

Anyone with a basic grasp of political arithmetic could have predicted a year ago that this was likely to happen. There is a decided tendency for critics to endow conservatives and the conservative movement with Wizard of Oz-like characteristics, at once possessed of the power to manipulate events but also ever susceptible to exposure and deserved exile. While conservatives have never had the ability to control the entire course of history, they have built a large and varied movement on the national scene that is not going to disappear anytime soon. Surely one of the more significant political developments in the United States over the last half of the twentieth century was the rise of conservatism from a marginal intellectual movement in 1950 to its position by the end of the 1990s as a rival to liberalism as the nation's most influential public doctrine. It fought its way to that position, not through some underhanded political strategy concocted by Richard Nixon, Patrick Buchanan or Karl Rove, as some liberals have misled themselves into believing, but because it solved a series of public challenges-from crime to the Cold War-that liberals could not, or at least did not, address. Any movement with that kind of political momentum behind it was never likely to evaporate as a consequence of a single lost election.

More to the point, there are now more conservatives in America than there are liberals, which was not the case in 1933 when FDR launched the New Deal or in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson embarked on his Great Society. Gallup polls throughout 2008 and 2009 consistently showed that about 40 percent of Americans classified themselves as conservatives while only 20 percent said that they were liberals. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reported an identical public profile. While not a majority, conservatives make up a highly significant minority of American voters. Surprisingly, the financial crisis and the war in Iraq, while having undoubtedly damaged the Republican brand, do not appear to have dampened in any significant way the public's support for conservative ideas pertaining to free markets and limited government. The fact that conservatism continues to prosper while Republicanism falters is yet one more sign that conservatism is more of an independent movement than just another adjunct of the Republican Party.

This imbalance of forces in public opinion, even allowing for the imprecision of the terms "liberal" and "conservative," is one of the cardinal facts of American politics that should make us wonder, not about the death of conservatism, but rather how a new liberal era was ever going to be built upon the basis of such a meager public following. It suggests why liberals in power, if they are to survive, must tack to the center while conservatives can govern more from the right-and, indeed, why Obama's attempt to reprise FDR and LBJ was bound to fail.


AMERICAN CONSERVATISM began decades ago as a movement of ideas and, notwithstanding its current popular appeal, has managed to maintain its original character. Thus David Brooks has observed that conservatives differ from other political sets in their apparent preoccupation with books, ideas and a handful of influential authors. One rarely hears of liberal groups discussing major works written by the intellectual architects of the welfare state, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly or John Rawls, or sponsoring programs in honor of leading figures like John Maynard Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. One would be hard-pressed to identify an influential book or essay that sets forth the principles of contemporary liberalism as they relate to feminism, multiculturalism, diversity or economic planning. Conservative groups, on the other hand, regularly pay tribute in their programs to the founding fathers of conservative thought; the American Enterprise Institute sponsors an annual Irving Kristol Lecture, and the Manhattan Institute awards an annual Hayek Book Prize.

The texts that energize conservatives are not difficult to identify. The most influential of these publications are: (1) The Road to Serfdom, published by F. A. Hayek in London and in the United States in 1944, which developed the enduring case for classical liberalism; (2) Witness, published by Whittaker Chambers in 1952, and The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk in 1953, which provoked a renewal of Burkean conservatism, which in turn led to the founding in 1954 of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr.; and (3) the Public Interest, a quarterly journal founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell which was the original forum for neoconservatism, a set of ideas that quickly found expression in other influential venues, such as Commentary magazine and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

To a great extent, conservative thought evolved in the postwar period as these writers responded to developing events and also to one another. Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom during the war in response to the gathering momentum of socialism in Great Britain. His antidote was the recovery of the Whig tradition of classical liberalism, out of which the institutions of liberty and limited government first arose in Britain and America. Though Hayek claimed to be a liberal in the old sense, he was also a conservative in the American context because he sought to preserve the Founders' Constitution of liberty. As a consequence, Hayek developed a far larger and more influential following in the United States than he was able to muster on the other side of the Atlantic.

