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Why Conservatism Isn’t Just Anti-Obama or Anti-Left


In the first two years of the Clinton administration, the Democratic Congress passed an assault-weapons ban, a tax hike, and a bill criminalizing anti-abortion protesters (the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act). Clinton tried unsuccessfully to abolish the ban on homosexuals serving in the military—a rather shocking idea in 1993—while his wife championed a healthcare overhaul much more progressive than Obamacare. Today Bill Clinton is remembered as a welfare-reforming moderate, but when he had the chance he pushed the liberal agenda as far as it would go—and farther.

By contrast, when Obama had a similarly strong hand in Congress, his most left-wing accomplishment was getting onto the statute books a healthcare reform that bore striking similarities [3] to the Heritage Foundation’s 1993 alternative to Hillarycare. Yet even some quite intelligent people will tell you that Obama is the most left-wing president in American history. He’s not even the most left-wing president in the last 20 years.

That doesn’t make him a philosophical conservative, of course. But Obama does exhibit a great deal more “stand-pattism” than ideological fervor. Progressivism itself is far from revolutionary in 2013: Obama came around to supporting gay marriage only at a time when 51 percent of Republicans under 30 [4] do so, too. That issue—which radicals have never found very radical at all [5]—has been debated now for two decades. And that’s still, as far as older folks on the right are concerned, the cutting edge of leftist innovation.

No left-wing economic theory is challenging neoliberalism. Obama’s program is Keynesian—i.e., it draws on ideas that were fresh 80 years ago—and its Keynesianism is tepid in the eyes of figures like Paul Krugman, who themselves are hardly Bolsheviks. There are plenty of bad ideas on the left, but they’re all old ideas.

On the other hand, the past decade has seen exciting new bad ideas arise on the right, beginning with that of fomenting revolution [6] throughout the Middle East. We already have an excessively financialized economy, but while the left has played a considerable role in bringing that about, the notion that there’s nothing dangerous about concentrating wealth in very few hands—or that American workers should have to compete for wages on a leveled playing field with billions of people in the developing world—is characteristic of the right’s economic philosophy [7]. If you had to say whether America was in greater danger of tilting toward communism or plutocracy, could you honestly answer “communism”?

An overpriced, hyper-militarized foreign policy that fails to protect us from its own blowback; the immiseration of the American middle class; the structural weakness of the global financial system; the diminution of privacy amid the press of technological intrusions and mass taste; and the political/cultural fragmentation that deprives society as well as government of the capacity to act—all these things transcend the late 20th-century American understanding of the left-right spectrum. If your idea of conservatism is that it’s “anti-left,” you won’t be fighting the most important battles.

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28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Why Conservatism Isn’t Just Anti-Obama or Anti-Left"

#1 Comment By MikeSchilling On March 15, 2013 @ 2:01 am

“Obama is the most left-wing president in American history” translates, very simply, to “Blackity blackity black black black”.

#2 Comment By reflectionephemeral On March 15, 2013 @ 8:20 am

In theory, conservatism isn’t just an effort to irritate liberals.

But in practice, in the US today, that’s about all it is.

Pres. Bush rarely received less than 80 percent approval from “conservative Republicans”. (Bruce Bartlett was fired from his job, and “shunned by conservative society”, because he wrote in 2005 that Republicans should care about the deficits they had created). Republicans opposed the health insurance reform proposal they’d nominally supported for decades as socialist and unconstitutional, because Democrats enacted it.

Sure, it’s true, as you write, that “If your idea of conservatism is that it’s “anti-left,” you won’t be fighting the most important battles.” But so what? Reasoned argumentation has nothing to do with it. Republicans have a side to root for, and a side to cheer against. That’s what conservatism is in this country today.

#3 Comment By Mike On March 15, 2013 @ 10:17 am

You honestly think President Obama and the democrats are going to protect us from too much centralized power, whether plutocrats or government?

This myth of Obama as a conservative is ridiculous.

#4 Comment By Jack Shifflett On March 15, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

Mr. McCarthy: My hat is off to you, sir. You’ve summarized in one brief column a number of points that I and others on the left have been making for at least the last five years. I can only hope that conservatives will be more persuaded by your dose of historical perspective than they have been by anyone on the left. I won’t hold my breath, though; how do you think the CPAC crowd would respond to your clearly rhetorical question, “If you had to say whether America was in greater danger of tilting toward communism or plutocracy, could you honestly answer “communism”?” Sadly, yes–that is, yes, they would answer “communism”.

