Monday, December 8, 2008

Is there a crisis in Conservatism?
Mike Rappaport

Tom's response to Posner’s annoying discussion of the crisis in conservatism got me thinking.  What does it mean to say there is a crisis in conservatism? 

There are at least three ways in which a political movement/ideology can have a crisis:

    1.  It could have a theoretical problem – the theories underlying the movement might be unable to explain what the problems that the society/economy is suffering.

    2.  It could be a practical problem – the movement might be seen to propose programs that lead to bad results.

    3.  It could be a political problem – the movement might be politically unpopular and lose elections.

We can gain some insight here by examining the last crisis of a movement – the crisis in liberalism that led to the election of President Reagan.  Liberalism, then, suffered from all three problems:

    1.  It was unable to explain stagflation.  From the Keynesian perspective, that should not have been happening.  Milton Friedman was seen as offering a persuasive explanation.

    2.  The liberal programs, especially as administered by Jimmy Carter, were seen to be inept. 

    3.  Consequently, the movement lost popularity and eventually Carter lost the election to Reagan.

How does the conservative movement fare? 

    1.  Conservative theorists can explain some of the problems in the economy, but not all of them.  But liberal theorists, at best, can do no better.

    2.  The economy downturn is the result of both government failure and market failure.  While some of the problems are the “result” of conservative programs, some are not. 

    3.  Certainly, the Republicans (whether or not the conservatives) have lost popularity and are losing elections big time.

In my view, it is too soon to know whether there is a “real” crisis in conservatism.  It depends, first, on which movement can come up with a better explanation for what is going on in the economy.  It also depends on whether Obama and the Democrats are seen as solving the economic problems.  If they do, they will be popular, and the conservatives are doomed for a while.  But if not, and if the conservatives have a persuasive explanation for our economic problems, the crisis in conservatism will just be a blip.

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Mike Rappaport