Liberals have so little respect for conservatives these days that people on the left are genuinely astonished when people on the right have principled disagreements with each other. The left assumes the right marches in lock step under orders from the White House.
Conservatives have so little respect for liberals that they see every liberal action as inspired by hatred of President Bush, opposition to religion and contempt for people in "the heartland."
The paradoxical result of this mutual contempt is that each side is simultaneously underestimated and overestimated. As a result, current political arrangements are seen as permanent and the possibilities of political change are missed -- even when change is in the process of happening.
The right is widely assumed to have more coherence and discipline than it does. That means its dominance in our politics is exaggerated while its intellectual energy is insufficiently appreciated. Few outside its ranks acknowledge how many philosophical streams feed the conservative movement.
The left is widely assumed to be in a state of a perpetual disarray, inspired mostly by knee-jerk responses such as "political correctness" or "radical secularism." For at least a decade now, conservatives have gleefully called their political foes "reactionary liberals" whose main task, they say, is the preservation of a New Deal-Great Society status quo. Since the 2004 election gave narrow but firm control of Washington's two elected branches of government to a Republican Party committed to conservatism, the dominant political narrative has highlighted the right's effectiveness and the left's fecklessness.
Yet the liberals' opposition to many of Bush's policies -- in particular his Social Security program and his tax cuts for the wealthy -- cannot be dismissed as a blind rejection of whatever this controversial president proposes. If there is a principle that unites the left side of the political spectrum, it is a belief that an energetic government can effectively use progressive taxation to insure the poor, the unlucky and the elderly against undue hardship. Bush's embrace of the partial privatization of Social Security has thus united liberals and created a sense of momentum unusual for the left during the Bush years.
For all these reasons, the split among conservatives over the Terri Schiavo case and Bush's difficulties in selling his Social Security plan should not have been surprising. Schiavo's tragedy has underscored the delicate intellectual balancing act involved in holding conservatism together. The bill to force Schiavo's case into federal court in the hope of overturning decisions by state judges and forcing reinsertion of her feeding tube was bound to lead to a confrontation among different kinds of principled conservatives. An ancient and often religiously rooted commitment to the inviolability of life crashed head-on into the commitment of one brand of conservatism to state and local control and a more libertarian brand's wariness of government meddling in private decisions. Even Bush, the most skilled mediator among conservative factions since Ronald Reagan, has been unable to keep peace on the right in this instance.
The privatization debate has not only strengthened the left. It also brought the economically libertarian, market-oriented faction of the right front and center, to the discomfort of many traditionalist conservatives.
The traditionalists' main concern is the preservation of traditional values, including family values, and Social Security violates none of these. Indeed, Gary Bauer, a leading social conservative, argued in 1997 that Social Security "provides special compensations for couples who devote themselves to rearing children during their active years." In a New York Times article opposing privatization, Bauer asked: "Why do we think the nation will be better off by forcing workers to put their money into stock rather than, say, spending it on rearing children?" It's hard to imagine a more thoroughly conservative critique of privatization.
It would be premature to predict that the rise of new issues in the first quarter of 2005 marks the beginning of a "conservative crack-up," a phrase invoked by conservative writer R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. to describe an earlier period of conservative malaise. The Bush administration has been unusually successful in managing the nation's political agenda and has regularly succeeded in uniting its own camp and dividing liberals by pushing the issues of terrorism and national security to the fore.
But even the most skilled politicians can be severely tested when their political task requires asking principled constituencies to preserve party unity by ignoring their most serious commitments. Political conservatism is alive and interesting, and therefore difficult to manage. Bush made the conservative balancing act look easy during his first four years. That does not mean it will stay that way.