Outlook: 'Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?'

Steven F. Hayward
Steven F. Hayward (American Enterprise Institute)

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Steven F. Hayward
Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, and Author
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 11:00 AM

Steven F. Hayward, F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989," was online Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?"

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Steven F. Hayward: This is Steve Hayward, happy to be here (I think) to discuss my Sunday Outlook article on "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?" My one sentence answer is, "No--but there are problems." There have been four main types of responses: Liberals who mostly wish a pox on all conservative houses (fair enough); conservatives who agree with me that there are problems we need to work through; and conservative who divided in half this way: "How dare you criticize the great Glenn Beck--Beck rocks!," and conservatives who say, "You must be insane to defend that maniac Beck!"

Steven F. Hayward: This is Steve Hayward, happy to be here (I think) to discuss my Sunday Outlook article on "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?" My one sentence answer is, "No--but there are problems." There have been four main types of responses: Liberals who mostly wish a pox on all conservative houses (fair enough); conservatives who agree with me that there are problems we need to work through; and conservative who divided in half this way: "How dare you criticize the great Glenn Beck--Beck rocks!," and conservatives who say, "You must be insane to defend that maniac Beck!"

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SW Nebraska: You write that the tea party movement was "authentic and laudable" but really it was stirred up and promoted by powerful forces on the right -- Fox News, the Koch brothers. The populist movement is cynically manipulated by a very strong oligarchy. I don't see any ideology, just political maneuvering on the right.

Steven F. Hayward: I mostly disagree. I think the organizations that are trying to capitalize on the tea parties are like the proverbial folks who see a parade going down the street and try to march in front of it. You really can't consistently generate large enthusiastic crowds unless there is real popular sentiment at work underneath. I think liberals who dismiss the tea partiers as "astroturf" contrivances are making a big mistake. But I also think the tea parties might evolve into the next Ross Perot-style independent movement, which would not benefit Republicans at all.

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Anonymous: After eight years of conservative rule, our country is in once of the worst periods in our history. Conservative policies were implemented, they failed and our conservative government was unable to deal the consequence.

Why is conservatism even a valid politlcal ideaology anymore? It has been tried to its fullest extent, in the most supportive environment possible, and it failed miserably. Logic would dictate that conservative ideology, when put into practice, does not work.

Steven F. Hayward: I disagree with your assessment of conservative policies, but there is an important issue here of what I call (but didn't have room to include in my piece) the "Bush Hangover." Bush was not consistently conservative, and in the long run, but even now, he is going to be as much of a problem for conservatives as Woodrow Wilson is, or should be, for liberals. The Bush experience was a very sour one for most conservatives, and we need to come to grips with it.

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San Francisco, Calif.: You mentioned every talk radio host and TV host except Mark Levin. Why?

Steven F. Hayward: The main reason was simply a shortage of space. Please see this extended comment I made on National Review online about Levin:

http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YzBjM2I4M2QyOTgzZDhhZDVjYzljMzI1MTk5MWNjZWE=

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Fayetteville, N.C.: Maybe it's because I live in a "conservative" southern city, but here the primary driving force for the "conservative populist passion" seems to be the longstanding struggle for power and control between whites and minorites. This is frequently expressed in very blunt terms in local conversations. Is this not the case where you live?

Steven F. Hayward: That's a real problem that conservatives need to confront, too, though I do like to remind folks that the Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow for a century, and that the GOP voted more lopsidedly for the 1964 Civil Rights Act than Democrats did. But for Goldwater, things might be different. But yes, I see much less of the racial antagonism you mention because I'm a westerner, where I perceive this has been much less salient (though never completely absent).

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washingtonpost.com: What About Mark!?! (National Review Online, Oct. 2)

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Grasonville, Md.: Isn't conservatism partly a victim of success and partly a victim of unobtainable goals? The successes were the victory in the Cold War and the victory in drastically lowering tax rates from where they were in 1980. Unobtainable goals include the failure to not only cut government but persuade Americans to accept smaller government. Also, conservatives have lost the culture wars and cultural conservatives (I include my family and myself) have turned their backs on the decadent majority culture.

