What Revolution?

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Is America moving in a more conservative or a more liberal direction? Lee Edwards, the author of biographies of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater and The Conservative Revolution: The Movement That Remade America, is one of those who say we are becoming more conservative. One can’t help thinking, incidentally, that the very notion of "revolution" is antithetical to that of conservatism. It is modern-day liberalism that is revolutionary, because it attempts to refashion society and regards human nature as malleable. Furthermore, it has had considerable success in reshaping the former, if not the latter. I suspect that when Edwards says "revolution" he really means "counterrevolution." But he does think that this revolution, or counterrevolution, is succeeding. At the time of Goldwater’s death in 1998, Edwards wrote that in 1962 he had attended a rally sponsored by Young Americans for Freedom at Madison Square Garden. More than 18,000 conservatives filled the arena (hard to imagine that today), and there was a passionate ovation: "We want Barry, we want Barry!" Goldwater predicted that a "wave of conservatism" would eventually triumph in America. "Unlike most political prophets, he was right," Edwards says today.

Edwards has strongly conservative inclinations himself. As I know from meeting him over the years, he is also a man of great integrity and decency. He teaches at Catholic University and is a fellow of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Still, I can’t help wondering whether the country really is becoming more conservative. The conservative movement, if you want to call it that, has more than its fair share of professional optimists; in fact, that is what the phrase "movement conservative" surely means. It describes someone who feels obliged to be optimistic, to rally the troops, to magnify small victories, no matter how adverse the overall political trend may be. Then again, maybe I’m just a congenital pessimist. As the many books and newsletters about nonmaterializing economic crashes attest, there is a market for doomsaying, as there is for optimism. Above all, it is difficult to see one’s own time clearly, without the influence of wishful thinking.

Another young Goldwater supporter was Hillary Rodham. In 1964 she wore a cowboy hat, a red-white-and-blue sash, a gold button reading "AuH2O," and she handed out campaign brochures. She even shook hands with the great man himself. "This is the Barry Goldwater I think of so often," she wrote after she became first lady. By then, of course, her political views had "evolved" (her word). But she befriended the elderly senator and, grateful for "his personal support for both Bill and me," she went to see Goldwater in Phoenix in 1996. She found him as "plainspoken as ever," and the odd couple even found themselves "once again agreeing on some things." She passed along the president’s invitation "to ride on Air Force One."

Goldwater, too, had "evolved," and in much the same direction as Hillary Clinton. Is it not possible that their common direction indicates the real "movement" that has taken place in America since 1964? A movement that has not been remotely conservative? It was abortion rights and gay rights that Mr. Conservative and Ms. Liberal found themselves agreeing on. Others have moved in the same direction. "I find Goldwater’s mind-set nationwide among upper-income Republicans," Robert Novak wrote in a 1998 column. In Novak’s epitaph, admittedly harsh, Goldwater was a "role model for self-satisfied country-club Republicans who don’t mind returning their party to minority status so long as they are in charge of the remnant."

When he died, the liberals’ praise of Goldwater was extravagant. Try to imagine an America in which Mr. Liberal—Ted Kennedy, say—has moved so far to the right that he is lauded by an (imaginary) right-wing first lady and is invited to travel on Air Force One. What kind of an America would that be? Not the country that we live in. Perhaps it would be one in which a conservative revolution really had occurred. One might even conclude that in the last generation we have indeed lived through a revolution, but a liberal rather than a conservative one.

Lest one think that this judgment is based on the eccentricities of Goldwater in his dotage, consider the man who replaced him in the Senate, John McCain. He, too, is said to be conservative. In fact, Edwards (rallying the troops, as he does so well) wrote in May that "all the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 are conservative." More and more, however, McCain is turning out to be the darling of the liberals. He told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that if elected he "absolutely" would support the appointment of gays and lesbians to his cabinet and that, "in the short term or even in the long term," he would continue to support abortion rights. Liberal friends of mine in the Bay Area, who think Al Gore rather dull, tell me that McCain is the first Republican since Pete McCloskey they would consider voting for. In March, in California’s new open primary system, they will be able to do so.

Edwards’s conservative revolution is based on "two epic events." The first was victory in the Cold War; the second was "the American public’s rejection, after years of acceptance, of the idea that the federal government should be the primary solver of our major social and economic problems." His major piece of supporting evidence for the latter is Clinton’s declaration that "the era of big government is over."