The traditional conservatives, led by Buckley, Kirk and Chambers, found this approach too narrow and inadequate for the challenges posed by Communism and the Soviet Union. The Cold War, they argued, was not solely about preserving liberty but also about the conservation of the religious and moral tradition of the West. Because of their efforts, the postwar challenge to socialism was framed in terms of "conservatism" rather than in terms of Hayek's vision of liberty and individualism.

The neoconservatives, for their part, developed their own synthesis in response to the unraveling of the American welfare state in the 1960s and a parallel rise in anti-American sentiment. From their point of view, the problem with the expanding social safety net was not that it threatened liberty but that it increasingly promoted disorder, crime, broken or unformed families, poor schools and a general loss of authority in society. The problem, in other words, was not that it led to collectivism but that it undermined the middle-class values upon which a successful commercial civilization must be based. Unlike the classical liberals and traditional conservatives, the neoconservatives were not in principle opposed to the welfare state but only to a liberal welfare state that did not uphold the ideals of family, order and community.

All of these writers were conservatives in one or another fundamental sense. An essential aspect of conservatism is the conviction that liberal institutions cannot prosper or even survive on the basis of their own internal resources; they will consume themselves by pushing one or another of their themes-freedom, equality or democracy-to a point of no return. According to the Whig tradition of liberty, republics follow a cycle of rise and inevitable decline as the people or their leaders gradually sacrifice their principles in the pursuit of money, security or power. Conservatives, most of whom respect this tradition of thought, are thus skeptical of liberal notions of inevitable historical progress that do not take into account the ever-present possibilities of corruption and decline. This is one of the key reasons conservatives have always looked for external supports for representative institutions, whether innationalism and patriotism, religion, family and community, or the various "little platoons" of society, as Edmund Burke called them, which provide direction and discipline for liberty and self-interest. Conservatives thus oppose liberal reforms and the further advance of the welfare state because they fear that these developments will erode those private associations and loyalties which sustain and support representative institutions.

As a consequence of this, conservatives look to authors and statesmen like Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, Joseph Schumpeter and, of course, Burke as important sources for their ideas. It was Tocqueville who wrote that American democracy needed to maintain an appreciation of aristocratic excellence to prevent the passion for equality from overwhelming liberty. Schumpeter, fellow Austrian to Hayek, argued that capitalism needed support from precapitalist institutions like the family and church to uphold the moral values that allowed it to thrive. Even James Madison, who hoped that the Constitution contained sufficient internal protections to maintain itself, acknowledged that an element of virtue in the public was necessary to the success of the republican experiment. The seminal conservative thinkers of our era are generally agreed on this larger point, though they have identified these external supports in different areas-Hayek in the founders' Constitution, Buckley and his colleagues in religion, family and tradition, and Kristol and the neoconservatives in bourgeois virtues and patriotism.


THESE AUTHORS, books and publications are still read by conservatives as authoritative sources for their principles and ideas. Despite the passage of time and the accumulation of events, the classical liberals, traditional conservatives and neoconservatives still represent the main lines of conservative thinking. None, to the surprise of critics, has been discredited among conservatives by recent events-not the classical liberals by the financial crash, not the traditional conservatives by the libertarian cultural politics of our day and not the neoconservatives by the war in Iraq.

The conservative counterattack against the Obama administration has received equal and enthusiastic support from all three directions. And no one finds any sign of internecine warfare among conservatives in the pages of the various intellectual beachheads of neoconservatism and traditional conservatism as one did during the 1980s, for example. Then, some traditionalists complained about the influence of neoconservatives in the Reagan administration. Even before that, traditionalists attacked classical liberals for their libertarian take on moral issues. And more recently, during the presidency of George W. Bush, Buckley and others challenged the neoconservative campaign to export democracy to the Middle East.

