In the era of Donald Trump, some liberals are using every opportunity to use his popularity in the polls as indicative of a larger trend within the Republican Party. E.J. Dionne’s new book, Why the Right Went Wrong, is the latest salvo in this campaign.
Trump’s rise provides a convenient hook for the case Dionne wants to make. He argues that Republicans are responsible for the current political climate because they “made promises to their supporters that they could not keep.” But couldn’t the same be said of liberal politicians? The idea that government can provide free healthcare, education and jobs while guaranteeing a society devoid of violence and offensive speech continues to be a staple of the Left, though it will never be achieved.
In making his argument that Republicans have caused their own undoing, Dionne has to face a stark reality — Republicans control the Senate, have a historic majority in the House, and control an overwhelming majority of state governments and governors’ mansions. But he claims that young people will bring the downfall of conservatism, since Millennials are “driving a growing social liberalism among all Americans.”
Though this is partly true, the liberalism of young people has been largely overblown. Donald Devine, a conservative scholar writing in The American Conservative, predicts a different outcome. “[A]s millennials mature they will become increasingly conservative and indeed, with the younger millennial unemployment rate still double the overall rate, will probably even vote Republican in the 2016 presidential election, undermining the myth entirely.”
Still, Dionne’s book offers a useful review of the important points in conservative history, referencing many of the historical events that had a transformative effect on the ideas and candidates put forth today. Starting with a brief history of the New Deal era and spotlighting the effects of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Dionne traces the conservative movement as it took shape during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton eras. His writing style isn’t exactly gripping, though.
Strewn throughout the historical tales of debates and elections are attacks on the way conservatives think. Dionne takes almost every opportunity to say that Republicans are racists, whether for challenging Obama or for reaching out to white Southern voters.
When discussing Bill Clinton’s national healthcare proposal in the early 1990s, Dionne seems to criticize Republicans for opposing government-provided healthcare as if they let their partisan inclinations get ahead of a universally accepted greater good. But as we’ve seen with the arguments surrounding Obamacare, the government’s distortion of the health insurance market has hardly brought a revolution in the quality and affordability of care. Dionne fails to consider that conservatives might actually have a legitimate moral reason to oppose the government takeover of health insurance.
Dionne does offer an interesting summary of the “reform conservative” movement, demonstrating several of the major voices in proposing new conservative solutions to promote human flourishing. Yet, in the next breath, he again argues the rise of Trump is a corrupt Republican creation.
Judging by the unprecedented criticism of Trump by conservative journalists, activists, and scholars in National Review last week, Trump is hardly a conservative standard-bearer.
Dionne finishes his book with an exhortation to conservatives to seek more compromise. He may be goodhearted, but he misses an opportunity to reflect on the defects of his own party. After all, an astonishingly large number of Democrats are vehemently supporting an unapologetic, self-proclaimed socialist as their nominee.
“Heightening the tensions in our democracy has been at the heart of the conservative approach throughout Obama’s time in office,” Dionne writes. But Obama has hardly been a bridge-builder over the past eight years. He’s taken every opportunity to demonize Republicans with fallacious arguments about climate change, gun control and healthcare.
Dionne is clear that he would rather Republicans turn to the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower as a conservative model. But conservatives could just as easily retort that they wish left-wing Democrats would return to the policies of John F. Kennedy, whose defiance of foreign tyranny was indisputable and whose sensible fiscal policies recognized that lower taxes could foster economic growth. There are definitely ways for conservatives to improve their message, but turning into moderates is not a practical recommendation.
Even if Dionne is right about “why the right went wrong,” his ideas are hardly conducive to conservative reform. But that’s not surprising coming from an “unapologetic liberal of social democratic inclinations.”