The end of the conservative road

Donald Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 10, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

Liking his chances. (REUTERS – Harrison McClary)

In the lead-up to the 2015 Canadian federal election I offered a few thoughts on what was happening south of the border. At the time, the presidential primaries were just getting started and we were witnessing the unlikely rise of Donald J. Trump as a Republican contender. Now, as the primary process draws to a close and Trump appears to be headed toward becoming the Republican party’s nominee, it might be a good time to expand a bit on what I said.

Here are the relevant parts from that earlier post:

[The] problem with the Republicans may be that a particular historical strand of American conservatism has played itself out. In terms of cultural conservatism it seems as though the “culture wars” are, if not over, at least moving into a new, yet-to-be-determined phase. The right to an abortion is now settled, and the fight over gay marriage mostly is too. Human-driven climate change is a fact accepted by everyone who is not a complete idiot. The idea that the U.S. can build a wall separating itself from Mexico (or Canada), and somehow round up all its illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin is laughable. And yet all of this can be found in the platforms of leading Republican candidates.

When it comes to economic or fiscal conservatism the picture is just as bleak for right-wing politicians. In a nutshell: what advantage do they offer over the center or center-left? Economic inequality has continued to grow unabated under Democratic presidents, and it seems very unlikely that Hillary Clinton will do anything to stop these trends. If you’re a member of the 1%, or 0.1%, or the 0.01%, you have nothing to worry about: the Dems have your back. If you want to say that neoliberalism won the battle for ideas I don’t think that would be far from the mark (leaving aside the question of what such a victory means). And that being so, what is there left to mobilize right-wing voters who are fiscal conservatives?

In short, the conservative movement has found itself left behind on almost every issue. This doesn’t mean they’re doomed to irrelevancy, far from it, but it does mean that either they or the world will need to change course in some dramatic way for them to regain power. And I am inclined to think it’s the world that is more likely to change first.

Where does this leave conservatives? Primarily as an anti-government party. This is a ridiculous position for any national political party to take, but in at least one sense it may have some traction. I sense a growing divide between public (unionized) and private sector workers both in Canada and the U.S. that could make for a coming split between a party of the state and a party of everyone else. If there is a future for the right it may be here.

Perhaps I made a mistake in my wondering over the future of “the right.” The fact is, both Clinton and Trump are right-wing candidates. As I pointed out, neoliberalism has swept the field in the battle of ideas. With Hillary Clinton being supported by figures like Henry Kissinger and Charles Koch, there clearly isn’t a whole lot of room left for Republicans to maneuver. The problem facing the right is that, as I said in my earlier post, they’ve been left behind. As a result, there is a need for both Republicans and the Canadian Conservative Party to reset entirely.

It’s hard to overstate just how badly the core elements in the right’s traditional political platform have been damaged. National security and foreign affairs, for example, have long been considered a Republican strength. But the war in Iraq is now widely seen as having been ill-advised and poorly executed, while the national security state is something that makes a lot of people on the left and the right nervous. In his campaign Trump was not afraid to call the Iraq war a mistake or to point to the fact that George W. Bush did not in fact keep America safe during his time in office. By now about the only thing that Republicans can do to make themselves sound tough is to threaten nuclear war.

The other core issue for the right has been fiscal stewardship and management of the economy. Here again, however, right-wing or neoliberal policies (free trade, lower taxes, less government regulation, etc.) have been a disaster. That these policies have been adopted and endorsed by establishment Democrats does not change this, though such a move to the right has added to the popularity of more progressive figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Here is Paul Campos, writing in Salon, with some of the details:

For the last several decades, the Republican party has been selling a simple economic message to its base: what is good for rich people is good for you too.  And, until this election, the base was buying it.  The astonishing rise of Donald Trump is an almost apocalyptic sign that they’re not buying it any more.

The GOP establishment has seen all of its candidates not merely beaten, but utterly humiliated, by an aggressively ignorant demagogue, whose rhetoric makes him sound like a cheap knockoff of Benito Mussolini and George Wallace.

Why? A look at the facts of American economic life suggests that the rubes have decided they’re tired of being played for marks, which explains why the GOP establishment’s siren song about the Land of Opportunity is no longer doing the trick.

