The Three-Legged Stool, Then and Now

We’ve written a number of times about economic, national security and social conservatism, and how those branches of conservative thought relate to the current Presidential campaign. Many conservatives are dismayed that most of the leading Republican candidates do not fit the “Reagan conservative” mold, which is conventionally interpreted to mean conservative on all three of these issue clusters. Some liberals have rejoiced at this fact, and have been quick to proclaim Reagan Republicanism dead.
One of the points I’ve tried to make in prior posts is that political issues are always changing. Conservative principles are true and timeless, but they constantly need to be applied and adapted to changing circumstances. There are historical moments that cry out for conservatism, in which conservative candidates are likely to be popular and conservative thinkers are apt to feel triumphant. Other eras will be murkier.
It is important to remember, when we talk about national security, economic and social conservatism, that those terms all have very different contexts today than they did in Reagan’s time. For example, when people refer to the “social issues” today, they generally mean abortion and gay marriage. This was not the case in the 1970s and 1980s. Abortion became a national issue beginning with Roe v. Wade, and I’m sure Reagan said something about it at one time or another, but I can’t remember ever hearing him mention it. Gay marriage, of course, was not on the horizon at all.
In Reagan’s time, when people referred to the social issues, they meant crime, welfare and the counterculture. Reagan did emphasize those issues. When he first ran for Governor of California, he ran largely as a traditionalist opponent of the counterculture takeover of California’s universities that was then in progress. Crime and welfare were significant topics not just for Reagan, but for nearly all the conservatives of his era.
The “social issues” of today are less compelling, in my view, than the social issues of Reagan’s era. Here, conservatism is the victim of its own success. Welfare reform has largely solved the problems that were created by the Great Society. Effective police practices, employing conservative principles, have been deployed in most cities, and together with welfare reform, have saved our cities from the disintegration that was widely predicted during the 1970s. But as a result, crime and welfare are pretty much off the table as issues on the national scene.
A similar pattern holds with respect to national defense. Most conservatives believe that the main security issue of our day, the threat of Islamic extremism, is vitally important. But this is not so obvious to many Americans, given the lack of successful attacks on our territory over the last six years. In Reagan’s time, there was a strong, bipartisan consensus that the Soviet Union posed a significant security threat. During the late 1970s, the U.S.S.R. was on the march, and it was widely believed that the future belonged to Communism, in part because of the fecklessness of the Carter administration. In the 1980 election, the national security issue could hardly have been posed more starkly, and the contrast between candidates was entirely to Reagan’s advantage.
Finally, the economy: once again, Reagan came to power in a much more black and white era. When he took office, the top federal tax rate was, if I remember correctly, 70%. Today, no politician would dream of proposing that kind of confiscatory taxation. Many Democrats of the 1960s and 1970s made no secret of the fact that they viewed liberalism as a way-station on the road to socialism. In the late 1970s, the idea that America was in permanent economic decline took hold. Many observers, not just on the fringes but in the liberal mainstream, counseled Americans to get over the fact that the country was in decline and get used to permanent inflation of 10% to 15% per year, along with high unemployment and little economic growth. Against that background, Reagan’s proclamation that it was morning in America–that the country’s best days were yet to come–was not just another political slogan. It was a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom of the day.
Once again, the situation today is very different. For better or worse–in my view, it can only be better–the Clinton administration demonstrated that Democrats aren’t necessarily socialists in disguise (except when it comes to medical care), and may even be capable of competently managing a free-market economy. This represents a sea-change in American politics. It is still true, of course, that conservative economic principles are better, fairer and more effective than liberal ones. But the contrast is nowhere near as inescapable, or as obvious to voters, as it once was.
Ronald Reagan came to power at a time that was a sort of perfect storm, in which prevailing liberal policies had produced catastrophic or near-catastrophic results in all three major policy areas. Since then, it is precisely the success of conservative approaches that has made the contrast between the parties more subtle.
In every generation, conservative principles must be re-discovered and applied to a new set of historical circumstances. I have no problem with the conventional tripartite taxonomy, but we need candidates who can apply conservatism to new issues, and a new historical context, in new ways. Maybe we need to find a way to talk about the “social issues” that gets us past the World War I-style entrenched lines on abortion and gay marriage. Maybe we need candidates who can explain to voters how conservative principles can not just prevent the country from sinking into double-digit inflation and unemployment, but can allow average people to retire with something approaching real wealth. And clearly, we need candidates who can reach back to the wellsprings of Western civilization and inspire Americans to lead the world in standing up for freedom and human dignity.
So, sure, it’s a three-legged stool. But conservatives need to recognize that it’s a very different three-legged stool from the one that brought us to power twenty-eight years ago.


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