Conservatism Isn't Finished
By Thomas Frank
originally published November 5, 2008 in The Tilting Yard on Wall Street Journal
I was never a fan of Barack Obama's bipartisanship routine. His famous plea at the 2004 Democratic convention for an end to the red state/blue state divide, I thought, sounded noble but overlooked the obvious: that a unilateral display of brotherly love from the Democratic Party had no chance of actually ending the culture wars. The reason those wars have raged ever since 1968 was because they help Republicans win elections. For Democrats to wish that they would please stop was about as useful as asking Genghis Khan to a tea party.
What would beat the culture wars was always clear from the pseudo-populist language in which they were framed. In place of a showdown between a folksy "middle America" and a snobbish "liberal elite," Democrats needed to offer the real deal -- the conflict between a public that craves fairness and an economic system that enables the predatory.
Acknowledging class was always difficult for "New Democrats" -- it was second-wave, it was divisive -- but 2008 made retro politics cool again. Watching the Dow get hacked down, seeing the investment banking industry collapse, hearing about the lavish rewards won by the corporate officers who brought this ruin down on us -- all these things combined to make a certain Depressionesque fury the unavoidable flavor of the year. When your mortgage is under water and your neighbors are being laid off, the need to take up the sword against arrogant stem-cell scientists becomes considerably less urgent.
The Republican response, of course, was to double down on the righteous rhetoric of red-state grievance and spin the wheel one more time.
John McCain's campaign was not just another culture-war offensive; it was a flamboyant pantomime, grotesquely exaggerated in each of its parts, and, ultimately, separated from the life of the everyday Americans it claimed so extravagantly to revere. It was "overripe," to borrow the term Johan Huizinga used to describe late Medieval culture. The campaign's vision of America was like a Norman Rockwell painting in which all the figures wear flag pins and weep swollen, steaming tears for their betrayed homeland.
What previous Republican campaigns had whispered, this one screamed. What had been contained to the movement's feverish fringes moved to center stage.
Traditional Republican talk about the heartland became Sarah Palin's "real America," with other campaign officials speculating about precisely where the realness started and stopped. Conventional appeals to the working class became "Joe the Plumber" and a cast of supporting hardhat caricatures. An unremarkable Obama reference to progressive taxation became "socialism," there was conjecture by Rep. Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, about his "anti-American views," and one almost longed for the naïve stages of the campaign, when the Democrat's elitism would be established by sly references to arugula.
Media bias has been a favorite theme of the right for decades, of course. But apart from Spiro Agnew, this aspect of conservatism was mainly the province of the movement, not the leadership. The McCain campaign, which owed more to the media than any Republican effort in years, brought it back into the mainstream with relish. The amazing Mrs. Palin even persuaded herself that the press was violating her First Amendment rights when it criticized her, and Republican audiences rediscovered the joy of booing the media.
The mode of the music changed, too. Where campaign songs are usually anodyne ditties, Mrs. Palin was accompanied on the campaign trail by Hank Williams Jr., who would bellow out a media-baiting anthem, "McCain-Palin Tradition," that makes Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" sound like a lyric of delicate symbolism. The song may be the first to explicitly discuss the financial crisis, and it is surely the only one to use a syrupy slide guitar to sweeten a call to let "bankers" off the hook for making "bad loans." That Mr. Williams is billed on his Web site as "the voice of the common man" only heightens the gothic weirdness of the achievement.
Turning our eyes from the presidential campaign to conservative Washington generally, we can see the same overripeness, the same flamboyant contradictions that have long since become too great to paper over.
The conservative movement, after all, came to Washington under a banner of "reform" but promptly turned Congress over to lobbyists and opened countless regulatory agencies to the industries they regulated. The movement clamored for fiscal responsibility and proceeded to outsource, at vast expense, every government operation it could. It boasted of its business savvy but just couldn't see the housing bubble bursting. It looked to the Northern Mariana Islands as a beacon of human freedom. It insisted that Tom DeLay was a man of integrity.
This is a story of decline but not necessarily of fall. Conservatives may believe that impoverished borrowers destroyed Wall Street. But we liberals will not fool ourselves that stupid bankers sank conservatism for good. This movement will be back, and the biggest fights are yet to come.
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