The basic myth the right wing of The Money Party has sold to Republican voters over the past 40 years (the left wing of the party is called the Democrats) goes like this: the economy boomed in the decades immediately after World War II, and standards of living rose rapidly.  But since then, too much government regulation, too many taxes, and an overly generous welfare system that has made Those People even lazier than they were before have combined to kill the American dream.

That is why ordinary Americans (aka working and middle-class white people) have bank accounts that don’t reflect the rewards they should have received for all their hard work. If not for government meddling we would have a thriving economy, just like the one we enjoyed back in the good old days.

All this is a fantastic lie, as a glance at the actual economic history of America since 1945 illustrates.  (In what follows, all figures have been converted to constant, inflation-adjusted dollars).

America is a vastly wealthier country today than it was forty years ago.  Furthermore, on a per-person basis, the country’s wealth has increased far more over the past four decades than it did in the thirty years immediately after World War II.

Here are the numbers: between 1945 and 1974, per capita GDP in the U.S. grew from $17,490 to $27,837.  That is an impressive improvement, but it pales in comparison to what has happened since: in 2014, per capita GDP was $55,185, i.e., almost exactly double what it was in 1974.  In terms of economic output, the country is twice as rich per person now as it was then.

Where has all this money gone?  The answer ought to shock anyone who cares about either economic opportunity or increasing inequality.  The average household income of the bottom 50% of American households was $25,475 in 1974, and $26,520 in 2014.  In other words, half the population has gotten essentially none of the extra $10 trillion dollars of national wealth that the American economy has generated over the past forty years.

Keep in mind that this group includes fully half of the nation’s middle class, by every standard definition of that category.

Meanwhile, over this same time, the average household income of the top five percent of American households (most of the members of this group would not, of course, consider themselves rich, let alone part of the actual plutocracy) has gone from $187,729 to $332,347.  As for the really rich, the numbers are truly staggering: in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars, the household income of the top 0.01% (roughly, the nation’s 13,000 richest households) increased by about seven-fold, from less than $5 million to more than $30 million per year.

Of course, some of Trump’s appeal is based on his willingness to exploit racism and xenophobia while speaking to the economic anxieties of white middle and working class voters.  But establishment politicians are making a big mistake when they under-estimate the extent to which Trump’s message – crude and bombastic as it is — that Americans were winners but are now losers, resonates with the actual life experience of so many people.

These people are angry about what has happened to them and their communities, and especially angry about the empty promises of a Republican party that is run for the almost exclusive benefit of the rich.  The half of America that gets along on $40,000, or $25,000, or $10,000 per year doesn’t care about cutting capital gains taxes or getting rid of the estate tax (which already exempts the “first” $11 million of a married couple’s wealth), and it isn’t enthusiastic about slashing Social Security and Medicare either.

To the contrary, all these things are the pet projects of the Republican donor class.  For forty years the GOP has managed to manipulate culture war issues and racial and ethnic animosities to hide from its base two facts: the contemporary Republican party exists to protect the economic interests of that class, and those interests don’t actually align with the economic interests of middle- and working-class Americans, even if they happen to be white and culturally conservative.

That it took a shameless foul-mouthed egomaniacal reality TV star to speak this truth in such a way that Republican voters would hear it is a sad comment on the state of our politics and culture.

And here is David Hare, writing in the Guardian, reflecting on what happened in Britain with Thatcher and what came after:

As the years have passed, the contradictions within conservatism have seemed to reach some kind of breaking point at which it is very hard to see how its central tenets can continue to make sense. Admittedly, since the severe recession brought about by the banks, Conservative administrations have found favour with the electorate while Labour has languished. At the election a year ago, Conservatives did somehow scrape together votes from almost 24% of the electorate. But such an outcome has done nothing to shake my basic conviction. In its essential thinking, the Tory project is bust.

