Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Dumbing of Conservatism

Gideon Rachman has an interesting and provocative column in today's Financial Times (here) in which blames Ronald Reagan and the movement he inspired (Reaganism) for profoundly altering the nature of political conservatism.
 Traditional conservatives disdain populism and respect knowledge. They believe in balancing the government’s books. And they are pragmatists who are suspicious of ideology. Reagan debased all these ideas – and modern American conservatism is still suffering the consequences.
Post-Reagan conservatives, Rachman asserts, embrace ignorance (which, after all, worked for Reagan), "fiscal incontinence" (budget deficits don't matter, except when Democrats are creating or increasing them), cutting taxes regardless of fiscal consequences, and an ideologically rigid foreign policy based on presumptively clear moral choices between good and evil. Thus, Rachman concludes, it is but a short step from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin.

I don't share Rachman's belief that Sarah Palin is now the de facto leader of the conservative movement in the US. However, the disjunction he observes between traditional conservatism and what Palin and Tea Party activists seem to stand for (assuming one can impose any kind of label on their rather incohesive, incoherent, and sometimes irrational ideas) rings true. It reminds me of Barry Goldwater's admonition during the 1980 Republican National Convention that conservatism was about fiscal policy, not social policy. He wanted to expel those he labeled "religious nuts" from the Republic Party. For that reason, and because Goldwater was the only person at either party's convention that year that spoke up in favor of improving the appalling living conditions on Indian reservations, I voted for him as a write-in candidate. That was the last time I voted Republican for president.

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