#5 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On March 15, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

I’m not sure most of the Republican elite would see plutocracy as a “danger.” And I think most other Americans would agree the plutocracy is bad, but not as bad as Communism.

#6 Comment By FuturaDellnazione On March 15, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

Plutocracy and Communism aren’t necessarily opposed. Obama seems to be able to tolerate a little bit of both. Also, what hard right Conservatives see in Obama (as they saw in Clinton) is a willingness to be very friendly with the Frankfurt School Left and all its client causes as though they were organic social progress.

#7 Comment By Archon On March 15, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

Obama put Republicans in a box. By adopting center-right policy positions (while miraculously preventing a revolt from the left-wing activist base) he forced the GOP to either accept the President’s policy prescriptions thus making him a transformational figure or they could cede the center, obstruct and force Obama to become an everyday transactional politician to get his policies over the finish line.

In a vacuum it was a sound political strategy, the problem was they convinced their base that their move to the right was based on principle instead of mere politics and partisanship and are now essientially blocked by the newly radicalized activist base and more ideological congressmen from doing the nessessary transition to the left (especially on fiscal matters).

The irony of course is that Republican countermeasures to the Obama era have given Hilary or some other Dem in 2016 MUCH more leeway to move the party left without worrying about Republicans trying to occupy the center.

#8 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On March 15, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

you mean my name is a liability, not an asset; how ironic? great contribution; and jokes aside, it seems to me that communism/marxism in practice (as opposed to theory) produces plutocracies (China, the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela) ; just as our representative democracy has produced the current plutocracy we call government (crony capitalism is the essence of a plutocracy). twin sons from different mothers in my book.

#9 Comment By Adam On March 15, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

Republicans confuse me in a lot of ways, even though I used to think of myself as one. One of the biggest issues is the defeatism of their policies. I didn’t agree with all of Reagan’s policies, but he had an optimism about him that reflected a can do attitude that is missing today. He also had populist tendencies for his day that were correct for the times. And for all of his talk of government being the problem, he used it effectively. Today’s Republican Party is all about what we can’t do. It also has problems embracing the populist priorities of today, which do include some government bloat, as there will always be some, but ignores the very real economic issues of production capture by capital versus labor, as well as the rent seeking that goes on that is part of that problem. Not to mention the dangers of financialization as a bigger and bigger part of GDP. That portion that is in addition to historical percentages creates nothing of value. The fixation with the deficit, likening it to your household budget, is a mirage in a fiat currency world. Instead of attacking the entitlement programs, some of which do need restructuring, but not in the ways presented by the Party, why not attack the source of the need, which is the skewed representation of capital in grabbing production gains that historically were more equally distributed? Health care cost issues as well are attributable more to market capture by providers than to anything that has to do with Obamacare. Why is this not a Republican concern? It is certainly a Free Market issue in that there really isn’t a Free Market in the delivery of this service, and may actually be better served as likening it to the utilities industry. Government is not the only problem in town, how government interacts with the private sector, however, is an issue, one that is hardly touched at all for fear that the big campain contributions will dry up and go away. Try being the real populist party again for a change instead of trying to dress up free market talk and deficit reduction as something that will benefit everyone. Rising tides have not lifted all boats in the past couple of decades, and liberty includes the ability of the average citizen to benefit from the gains that business, especially large corporations with government in their pockets, have enjoyed.

#10 Comment By Valerie Curl On March 15, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

I plan to paste this article to my FB page. Thanks, Daniel, for inserting some common sense and rational thinking into the continuing debate about Obama.

#11 Comment By OpenThePodBayDoorHAL On March 15, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

Obama: complete immunity for of the banker/industrial complex; complete continuity of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive invasion; regime secrecy that would make Nixon proud; domestic spy programs that John Mitchell would have drooled over; dismantling of New Deal social programs… the list goes on and on. All delivered in a tidy little Manchurian Candidate young, black, Democratic package.
What is there for a conservative Republican not to like?