The origins of conservatism’s modern incoherence lie with Thatcher. Whatever your view of her influence, she was different from her predecessors in her degree of intellectuality. She was unusually interested in ideas. Groomed by Chicago economists, she believed that Britain, robbed of the easy commercial advantages of its imperial reach, could thenceforth only prosper if it became competitive with China, with Japan, with America and with Germany. For this reason, in 1979, a crackpot theory called monetarism was briefly put into practice and allowed to wreak the havoc that destroyed one fifth of British industry. As soon as this futile theory had been painfully discredited, Conservative minds switched to obsessing on what they really wanted: the promotion and propagation of the so-called free market. If a previous form of patrician conservatism had been about respectability and social structure, this new form was about replacing all notions of public enterprise with a striving doctrine of individualism.

It is painful to point out how completely this grafting of foreign ideas onto the British economy has failed. The financial crash of 2008 dispelled once and for all the ingenious theory of the free market. The only thing, ideologues had argued, that could distort a market was the imposition of unnecessary rules and regulations by a third party, which had no vested interest in the outcome of the transaction and that was therefore a meddling force that robbed markets of their magnificent, near-mystical wisdom. These meddling forces were called governments. The flaw in the theory became apparent as soon as it was proved, once and for all, that irresponsible behaviour in a market did not simply affect the parties involved but could also, thanks to the knock-on effects of modern derivatives, bring whole national economies to their knees. The crappy practices of the banks did not punish only the guilty. Over and over, they punished the innocent far more cruelly. The myth of the free market had turned out to be exactly that: a myth, a Trotsykite fantasy, not real life.

David Cameron arrived in office aware that a conservatism that was purely economic could not possibly meet the needs of the country, and therefore chose to advance an unlikely system of volunteerism, which he called the “big society”. It was, self-evidently, a palliative, nothing more, the lazy shrug of a faltering conscience, and one that predictably lasted no longer than the life cycle of a mosquito. Alert to a problem, Cameron lacked the fortitude to pursue its solution. Instead, Conservative ministers have fallen back on the more familiar, far more routine strategy of sour rhetoric, petulantly blaming the people for their failure to live up to the promise of their leaders’ policies. Do you have to be my age to remember a time when politicians aimed to lead, rather than to lecture? Is anyone old enough to recall a government whose ostensible mission was to serve us, not to improve us? When did magnanimity cease to be one of those famous British virtues we are ordered to share?

The reason we have been governed so badly is because government has been in the hands of those who least believe in it. Politicians have become little more than go-betweens, their principal function to hand over taxpayers’ assets, always in car boot sales and always at way less than market value. No longer having faith in their own competence, politicians have blithely surrendered the state’s most basic duties. Even the care and detention of prisoners, and thereby the protection of citizens from danger, has been given to contractors, as though the state no longer trusted itself to open a gate, build a wall, or serve a three-course meal. With foreign policy delegated to Washington, and consciences delegated by private contract to callous logistics companies, no wonder the profession of politics in Britain is having a nervous breakdown of its own making.

There is a bleak fatalism at the heart of conservatism, which has been codified into the lie that the market can only do what the market does, and that we must therefore watch powerless. We have seen the untruth of this in the successful interventions governments have recently made on behalf of the rich. Now we long for many more such interventions on behalf of everyone else. Often, in the past 40 years, I refused to contemplate writing plays that might imply that public idealism was dead. From observing the daily lives of those in public service, I know this not to be true. But we lack two things: new ways of channelling such idealism into practical instruments of policy, and a political class that is not disabled by its philosophy from the job of realising them. If we talk seriously about British values, then the noblest and most common of them all used to be the conviction that, with will and enlightenment, historical change could be managed. We did not have to be its victims. Its cruelties could be mitigated. Why, then, is the current attitude that we must surrender to it? I had asked this question at the Oxford Playhouse in 1974 as I walked back down a darkened Beaumont Street to a hotel of draped velvet curtains, power outages and guttering candles. I ask it again today.

“The Tory project is bust.” The Republican myth of the Money Party has been exposed as a “fantastic lie.” You get the picture. It’s the same the world over. Here’s Andrew Coyne in the National Post reflecting on all that has gone wrong, from a conservative Canadian’s perspective:

Across North America, the right is in disarray. It isn’t only at the ballot box that conservatives are in retreat. It is in the broader contest of ideas. On issue after issue, the left has been running the table, whether overturning orthodoxies long considered invincible, like the taboo on deficits, or opening new territory for the expanding state, from pensions to pharmacare to a guaranteed annual income.

