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The Failure of Conservatism... and of A Cogent Liberal Response

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The Bush Administration domestic and foreign policy has been such a disaster, and the situation in the Middle East is so perilous, that it's easy to overlook the small, silver lining in American politics: the dominant conservative ideology has clearly failed.

Since the Reagan era, American conservatism has steadily gained strength. Indeed, for the five years of the second Bush Administration conservatism has been the only visible ideology in Washington. Conservative domestic policy rests upon one central tenet: the federal government must be drastically reduced. Accordingly, the Bush Administration and an obedient Republican Congress slashed taxes. They assured the American people that, as a "natural" result of these cuts, two things would happen: the economy would flourish and the federal government would wither. But neither prediction proved accurate. The economy showed modest growth, which benefited only corporations and wealthy individuals; meanwhile, the real income of the average American family went down. And, the federal government didn't shrink; it grew.

During the last five years, conservatives discovered that while Americans rail against the federal government in the abstract, they actually like the programs it provides, such as Medicare and Social Security. They want their mail delivered on time and levees maintained to guard them from floods.

In Why Conservatives Can't Govern political scientist Alan Wolfe observes. "Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain... The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government."

Faced with the reality that Americans secretly like the federal government, conservatives had two invidious responses: privatization and patronage. In Federal agency after agency, conservative Bush political appointees privatized jobs that formally had been done by agency employees. This resulted in deterioration of service and massive cost overruns. This can be seen in the Bush Administration's handling of FEMA, where many of the essential functions were outsourced to corporations-with disastrous results, as was seen in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Privatization has been one of the major problems with the occupation of Iraq; selling Iraqi assets off to multinational corporations is not a substitute for building a civil society.

Alan Wolfe observes that since the primary objective of conservatives was thwarted-they couldn't shrink the size of government-they settled for preventing it "from doing any good." From the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bush Administration eased federal regulations and reduced oversight responsibilities; the result was an across-the-board abandonment of the public interest. Conservatives abandoned a vital historic role of the federal government: protection of our rights.


Simultaneously, conservatives used the resources of the federal government as a vehicle for unprecedented political patronage; strengthening the Republican Party by securing huge donations from corporations. Conservative control of government unleashed an unprecedented wave of venality, a hybrid form of plutocracy where the interests of corporations where given primacy over the rights of individuals. This bias had many forms: sole-source contracts given in Iraq, bribery of Administration and Congressional officials, heightened influence of lobbyists, and elimination of bipartisanship - creation of an atmosphere where fairness and cooperation are seen as character flaws.

In the face of ideological failure, managerial ineptitude, and widespread corruption, why do any Americans support President Bush and his conservative cronies? The answer lies in the skillful use of propaganda by the Bush Administration. On a daily basis, citizens are fed lie after lie; told that Bush and the GOP mean well, have the best interests of the US at heart.

For the most part, Americans have bought these lies. And, they can't resist the promise of a free lunch. Thus, while Americans didn't accept the conservative notion of shrinking the size of the Federal government, they willingly supported the foolish notion of paying less for exactly the same services. In many parts of the nation, na-ve citizens have been slow to associate deterioration of public services with the conservative Bush ideology, but eventually they will. It's only a matter of time before Americans recognize that conservatism has failed. And get angry.

However, a countervailing liberal ideology hasn't emerged to fill the vacuum from the failure of conservatism. And, greed can't fill the ideological gap forever.

Unfortunately, liberals have fallen into the habit of distinguishing themselves in the negative: we're not conservatives; we're not Republicans; and we don't agree with Bush's philosophy. This hasn't worked: far more Americans self identify as conservatives than they do as liberals. What is needed now is a fresh formulation of what liberalism stands for. If conservatism has failed, how does liberalism propose to solve America's problems? They're not going to go away.

 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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