June 28, 2012
Conservatives Can Still Celebrate
“Universal” Health Care Survives (barely), the legitimacy of the Supreme Court survives (barely), but Conservatives in the US still dominate the political discourse. I write this after hearing the news of the important Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the universal mandate section of the Affordable Health Care Act, the centerpiece of the Obama Administration. Whatever victory Democrats and liberals in the US can claim, they need to recognize that the basis of their rejection of the constitutionality challenge, the government’s power to mandate purchase of health insurance under the Commerce clause of the Constitution, has been rejected. Instead the narrow 5-4 victory is based on the taxing power of the national government. And that plays into the hands of the Republicans and the whole Conservative movement of the past half century.
Expanding the taxing power has been a major issue for the Conservative critique of government for some time. Once everyone has taken a deep breath, the political Right in America has to feel roughly satisfied with the general trend of political debate in this country at this time. William Buckley, the intellectual godfather of the re-birth of conservatism in the US, once said that the job of conservatives to stand athwart history and shout “stop!” Well, that is what four of nine Supreme Court justices have said with regard to further expansion of health care coverage via government direction. And a fifth justice, the usually reliably conservative Judge Roberts, said that the government can do that, not by mandating a purchase of service, but by a tax penalty for not doing it. So by declaring that the mandate is in reality a tax, Judge Roberts helps the Republican argument that expanded health care raises your taxes, a position that candidate Romney will undoubtedly exploit…because as everyone knows, nobody wants to be on record as wanting to raise taxes.
For some time, conservatism in America has exploited the idea of freedom…from government, that is freedom from economic regulations. (For now, put aside the contradiction of conservatives also championing no freedom for gays to marry, and in years past, no freedom for people of color to mix with whites, and restrictions on “unpatriotic” speech.) Conservatives have won the argument on taxes. They have forced virtually every Republican candidate for national office to sign a pledge against raising taxes; even the Democrats now talk of “investments,” rather than taxes for public purposes, or the need for “increasing revenues” rather than raising taxes.
Ever since President Reagan declared that “government is not a solution, government is the problem,” the political debate has tilted toward shrinking government and ignoring a public commitment to shared sacrifices. Of course, Conservatives in America do not think government is the problem when it comes to defense expenditures. Is there any one who has served in the military who does not have stories of “waste, fraud and abuse” in their experience of snafus and foul-ups in the military bureaucracy? Yet funds for the military are virtually exempt from the critique of government activity.
The Conservative triumph is in good part the result of smart, co-ordinated strategy on many fronts. Since the launching of the National Review by William Buckley in the late 1950s, Conservatives recognized that they needed institutional representation on many fronts: think tanks, lawyers associations, college political associations, scholarly journals, serious and popular magazines and newspapers, and radio and television stations. As the critique of government tackling public problems built up, the momentum of the Conservative movement increased to the point of openly advocating the roll-back of the welfare state and the whole New Deal apparatus that rescued the country from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still under the banner of freedom, it is now supremely respectable to advocate privatization of social security, privatization of public schools, privatization of state highways. Indeed we have already partially privatized making war, through defense contracting and out-sourcing overseas security arrangements.
Some of Conservatism’s greatest successes have been in the federal and state courts, where Conservative judges now dominate: stocked by “graduates” of state and national Federalist Society lawyers. Justice Roberts is a good example. In the hearings on his nomination he claimed he would act as an umpire, not an advocate. He was a shining representative of the “non-activist” school of judges. (Of course, activism in favor of Republicans is ignored in this critique: witness Bush vs. Gore.)
Roberts tipped the balance in the infamous Citizens United case, which has opened the floodgates of private money into competitive politics, and cases which allow corporations to act as people and spend big money in elections.) Roberts may appear to have stepped back in the health care mandate decision. That decision may have saved the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, but ultimately it is a milestone in the march of Conservatism in American politics today.