Ira Glasser, former executive director of the ACLU, asks a good question in the title of his HuffPo article, “What Are Conservatives Trying to Conserve?” Glasser references Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine article, noting that “demographic changes in the United States will before too long spell doom to the political influence and hegemony of conservatives,” and adds that there is a parallel dynamic at work against the continuation of conservative policies:
…Chait’s emphasis on demographic shifts is powerful and mainly on target, but there is a broader historical context to his analysis that complements, extends and better explains the hysteria dominating the current rhetoric of the Republican party. In other words, there is content to all of this.
Glasser explains that the march of modernity, driven by a range human rights movements he cites, had a far-reaching effect on the social transformation of recent decades, and is still having a powerful impact:
The explosion of rights between 1954 and 1973 radically altered the rules of the game and, perhaps more importantly, the perceptions of those who lost their privileges (many of whom had little else)…To a very demonstrable extent, I think, the conservative movement of the last 30 years…may be seen as a panic response to a crumbling world and to the rights expansions of the ’60s that struck like a tsunami, washing away all the prior governing arrangements. …
…What conservatives were desperately trying to conserve was not the values at America’s origin (the Bill of Rights was, after all, ratified in 1791), but rather the privileges and powers of 19th century and early 20th century America. This is what has fueled the reactionary politics of the past three decades, and it is what we are seeing now in the Republican base and its candidates.
…It is true that demographic changes affect this struggle. But demographic changes did not cause the struggle, nor do they lie at its roots. It is also true, I think, that the views represented by the likes of Rick Santorum are fading, and that his screams against the changes he cannot prevent are like a death rattle. That doesn’t mean they can’t do damage, doesn’t mean they can’t temporarily prevail. But they know their time is passing and that the next generation will not react with shock to the changes that shock Santorum, because they will not experience them as changes, because they will have gotten used to them, because they grew up with them…The vision of life that Rick Santorum clings to will end, or diminish to a point where it is not politically viable. Chait is right that the Republican right wing knows this; he is right that they see this as their last shot (it may not be; I wouldn’t celebrate victory quite yet)
…This is about more than demographics: it is about fundamental social change and the reaction to it. And the fundamental changes at stake and at issue are mostly about rights, the rights won by submerged and subordinate groups roughly between 1954 and 1973, and the privileges and powers lost or limited, or perceived to be lost, by those who benefited, however unjustly, from the subordination of others.
It’s ironic that the expansion of ‘freedom’ conservatives claim to cherish will likely become the source of their demise as a dominant political force. With favorable demographic tail winds, the freedom movements of the 21st century will have increasing influence — and that’s good for Democrats.