This is What Terrifies Conservatives
by David Atkins
That the conservative base and establishment have gone off an ideological cliff isn't in question. The only question at hand is why, whether anyone but a few media moguls is really in control of it, and whether it's a trend indicating strength and strategic brilliance, the rise of a new potential totalitarianism, or the last flaring embers of a dying demographic and cultural identity. Perhaps it's more than one of the above.
For his part, Jonathan Chait in the New York Magazine leans toward door #3 in fairly convincing fashion:
Today, cosmopolitan liberals may still feel like an embattled sect—they certainly describe their political fights in those terms—but time has transformed their rump minority into a collective majority. As conservative strategists will tell you, there are now more of “them” than “us.” What’s more, the disparity will continue to grow indefinitely. Obama actually lost the over-45-year-old vote in 2008, gaining his entire victory margin from younger voters—more racially diverse, better educated, less religious, and more socially and economically liberal.
Portents of this future were surely rendered all the more vivid by the startling reality that the man presiding over the new majority just happened to be, himself, young, urban, hip, and black. When jubilant supporters of Obama gathered in Grant Park on Election Night in 2008, Republicans saw a glimpse of their own political mortality. And a galvanizing picture of just what their new rulers would look like.
In the cold calculus of game theory, the expected response to this state of affairs would be to accommodate yourself to the growing strength of the opposing coalition—to persuade pockets of voters on the Democratic margins they might be better served by Republicans. Yet the psychology of decline does not always operate in a straightforward, rational way. A strategy of managing slow decay is unpleasant, and history is replete with instances of leaders who persuaded themselves of the opposite of the obvious conclusion. Rather than adjust themselves to their slowly weakening position, they chose instead to stage a decisive confrontation. If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner. This was the thought process of the antebellum southern states, sizing up the growing population and industrial might of the North. It was the thinking of the leaders of Austria-Hungary, watching their empire deteriorate and deciding they needed a decisive war with Serbia to save themselves.
At varying levels of conscious and subconscious thought, this is also the reasoning that has driven Republicans in the Obama era. Surveying the landscape, they have concluded that they must strike quickly and decisively at the opposition before all hope is lost.
Arthur Brooks, the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a high-profile presence on the Republican intellectual scene, wrote a 2010 book titled The Battle, urging conservatives to treat the struggle for economic libertarianism as a “culture war” between capitalism and socialism, in which compromise was impossible. Time was running short, Brooks pleaded in apocalyptic tones. The “real core” of what he called Obama’s socialistic supporters was voters under 30. “It is the future of our country,” he wrote. “And this group has exhibited a frightening openness to statism in the age of Obama.”
Chait goes on to hypothesize that the 2012 election is rapidly being seen as the point of no return for conservatism as we know it, and that the refusal of Republicans to compromise with Democrats even on a Grand Bargain mostly favorable to them represents a last-ditch attempt to regain control of all branches of government. The idea from there would be to take just two years to so dismantle everything progressives have spent decades trying to build, that it would take a new generation their entire political careers just to repair the damage.
I'm not sure I wholly buy the argument; I doubt the lurch rightward has quite as much strategy or immediate desperation as all that. But there is something truly to be said for Republicans' increasingly apocalyptic sense of the times, and for a progressively paranoid worldview that sees the entire world crumbling beneath their feet.
Of course, liberal commentators will point out that the top 1% appear to be doing quite fine in the Obama era, and that not much has happened to really change the status quo. What does it matter, they might argue, if the delusional rubes on the right see Obama as the harbinger of their destruction? What matters is that the plutocrats don't, they will say. Some (who clearly don't spend enough time consuming conservative media or hanging out with conservative acquaintances) have even suggested that Republicans are throwing this election because they're happy with the current Presidency, all things considered.
But that would be a mistake that overlooks one pivotal fact: devastating realignments don't usually happen overnight, but rather slowly. FDR's presidency was more the exception than the rule. True, progressives had many reasons to hope that Obama's election would mean an FDR-style reversal, coming as it did on the heels of a major economic downturn clearly caused by conservative economic policies. The President's own tendency toward an obsession with grand political compromises certainly hasn't helped. On the other hand, President Obama has a far more conservative legislature with a much more sluggishly corrupt system to deal with than did FDR.
In terms of electoral realignments, the election of Barack Obama may rather most closely resemble the election of Richard Nixon. That's not a bad thing, either.
Richard Nixon was the beginning of the conservative realignment. Barry Goldwater lost, and lost badly. But he ignited the movement conservative coalition. The Goldwater conservatives upended the establishment and elected Richard Nixon. The parallels between Goldwater and Howard Dean, and Nixon and Obama are striking in this regard.
But as with Obama and the left, Nixon disappointed his movement conservatives. He wasn't the man they had hoped he would be. He founded the EPA, opened trade relations with China, almost passed a more progressive health law than the ACA, and much more besides. He was a total paranoid crook tactically and personally speaking, but from a public policy standpoint he was actually fairly liberal even for his time (to say nothing of today.) But that doesn't mean that he and his Southern Strategy weren't the harbinger of an enduring, half-century long coalition that remains politically vibrant, even dominant, to this day.
The same can be said for Barack Obama. No, he hasn't been as progressive as many liberals of the Howard Dean persuasion, myself included, would have liked. But his very existence--and more importantly, of the electoral coalition that sent him to the Oval Office as well as the younger, hipper, more urban, more multiracial, more cosmopolitan political ethic he represents--are here to stay. And not just to stay, but to be the prophet of the dominant political era to come.
Perhaps Barack Obama will not realize the desires and natural policy outcomes that derive from such a coalition. Indeed, he almost certainly will not and can not, any more than Nixon could have implemented the fully formed Reagan agenda back in 1971. But he has done much. And the next president elected by this coalition will do more, and the next one after that will do even more than the one that came before, until in 25 years, even a Republican president will be significantly more liberal than any Democrat in 2008. Conservatives understand this, even if only at a deep-seated level in the darkest fathoms of their collective angst.
This election, then, is about much more than Barack Obama. For conservatives, It's about putting back in the genie's bottle the coalition that the election of 2008 began to unleash. It's about reverting America back to a time when the Nixon coalition was still comfortably in charge--whether it elected Republicans like Reagan or Democrats like Clinton.
That's what terrifies them, and that's a major part of what is driving this parabolic path of extremism on which the conservative movement finds itself. Their time is up, and they know it. But denial is a very powerful motivator that leads to irrationally stubborn belligerence. Which means that no matter what Democrats do, and no matter how hard politicians like Barack Obama himself may try, and even no matter how much progress the 99% may or may not make against the plutocrats, the civility of our politics is going to get much, much more strained over the next few years.
The old Nixon coalition is not going ride quietly off into the sunset, not by a long shot.