Can Conservatives Govern?


Riffing on this David Brooks column on British politics, Peter Suderman critiques Cameronism here; Reihan responds here and here. I would add one observation: For American conservatives looking across the pond for inspiration, what's at stake in the current - and perhaps temporary - Tory renaissance has less to do with policy specifics (the shape of U.S. politics more or less ensures that any revived American Right will have to be simultaneously more libertarian and more socially-conservative than Cameron's Tories) than with the broader question of whether Anglo-American conservatives can successfully govern a welfare-state society in an era that isn't characterized by profound, late-Seventies-style disillusionment with the administrative state.

American liberals, of course, like to claim that the answer is no, and George W. Bush's two terms have provided a great deal of grist for their argument. Moreover, there's a sense in which the liberal "conservatives can't govern" meme dovetails with the oft-heard right-wing insistence that what the Republican Party needs post-Bush is ideological retrenchment, with a purer government-cutting and tax-slashing gospel replacing compassionate conservatism and its attendant heresies. The would-be retrenchers, of course, tend to insist that their favored course will lead the Republican Party to quickly regain the position it enjoyed in the Reagan era and the Gingrich moment, which strikes me as a fantasy - not least because where taxes and spending are concerned, the public mood circa 2008 is nothing like the public mood circa 1980 or even 1994. But beneath the fantasy you can see the glimmerings of a reasonably principled and consistent point of view, in which the American Right's mission is to play Dr. No on domestic policy (even if doing so consigns conservatives to the minority), while waiting for moments when liberalism massively overreaches - and then leveraging these moments into as much government-cutting as possible.

This is a vision of what conservatism ought to stand for that Alan Wolfe and Grover Norquist can shake hands over, with the former saying "you can't run the government" and the latter saying "yes, and we don't want to - so watch your back!" Meanwhile, those of who have rather different aspirations for the American center-right are left to watch events in the old country with interest, whatever we think about the wisdom of government mandated in-home health visitors.

Photo by Flickr user UCL Conservative Society used under a Creative Commons license.