#12 Comment By Michael N Moore On March 15, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

In my opinion the Obama-phobia is driven by a mix of racial hysteria and genuine populist resistance. For many downward-mobile whites President Obama plays on the fear that blacks will get their shrinking income and services. The most opportunistic wing of the Republican Party has played these people like a fiddle.

Regarding Obamacare, the US actually instituted socialist medicine the day it banned hospital emergency rooms from turning people away (42 U.S.C. §§ 1395cc, 1395dd). If you don’t see people dying on the street because they don’t have insurance, why buy it? The establishment’s answer is to make people buy insurance. This helps deep-pocketed insurance companies and hospitals, as well as better off insured citizens.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 15, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

There are two things that the elite like to mount:

1. that he is back — not even close. You like this back thing because it serves a purpose. It’s not real. Not only is he not black, he doesn;t have a clue of the life that blacks live in the country. When he leaves office, it is unlikely that the black status in the country will changed much nor their relations with whites. Now the whine, that he is the wh occupant for everyone would seem accurate. But let’s examine the record for a moment:

1. bail outs for financiers – no bailouts for homeowners from whom the financiers have now been compensated for their improper management by the homeowner and now the government

2. His one opportunity to actually address a color issue, should be treated no less than all white presidents have dealth with issue when it arises — his solution was abeer in the wh, apparenty in his mind, police depts across the country were to follow suit. It seems a rather trivial issue until one takes into account the number of black altercations that arise from noncriminal interactions with police. A beer, had those black men only known, that upon that heap over blown over charged type written pages — all they need do is offer said officer a beer and all would be well.

2. that is an incognito republican, now the healthcrae proposal looks capitalist, everyone is forced to buy an insurance plan, but for this little tidy bit, the program is going to require several hundred billlion in tax dollars, now and in the future . . . so this take him out of the running as any manner of republican secret weapon. To suggest that his extension of the security protocols is anything akin to being a conservative, is to argue Mickey mantel’s use of a baseball bat maes him a Boston Redsock’s player.

The manner and purposes of those protocols are vasty different. I’ll just drop it off at drones. The problem with an elite is that it affords one to live in a reality that isn’t very real

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 15, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

and it never dawns on the advocates of this HC that it will simply be unaffordable to millions and millions. Apparently they think everyone is making 200 grand a year with an empoyed spouse and two kids . . .

#15 Comment By Egypt Steve On March 15, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

@Archon — I don’t think there’s anything miraculous about Obama’s avoiding a “revolt” from his left-wing base. I was part of the “left-wing” revolt against Jimmy Carter in 1980 (“Students for Kennedy”). And I voted for Nader against Bush and Gore in 2000. I got what I deserved both times, and I have learned my lesson. So has the great bulk of the rest of the base, thank God.

#16 Comment By SteveinDallas On March 15, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

You know who really scares me? John McCain and Lyndsey Graham- to think that millions of “conservative” Republicans think they represent conservatism -is really a frightful thought. Thank God Rand Paul is helping to expose these frauds.

#17 Comment By FL Transplant On March 15, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

Yes, conservatism isn’t just anti-Obama or anti-left. But the problem is that for most of the country it has now become equated with the two (along with a mishmash of Republican talking points–tax cuts are the answer to every question; American Exceptionalism means that whatever we want to do is proper because we’re well, exceptional; we have to wrap ourselves in Protestantism).

Last year when I (center-left, generally fiscal conservative of classical economic views with some social liberalism) was hunting for sources of conservative viewpoints this web site was the only “conservative” one I could find that went beyond those two antis. When I asked for some suggested readings on modern conservatism on a number of other sites no one could point me to other than the latest polemic from Beck, Colter, or Limbaugh.

#18 Comment By WorkingClass On March 16, 2013 @ 12:29 am

If you want to oppose the left you should be a Democrat. The D party absorbs and neutralizes the energies of the left. Trust me. Nobody has anything to fear from the left in this country.

Obama is an overseer for global monopolists. He doesn’t care any more about the working class than Mitt Romney does. He is a mercantilist at best and a Fascist at worst. The popular term is corporatist.

Dubya is also a corporatist just like his Dad and his brother Jeb. The Clintons are corporatist as are Al Gore and John Kerry and John McCain and Mitt Romney.

