Over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo has written a really interesting article, Overton Straitjacket. In it, he makes the observation that while liberalism in America is spread out fairly evenly over its ideological range, conservatism is bunched at its right extreme. If liberalism were like that, Obama really would be the socialist of Republicans’ frenzied imaginings. So why is liberal ideology something like a normal distribution but conservative ideology is like the distribution of wages, with lots all pressed up again the minimum wage below which it cannot go by law?
Holbo notes that if a large number of people in the Republican Party became so extreme, that ought to open up acceptable conservative ideology (the “Overton Window”) so that there would be some people even further to the right. For example, if all the Republicans are now for war with Iran, why aren’t there some pushing for a region wide war? He has no compelling answers. I’m not sure that anyone does. I do, however, have a few thoughts.
Primarily, I think this perception is wrong. Just like the conservatives who claim that Obama is a socialist, we tend to conflate different conservative positions. For example, there is a very big difference between people who believe abortions should be illegal in all cases and those that believe in exceptions. So I think it is wrong to assume that conservatives are all rushing to the edge of ideological spectrum. They really are distributed.
But what we clearly do see is that modern conservative ideology is very narrow. And on that question, I am writing a whole book. But very briefly: it’s the New Democrats’ fault. Conservatives are, after all and despite what I say from time to time, not fascists. The existing boundary on the right is the same boundary that has long been there. But on economic issues especially, the New Democrats have taken over vast amounts of Republican ideological territory. This leaves Republicans with two possible actions. They can stay in the Republican Party and complain about how radical it is even though they now fit better in the Democratic Party. That is what’s going on with people like Josh Barro and David Frum. Or they can move to the right, which is more or less the only option if you are a politician.
I think that explains what we see. Of course, from the inside it looks different. This is why Republicans seem to go to intra-party war over what appear to us as minor issues. They aren’t minor issues to them. They are issues that span the entirety of the conservative ideological terrain. It might not be much, but it is all that they have.