At the same time, little that is new or fundamental has been added to the conservative movement since the neoconservatives arrived on the scene. It still runs by and large on that set of ideas developed in the postwar period in response to totalitarianism, socialism, and an expanding and self-confident welfare state. It remains to be seen if these will be adequate to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

This latter point is evident today in the surprising revival of Hayek as a basic source of criticism of current liberal policies coming out of Washington. The critique of Obama's agenda is increasingly framed in popular circles in terms of "big government" as a threat to liberty and the constitutional order. The Road to Serfdom recently rose to the top of best-seller lists after a popular television host urged his viewers to read it as the clearest diagnosis of the challenges posed by liberal policies. Classical liberalism, which a few decades ago was judged by liberals and many conservatives to be out-of-date, is increasingly being presented as an alternative to the Democratic agenda. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has similarly framed the debate as one of "free enterprise" versus "big government." The Road to Serfdom, however, while a penetrating diagnosis of the corruptions of the welfare state, offers few prescriptions for unwinding it in its mature phase. Hayek warned us not to go down that road in the first place; he did not explain what we should do once we have traveled a considerable distance along it. In an ideal world, these massive national programs would be eliminated. But so long as they exist, conservatives will be forced to deal with them in ways that at least appear positive and constructive.

What we see, then, are conservatives returning to the well of established ideas in their opposition to current liberal initiatives. It is ironic, and perhaps appropriate, that in response to these new programs, conservative thought should come around full circle to the ideals of classical liberalism out of which it was first formed. Yet, in the end, classical liberalism is an effective critique of the left, but it does not offer a philosophy of governance for a nation with a large bureaucratic establishment and substantial responsibilities to maintain order in the world. All of this means that once they regain power, conservatives will have to craft a new governing consensus out of the loose strands of their movement-but this time without the luxury of a period out of power during which they might have refined and tested some of those ideas.


ABOVE ALL-and in spite of the potential intellectual jockeying to come-conservatism will continue to operate as a political force in the years and decades ahead because it has turned itself into a popular, even a populist, movement-something few thought possible when conservatism first took shape. Indeed, popular conservatism still seems almost a contradiction in terms for those who take their bearings from abstract theories as to what conservatism should be: a force for order, continuity, and rule by the best and brightest. Yet in a democratic polity such as exists in the United States, conservatism could not have thrived as an intellectual movement alone without also channeling its ideas into a popular force. Its success in doing so was achieved through a long process by which conservative ideas and critiques of liberalism were developed far in advance of the popular support they eventually earned.

Critics, from Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s to Sam Tanenhaus more recently, have denied that a popular conservatism can exist because, in their view, conservatism must sacrifice its distinctive elements in the process of winning a mass following. They have found American conservatism wanting when compared to that model derived from Edmund Burke's ever-famous writings on the French Revolution. After all, Burke did endorse governance by the talented, supportedthe status quo (with gradual reform), andpreferredprudence and realism as guides to political action over abstract theories and principles.American conservatism, on the other hand, beginning with anti-Communism, running through the Reagan and Bush IIpresidencies, and now adapting to the current Tea Party movement, has exploited popular appeals, attacked the status quo and "the establishment," used terms like "the conservative revolution," and, especially in foreign policy, proposed an "idealistic" rather than a "realistic" approach to dealing withforeignthreats. In view of this, it is not hard to see why some critics claim that American conservatism is not an authentically conservative movement.

Yet this line of criticismisvalid only if we concede thatthe Burkean ideal isthe sole standard according to whichmodernconservatism should be judged or, indeed,that Burke's principlescanbe extracted from the context in which they were developed and readily applied tocontemporary politics. The conservative movement is clearly a mixture of both Burkean and non-Burkean elements. It originated, in addition, out of several factors that are peculiar to the American scene.If we make theseallowances,we see that American conservatives are "conservative" nevertheless, but in ways unique to the nation.

American conservatism has taken on this aspect exactly because it originated outside the political mainstream and, despite the victories of the Reagan years and its currently strong representation in public opinion, it has never really functioned comfortably within it. Conservatism in the past, particularly in Great Britain, arose from inside the government-or in very close proximity to it-as a defense of established interests or patterns of politics. As an opposition movement in a democratic system, American conservatives can only gain power by taking their case to the public in order to win converts to their cause and, incidentally, to discredit the authority of the status quo. As long as it is on the outside looking in, such a movement must appear out of harmony with some of Burke's key political principles.

