Modern conservatism is dying. There’s still an election to be held, but conservatism as we’ve known it since Ronald Reagan is failing—ground down in the desert of Iraq, drowned in the floods of Hurricane Katrina, foreclosed by the housing crisis and poisoned by toys imported from China.
The American people are figuring this out. While conservatives repeat their time-worn slogans—“small government, low taxes, high security”—the American people are living the consequences.
We’ve seen eight years of a conservative presidency, six years overlapping with a conservative Congress, and 30 years of broadly conservative ideology. Now reality is showing how the values embodied in those slogans have been betrayed.
Conservatives say “shrink government.” We get inadequate levees, exploding steam pipes and schools without textbooks. Conservatives say “deregulate,” and now Thomas the Tank Engine is painted with toxic lead. Conservatives say “low taxes,” but it primarily applies to millionaires, billionaires and crony corporations.
What follows is a history of these problems, and the direction people want to go instead.
Appealing slogans, disastrous results
The conservative shibboleth—“small government, low taxes, high security”—has timeless appeal, founded on genuine moral and constitutional values. But the application of those values by today’s conservatives is frightening.
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”—Ronald Reagan, First inaugural address, January 1981.
“My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”—Grover Norquist, Executive Director, Americans for Tax Reform.
The modern conservative movement is united less by belief in small government—a traditional constitutional value—than by disdain for government. They don’t just want to shrink it. They want to drown it in a bathtub. Such disdain courts exactly the kind of disasters we got.
Hurricane Katrina. A shrunken government failed in fundamental responsibilities when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Crucial levees had been left to rot and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been “systematically downgraded and all but dismantled.” Reconstruction remains a forgotten promise.
Decaying Infrastructure. While government shrinks, America falls apart. A highway bridge collapses in Minneapolis and a steam pipe bursts in Manhattan. One out of four bridges is “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” Commuters waste hours in gridlock. School roofs leak and children share textbooks. State colleges raise tuition at three times the rate of inflation as states cut back public support. “Starve the beast,” conservatives say. But what they really starve are the triumphs of previous generations and investments vital to our future.
Free Market Faith
“The best minds are not in government; if they were, business would steal them away.”—Ronald Reagan
“The average Halliburton hand knows more about the world than the average member of Congress.”—Vice President Dick Cheney
Conservatives disdain government but they revere the private sector. They think that government involvement in private enterprise is bad, and that everything done for profit will be done well. Conservatives seem to forget that the purpose of profit is profit. Business interests might well line up with the interests of government and taxpayers, but they might not. At those moments, government is supposed to be on the side of the people. That push and pull makes the system work; a one-sided system works for no one.
Enron and Friends. Deregulation of electricity led to the Enron fiasco. Without government supervision, Enron artificially limited the power supply in California and drove up prices. The ompact of the ensuing inflation of Enron stock value with no real economic basis is best understood by Enron employees who lost their pensions when the company went bankrupt. But Enron was not alone. Worldcom, Adelphia and hosts of other business debacles prove that markets need grown-up supervision.
The Housing Bubble. Failed regulation of the financial sector brought us the housing bubble. It became rare for banks and other mortgage issuers to hold mortgages, so they no longer cared whether the borrower could pay the mortgage. Instead, these companies made their money from the fees they charged the borrowers and quickly sold the mortages into the secondary market. They loans were then packaged into mortgage-backed securities, which were in turn packaged into “collaterized debt obligations” and other complex assets that were sold around the world to investors, many of whom had no idea what they were buying. This new finance structure, in which those who put up the money had no knowledge of the value of the underlying asset, pushed up home values beyond the reach of ordinary buyers. In response, homebuyers turned increasingly to risky instruments that created artificial money to buy houses at artificially high prices—until the bubble finally burst.
Consumer Safety. Deregulation of consumer products led to e-coli in our spinach, salmonella in our peanut butter and lead in our Barbie dolls. Agricultural inspectors sat on the sidelines while forklifts carried “downer cows”—who cannot walk and are presumptively unsafe for human consumption—for slaughter and sale as food.
Halliburton. The vice president’s firm receives billions in no-bid contracts, despite marginal and often inadequate performance Most recently, a unit spun off from Halliburton provided water to military bases in Iraq that sickens troops.
“Low taxes” as practiced under conservative rule is less about minimizing the tax burden on working people than about budget gimmickry that rewards friends and conceals deficits.
The biggest break for the richest people. Millionaires got an average $118,000 annual break from the Bush tax cuts, while average middle-income households got only $740. Billionaire money manager Warren Buffett points out that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his receptionist (and he would willingly change).
Subsidizing record profits. Oil companies pocket billions in subsidies and tax breaks while racking up the largest profits in corporate history. Corporations get tax breaks for moving jobs abroad.
The moral values crusade has turned morality into a burlesque. Conservative leaders are obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research—issues that divide and confuse. They don’t care enough about the morals we learned in kindergarten. Share. Wait your turn. Treat others as you want to be treated yourself.
And conservatism entirely misses the big picture. It doesn’t see the greed and materialism tearing us apart. It doesn’t see poverty and economic injustice, or refugees fleeing genocide. It doesn’t care for the green Earth that earlier generations protected in national parks.
Terri Schiavo. Conservatives put her family through hell before honoring her husband’s request to remove life support. Blinded by faith, conservatives cast aside honored principles of small government and states’ rights.