Communism was the ideology of extremists, who thought they could socialize all wealth and allow an elite to micromanage the lives of millions of people. Because it was so much at odds with human nature, this ambition was bound to fail on its own. Still, if Edwards (and of course many others) want to give the credit to Ronald Reagan and his allies, I certainly won’t object. The public’s "rejection" of big government is more problematic, however, because big government is still with us. Federal taxes as a share of national income are higher than they have ever been. With its narrow majority in Congress, the GOP has done little more than hang on to power. Edwards includes a chapter on Newt Gingrich, and he was indeed one of the few Republican leaders of the postwar period who was comfortable with ideas. Even more unusual, he didn’t mind playing offense. Nonetheless, he was essentially driven from office, hampered though the opposition was by a scandal-ridden president. This suggests something other than a conservative era.

Since that Madison Square Garden rally, we have seen many other policy shifts inimical to conservatism. Affirmative action, for example, is a direct attack on equality before the law, a basic underpinning of the Constitution. Even though it is unpopular, and really should be rolled back, Republicans have not felt strong enough to try anything so bold. Or consider the tax-cut debate last summer. It was not a happy moment for those who recall the supply-side fervor of twenty years ago. All the old arguments have now been forgotten, with rate changes expressed as static revenue losses and so on. By last August, an impeached, lame-duck president was confident enough of his mastery of the message to argue that a tiny tax cut, spread over ten years, would be bad for the economy.

The very notion of "revolution" is antithetical to that of conservatism. It is modern-day liberalism that is revolutionary, because it attempts to refashion society and regards human nature as malleable.

Here and there we do indeed see signs of conservative reaction to liberal gains, but my sense is that Edwards regards these reactions as autonomous initiatives. It’s true that earlier in this century, and throughout the last, there was no "conservative movement," but that was because we still had a conservative country. He construes the raised temperature of the body politic as a sign of health. And it is, in a way, because an invaded body that does not so react will surely not survive.

I could go on, but that’s enough of the doomsayer’s version. There is another side to the story, and it could be put this way. Free market forces are now much stronger than they were in 1964, and they seem to be getting stronger all the time. The influence of private sector trade unions has declined sharply. We now have not just an invisible hand but an invisible whistle, which emits a loud warning signal whenever politicians in Washington threaten anything foolish: raising tax rates, for example, or expanding the money supply too much, or cranking up another entitlement program.

With about 50 percent of the electorate now owning stocks, up from perhaps 20 percent a generation ago, and the middle class increasingly invested in market-dependent retirement plans, markets themselves now act as a powerful check on politicians. We may expect that the ratio of owners will continue to increase, that pressure to cut the inheritance tax will grow, and that the market’s warning whistle will only get louder. Tax rate hikes and monetary instability have always been bad for the economy, of course. What has changed is that these relationships are now much better understood, and the relevant information is more efficiently transmitted from Wall Street to Washington. The Clinton administration, for all that it has been dominated by liberals, has pursued economic policies that have probably not differed much from what Republicans would have delivered.

Free market forces are now much stronger than they were thirty years ago. We now have not just an invisible hand but an invisible whistle, which emits a loud warning signal when politicians in Washington threaten anything foolish like raising taxes or cranking up another entitlement program.

Conservatives have long understood that the dynamics of democracy make it difficult to cut spending: Benefits are concentrated, costs are diffused, and the squeaks of interest groups affect politicians more than the murmur of taxpayers. Now, perhaps, we have a whistle that competes with the squeaks. We may be entering a period when it will be difficult either to cut spending or to increase it, a time when government is padlocked in place, difficult to shrink or enlarge.

Is there a "unified field theory" here, a single way of looking at these developments? One possibility is that the country is moving toward an arrangement in which "consenting adults" are free to make their own agreements and contracts and to make up their own morality. Individuals have to make their own choices and the government can’t interfere. The word for this direction, of course, is libertarian. There may be such a trend. One sign of this would be further moves to decriminalize drug use—something that may well be overdue anyway. I know my libertarian friends will remind me of the many areas in which we do not by any means live in an Age of Consent. Freedom of association, one of the most basic civil rights, is highly restricted by the civil rights laws; the government takes cash from you so that it can dole cash back to you in retirement and so on.

Movement toward a more libertarian society would hardly indicate a conservative revolution. The free market system itself changes more than it conserves. But it is not what the liberals had in mind either. If it’s freedom that those young Americans sought at Madison Square Garden, Americans today are hardly deprived of it. But one group is imperiled by a society designed for consenting adults—minors (especially those so minor that they are still in the womb). The family is now much weaker than it was in Goldwater’s day, and public education has declined sharply. Almost everyone thinks that something must be done about the state’s near monopoly in this field. Representative Tom Campbell tells me that, despite all the talk of eliminating it, the Department of Education’s budget has actually increased by 40 percent since the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. If the libertarian trend is real, then the various "freedom to choose" initiatives in education should soon begin to succeed. We shall see.