Steven F. Hayward: Yes, I think there is merit to this view. Lots of our big ideas have come to pass--lower tax rates and welfare reform, for example. There is nothing really new to say intellectually today about school choice; that is now just a trench warfare situation with the teachers unions. The culture questions are trickier, because the divisions are deeper, and often only indirectly affected by policy and legislation. So it may be that in many ways the field is not as receptive to "big ideas," and small ones (10 ways to fix health care!) are harder to get across to a broad public.

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Toronto, Ontario : Is there a reason you did not mention David Frum?

I would have thought him the obvious bright light in an otherwise gloomy discussion of the conservative intelligentsia. Frum at least has the credibility and temperament to be grudgingly acknowledged as a potential heir apparent to Buckley.

I have no love for American conservatism, but David Frum at least is bright, engaging and respectful. From time-to-time, he's even honest. Qualities the on-air personalities you refer to seem to have in only limited supply.

Steven F. Hayward: Mostly space reasons. David is a friend, and works just down the hall from me. We're not on the exact same page on some of this, and it would take a while (and not be all that interesting) to calibrate our similarities and differences.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Where would you put Joe Scarborough as an influence on conservative thought? This is someone who has both a radio and TV show that has its entertainment aspect yet he has also written a few thoughtful books where he attempts to define conservative thought.

Steven F. Hayward: I like Joe (have been on his show once) and think he strikes a nice tone in his discussions.

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Laurel, Md.: "Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow for a century, and that the GOP voted more lopsidedly for the 1964 Civil Rights Act than Democrats did. But for Goldwater, things might be different."

True, but that was exactly the moment in history when the South started switching parties, due to the Republicans' southern strategy. You blame the Dems for 100 years of Jim Crow, while taking the Jim Crow voters from them. This is the height of hypocrisy.

Steven F. Hayward: Actually I think that is not true if you look more closely. Check out Eisenhower's states in 1952 and 1956 (Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Tennessee); the South started breaking toward the GOP then. Nixon comes within 60,000 votes of carrying Texas in 1960, even with LBJ on the ticket. Something was happening, and it can't be tied wholly to race. (Early sunbelt phenomenon partly.) I think the whole picture is a lot more complicated than is usually captured in the "southern strategy" theme.

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Bush unhappiness: Bush may not have been all that conservatives wanted him to be but he did further the regulation of financial institutions so that the market could take care of unwise practices. How did that work out?

Steven F. Hayward: Not sure exactly what you mean here, but Sarbanes-Oxley, the main new larg regulation of finance, did absolutely nothing to prevent the housing/mortgage meltdown of last year.

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San Diego, Calif.: The conservative movement today seems to define itself by a few catch phrases -- e.g.: "deficits are bad" (yet under all conservative Republican presidents, the deficits and national debt have increased) and "big government is bad" (yet the size of the government has grown under conservative Republican presidents).

At one point, conservatives did have interesting ideas--for example, using tax incentives as a way of encouraging businesses to invest in economically struggling areas. Now, though, all we literally hear from conservatives is that tax cuts are holy, and that anyone who proposes letting the Bush tax cuts expire is a "socialist."

If conservative ideas had resulted in balanced budgets, low unemployment, and involvement in Iraq that lasted only months instead of years, we'd not be having this discussion. However, in the view of many of us, conservatism has become influenced too heavily by religious fanatics who care more about keeping two men from marrying and about teaching creationism in public schools than they do about ensuring the long-term economic viability of the United States.

Steven F. Hayward: Conservatives/Republicans certainly lost credibility on deficits in the Bush years, and this is a big problem. Saying, "Vote for us--we really mean it this time!" is not likely to be very persuasive to many independent voters.

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Bowie, Md.: To what extent have conservative viewpoints been stifled by things like speech codes, offensiveness complaints and news media diversity guidelines? Many conservatives complain that they're never implemented to proposed liberal viewpoints (e.g. "women need preferences to compete equally" is not considered sexist but when Lawrence Summers suggested women are less inclined toward science than men, he was hounded from his post by accusations of insensitiivity without discussing if he was accurate).

Since much of liberalism today is centered on demographic identity politics, have conservatives been shut out of a lot of issues?

