OMT One Man's Trash...from Norman Leahy

Sunday, May 28, 2006 :::

Day and Night Conservatives

TNR's Peter Beinhart has penned a thought provoking piece on what he terms the ascendancy of "night conservatism" -- a dark and gloomy counterpoint to the sunny, if fiscally reckless, "day conservativism" of Ronald Reagan. He begins with a look at the Dark Side:

Night conservatism is the older creed. The men (yes, men) who created the modern conservative movement in the decade after World War II were generally pessimists. All around them, they saw statism--whether in its Stalinist or New Deal incarnations--on the march. Mass society seemed to be erasing the economic and cultural distinctions that conservatives considered essential to liberty. The American people, insisted conservative forefather Albert Jay Nock, were irredeemable; conservatism was the refuge of the beleaguered, superior few. In his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk declared that American conservatives had been "routed" ever since 1789. Another key thinker, Richard Weaver, argued that civilization had been going downhill since the fourteenth century.

Bleak stuff, for some. But considering the times in which Beinhart sets his piece, just after the Second World War, the characterization is not entirely untrue. However, the roots of this sort of conservativism are far older and deeper than Beinhart would have us believe. Conservatives were bemoaning the drift of almost everything in the country since...well...Yorktown. But the modern conservative movement was genuinely kicked into a higher gear during another post-war period: post World War I. Nock, Mencken, Hayek, von Mises...they were all grinding away long before the outbreak of WWII. Some faded long before then, but others reached a particularly high gear during the Great Depression. But I digress.

Here's how Beinhart describes "day conservativism":

But day conservatism only truly emerged with the election of Ronald Reagan. The McCarthy and Nixon insurrections had been populist but dark--bitter insurgencies against a still-hegemonic liberal elite. Reagan's message, by contrast, was relentlessly optimistic. American culture--which conservatives had feared was irredeemable--would be rapidly remoralized. Communism--which conservatives had long considered ascendant--was destined for the "ash-heap of history." And tax cuts would unleash unimaginable prosperity.

The third element was particularly important. Earlier conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater had insisted that cutting government should precede cutting taxes, so as not to unleash the menace of budget deficits and inflation. But, under Reagan, conservatives switched from peddling broccoli to peddling ice cream. Reagan cut taxes without cutting government, on the theory that lower taxes would produce such epic economic growth that tax revenue would actually rise. The right--which had once prided itself on telling harsh truths--was suddenly telling Americans they could have it all.

There are some very broad strokes here. But in general, it strikes me as about right. Not that Beinhart agrees with either breed of conservative, or with their combative cousins, the libertarians. But the greater question -- whether conservatives are moving back to a more pessimistic outlook, which Beinhart oddly associates with Goldwater, is worth pondering. I can see some of this happening -- particularly on immigration and certain social issues. On economic issues, however, there is almost no "conservative" position as Beinhart frames it. If anything, and taking conservative literally, it's the big-spending pols who are the true conservatives, fighting with every ounce of institutional strength they can muster to preserve the spending habits they have long-known and enjoyed. That would make people like Tom Coburn -- a genuine "night conservative" on social issues -- a fiscal liberal, even a radical.

Perhaps what we are witnessing is not so much a struggle between night and day, as it is a wrestling match in the twilight. Whether this will result in the dawn of a new conservativism, or a pyrrhic dusk, is an open question.

::: posted by Norman Leahy at 5/28/2006 1 comments


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