I will admit that there are some conservative commentators that are not completely loony. Examples are: Josh Barro, Ross Douthat, David Frum. Another is Norm Ornstein. I just saw him on Up with Steve Kornacki. And he said something that I hear from these kinds of conservatives all the time. The panelists were talking about the supposed New New Left movement that Peter Beinart has been pushing. One thing that Beinart reported was that young people are the only group who prefer socialism to capitalism. It was on that point that Ornstein had to bring out his “Reasonable Republican” talking points.
Ornstein said, “There’s an opening for someone who’s a little more libertarian. While you get a narrow plurality of millennials saying they prefer socialism, there’s an antipathy toward government there in a lot of ways.” I’ve heard this same kind of thing so often that it is becoming funny. Let’s just start with it on the broadest of terms. The millennial generation is not interested in socialism out of any ideological commitment to a revolution of the worker. Their interest in it is simply a populist desire for a system that works better for themselves. Whenever conservatives are faced with a real populist movement, their response is always the same: libertarianism! I think this comes from the fact that that right wing pseudo-populists have always been bought off with libertarian platitudes. But that isn’t going to happen with the millennials because they are actual populists who have actual economic needs.
Americans always claim to dislike government. But that’s just the same as our dissatisfaction with the phone company: we wish it were better but that doesn’t mean we want to stop having telephone service. What’s more, younger Americans don’t generally think that the government is bad by nature; they think that government is run badly. This is why they didn’t vote for Mitt Romney, even though he ran explicitly as a technocratic libertarian. They knew that he would just be another slash and burn conservative.
And that gets to the great conservative propaganda campaign. When Republicans get into power, they do two things: rack up huge amounts of government debt and provide as bad of service as possible. Thomas Frank discusses this in depth in The Wrecking Crew. It gives Republicans two big advantages. First, it allows them to make their ridiculous arguments like, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Because they do everything they can to make sure that government is the problem. Then, the debts they create are used to stop Democrats from enacting good policies while they are in power.
Notice that while Bush Jr was creating huge new giveaways for the pharmaceutical industry, there was very little complaint from the supposed small government aficionados. It was only when a Democratic president wanted to help troubled homeowners with their mortgages that government debt became a problem. Admittedly, Norm Ornstein is not playing this game. But he is more than happy to benefit from it! He wants people to think that government is bad so that they will go along with his libertarian ideas about how to run the society. This is the fundamental problem with the old school conservatives: they still believe the same things as the crazies.
Ronald Reagan almost had it right. It wasn’t nine terrifying words, it was eleven: “I’m from the Republican controlled government and I’m here to help.”