A strong case can be made that apart from President Obama’s election and long list of accomplishments (to which the end of the Iraq War can now be added), the biggest political story of the past few years is how the Republican Party has essentially gone mad. I use that language not as hyperbole but as an accurate description; while Republicans call Obama a radical and an extremist, they’re actually doing a better job of describing themselves than the centrist in the White House.
I remember periods when the GOP became unhinged—during Clinton’s impeachment for example—but I’ve never before seen rightwing lunacy infect every aspect of the Republican Party. Once considered “the party of ideas,” current GOP positions now read like a list of what not to do if you want a sound economy, equal opportunity, and believe in equal treatment for men and women, and for all races and creeds.
Even though many Republicans are more reasonable than party leaders—for example, a majority favor tax increases on the wealthy—people who self-identify as Republicans hold increasingly extremist and often reactionary views on everything from immigration to climate change to healthcare. Many even refuse to believe that Obama is a U.S. citizen and a practicing Christian.
The fact is that classic conservatism and the Republican Party are increasingly at odds. The word “conservative” is now lazily used to describe almost anything right-leaning; historically, however, liberalism and conservatism were two sides of the same coin: each promoted a view of limited but effective government that relied on well-functioning markets to determine societal outcomes.
True conservatives are not averse to government. They believe in a set of principles, many of which come from microeconomic analysis, to determine when markets work well and when they do not. This methodology is used to identify the spheres where government can help improve outcomes (e.g., environmental policy) and where it will likely lead to worse outcomes (e.g., the housing market). Ironically, the Obama White House is known for using conservative economic logic to determine its policy responses; Lawrence Summers was famous in the Administration for asking the question “where is the market failure?” whenever anyone suggested government intervention to solve a problem.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that conservatives have also traditionally paid attention to issues of equality and income distribution. Milton Freidman famously suggested a minimum income for all U.S. citizens, an idea which made its way into then-candidate Richard Nixon’s economic platform. Today’s Republican Party would deride as socialism an idea that came from one of conservatism’s greatest heroes.
While conservatives have traditionally underestimated the benefits of many environmental policies, they were early champions of market solutions to many environmental problems. They helped establish a cap and trade system for sulfur dioxide, which has since been used by the EU to reduce greenhouse gases. Using environmental taxes to shift government revenue from labor income to consumption is largely a conservative idea, and it’s been adopted by the same European governments that most Republicans consider socialist.
Time was when people who considered themselves conservative would find the Republican Party more hospitable than the Democratic Party; that time is long past. If Friedman were alive today, he would be aghast at what passes for conservatism in the GOP. He wouldn’t be thrilled by the Democratic Party, but he would have the intellectual honesty to recognize that current Democratic ideas are actually closer to conservatism’s roots. And as Paul Krugman consistently points out, what passes for economic analysis in right-leaning circles these days is little more than ideological extremism masquerading as social science, with no regard to evidence or facts.
It’s time for people to stop referring to anything rightwing as conservative. It’s not only wildly inaccurate but disrespectful to a serious intellectual tradition that still has much to offer for American public policy.
P.S. Coincidentally, on Monday E.J. Dionne made the case that Obama is the conservative in the race by any reasonable use of the term.