Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Legacy of "Conservatism"

An interesting question: what now amid the wreckage can be seen as the legacy of "conservative" governance over the past 38 years (from the time of Reagan's ascendance) - what did it accomplish? The answer that begs to be spoken: not much. Or maybe: too much (destruction).

By standard measures the record looks poor. While the stock market is higher than it was in the 1980s, a good deal of its rise was the result of the fiscally responsible Clinton 90's. The national mood is about where it was at the end of Carter's term. Military morale is likely higher than it was when Reagan took office, but it's not soaring, and military families are bearing the huge brunt of our "war" against terror. More or less unlimited abortion remains the law of the land - though the actual numbers of abortions dropped during the Clinton presidency. Meanwhile, our culture is coarser, more baldly pornographic and replete with sarcasm. Most young people get their news from "The Daily Show" or the "Colbert Report." Many of America's major industries - banking, airlines, automobiles, and most of its manufacturing base - is catatonic. Oil prices - while they have dropped in anticipation of our descent into a new Depression - remain historically high, and will rise again when economic activity reasserts itself, since the fundamental story remains supply constraint and the growth of China and India. We import a far greater percentage of oil for domestic consumption now than when the "conservative era" began: approximately 28% in 1981, compared to 67% now. Recall that one of Ronald Reagan's first official acts upon assuming the Presidency was to tear down the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had had installed. The size of government has everywhere increased; the national deficit is larger than ever; our indebtedness to foreign nations is massive; housing foreclosures are rampant, housing values are plummeting, and people are more insecure than I've seen in my lifetime. We are on the verge of witnessing the largest government bailout of "private" industry in the nation's history, an act being urged by a "conservative" President and the barons of Wall Street.

But still - we will be told that THE great legacy of conservative governance, and Ronald Reagan especially, was the defeat of the Soviet Union. Well, yes. But really - did we win? For twenty years we have crowed about the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was right to celebrate its demise. But did their defeat really constitute our "victory?" The story is that Reagan defeated the Soviets by massively increasing defense spending, resulting in their effort to keep up and subsequent financial strains that could not be sustained. To achieve this end, Reagan increased spending without cutting significantly elsewhere in the budget, committing us to years of deficits that were momentarily brought under control by Clinton. At the same time, he abandoned Carter's commitment to make us energy independent from "foreign oil" (read: oil), setting up our current military engagements in that area of "vital national interests" - the Middle East. That money pit is draining billions of dollars from our national pockets, a legacy of what was once quaintly called "the peace dividend."

However, this narrative may not even be quite true, as I've written about previously. A number of analysts (some with solid conservative credentials) have argued that what actually defeated the Soviets was America's ability to persuade the Saudi's to flood the markets with oil, thereby leading the Soviet's resource-based economy to collapse. If so, this was likely a Pyhrric victory, since current constraints in Saudi production (accelerated by the overproduction in the 1980s) are helping to make those same natural gas and oil reserves in Russia immensely valuable. Their increasing wealth - dominated by a small cadre of strong nationalists - is supporting a reassertion of national power and international ambitions (e.g., their recent "deal" with Venezuela). They have proven that we can't do anything about their sphere of influence (Georgia) but that they can play in our backyard.

One thing is certain: the American century is officially over. It may be the Chinese or the Russian century, or the beginning of the second Dark Age. But yesterday we saw clearly that we've all been fiddling while America drowned.

What must Vlad be thinking as he watches America's financial collapse and its own descent into socialism? Perhaps he is reflecting on the vaunted Russian sense of history, its understanding that nations rise and fall, and that Russia was never to be counted out. Perhaps he is paging through old clippings of American leaders declaring victory, crowing about a "uni-polar" world, the "indispensable" nation, the new Rome (perhaps he smiles, "how fitting"). Regardless, from his perspective - and ours - one rightly wonders about the legacy of the rise of a peculiar "conservatism" that was defined by a kind of Emersonian optimism, financial profligacy, disregard of conservation, neglect of culture in the name of "freedom" and individualism, the dismantling of jobs done by hand, and a disregard of history. It is breathtaking to consider.


Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up under Reagan and Bush I, it is hard to admit that you are right about most of what you say. I might add that abortions have continued to decline under W, but that seems a small thing in comparison with everything else.

In a lot of ways Reagan was the president we wanted. He was ahead of his time in that he anticipated the rise of celebrity culture and played to America's therapeutic sensibilities. He made us feel good about being Americans and restored a sense of pride. Now it is evident that he stoked out national hubris and paved the way for this great unraveling.

I do have to say one thing in his defense, however. I admire Reagan for admitting that he had been wrong in his nuclear brinksmanship. When he realized the potential for annihilation he backed away from his aggressive stance and began to work with Gorbachev. I wish our current leaders would have the prudence to admit that they were wrong and that they failed to lead us.

That being said, I wonder if conservatism can ever be a governing philosophy at the federal level. It paid great dividends to the GOP to grab the banner of conservatism--control of the presidency for all but 8 years since 1980, controlling Congress from 1994-2006--but in the end the GOP used its power to reward party operatives and not to change things in Washington.

At this point my only hope is that the financial disaster and the glaring inadequacies of the current presidential nominee will put the GOP in its grave. Maybe then we can get a political party that does more than pay lip service to conservatism.

Although the situation is not exactly the same, the last years of W are starting to look a lot like the John Major administration in the UK. The fact that the Tories have been out of power since 1997 should let conservatives know how long it might be before the country trusts them with significant power again.

Unknown said...

I don't discount your American analysis, but I do think that you underestimate the degree to which these very same issues are at play throughout the world. The Europeans are every bit as leveraged as the US (Ireland, UK, Spain all have far more disastrous real estate markets). The Chinese 'miracle' is even more based the phantasm of growth/progress than the US at this point. This just seems to be a classic of American exceptionalism - which has its negative and positive kinds.

brierrabbit said...

I agree Reagan, and the republicans have had thier downside, but I think making Clinton of all people, an economic hero, is not really a good idea. Reagan came in, because people were sick of Carter. I don't think Reagans landslide was all just delusionary politics on the part of the american people. Clinton made sleazy, a household word. Came to the oval office in shorts and t-shirts. Reagan respected the office enough to wear a suit. Both parties have contributed to this mess. Both Democrats, and Republicans went for the trough of big money that Wall Street dished out.The problem is a cultural one that the whole body politic has. We all are infected to some degree by this pernicious belief in getting something for nothing, and that we must have growth forever, and that there are no limits. I think Obama, for instance, might get us farther down the road to a more sustainable, and economically fairer country, but the groups on the Left that support him, could make getting there with thier cultural desires, highly unpleasant for those of us who are culturally conservative. I'm hoping that the Democrats actually having to "govern" the WHOLE country, not just the coasts, might finally drag them back toward the political middle. McCain might get us a more culturally comfortable White House, but I wonder how far toward a more sensible economic, and enviromental policy he would be willing to buck his party to go. "Drill, Drill,Drill" doesn't sound too promising to me. God help us. We get the leaders we deserve, I guess.

Anonymous said...

You write a post complaining that the man who won the Cold War took down Jimmy Carter's solar panels.

Are you serious?

I have tried to read this blog on a few occasions. I just can't take it seriously. Warmed over Marxism.

V-Dawg said...

Mr. Deneen: Your analysis that things aren't better off than when Reagan ascended seems to ignore some relevant points.
America was attacked in 2001. The fact that it has not been attacked again probably has something to do with Bush's actions since then. (And might I point out that Clinton failed to deal with Bin Laden after earlier attacks.)
As for coarser culture, I am not certain how much the president can do about that; if he can make a significant difference, then Clinton certainly bears a lot of blame for increased coarseness.
"Conservatives" certainly have not always been conservative, but there are accomplishments, and I see no evidence that liberals would have done even as well as conservatives.

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