Partisanship has a funny way of making small differences seem huge. Listen to Howard Dean and you’d think that Republicans are orcs while Democrats are the saviors of Middle-earth. Similarly, in the 1990s, Republicans — including, at times, yours truly — talked about Bill Clinton as if he were the worst thing ever spewed from the bowels of Mordor.
Many have noted that this partisan rage is a result of the tyranny of small differences. Clinton’s New Democrat rhetoric made him sound like an old Republican. And George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” boilerplate made him sound like, well, a New Democrat.
Of course there are important differences between the parties. But those differences are mutating, because the dogmas on which they rest are shifting like tectonic plates.
Recently my friend David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about how he thinks that many of the president’s problems stem from the fact that conservatism is changing under his feet. “We’re seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority,” Brooks wrote. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism aimed to free up individual initiative and beat back the forces of governmental “sclerosis.” But times change, says Brooks, and today “the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder.” From immigration to terrorism to downsizing, people aren’t afraid of bureaucrats anymore. They want bureaucrats to impose order and provide security, Rudy Giuliani style.
Brooks is hardly alone in his yearning to redefine conservatism (and he’s not exactly a dispassionate chronicler of the phenomenon either). Fred Barnes, Daniel Casse, Marvin Olasky, and others have tried to defend Bush’s style of conservatism with phrases such as “strong government conservatism” or the less felicitous “big government conservatism.” But the evolution of conservatism is only half the story. Liberalism has undergone a dramatic change as well.
Just as many conservatives are defenestrating their anti-state dogma when it comes to social policy, many liberals are changing their minds on important issues. Whatever her motivations, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has certainly positioned herself outside stereotypical liberal groupthink. She talks about securing borders, banning flag burning, and staying the course in Iraq. And she’s hardly alone. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democrats’ Great Black Hope, has started courting evangelical Christians — once the worst demons in the Left’s Hieronymus Bosch vision of the American Right. This week, Obama even defended school prayer and the “under God” portion of the Pledge of Allegiance.
These changes aren’t unrelated. In the 1990s, both the Left and the Right fell in love again with the American Progressives. Brooks led The Weekly Standard’s crusade for Teddy Roosevelt-style “National Greatness.” When Newt Gingrich took over the House as speaker, he declared that it was the dawn of a new progressive era, and on the stump today, he sings the praises of the Progressives. (Full disclosure: My wife consults for Gingrich). Sen. John McCain openly models himself on the Progressive Teddy Roosevelt, and just this week Time magazine has an essay by Karl Rove on what T.R. can teach us.
Meanwhile, on the Left, the word “progressive” has started to replace “liberal,” for several reasons, including a renaissance of faith in the socially transformative power of the state. Recall that liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s was more about empowering interest groups than what Hillary Clinton has called a new “politics of meaning” (which she grounded in the Progressive social gospel tradition). A host of intellectuals — and Bill Clinton himself — argued that Clintonism represented the restoration of progressivism. Recently, Joel Kotkin argued in the Washington Post that the failures that followed Hurricane Katrina proved that we “need” to return to the cult of government competence manifested by the Progressives. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart’s new book, The Good Fight, is, as others have noted, the most coherent case for a new program of “Liberal National Greatness.” And at the supposed ideological extremes, we’ve seen Naderites and Buchananites finding common cause.
Progressivism is not merely the faux populism of the Internet. Nor is it solely the label for whatever policies self-described Progressives prefer. It is a faith — often grounded in Christianity, but not necessarily so — in the redemptive power and professional competence of the state. And, frankly, I despise it.
As a matter of analysis, Brooks is right. Much of intellectual conservatism has bought into the logic of progressivism. The war on terror has hastened the classically Progressive yearning for security. The arguments between the political parties for the foreseeable future will not be between champions of state intervention and laissez-faire. They’ll be between those who want the state to do “liberal” things, on race and the environment, for example, and those who want it to do “conservative” things, such as faith-based initiatives and national education standards. Forced to choose, I’ll take the latter. But I won’t like it.
©2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.