April 7, 2020

Dumb and Dumber

By Stephen Tuttle | Aug. 11, 2018

Whatever became of conservatives and liberals?

Those calling themselves conservatives today bear little resemblance to the philosophy first espoused by William F. Buckley, or Barry Goldwater, their first flag-bearer when he campaigned for president in 1964. 

Liberals have vanished entirely, the word itself having become a pejorative hissed through clinched teeth.

Early conservatism was easy to understand: minimal government, free trade, balanced budget, and though they were fierce cold-warriors, they were pretty close to isolationists when it came to our international adventures. We'd likely call them libertarians today.

(The social issues that permeate today's political debates were barely a whisper then. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts hadn't even been passed, Jim Crow laws were still in place, homosexuality was illegal in most states, as were mixed-race marriages, and abortion was illegal everywhere. Illegal immigration wasn't an issue because we legally imported temporary workers, and international terrorism was going on someplace else. We were just starting our long misadventure in Vietnam.)

It was the 1964 Republican Convention that nominated Goldwater that also introduced America to newly minted conservative Ronald Reagan. He had previously been a Democrat and union president but was going to be the conservative’s next great hope.

That brand of conservatism was over by 1968 when Richard Nixon was elected. He was an internationalist who helped open the door to China and an environmentalist who helped create both Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act. He had a balanced budget his first year in office but never again. The national debt increased, as did the size of government. He'd surely be considered a moderate Democrat by today's standards.   

 Jimmy Carter, then considered a moderate Democrat, took over and ran budget deficits and increased the debt at a time of runaway inflation and hostages in Iran.

Those still in the fold of Buckley-Goldwater conservatism finally got their chance in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House. And nothing changed except people's attitudes. Reagan did cut taxes, a favorite of conservatives, but annual deficits grew, the national debt doubled, and he increased the federal workforce by a higher percentage than Barack Obama. Not very conservative at all.

Finally, in 1992, we elected somebody who eventually ran an actual budget surplus for the last three years of his presidency. It was Democrat Bill Clinton, in cooperation with Congressional Republicans who controlled both Houses. Back in those days — and some younger readers might find this hard to believe — Republicans and Democrats worked together sometimes. No, seriously, they really did. 

Of course the debt still increased during those years because that same Congress chose to spend the surplus rather than use it to pay down debt. It turns out there was quite a bit of interest on what was then about $6 trillion of debt.     

The Reagan Revolution was just a vague memory when George W. Bush was elected and brought something people called neo-conservatism to Washington. It had nothing to do with what we used to call conservatism. The so-called neo-cons didn't care about the debt or a balanced budget, and they were wildly adventuresome militarily, engaging in two wars simultaneously and promising to export democracy. Deficits, the debt, and the size of federal government all expanded dramatically. 

The Republicans, still calling themselves conservatives, then nominated and nearly singlehandedly elected Donald Trump. But his is a completely new kind of conservatism — if it is even a political philosophy at all. 

Since he referred to himself during his campaign as “the king of debt” and said “debt is good,” we shouldn't be surprised he's already increased it more than $1 trillion with his tax cuts.  

We seem to be headed the way of more military activity, too, or maybe we're just talking about it. Punishing our allies with tariffs is sort of isolationism but not the sort originally envisioned. 

Equal time for liberals? Nobody calls themselves that anymore.

Liberals have split off into two groups: There are moderates, who are so darned moderate they can't seem to get anything of their own passed, and they can't stop what they don't want from being passed.

And there are progressives, who haven't made much progress because their objectives — single-payer universal healthcare, free college, expanded social programs, tax the rich to pay for everything — are financially and politically impossible.

What happened to conservatives and liberals? The former is now Trumpism, an especially unpleasant form of nationalism marked by the denigration of anyone outside the Trump base. The latter is now anti-Trumpism, which isn't really a political platform  at all, just a sign of sad political impotence.

Conservatism and liberalism as once known are dead, or at least comatose. They've been replaced by dumb and dumber. You can pick which is which. 






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