Because it developed as a challenge to business as usual, and particularly to the New Deal and its successive iterations, American conservatism embodies many of the features of an insurgent or oppositional group. Conservatives, accordingly, have always described their enterprise as a "movement," which brings up the image of an active and dedicated membership moving toward some definite destination. They continue to do so even though conservatism has by now growninto alarge and complex enterprise. Despite their many successes and the growth of their cause, most conservatives still think of themselves as an embattled minority fighting a proud and insulated establishment. Shut out of liberal institutions, such as elite-college faculties and the national press, along with mainline churches and even government itself, conservatives have set up their own counterinstitutions in the form of think tanks, radio and television networks, magazines, book publishers, citizen associations, charitable foundations, newspapers, and even a few colleges with conservative faculty and curricula. Within this framework, conservatives attend meetings and conferences, form friendships and associations, and develop and exchange ideas without ever having to come in contact with liberals (in this sense, emulating in reverse liberal-college faculties and journalistic associations). From these redoubts, they rally the public against the liberal establishment, often with impressive success and much to the alarm of liberal critics who are prone to view them as dangerous radicals.

Conservatives have in this way created their own "nation" within the nation, replete with its own culture, institutions and prominent personalities. In past generations, class, ethnic, religious and regional cultures have placed their stamps on parties and cause-oriented movements. Rarely has a philosophical orientation in politics been able to shape a unique culture. This is what allows conservatives to span boundaries and borders-be they social or geographical.

As a political insurgency, American conservatives also have naturally adopted the language of opposition, speaking of "revolution" when they mean only an orderly change in policy, and attacking "elites," "the establishment" and an "out-of-control government." The movement is distinguishable from a political party by its emphasis on principles and philosophy,its interest in recruiting only like-minded members and its focus upon large goals rather than incremental changes in policy. Because of this character, the conservative movementis not much interested in "the politics of compromise" or in accommodations withliberalism and liberal politics. Conservatism thus remains even now a movement of ideas and philosophy rather than, like a political party, a collection or coalition of interests.

As a separate culture, conservatism has a built-in resistance to being killed off because, even if the voters should abandon it temporarily, its institutions will undoubtedly persist to prepare the ground for renewed battles. Political parties die when they lose too many elections, but movements can continue intact in the face of persistent defeats until their goals have been reached or they have been absorbed into the mainstream operations of government. In fact, the conservative movement may be more in its element in opposition, when principles can be advocated in pure form, rather than in power when those principles are inevitably adulterated by compromise. Recent setbacks and a renewed challenge from liberalism may have reinvigorated the movement after the Bush years, and may have brought new recruits into the ranks. If that is so, the 2008 election, instead of killing off conservatism, may have created the conditions for its renewal.


SEVERAL YEARS ago, in an excellent history of the conservative movement in the United States, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both writers for the Economist magazine, pointed out that the influence of the American conservative movement is one of the features that provides the nation with its unique and exceptional identity in the world.1 To the extent that this is true, and there is much to be said for their thesis, it is American conservatism that has opened up the chasm between the politics of the United States and that found in other industrial nations of the world.

After all, the American Left, with its industrial unions, government workers and liberal intellectuals, has its obvious counterparts in Great Britain, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe. The Democratic Party, though not as far to the left as its Continental counterparts, would not be out of place within the European context. But though much may be similar, those commonalities all exist on one side of the political spectrum. It is thus definitely not the American Left that makes the United States an exceptional nation.

American conservatism, on the other hand, is a unique and unusual movement in the modern world. Its various affiliated groups promoting liberty and free markets, lower taxes, religion and traditional morality, or patriotism and national strength, are largely unknown elsewhere. There exists no political institution in Europe that resembles the various components of the conservative movement, such as the Moral Majority, the National Rifle Association, the various tax-limitation and patriotic groups now active, or the Tea Party movement. And conservatism's prominent representatives, from Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich, would make little headway in other countries. While conservatism exists elsewhere as a philosophy of government, it nowhere else takes the form it has assumed in the United States.

In this sense, the conservative movement increasingly defines American exceptionalism in the contemporary world. That movement is unlikely to die anytime soon, but if it should ever do so, much that is exceptional about America will have died, too.

1 See John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

This piece first appeared in the November-December 2010 issue of The National Interest.

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