Perhaps the most startling advances have come in the social issues. From same-sex marriage to legalized marijuana to assisted suicide, public opinion and legislation seem in a headlong race to see which can undo centuries of custom and precedent the fastest, while across the multiplying fronts in the wars of identity — racial, sexual and the rest — one famous victory follows another.

I do not say this is a good thing or a bad thing. Some of these developments are welcome, some are not. I record it only as a fact. The energy, the impetus, the advantage today is all on the left.

Even what I thought in my election post might be an opportunity for the right, the growing divide between a party of the state and a party of the private sector, is probably a total non-starter politically. In the 1990s a study was done that showed that the number one indicator for someone voting Republican was a job in the private sector. What to do then when that primary source of identity has so signally betrayed its constituency? It is, after all, the private sector that has failed the people the most: through globalization and the gutting of unions wages have been driven down relentlessly, while the biggest winners have been areas like finance and tech, two of the hardest-charging horsemen of economic inequality. Not coincidentally, the Democrats in the U.S. have become the party of the financial sector, with Hillary Clinton presiding at the Senator from Wall Street.

Government still can’t get things done, and certainly doesn’t care a whole lot about the declining incomes of the middle class, but the private sector can’t, or won’t, create decent jobs and cares even less. Indeed, if you’re a member of the 0.1 % you’re content to kill as many jobs as possible and hide your money somewhere offshore where you don’t have to pay taxes. And so enter Trump, who is not so much racist as he is against immigrants (legal or otherwise) “stealing” American jobs. It’s hardly surprising there are a lot of people with him on this.

In brief, core conservative issues have either been largely co-opted (as economic policy) or tossed into the dustbin of history (the social issues of the culture wars). What is left? Nationalism. “Family values.” Small government. This is thin gruel, and in order to separate themselves from the Democrats the Republicans have had to take such issues to an unrealistic and increasingly irrelevant extreme. Nationalism means building walls, banning immigration, and tearing up trade agreements. Family values has something to do with transgender bathrooms. Small government actually plays out as anti-government. Our elected representatives, it seems, are now widely viewed as incapable of behaving responsibly. According to the reporting of Will Hutton every act of what Ted Cruz refers to as the “Washington cartel” is now seen by the Republican base as being  by definition bad. According to his own public comments, ex-prime minister Stephen Harper thought there was no such thing as a good tax. Government, in short, is so despised that it even hates itself!

But who believes a return to the days of small government is possible? We’re well past the point of being able to downsize. There’s no getting rid of entitlement programs now, or any way to shrink the public sector. The comparison to events in Canada is instructive. When Tim Hudak went down in flames to Liberal Kathleen Wynne in the Ontario provincial election in 2014, despite a depressing and well-documented history of Liberal incompetence and mismanagement, it was in large part due to his announcing a desire to prune 100,000 public sector jobs. This was certainly a bold throwing down of the gauntlet, but running against the public sector unions was a losing strategy. What’s more, even if Hudak had won, he would not have been able to make such cuts. Attrition and buyouts would have ended up costing the government more than just maintaining things as they were.

The same systemic resistance to change can be seen in the federal Liberal promises to reform the Senate and electoral system. Nothing is going to happen. Let’s face it: we are stuck with an unelected, unrepresentative, expensive and totally useless Senate and a first-past-the-post election system, probably forever. This is the very definition of political sclerosis. The resulting feelings of frustrated impotence just drive greater anger toward party establishments on all points of the political compass. Perhaps aware of the disappointing results from the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party this time around is offering none of either. The very best you can expect is more of the same.

This resistance to change may, paradoxically, be what is needed to effect a transformation. As David Brooks opined in the New York Times, while reflecting on the failures of old-style conservatism (which he identifies with the policies of Ronald Reagan), it may finally be time for a paradigm shift:

This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative. For decades now the Republican Party has been groaning under the Reagan orthodoxy, which was right for the 1980s but has become increasingly obsolete. The Reagan worldview was based on the idea that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. But that’s clearly no longer true.