If you like being impoverished and living in a Police State – just keep playing red state/blue state. That’s what got us here and that’s what will keep us here.

#19 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 16, 2013 @ 3:46 am

There is a conservatism that is populist, thoughtful and fair. It isn’t worth a tinker’s damn to any concept of America consistent with our ideals if it is instead elitist in its policies.

The left/right dichotomy is meaningless for the objectives of principled people of all previous political alignments who seek what’s best for their countrymen. That’s because what passes for left and right defined within these parties is the same donorist capture of government that is clearly not in the interests of the majority of the folks on Main Street.

No matter from which perspective you look at the Parties now. The truth is, as citizens excluded, whether conservative or liberal, we need to have our country back.

#20 Comment By JonF On March 16, 2013 @ 8:30 am

Re: and it never dawns on the advocates of this HC that it will simply be unaffordable to millions and millions.

Low income people will be covered by Medicaid (at least if their states get on board). Modest income people will receive substantial subsidies. That’s what makes it affordable.

#21 Comment By Mike On March 16, 2013 @ 8:52 am

You all give Obama way to much credibility. Obama is all about centralized government power AND support of the plutocrats. And, he has a demonstrated track record to support this.

Obamacare is a massive power grab by the government. So are higher taxes. Concurrently, TARP I and TARP II were all about enriching his plutocrat friends. Is it any coincidence that Obama’s economic recovery has enriched the wealthy (high stock market) at the same time as workers have reduced wages, part-time jobs, and reduced opportunity of all types? Obama’s answer to this income discrepancy problem he created is telegraphed in advance. Higher taxes and more state power. He’ll follow this up with more TARP for his plutocrat friends when the economy falters again.

It’s no surprise that Obama calls neocon in chief, and perpetual war advocate, Lindsey Graham, to organize a summit with republicans republicans. Who was not invited? Rand Paul–about the only senator who actually stands for a smaller state and less warfare. Face it, Graham and Obama are actually allies against Paul. McCain, Graham, Ayotte (et al) should be expelled to the big state/big plutocrat democratic party where they belong.

I’d just as soon have very few loyal opposition republicans like Paul than the large number of phony conservatives today colluding with the democrats to enrich plutocrats & the state.

#22 Comment By M_Young On March 16, 2013 @ 10:52 am

Actually Clinton did overturn the ban on gays serving in the military. They simply couldn’t make a big deal of their gayness.

#23 Comment By OldVet On March 16, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

In recent decades the respectable term ‘conservatism’ has been commandeered by a bunch of right wing yahoos. When a vile radio host like Rush Limbaugh is perceived as the standard bearer for the movement, we’ve got a problem. Intelligent, decent conservatives are being marginalized because a semantic shift has taken place; traditional conservatism is now equated with racism and old-school patriarchal values of the worst sort. We need to make an effort to re-define conservatism in the public mind.

#24 Comment By James Canning On March 16, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

Bravo. Nothing “conservative” in squandering trillions of dollars on a militarized foreign policy, endless war or near-war in Middle East, etc.

#25 Comment By MikeS On March 16, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

I maintain that the leaders of today’s conservative movement have very well-paying gigs precisely due to their extremist style and substance (Limbaugh, Boehner, Santorum, et al). They are paid well, and their fans are entertained. I don’t think acheiving national political leadership in government truly interests them, aside from maybe holding onto their own red districts or states. Therefore I respectfully disagree — today’s conservativism _is_ primarily anti-Obama/anti-liberal, because it works out well for them.

#26 Comment By Noah172 On March 16, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

Egypt Steve wrote:

I don’t think there’s anything miraculous about Obama’s avoiding a “revolt” from his left-wing base. I was part of the “left-wing” revolt against Jimmy Carter in 1980 (“Students for Kennedy”). And I voted for Nader against Bush and Gore in 2000. I got what I deserved both times, and I have learned my lesson. So has the great bulk of the rest of the base, thank God.

