The Era of Big Government is HereBreaking News
tags: welfare state, conservatism, Joe Biden
The best way to gauge the success of American political movements is not by the depth to which they shape their native party, but the breadth to which they extend into the opposing side.
By that standard, the American conservative movement hit its lowest ebb in generations last week. Its success was so towering 25 years ago that Democratic President Bill Clinton embraced smaller government, free trade, welfare reform and fiscal discipline. Conservatism’s failure now is so abject that not only has a new Democratic president repudiated those concepts in his first address to Congress, but the Republican Party that for decades made itself synonymous with the conservative movement also increasingly rejects its core tenets. The tidal shift toward big, activist, progressive government that began even before the financial crisis of 2008 has washed over both parties and left conservatism lost at sea.
President Biden’s first-term agenda is indeed an audacious bet on the ability of the federal government to remake the way America lives and works, but it is also a reflection of how little regard both parties have for the conservatism that would thwart his plans. As has usually been the case, the best way to judge a movement is in its power to shape the other party.
Agrarian populists so thoroughly plowed under the post-Civil War Democratic Party that it would thrice nominate William Jennings Bryan for president despite successively weaker showings. Republicans never budged on the prairie populists’ major issues because they never had to. Compare that to the urban progressivism championed by Franklin Roosevelt. By the time Democrats yielded the White House in 1953 after two decades, Republicans had come to accept the core components of the New Deal. The crowning victory of progressivism came in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations when Republican presidents ratified and in some respects expanded FDR’s approach to domestic policy.
There are as many ways to use the term “conservative” as there are for the term “liberal”—usually to similarly confusing effect. For our purposes, though, let’s understand “conservatism” as a political movement born in the early 20th century to combat the progressive surge that included Roosevelt, his cousin, Theodore, and Woodrow Wilson.
Conservatism’s early champions, like Presidents William H. Taft and Calvin Coolidge, were devoted to the idea of conserving the American system of a federal government with limited, divided powers. While progressives argued that America’s constitutional system was archaic and unsuitable to the industrial age, conservatives sought to restore the virtues of the Founding and its emphasis on individual liberty. The great traumas of the first half of that century—two world wars and an economic collapse—opened wide the way for big government and collective action. The complaints of the conservatives sounded cranky and antique. When the movement crashed and burned with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy, conservatism was thoroughly discredited, even in the Republican Party in which it was born.
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