Steven F. Hayward: I think the universities make a huge mistake with their near total enforcement of the monopoly of liberal thought, not so much in the things like speech codes that always collapse when challenged, but because it makes a hash of the idea of "diversity." There is little intellectual diversity in many departments on many campuses. But that tends to make liberal thought stale in my mind. There are many exceptions to this among liberal thinkers and academics and some university departments, but not enough.

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Cache Valley, Utah: Conservatism = Carl Rove; Swift boaters; WMDs in Iraq; Dick Cheney; Terry Schiavo; Tom DeLay; Duke Cunningham; the 09 Wall Street meltdown; Alberto Gonzales; Sara Palin; etc,. etc.... Nice try but looks like the conservatism backlash is a bit more than just a Bush hangover, no?

Steven F. Hayward: Um, so why do the most recent polls show self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a 2 to 1 margin? It was the other way around 50 years ago.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: What do you think might be the role of Hayek's ideas in current political dialog? Do you think that conservative radio talk show hosts would be more persuasive if they would explicitly build their arguments off those of Hayek?

Steven F. Hayward: Hayek's most important contribution, I think, is his explanation of what he called "the knowledge problem," i.e., that a government bureau can never assimilate enough information in a timely enough way to make good decisions about resource allocation, or that regulatory regimes based on large information needs will always generate perverse and unintended results. I would love to see talk radio and TV guys (and Rush is familiar with Hayek by the way) simply tell stories that illustrate this analysis in action. Both health care reform, and the 1000-page plus cap and trade bills in Congress, run afoul of Hayek's knowledge problem analysis.

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Gaithersburg: Mr. Hayward, conservatives often talk about the years 1950-65 as a sort of golden age when Americans had values, as evidenced by a record marriage rate and baby boom. Then in another speech complain about that period's economic conditions of strong unions, company pensions and job security and how it stifled innovation.

Didn't job security help create the values of the time? If someone's thinking of starting a family isn't "how secure is my income" a big part of the issue? Today's free agent economy (which conservatives like) has helped create free agent personal values. Isn't this a big part of the conundrum of conservatism?

Steven F. Hayward: You pose a really interesting question that gets right at the heart of the long-standing tension along the Right between market-loving libertarians and traditionalists. I think the conditions of the 1950s were probably sui generis, connected to the unique circumstances in place after the end of WW2. There isn't a solution to the dilemma you point to, and we right-wingers revisit the ground of this argument over and over again. For example, the late Russell Kirk (author of The Conservative Mind) would have hated Walmart, and probably Starbucks, too.

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Somerville, Mass.: How would you rate conservatives efforts to reach out to minorities? It seems the Michael Steele "outreach" has been nothing but a few (slightly embarassing) soundbites. Can conservatism be viable 20-30 years form now if it's a whites-only movement?

Steven F. Hayward: In reverse order, No, there is no future for conservatives or Republicans as a whites-only party. The efforts hitherto have been feeble and ineffective.

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Washington, D.C.: Setting aside whether the tea parties are effective or not, can we now agree that protesting against the president in a time of war is not unpatriotic? I just want to get this settled now, for the next time there's a Republican in the White House and Fox News claims that dissent is wrong.

Steven F. Hayward: Well, I'll just say that protesting against a president in time of war happened to Lincoln, and also Wilson (and even a little with FDR if you look closely). I think the protestors, on left or right, ought to note something the smarter anti-Vietnam War people figured out very late: while Vietnam was unpopular by the early 1970s, the anti-war movement was even more unpopular. So folks on any side would be well advised to calibrate their criticism to substance and not make it as personal as it often is. Unfortunately, animal passions run strong in our politics ("You lie!") so I'm not holding my breath.

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Liberals: Not all liberals, and I count myself as a capital L liberal, wish a pox on conservative households. I have conservative friends with whom I can engage in lively debate without ever hearing the retort, "Why do you hate America?" My concern is that they are being drowned out in favor of the one's who are saying that.

Steven F. Hayward: Good for you.

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Lawton, Okla.: You write that "The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level". But hasn't that always been conservatism's strength, its visceral, atavistic quality, embodied in the central figures of the modern conservative movement, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace?

