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The End of The Conservative Ascendancy
Publish Date:Sunday, November 12, 2006
For the past several years, our members and friends have been helping lead a critical strategic conversation in the progressive movement on how to best respond to the remarkable success of the 20th century conservative movement. We all know the story - the conservatives invested billions of dollars over more than a generation to build a very powerful and modern political movement, one which they used to seize more ideological and political control over Washington than in any time since the 1920s.
In the fall of last year it was clear that the conservatives were writing a new and terrible chapter of their movement. Through our analysis grouped in the "meeting the conservative challenge" portion of our site, NDN began laying out an argument that the extraordinary governing failures of the Bush era was calling into question the very nature of the conservative movement itself. As we wrote in January of this year, in a memo called the "State of Conservative Governance, 2006,"
"Tonight the President reports to the nation on the State of the Union. We will hear soaring rhetoric, powerful words, a President resolute and determined. We will hear of victories, progress, and pride. He will tell a compelling story – and very little of it will be true.
The truly compelling story of this decade is one that Bush doesn’t want told – the rapid and dramatic failure of conservative government. Finally in a position of virtually unchecked power after decades in the political wilderness, modern conservatives have failed quickly and utterly at the most basic responsibilities of governing, leaving our nation weaker and our people less prosperous, less safe and less free.
Seduced by the temptations of power, these movement ideologues also quickly came to believe that the rules of our democracy did not apply to them. The result is one of the farthest-reaching episodes of corruption and criminal investigations into a governing party in our history.
To fully appreciate the State of the Union, we need a deep understanding of the conservative movement and its rise to power. Jumpstarted a little more than fifty years ago by William F. Buckley’s National Review, the conservatives began their long march to power by investing billions of dollars in a modern infrastructure to combat the entrenched position of progressives in government. They used this infrastructure – think tanks, for-profit media, superior and innovative forms of electioneering – to defeat an aging progressive movement, and now have more power than at any time since the 1920s.
In recent years America has learned what life is like under a true conservative government. With near absolute power, conservatives have pursued their agenda with little compromise or input from progressives. The latest chapter of the great conservative story – the Bush years – may have been one of political victories, but it has also been one of disastrous governance. The broad and deep failures of the Bush government should cause all Americans to reappraise the virtue of this grand conservative experiment, recognizing that even after 50 years and untold billions of dollars, they have yet to come up with a true alternative to 20th century progressive government -- which did so much good, for so long. "
Promoting this historical narrative about a needed reappraisal of "the grand conservative experiment" became one of NDN's top message priorities this year. It is woven through my foreword to the critically acclaimed book, Crashing the Gate, it was at the very center of my June Annual Meeting speech, and is at the core of the narrative behind the work of our affiliate, the New Politics Institute. We revsited the story in our quick post-election analysis, and in a memo released on the morning of Tuesday's election called "A Day of Reckoning for the Conservative Movement." In this new memo we wrote:
..."The question about conservatism has always been could it mature enough as a governing philosophy to replace 20th century progressivism, and provide America with a true alternative governing approach? I believe the Bush era has answered that question, and the answer is no. Given the extraordinary failure of conservative government to do the very basics – keeping us safe, fostering broad-based prosperity, protecting our liberties, balancing the books and not breaking the law – I think history will label this 20th century conservatism a success as a critique of 20th century progressivism, but a failure as a governing philosophy. It never matured into something more than an ivory-tower led and Limbaugh-fed correction to a progressivism that had lost its way.
Despite the many billions spent in building this modern conservative movement, history will label it a grand and remarkable failure. And I think we will look back at 2006 as the year this most recent period of American history – the conservative ascendancy – ended..."
Reviewing the media from the past few days, it is clear this important narrative has woven itself into the emerging set of major narratives about 2006. Matt Bai visits it in his new essay in the New York Times magazine; it was front-paged Wednesday on DailyKos; on Thursday a Wall Street Journal blog attacked it; it is at the core of the lead story in the New York Times Week in Review today; Jon Podesta offers his take on the narrative in his must read post-election memo; Jonathan Alter tackles it in his usually elegant fashion in Newsweek; and NPI fellow Joe Trippi, a major architect of this entire argument, makes the case in his very thoughtful essay in the Washington Post today.
A lot changed this week in America. One of the most important things that is in the process of changing is the understanding of the moment we are in in American history; and this new understanding, advanced to a great degree by NDN and our allies, should give all progressives optimism that this emerging new era in American history means better days are coming for our movement and the great nation we love.