Conservatism has a bad rap around these parts. It's a concept generally associated with the right wing of the Republican Party, which is home to the some of the most odious policy ideas currently polluting our discourse and government. But what does it mean, really, to be conservative? Does it mean to be permanently staked out on the right fringe of of the GOP, regardless of what the party represents? Or does it mean that one favors the current order, and that any change should be measured and carefully considered?
I suppose that it means both those things, and a helluva lot more, besides. Words, especially adjectives, are tricky beasts to pin down, especially when they're primarily used in political contexts. But I raise the question because last night, Bush attacked Kerry's claim to have a conservative philosophy. Now, on one level -- the level that reflexively finds all of us labeling Bush, Delay, et al "conservatives" -- Bush's charge is on the mark. Kerry is no right-winger. But if you think about it for a second, and look at these folks in terms of their resistance to radical change, Kerry is clearly on to something when he describes himself as the conservative candidate. And when you consider Bush's presidency and governing philosophy, he doesn't appear very conservative at all. In fact, he's possibly the most radical presidential candidate since FDR.
More (lots more -- this probably oughta be edited) after the jump.
Kerry and Bush both came of political age in the late '60s, which was, at least on the domestic front, still very much a product of the radical changes wrought by FDR and the New Deal. FDR had challenged the plutocracy that had arisen in decades prior with an activist government, one that guaranteed something far more resembling a level playing field for all Americans, regardless of their origins. He and his administration created much of what we think of today as the basic structure of American civic life: a national pension scheme (Social Security), a minimum wage, govenment guarantees of fair treatment at work, regulation of the stock market and banking -- and his administration also put in place the conditions necessary for rapid unionization, which played perhaps the leading role in the creation of the largest middle class in American history. By the late '60s, it must have been difficult for someone in his early 20s to imagine how America looked before the New Deal. Post-New Deal America -- with its giant middle class and its cooperation between big business, government, and labor -- was the only America young Bush and Kerry had ever known.
As Paul Krugman, a man of the same generation as Bush and Kerry, wrote in his brilliant essay "For Richer,"
the America I grew up in -- the America of the 1950's and 1960's -- was a middle-class society, both in reality and in feel. The vast income and wealth inequalities of the Gilded Age had disappeared. Yes, of course, there was the poverty of the underclass -- but the conventional wisdom of the time viewed that as a social rather than an economic problem. Yes, of course, some wealthy businessmen and heirs to large fortunes lived far better than the average American. But they weren't rich the way the robber barons who built the mansions had been rich, and there weren't that many of them. The days when plutocrats were a force to be reckoned with in American society, economically or politically, seemed long past. Daily experience confirmed the sense of a fairly equal society. The economic disparities you were conscious of were quite muted. Highly educated professionals -- middle managers, college teachers, even lawyers -- often claimed that they earned less than unionized blue-collar workers. Those considered very well off lived in split-levels, had a housecleaner come in once a week and took summer vacations in Europe. But they sent their kids to public schools and drove themselves to work, just like everyone else.
Even the Nixon administration did little to disturb this entente cordial between labor and capital. But slowly, surely, a philosophy that was utterly opposed to this order began to take hold in the Republican party. The Goldwater radicals -- and they were radicals, as they sought to dismantle the system that had governed the nation for nearly three decades -- began to make gains among GOP members, particularly those disillusioned by the last act of the mid-century revolution, the civil rights movement. Reagan represented the radical insurrection, but he can't be said to be the culmination of it -- it fell to Bush to lead the final attack on the New Deal, and to restore the old order.
But Bush never knew the old order. He's not trying to bring the country back from a dangerous frolic begun by an immediate predecessor -- he's attempting to roll back a way of life that has persisted for 60 years
. It's as if in the mid-1920s, Calvin Coolidge announced a plan to bring back slavery. That's not a conservative reaction to liberal excess -- that's a radical attempt to restore a long-dead institution. And that's exactly what Bush is doing when he guts the FLSA, when he seeks to essentially end Social Security and Medicare, and when he persists on a course that will inexorably lead to the end of safe, legal abortion. He is launching an assault on the pillars of the New Deal, in an attempt to resurrect a Gilded Age that predates even his father's adulthood. It's as radical a course as could be taken in this day and age. And it's not like Kerry is proposing any huge new government programs. He's looking to pretty much keep things the way they are, and have been for his entire life. That's fundamentally conservative. Bush's agenda, by contrast, is that of a radical who hates the institutions of the nation in which he was raised.