Conservatives often complain that they’ve been exiled from power, whether in the corridors of the Capitol or the pages of the New York Times. Yet conservative ideas have dominated American politics for thirty years. The centerpiece of that dominance is the notion that the market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom. Despite the Great Recession and election of Barack Obama, the most progressive candidate to win the presidency since 1964, that idea retains its hold. The ideological realignment we have been waiting for, in which that idea is repudiated, has yet to come.
One reason for the dominance of this idea is that since the ’70s, liberals and leftists have misidentified the source of conservatism’s appeal. Confident that no one short of a millionaire could endorse the right’s economic ideology, everyone from Clintonite centrists to radical populists has treated conservatism as essentially a politics of distraction and delusion. Conservatives, it’s said, are just good salespeople, wrapping their ugly wares in the pretty paper of the culture wars. The way to combat them is not to challenge their ideas or defend ours but to use prettier wrapping paper.
Instead of confronting the allure of the free market, as conservatives understand it, liberals have tried to co-opt the discourse of traditional values. Painting themselves as the new Victorians, they’ve claimed, We stand for thrift and family, God and country. We put people to work rather than on welfare. We don’t spend recklessly; we reduce the deficit. We provide security: not just the physical security of cops on the street, crooks behind bars and troops in Afghanistan but the economic security of shared risk and protection from risk. We stand for responsibilities over rights, safety over freedom, constraint rather than counterculture.
This strategy might have something to recommend it if it worked. But it hasn’t. When right-wing ideas dominate, we get right-wing policies. After the midterm elections in November, it seemed the most natural thing in the world—to the right, the media, Obama and parts of the Democratic Party—to freeze the pay of federal workers and extend the Bush tax cuts for two years. Incoherent as policy—the first presumes that the deficit is the greatest threat to the economy; the second, the lack of consumer spending—it makes sense as ideology. The best (and only) thing the government can do for you and the economy is to get out of your way.
There’s a second reason conservative ideas are still dominant. Many liberals have failed to overcome their sense that however much they might question the bona fides of the other side, they lack the intellectual wherewithal to manage the economy. Roosevelt’s Brain Trust had a self-confidence born of the widespread belief that the business class had discredited itself, and a conviction that it had the answers where the businessman did not. That will to power, rooted in ideas, is hard to find on the left today. When it comes to the economy, too many liberals agree in their heart of hearts with conservatives: let the men of money decide.
If there is to be a true realignment—not just of parties but of principles, not just of policy preferences or cognitive frames but of deep beliefs and ideas—we must confront conservatism’s political philosophy. That philosophy reflects more than a bloodless economics or narrow self-interest; it draws from and drives forward a distinctly moral vision of freedom, with deep roots in American political thought.