Choice. Conservatives seek to deny women the right to decide whether to have a child on her own. They don’t seem to care about the women’s own decision, the risk to her health or the child’s well-being after birth. And they insist on teaching only abstinence during sex education in schools, though a mixed curriculum shows better results. Abortion-obsessed conservatives even force their morals onto foreign policy by denying U.S. government aid to organizations in countries that allow abortion in addition to contraception, family planning or other health programs.
Cowboy-booted conservatives constantly tell us how much danger we’re in and how much we need them to keep us safe. From crime to drugs to terrorism, conservatives wear the security mantle. Meanwhile, they ignore real risks, dismiss success stories and stir up hornets nests all over the world.
Iraq. Conservatives chose to invade Iraq on trumped-up charges of weapons of mass destruction. Now oil prices have skyrocketed, Baghdad has become a recruiting ground for jihadists, we’re bankrupting ourselves, and American standing has never been lower in the world.
|They Say …||We get…|
|Shrink Government —||The drowning of New Orleans|
|Higher state college tuition|
|Stuck in traffic …|
||Deregulation —||Housing bubbles|
|Enron economics …|
|Low taxes —||Higher tax rates than billionaires|
|Oil company subsidies for record profits…|
|Moral values —||Terry Schiavo, yes|
|Stem cell research, no…|
|High security —||Iraq…|
Conservative Policies: Not what people want
Behind the high-level principles lay specific policies. Here again, conservative choices diverge from policies people want. Here are some polls about some signature policies.
Health care reform is a top priority for America’s voters. A Gallup survey in November 2007 revealed 81 percent of Americans are “dissatisfied” with health care in this country, with 56 percent saying the health care system “has major problems.” Health care routinely appears at the top of voter concerns, mixed in with Iraq and the economy, depending on the exact question.
When asked how to deal with health care problems, people do not respond from a conservative position. They don’t talk about getting government out of the way or promoting individual responsibility. Quite the contrary, Gallup’s survey showed an overwhelming belief that it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage (64 percent to 33 percent). A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters in October 2007 showed that voters care more about covering the uninsured than keeping costs down (53 percent to 41 percent), even though most voters (94 percent) are insured. People want our government to be involved, not to shrink.
A survey by CBS News and the New York Times went one step further, asking people not only if they want the federal government to guarantee health insurance for all Americans (64 percent yes vs. 27 percent no), but whether they would be willing to pay extra for it. Even with money on the line, people wanted expanded health care. Four times as many people thought the government should “guarantee health insurance” even if “the cost of your own health insurance would go up” (48 percent vs. 11 percent). Similarly, four times as many people said it was more important to expand access to health care than maintain the Bush tax cuts (76 percent vs. 18 percent).
Americans are tired of rising fuel prices, but they want more than just cheaper gas. They are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, and they want an entirely new energy policy. Democracy Corps’ survey of voters in April 2007 found 65 percent say our energy policy is “seriously off on the wrong track,” compared to just 27 percent who say it’s “headed in the right direction.” A survey by CBS News and the New York Times in April 2007 revealed 63 percent disapproval of George Bush’s “handling of the energy situation,” and only 27 percent approval.
In addition to disapproving of current policy choices, Americans are pointing where they want to go. Surveys by Gallup and CBS News indicate a higher priority on conservation than production (Gallup, 64 percent to 26 percent; CBS, 68 percent to 21 percent). The Democracy Corps survey of voters shows they want to “act immediately” on global warming (64 percent). Nearly three out of four voters (74 percent) want to “move from oil to alternative fuels for our vehicles because it will cause less pollution, stop global warming and make us more energy independent.”
Most tellingly, Americans do not view alternative energy as a threat. By an overwhelming margin (79 percent to 17 percent) voters surveyed by Democracy Corps believe that “shifting to new, alternative energy production will help America’s economy and create jobs, not cost Americans jobs.” Even if there were costs, people are willing to pay them. The CBS News/New York Times survey showed that 64 percent of Americans are “willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline and other fuels if the money was used for research into renewable sources like solar and wind energy.” Fully three out of every four (75 percent) Americans would be “willing to pay more for electricity if it were generated by renewable sources like solar or wind energy” in order to reduce global warming.
Nobody likes to pay taxes, but the conservatives have manipulated that sentiment for political gain despite real world consequences, and people are starting to catch on. A January 2008 Wall Street Journal survey of adults shows more saying the Bush tax cuts were “not worth it” than “worth it” (45 percent to 42 percent). Democracy Corp’s poll of likely voters in December 2007 reveals more frustration that taxes are “unfair” (56 percent) than that they are “too high” (39 percent). Tax cuts provide less a sense of relief than an indication of which side the government is on—and people don’t like what they see. The biggest tax problems were loopholes and inequality. These troubled likely voters twice as much as high payments, even in Republican districts (51 percent vs. 24 percent).
The Bottom Line: A Dying Ideology
These surveys show that conservative policies diverge considerably from public opinion. Although it’s possible to win elections under such circumstances, it does not bode well for the health of a mass political movement.
Indeed, John McCain’s presidential campaign indicates the weakness of the conservative estate. Sometimes McCain brands himself as a “true conservative,” but he’s famous for being a maverick, an independent who bucks the conservative party line—and thus many “movement conservatives” have not rallied to his candidacy. Other candidates who proudly declared themselves conservative in recent months have not survived primaries or special elections. The March special election victory of progressive Democrat Bill Foster in the Illinois district that had been held by the fiercely conservative former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is a particularly dramatic example. That doesn’t mean Democrats will win in November—personalities, trust, personal attacks and get-out-the-vote efforts certainly matter—but conservatism is far from alive and well.