Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Fifth Age

After two disappointing elections, conservatives are wondering where their future lies. The clear-eyed ones realize that their project, as Reagan defined it, is finished if not complete. From 1980 to 2008, the highest marginal tax bracket was lowered from 70% to 35%. Welfare was reformed. The Soviet Union collapsed. Many businesses were deregulated. (Plainly, these items weren’t all their doing, but their wishing was in them.) On the other hand, the more ambitious conservative goals – privatization of Social Security, school vouchers, an imperial American presence worldwide, drastic reduction in the size of government – have little, if any, chance of coming to fruition.

We sometimes see the affinities of our ideological side as permanent. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Today, conservatives are known for wanting to shrink the size of the state, but in the first age of American politics, it was the Jeffersonian liberals who wanted to limit the federal; they thought that power should lie with the people, not a King-like figure. The Hamiltonian conservatives, on the other hand, argued for a strong central authority; they considered it necessary in order to resist the passions of the mob. It was an age that was both inspired and spooked by revolutions, both here and abroad.

Since that time we’ve had many inflection points, when the dividing lines between parties shifted. Are we coming to one of those moments? First, let’s consider the prior ones.

The second age of American politics was dominated by the Civil War; it runs from Jackson to the end of reconstruction. The issue that dominated the era was how much power should lie with the federal government, and how much of it should be retained by the states. The south saw the war as a conservative revolution… an attempt to protect a way of life.

The age of reform comes next. It runs from reconstruction to 1932. It is the only age that is not dominated by a single issue, but rather, many discrete questions. During this time, the mechanics of industrial capitalist democracy are refined, and it is largely (though not exclusively) the Republicans who are leading the way, doing some things that today we don’t usually associate with them, like taming large companies and conserving wild land.

The fourth age begins with Roosevelt’s coming to office in 1932. Beginning here, the primary argument is the size and scope of government. In many ways, the debate is framed by the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt wanted to save capitalism from itself, to institute reforms that averted the real possibility of social unrest and even revolt. Reagan wanted to diminish any resemblance to the old Soviet Union, to return to a primacy of the individual and the marketplace.

Today, the argument is largely – though not completely – concluded. “The era of big government is over,” announced Bill Clinton. Barack Obama described the role of government modestly: “Government must do what we cannot do for ourselves.”

Transformational liberal projects remain – universal health care, day care, perhaps others – but liberals have been chastened by their 28 years in the wilderness. Hardly anyone in the Democratic Party hankers for a return to the 70% top marginal rate or welfare as we knew it. Sometime in the next decade or two we will still have arguments about the extent of government… but probably without even realizing it, we will come to some sort of near-consensus on the role of government.

Even today, the size and scope of government is no longer the dominant issue. We are at the dawn of the fifth age of American politics. The great tectonic shift of our lifetime is globalism. China, India, and much of the rest of the developing world are enjoying an unprecedented growth spurt; they will demand power comparable to their financial gains. Problems such as global warming will require coordinated international responses. The great technological innovation of our times, the Internet, is a beast that knows no borders; it will need international authorities. Perhaps as a reaction to globalism, tribal conflicts seem to be on the upswing; they will necessitate multi-lateral responses. Our current financial crisis illuminates how completely trade and investment have bound us together; financial coordination and regulation will need to develop.

It is around these questions that the fifth age of American politics will be organized: pro-globalist vs. anti-globalist; free trade vs. ‘fair’ trade; submission to international authorities vs. maintenance of sovereignty; pro-immigrant vs. anti-immigrant; multilateralism vs. unilateralism; pro-foreign aid vs. anti-foreign aid; seeing the U.S.A as a leader of a new, multi-polar world vs. looking backwards to the U.S. as unipolar superpower.

The next conservative movement will be populist and nativist. They will inherit the socially conservative, church-going constituency of today’s Republican party (social conservatism will never disappear, although with the baby boomers aging past their child-rearing years, it will lose some ferocity.) It will be an anti-immigrant and protectionist movement, strong on defense, but inward-looking in foreign policy. They will heap scorn on treaties, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations, the WTO, the IMF, and others yet to be conceived. On global warming some will be denialists, some will fatalists, others will point to the sins of other nations as an excuse to avoid action ourselves. The new conservatives will lose support from the business community, but they will gain it from an increasingly disenfranchised working class. They will not be scared of government programs, and indeed, will advocate them for their constituencies.

Most surprisingly, these new conservatives are probably just as likely to take over the Democratic Party as the Republican Party. If it were the Republicans, we would probably see the new movement as son-of-Pat Buchanan, a new breed of paleocons. If it were the Democrats, we would probably see them as son-of-Dick Gephardt, pro-union pols in touch with their constituency’s conservative side.

Conservatism is not just a philosophy; it is a temperament. Liberals see social bonds as fraternal; conservatives see them as filial. Liberals identify with the collective, the people; conservatives identify with the nation – the motherland or fatherland. Globalism, the great seismic event of our lifetimes, will inspire a complex of passions close to the conservative heart. The emotions these questions raise will in coming years eclipse the old arguments about how much government we need.

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