Contrary to the implication in George Packer’s article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Conservatism is alive and well in America, and America remains all the poorer for it. At least this is the side of the debate I ascribe to. The other side, as Packer suggests, is that conservatism might be the wane, its ideas bankrupt (I agree), its influence over cultural and political life subsiding (I disagree).
First, it appears from nearly every slice of the political pie, this is going to be a strong democratic year. Democratic Party voter registration and contributions to democratic candidates at unprecedented levels. Democrats just won three special elections in very conservative congressional districts (Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi).
The current conservative republican president is at an all time low in popular opinion for sitting presidents (worse than Nixon during Watergate); more than 2/3 of the country oppose the president’s war in iraq; oppose the way he is handling the economy, and believe the country is on the wrong track.
All these pro-democratic tidings could be reversed, however, were John McCain to win the presidency, and the polls have McCain and Obama in near statistical dead heats. Given the fact that Obama is running a superior political campaign in terms of strategy and organization, the reason for this deadheat is one of three things:
1) the democrats have yet to officially settle on a nominee. If this is the reason for the dead-heat, then perhaps a change in tide is indeed coming. But, unless you ascribe to a great man theory of politics/history, and i don’t, the election of a liberal president would not undermine the existing right wing hegemony of the political system.
2) voters are not keen on Obama’s liberal politics. This speaks for itself. if Obama loses because of hs politics, then it is impossible to hold that conservatism is dead.
3) Americans are not ready to elect a President of color. sort of explains itself, to this country’s great shame.
The more crucial argument, I believe, has to do with the sort recently raised in books by Naomi Klein and Sheldon Wolin. And this argument suggests the conservative tide will not be reversed by an Obama Presidency. The argument goes to policy infrastructure which the right has been working on since the early 1970s, economic and market structures which the right has been undermining since Reagan, and political structures which the Bush administration has violently attacked since 911; These structures have etched deeply worn patterns in the political culture that are not easily erased by current voter registration trends, campaign contributions–which could well me anomalous– and short term special elections.
First, democrats and political progressives have yet to develop a progressive infrastructure of think tanks and policy centers that might in some future administration, extend a set of beliefs beyond discrete executive orders and policy initiatives. (It remains to be seen if the blogosphere will help fulfill this function). The progressive community cannot even support the likes of the Rockridge Institute which endeavored to contribute to the process of countering the 1971 “Powell Memo,” with progressive tanks and institutes. Recall the Powell Memo launched the conservative hegemony in this country. More important than this initial rallying cry was work of Richard Mellon Scaife to almost single handedly build institutions that would take anti-democratic ideas, like Milton Friedman’s free market neo-liberalism, and make them appear as if they were universally accepted as inevitable in the development of american democracy. The fact that the Clinton’s who held the democratic throne during the 1990s, control almost 1/2 the dem. party now, and would like to hold the throne again, have been endorsed by Mellon Scaife and are sitting down and conducting business with the likes of Rupert Murdoch/Fox and Rush Limbaugh, does not bode well for a progressive revolution. The Clinton’s Nixonian politics of personal destruction adds additional fuel to anti-progressive forces, regardless of who wins the dem nomination and the general election in November.
Finally, and most important, is the destruction that Friedmanesque neoliberalism has already wreaked on this country’s democratic institutions. The mark of privatization, begun in earnestness, by the way, with Clinton’s reinventing Government initiatives of the mid 1990s, is a black mark on democratic institutions, and might well prove to be permanent, or at least take decades to undo. Once corporations have come to control vital government services, it becomes extremely difficult for government to reassert its constitutional controls. Once presidents violate fundamental principles of separation of powers, and are not held to account, it becomes increasingly difficult for subsequent administrations to reassert such delicate constitutional balances.