You have cause and effect backwards. Kennedy’s challenge to Carter and Nader’s 2000 campaign did not cause the defeats of Carter and Gore; rather, those challenges were symptoms of Carter’s unpopularity with the general public and Gore’s weakness with the populist left. Gore also had a problem holding moderate voters who had supported Democrats, including him, in the 90s. Gore lost nine states that had voted twice for the Clinton-Gore ticket, a group which did not include Florida (which had voted only once for Clinton), but did include Gore’s and Clinton’s home states. Nader had nothing to do with that (his votes did not make a difference). Any one of those nine would have tipped the election to Gore, Florida or no Florida.

#27 Comment By tz On March 17, 2013 @ 12:44 am

I would like to throw in my two bits worth on the communism versus plutocracy points.
In my high school civics class I was taught that the extreme right and the extreme left meet at the far end of the circle. Whether approached from the right or left, at the far end of that circle lies a hierarchical system of a tiny elite commanding ironfisted control over the political and economic power, and the rest of the population in a stagnant and ossified system. Either one is an utter tyranny.
I was taught, and I firmly believe that a hybrid system is what works best. Government does what government does best, there is a public realm in our society, and government assures that free enterprise does not become basically criminal, monopolistic, and immoral in their conduct.

#28 Comment By Greg On December 11, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

Apparently THIS is where the conservatives I can respect and find common ground with get news/opinion. I’m pretty liberal and “live and let live” on many social issues except abortion (which I believe should be available as a medical necessity when the mother could be endangered, and in cases of non-consensual conception, etc. but never a remedy for irresponsible one-night stands with unintended consequences).

I respect a lot of conservative notions. We need fiscal responsibility, with trimming (not gutting) across many programs, including military. I believe in strong national defense, but DEFENSE is the key word. In the case of war, the public is right to be weary of armed conflict, as we haven’t engaged in a war with clear victory conditions from Korea onward. We shouldn’t be mobilizing a conventional standing army against insurgents and guerrilla terrorists. Those fights can only be won with near total emphasis on spec ops and intelligence. Anything else is giving a hiding enemy the gift of a very large and obvious set of targets to attack from the shadows. I think individuals should be responsible and self-sufficient whenever possible, but acknowledge that there are valid reasons some can’t stand on their own–at least for a time–and be charitable and willing to pay into safety nets or volunteer for those less fortunate. “There but for the grace of God go I.” BUT where possible, charity and such things should be organized on smaller, more local levels to avoid large slush funds for the greedy to defraud.

I could go on, but basically I’m centrist. I’m ashamed of all the so-called liberals who purportedly champion human and civil rights utterly failing to stop unending war. I’m ashamed that the government of a so-called populist who’d bring “hope and change” brought so much of the same. I’m enraged that the Affordable Care Act equates to guaranteed business for insurers (and UHC is considering ‘walking away’ from offering Obamacare plans, threatening to upset the entire risk pool and further destroy an already failed system) and a raw deal for hundreds of thousands if not millions of individuals who can’t afford this “affordable care” EVEN WITH SUBSIDIES.

As a 30 something who considers myself center-left in many regards, I’m very much unhappy with the Democrats who have constantly done the wrong thing (voted for wars and then campaigned against them when the public turned against them; voted for bailouts and them decried them as robbery when the masses cried foul) and then acted like they had no hand in it. The modern left is at best a failure, and at worst, a massive con.

It’s just that, especially of late, the caricature that is the jingoist, holier-than-thou, “Guns and Jesus” crowd that thinks government should make no law establishing any state religion (unless it is unofficially Christianity) right-wing nuts are just so much more offensive. Democrats of today are today’s robber barons, and modern Republicans just come off like yesterday’s zealots and racists thanks to the polemic style of Fox news pundits and right wing bloggers.

The sensible element of conservatism has GOT to kick shysters like Limbaugh and Beck to the curb along with the notion of “trickle down economics.” There’s nothing wrong with fostering an economy where the ambitious can become very wealthy for their innovation and determination. There should be some inequality to drive people to aspire for more than just the status quo to gain “the better life.” But the economy has declined far more than grown since Reaganomics save for the dot-com bubble. And the problem with that is that the previous sentence ended with “bubble.”

Both parties long ago abandoned the middle class, but Republicans who demonstrate that they’re not bigots who want to make the whole nation protestants and build the nation on the backs of minorities and the poor stand the best chance of winning public support, because “Obamacare” is bleeding an awful lot of families dry and people tend to look for solutions from the opposition.