Steven F. Hayward: George Wallace? Please; his racism should not be confused with conservatism. (You should see what Reagan privately thought of him.) McCarthy is a harder problem. But more to the point: while a Burkean skepticism (not opposition) toward change is a necessary component of any conservatism properly so-called, it is also true that conservatives ought to ask themselves from time to time, "What are liberals right about, or partly right about?" (And liberals should ask themselves the converse question.) My short answer is that liberals are generally right, starting 100 years ago, that the industrial revolution changed the social and political condition of middle class life and individualism itself. (In other words, progress really does bring us new circumstances.) Conservatives should recognize this, and offer serious alternatives to liberal policies that we think don't work very well.

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Both health-care reform, and the 1000-page plus cap and trade bills in Congress, run afoul of Hayek's knowledge problem analysis. : Then how do you explain that other countries with government-run systems get better health care as measured by all 16 bottom line public health statistics and they do it at half the cost per person?

Steven F. Hayward: In one word, rationing.

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W. Bethesda, Md.: "Um, so why do the most recent polls show self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a 2 to 1 margin?"

Could you provide links to these polls?

Steven F. Hayward: I don't have one handy at the moment, but I am sure if you google around you'll find some. I'll try to find one afterwards and post it on NRO's Corner.

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Madison, Wisc.: During the late 1970s, a conservative political rennaissance was aided by the fact that Richard Nixon virtually disappeared from public life, allowing Republicans to put distance between themselves and the disgrace of the Watergate scandal.

Today, George Bush is still regarded as a hero by most conservatives and his associates are prominent in both conservative politics and media. Given that Bush left office having been more unpopular for longer than any modern president, leaving the country with two wars and an economy in ruins, do you think any conservative revival will have to include some degree of repudiation of a president most Americans believe was a failure?

Steven F. Hayward: See my answer above to a similar question, in which I talk about the "Bush Hangover." Most conservatives are, at best, deeply conflicted about him, and do not at all regard him as an unalloyed hero.

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Health Debate: One of the more striking optics is the number of conservative congressmen who have no idea how to answer questions on health care. For example, there is Eric Cantor telling a woman that her relative who just lost her job and health insurance and has stomach tumors should "find a government plan or charity"; there is the Georgia congressman (who is a doctor) who told a constituent who said he cannot afford the anti-depressants he has been prescribed to "go to the emergency room." These are conservative answers to real life problems?

Steven F. Hayward: There are two problems here I think. The first is that most conservatives do not think (I am one of them) that health care is a fundamental individual right, like free speech. (Why not food? Why not housing? Why not a job?--as fundamental human rights that the government must provide. There is a confusion of means and ends here.) So right out of the box conservatives are on the defensive.

Now, it may be that we now wish to extend universal health care as a privilege of American citizenship, just as we did with Medicare, Social Security and so forth (that is, if we can keep them from imploding over the next 40 years). Here conservatives have done a poor job of crafting alternatives. I think we have a few very good ideas (interstate purchase of health insurance for example), but it doesn't add up to a compelling package. (By the way, if we are going to copy the European social democracies' national health programs, how about we adopt their malpractice tort regimes too? I can hear the crickets chirping already.)

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Laurel, Md.: I sometimes see t-shirts or bumper stickers with slogans like "Kill them all and let God sort them out", "Spay a liberal" or "The best way to change a liberal's mind is with a rock."

You seldom see liberal paraphenalia advocating violence over disagreements, even in jest. Isn't there a legitimate view that modern conservatism contains an element of actual hate?

Steven F. Hayward: Whoa, wait a minute here! There was a feature film depicting the assassination of Bush out a few years ago. And I know I saw stickers about "Some Village in Texas is Missing Its Idiot." How about Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta newspaper several years ago saying she hoped Clarence Thomas ate lots of high fat foods and died early of a heart attack? I think edgy passions, I'll call them, exist on both ends of the political spectrum, and unfortunately always will.

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In one word, rationing. : Come on, if there were a lot of "rationing" it would impact adversely on their outcomes. Also we have more here, but it is done by economic status and insurance company administrators.

