Fascinating article by George Packer in this week’s New Yorker: The Fall of Conservativism.

In brief: modern conservativism was invented by Nixon, a non-conservative, as a way to fight the ’60s.  Nixon and his young speechwriter Pat Buchanan wanted to revitalize the Republicans– still reeling from their landslide loss in 1964– by tapping into the rage of the “silent majority” against the counterculture.  Buchanan wrote a memo in 1971 that outlined the next thirty years of conservativism: highlight the “elitism” of the national Democrats; use abortion to split off Catholics from social liberals; win the white working class by cutting taxes and denouncing welfare.  Nixon was happy to use the rhetoric but in fact governed pretty much as a liberal.

Conservativism went on to take power, roar triumphantly, push the country to the right– and collapse.  As recently as 2004 the Karl Rove strategy seemed unbeatable; liberals worried and conservatives crowed about the coming permanent Republican majority.  Four short years later, the movement seems to be in shambles.  Its president, “blown up in Iraq and drowned in New Orleans”, faces 70% disapproval ratings; its base couldn’t even get one of their own as presidential nominee; defeats in solidly Republican congressional districts portend big trouble in November.

What happened?  Largely, political conservativism was a negative movement– it just wanted to destroy liberalism, and it had no positive vision for government.  As David Brooks says, “people want government to do things.”  Inaction on health care, global warming, and economic decline is not a winning strategy.  Without the Cold War and with taxes already cut to irresponsible levels, there’s little agreement over what to do next. 

More importantly, perhaps, the ’60s are long over.  As Packer points out, the Democrats demonized Herbert Hoover well into the ’70s.  The Republicans are still fighting the 1972 election, defeating George McGovern over and over.  It worked splendidly for decades, when most voters were still exercised about ’60s concerns, but it’s a strategy with a distinct sell-by date.  The younger generation, in particular, isn’t moved. 

The hard-core conservatives, naturally, are still there; they explain that George Bush just wasn’t conservative enough.  Conservatives under fifty, Packer reports, are solidly for reform instead.  They’re trying to figure out how to use government rather than destroy it– though one senses that their ideas need more work.  David Frum, for instance, has this to suggest to solve the health care crisis: a government campaign to raise awareness about obesity.  Yeaahhh.

This dovetailed nicely with another recent read: Morris Fiorina’s Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  Fiorina argues that all the furor in the punditosphere about red states and blue states is hooey– America isn’t polarized, and most Americans are moderates.  His book is full of tables showing that opinion in “red” and “blue” states is more similar than different.  E.g.:

Issue – and percent of support in red/blue states Red Blue
Immigration should decrease 43% 41%
Government should ensure racial nondiscrimination 51% 57%
Stricter gun control 52% 64%
Equal role for women 82% 83%
Abortion should be always legal 37% 48%
No job discrimination vs. gays 62% 73%

 Why does America seem polarized then?  Simply put, because the political class is– politicians, media, pundits.  The parties have sorted themselves out much more than before: there are few conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans any more.  The media likes stories of conflict, and ideological purists make great talking heads.  And of course if presented with two extreme candidates, moderate voters have to elect an extremist.

Packer’s story makes it clear that this polarization was a strategy explicitly chosen by the Republicans.  Naturally, while it worked, they pressed it more and more.  But even more than ideological purity, politicians value winning.  If they keep losing, they’re going to re-evaluate the strategy.