We’ve gone from Rising Tide America to Coming Apart America. Technological change, globalization and social and family breakdown mean that the benefits of growth, to the extent there is growth, are not widely shared.

Republicans sort of recognize this reality, but they are still imprisoned in the Reaganite model. They ask Reaganite questions, propose Reaganite policies and have Reaganite instincts.

Now along comes Donald Trump, an angel of destruction, to blow it all to smithereens. He represents not only a rejection of the existing Reaganite establishment, but also a rejection of Reaganite foreign policy (he is less globalist) and Reaganite domestic policy (he is friendlier to the state).

Trumpism will not replace Reaganism, though. Trump is prompting what Thomas Kuhn, in his theory of scientific revolutions, called a model crisis.

According to Kuhn, intellectual progress is not steady and gradual. It’s marked by sudden paradigm shifts. There’s a period of normal science when everybody embraces a paradigm that seems to be working. Then there’s a period of model drift: As years go by, anomalies accumulate and the model begins to seem creaky and flawed.

Then there’s a model crisis, when the whole thing collapses. Attempts to patch up the model fail. Everybody is in anguish, but nobody knows what to do.

That’s where the Republican Party is right now. Everybody talks about being so depressed about Trump. But Republicans are passive and psychologically defeated. That’s because their conscious and unconscious mental frameworks have just stopped working. Trump has a monopoly on audacity, while everyone else is immobile.

Well, we certainly seem to have come to the end of something. The myths and lies are being exposed, as is a record of nearly fifty years of failure. I think this is what Trump supporters are responding to in his message, more than the dog-whistle note of racism and xenophobia. Of course Trump can’t do anything, and quite possibly doesn’t want to do anything, to ameliorate the condition of the failing middle class (they are, after all, the “losers” in his simple social vision), but at least he’s calling the system and the establishment to account. As Jim Sleeper observes, his success

upstaged both political establishments’ hypocrisies, without any proof that he would or could actually curb offshore tax evasion and outsourced jobs. What he has done is expose our political system’s illegitimacy and unsustainability as no nominee has done since 1932.

In the end, however, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left or the right, as Thomas Frank argues:

Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.

What Lewandowski and Nussbaum are saying, then, should be obvious to anyone who’s dipped a toe outside the prosperous enclaves on the two coasts. Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll. As Trump says, “we have rebuilt China and yet our country is falling apart. Our infrastructure is falling apart. . . . Our airports are, like, Third World.”

Trump’s words articulate the populist backlash against liberalism that has been building slowly for decades and may very well occupy the White House itself, whereupon the entire world will be required to take seriously its demented ideas.

Yet still we cannot bring ourselves to look the thing in the eyes. We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.

The point being made by all of the observers I’ve been quoting is much the same: we’re witnessing the total failure of what have been sustaining political myths for the past half century. This is what conservative editor R. R. Reno has called the collapse of the middle-class consensus. It is a moment fraught with danger. Society has to have confidence in its governing institutions, has to have some belief in progress. We need hope and change. Without them we have the kind of implosion that conservative parties in Canada and the U.S. have experienced, with truly wretched, demagogic personalities taking their parties down in flames. This has left a path open for nominally centrist, establishment, status quo parties to flow into the vacuum. By this process of political osmosis, however, the collapse of conservatism has also led to a paradoxical lurch to the right.

Why? Because, as Frank points out, the traditional parties of the left know that voters have nowhere else to go and so feel no sense of responsibility to them. There is no alternative, as the saying goes. And so conservatism’s fall has taken the entire system with it. Historically unpopular and seriously flawed figures like Kathleen Wynne and Hillary Clinton could never get elected but for clownish opponents like Tim Hudak and Donald Trump. Government is devolving by degrees of lesser evil.

I am not, politically, a conservative person. But all the same I take no pleasure in witnessing the self-destruction of conservative parties in the West because I don’t see where they can begin to come back except through an increasingly angry and divisive form of politics that will ride a wave of popular resentment. We really are in a terrible mess.

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