What Do Conservatives Really Think?—Part 1
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
So the excellent expert on public opinion Frank Luntz gives us five myths about conservatives. It goes without saying there are many kinds of conservatives, and all Luntz can really talk about is general tendencies. In each case, I think, Frank debunks a real myth, and in his social scientific spirit I want to say a bit more.
I just taught a course on PUBLIC POLICY. The students were more conservative than not, and we read all sorts contemporary analyses both liberal and conservative.
Social Security and Medicare, most conservatives believe, should be mended, not ended. But can they be mended over the long term? Young people today assume they’ll never see a dime of either. They know that the future is fewer productive young people supporting more and more relatively unproductive old people. They don’t see either party talking truthfully about the demographic issue that seems to make entitlement-based societies throughout the world impossible to sustain, at least as they now exist. Some libertarians and lots of Tea Partiers believe that the welfare state is unconstitutional, but the more common conservative thought is that it’s unsustainable.
So reforms away from DEFINED BENEFITS (entitlements) toward DEFINED CONTRIBUTIONS (by employers, government, and so forth) are less good than inevitable. Government can only afford so much, and programs will have to be reconstructed to make beneficiaries much more sensitive to and pay more of the real costs. People also, of course, will be stuck with make tougher choices with their own very limited resources. As the population continues to age, people are going to have to get more and more savvy and self-controlled to get their money to last as long as they will.
It’s great news that people will be more likely to get very old, and maybe much more likely to be fairly healthy when they are. The bad news is that they may well be more and more on their own—detached from the safety nets of government, family, and other forms of voluntary caregiving—than ever. For some conservatives, of course, even the bad news is kind of good news: There’s no way we’re going to be over-relying on big government to meet our needs.
Conservatives—insofar as they are either religious or traditionalist—are surely more attuned to the problems of being old in a society fully of techno-based preferential options for the young. At least my conservative students are pretty balanced in understanding that our techno-progress makes us more “connected” in some ways and more isolated in others. One form of increasing disconnection, of course, is between the generations.
Conservatives still get more moralistic than Frank suggests about BIG GOVERNMENT eroding PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY—not to mention the idea of ENTITLEMENT expanding as luxuries become necessities.
BUT: Frank is still right that the Tea Party, “road to serfdom” narrative of people getting smaller as government gets bigger, is waning more than a bit. One reason is that people these days don’t feel the security that might come from some omnicompetent (or even semi-competent) big government. The conservative complaint is much less about despotic than about incompetent and wasteful government.
Conservatives certainly fear less evildoing “progressives” seducing people into submission under some schoolmarmish nanny state. They don’t think the people in charge are astute and responsible enough to keep government doing semi-effectively (including cost effectively) what it does now. Some conservatives do think that ObamaCare is an unprecedented offense against individual liberties. More think that it’s a resource-sucking, incoherent mess that’ll ruin the employer-based health care so many now enjoy and replace it with something much worse.
So it’s not so much that ObamaCare is unconstitutional. It too is unsustainable. At least astute conservatives add that employer-based health care itself is also probably unsustainable (not to mention anti-entrepreneurial, regressive, and otherwise unjust). They acknowledge with regret that Romney can’t win if he makes that scarily inconvenient thought prominent in his campaign, just as the president can’t win if he admits that the “affordable care” he envisions will come less and less from employers.
There’s a lot more to say—about immigration, inequality, religion, science, “social capital” and so forth. Stay tuned.
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