Policy Review editor Tod Lindberg has a habit of telling his fellow conservatives uncomfortable truths at key moments of political history. Back in 1999, he scolded conservatives for refusing to acknowledge that Democrats–and center-left progressives internationally–had reinvigorated their political tradition via a “Third Way” movement that relied equally on effective governance and conservative failure to adjust:
This movement on the part of the world’s center-left parties is the most important political development of the
decade. They have decided to bury large enough swaths of their old ideology to obtain power and govern….
The truth is that Third Way politicians are perfectly happy to have cast conservatives as an anti-government menace whose message for people who fall down is “Get up.” The conservatives are even useful, in their way: Their political salience makes it possible (in fact, necessary) for Third Way politicians to shackle their taste for activist government to market principles, thus reinvigorating governments ossified by old-style liberalism.
If conservatives don’t like the role Third Way politicians have assigned them, they are going to have to articulate a different one. It’s probably going to have to include a sense of what government is for, a question to which conservative parties don’t really have an answer now.
Nine years later, Democrats are on the rise again, and again, conservatives are in denial, claiming that America is still a center-right country that has only turned to progressives reluctantly, due to the non-conservative sins of George W. Bush. One of the first to rebuke them has been Tod Lindberg, in today’s Washington Post:
We are now two elections into something big. This month’s drubbing is just the latest sign that the country’s political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left. Republicans who fail to grasp this could be lost in the wilderness for years.
Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the research firm YouGovPolimetrix have been analyzing data from online interviews with 12,000 people in both 2004 and 2008. It shows an overall shift to the Democrats of six percentage points. As they write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, “The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats.” This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left.
Lindberg also addresses the one major piece of evidence being repetitively cited for the “center-right country” rationalization:
True, the percentage of voters describing themselves as “liberal” and “conservative” has held relatively constant over many election cycles, with self-described liberals checking in at 22 percent this time around (up one percentage point over 2004) and self-described conservatives at 34 percent (unchanged from 2004). The numbers may not have changed, but the views behind those labels certainly have. Nowadays, it’s a fair bet that most of those calling themselves “liberal” support gay marriage. In 1980, those same liberals were, no doubt, cutting-edge supporters of gay rights, but the notion of same-sex marriage would have occurred only to the most avant-garde. In 1980, having a teenage daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock would have ruled you out for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. This year, it turned out to be a humanizing addition to the conservative vice presidential nominee’s résumé.
As a Democrat, I’m reasonably happy that so many conservatives want to remain in denial, and comfort themselves that nothing’s really changed over the last two electoral cycles that a return to a more rigorous ideological fidelity can’t fix. But it’s probably not that good for the country to have a major political party living in a parallel universe that’s more and more remote from reality. So we should all probably appreciate Tod Lindberg’s stubborn efforts to provide some reality therapy to his political comrades.