The Stability of Conservatism
This week’s New York magazine contains Frank Rich’s latest denunciation of Republicans, tea partiers, populists, and conservatives (he uses the terms almost interchangeably). Rejecting progressives’ bouts of triumphalism, he argues that “by the metric of intractability, at least, conservatives are the cockroaches of the American body politic, poised to outlast us all.” In 1964, 1992, and 2008, Democrats convinced themselves that they’d finally ended the infestation. Each time, however, the vermin reemerged from the dark corners in which they hid themselves.
This is exceptionally nasty rhetoric. Nevertheless, Rich is on to something. Upsetting as it may be to believers in the inexorable march of progress, the movements of opposition to the Obama, Clinton, and Kennedy/Johnson administrations weren’t temporary spasms of reaction. Rather, they were manifestations of a perennial tendency in American politics that won’t disappear, no matter who wins the election in three weeks.
In fact, the principles that Rich associates with the Tea Party long predate Goldwater, and even the so-called conservative movement. As far as I have been able to learn, they received their first formal articulation in 1937 in a “conservative manifesto” drafted by a coalition of Democratic and Republican Senators opposed to the extension of the New Deal.
The manifesto was leaked to the columnist Joe Alsop before it attracted many signatures. Nevertheless, it’s worth reviewing the goals that it outlines (in summary):
1. Lowering the capital gains and undistributed profits taxes.
2. Balancing the budget.
3. Establishing “just relations between capital and labor” based on the “right of the worker to work, of the owner to possession, and of every man to enjoy in peace the fruits of his labor.”
4. Rejecting government competition with private enterprise and private capital.
5. Defending the right to a “reasonable profit” and recognizing that “[o]ur American competitive system is superior to any form of the collectivist program.”
6. Upholding the “soundness and stability of values,” i.e. opposing inflation.
7. Reducing income and consumption taxes.
8. Preferring state and local control to national standards.
9. Assisting the “deserving” unemployed on the basis of “individual self-reliance”.
10. Defending “the American system of private enterprise and initiative, and our American form of government.”
Some of the language and details in the manifesto are outdated. What’s more, several of its advocates thought of themselves as Roosevelt’s friendly critics rather than outright opponents. It’s also worth noting that the manifesto supporters tended to be isolationist. At this stage, foreign policy adventurism was not yet considered a conservative principle.
Even so, the manifesto could serve as the economic platform for almost any conservative politician today. Although it is not conclusive evidence for the perennial character of conservative politics, the manifesto suggests that the ideological characteristics of American conservatism, at least when it comes to domestic policy, have changed remarkably little since Roosevelt Administration.
The problem for progressives like Rich, then, is not just that that the “cockroaches” have evaded every attempt at removal. It’s that they are older than any of the other lifeforms in the current political ecosystem. In its essentials, American conservatism predates the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the culture wars. Having outlasted by decades the New Deal coalition that it developed to oppose, conservatives will survive a second Obama administration, whether Frank Rich likes it or not.