By DAVID BROOKS
The New York Times
March 29, 2007
There is an argument floating around Republican circles that in order to win again, the G.O.P. has to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days. It has to once again be the minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism and states’ rights.
This is folly. It’s the wrong diagnosis of current realities and so the wrong prescription for the future.
Back in the 1970s, when Reaganism became popular, top tax rates were in the 70s, growth was stagnant and inflation was high. Federal regulation stifled competition. Government welfare policies enabled a culture of dependency. Socialism was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model.
In short, in the 1970s, normal, nonideological people were right to think that their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. People were right to believe that government was undermining personal responsibility. People were right to have what Tyler Cowen, in a brilliant essay in Cato Unbound, calls the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into their minds — the idea that big government means less personal liberty.
But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people’s future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation.
Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena. The “liberty vs. power” paradigm is less germane. It’s been replaced in the public consciousness with a “security leads to freedom” paradigm. People with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.
People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities.
The “security leads to freedom” paradigm is a fundamental principle of child psychology, but conservative think tankers and activists have been slow to recognize the change in their historical circumstance. All their intellectual training has been oriented by the “liberty vs. power” paradigm. (Postwar planning in Iraq was so poor because many in the G.O.P. were not really alive to the truth that security is a precondition for freedom.)
The general public, which is less invested in abstract principles, has been quicker to grope its way toward the new mental framework. As a Pew poll released last week indicated, the public has not lost its suspicion of big government. Most Americans believe government regulation does more harm than good. But they do think government should be more active in redressing segmentation and inequality. Almost all corporations, including Wal-Mart, have extraordinarily high approval ratings. But voters are clearly anxious about globalization.
The Republican Party, which still talks as if government were the biggest threat to choice, has lost touch with independent voters. Offered a choice between stale Democrats and stale Republicans, voters now choose Democrats, who at least talk about economic and domestic security.
The Democrats have a 15 point advantage in voter identification. Voters prefer Democratic economic policies by 14 points, Democratic tax policies by 15 points, Democratic health care policies by 24 points and Democratic energy policies by 20 points. If this is a country that wants to return to Barry Goldwater, it is showing it by supporting the policies of Dick Durbin.
The sad thing is that President Bush sensed this shift in public consciousness back in 1999. Compassionate conservatism was an attempt to move beyond the “liberty vs. power” paradigm. But because it was never fleshed out and because the Congressional G.O.P. rejected the implant, a new Republican governing philosophy did not emerge.
The party is going to have to make another run at it. As it does, it will have to shift mentalities. The “security leads to freedom” paradigm doesn’t end debate between left and right, it just engages on different ground. It is oriented less toward negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back?) and more toward positive liberty (Can I choose how to lead my life?).
Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.