Steven F. Hayward: I will simply assert that the Canadian system would not work if a) they had American-level rates of low income immigrants (Milton Friedman's basic axiom here comes into play--you can't have high rates of low-income immigration and a welfare state; your choice), and b) if most of their population didn't live so close to the U.S., which is their health system safety valve. In England, you have to be 57 to get a hip replacement from their system, and you can only get one in your lifetime (though you can pay out of your own pocket for a second one if you want).

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Morocco: Hello,

I volunteered in college, became a teacher, and joined the Peace Corps because many of my liberal teachers encouraged lives of education and public service. At the same time, my conservative friends were discouraged from any non-profit work that didn't promote the Republican party and a job's value is based entirely on the paycheck. Do you see a difference in intellectual development coming from a lack of good mentoring on the part of conservatives as a trend or was my experience strange?

Steven F. Hayward: No, I suspect your experience is probably right, but ironically I know a lot of ex-liberals who began moving right because of their Peace Corps experience. Charles Murray was a Peace Corps volunteer in Asia; he came out of Harvard a conventional liberal, and began his ideological journey in the Corps. Another example might be John Christy, the NASA climate skeptic, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

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Savage: One of conservatism's strongest blocs is military and veteran families. But a good case can be made that our military budget is still based on post-WWII economic conditions that have disappeared and we can't afford to be a unilateral superpower anymore.

Does conservatism have any idea how to resolve this?

Steven F. Hayward: I wonder whether the next major surprise might not be the military moving more toward the Democratic Party, if only because they got overextended in Iraq and elsewhere and conservatives/Republicans are more to blame for it. Moreover, we simply can't afford the kind of military operations we have now such as Iraq. We need to find cheaper ways to fight (which might mean fighting a lot less), and conservatives ought to be in the forefront of thinking through a new American Way of War. (Don't misinterpret that last phrase, please.)

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Arlington, Va.: When are we going to start separating conservatism as an intellectual movement and Conservatives as a political party? The reason we don't have the likes of Buckley, Hayek, and Bloom is because we are unable to separate intellectual ideas from party politics.

Steven F. Hayward: Not quite right here: Allan Bloom was an enthusiastic supporter of Bill Clinton before his untimely death in 1992. And the dreaded Leo Strauss voted for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s.

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Tort Reform: As a liberal, I would agree to tort reform. I don't think that just putting a cap on the amount that can awarded is the answer, however. I think we could fashion some type of compensation to victims of malpractice, maybe along the workers compensation program, where all victims of malpractice are treated fairly and you don't depend on the jury finding for you. This could be funded by some type of insurance -- much like workers compensation is -- that recognizes risks in some lines of medical practice greater than others.

Steven F. Hayward: Good ideas. See: we can reach some compromises!

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Re: The efforts hitherto have been feeble and ineffective.: So what would you advocate doing differently? Is it possible for conservatism to attract large blocks of minority groups or is there a schism in ideology and interests that can't be overcome?

Steven F. Hayward: Long thoughts about this, but it would start with the Party of Lincoln actually embracing Lincoln and his principles once again. One of the scandals of the right, to me, is the number of folks on the right who hate Lincoln and his principles. I'm always happy to do that throw down.

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Middlebury, Conn.: But for a summary statement at the beginning of the chat, you haven't defended Glenn Beck. Does his esoteric knowledge of conservative dogma really outweigh most of his utter foolishness?

Steven F. Hayward: Jury is out on that. As I've said to friends the last two days, I know I've gone out on a limb offering a partial defense of him, hoping that he doesn't saw it off behind me.

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SW Nebraska: I disagree with you on nearly everything you say but I'm sure glad you made yourself available to answer questions. Thanks.

Steven F. Hayward: Nice of you to say. Nicer actually than many conservatives, some of whom are ready to run me out of town this week.

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Ol' Sam Clemens Was Very Wise: "...the most recent polls show self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a 2 to 1 margin?"

I would remind you of the quote from Mark Twain that "there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Steven F. Hayward: Although that quote probably originated with Disraeli.

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Steven F. Hayward: Well, that hour went fast! It was fun; nice sparring/dialoguing with all of you. Hope we can do it again some time. I think this works better than cable TV, even if the keyboard slows it down. That may be why it works. Thanks all, and sorry I didn't get to all of your questions and comments. Some required longer or better answers that I could give here.

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