The Fickle American Voter: Which is Dead – Liberalism or Conservatism?

There are three articles in the February issue of The American Spectator devoted to the question: Is Liberalism Dead? One article is by R.E. Tyrrell, editor-in-chief of the magazine and another is by Conrad Black, notorious publisher and author of a best-selling biography of Richard Nixon. But the article of greatest interest is by James Piereson, who exactly a year ago in the same magazine, took up the question: Is Conservatism Dead? Piereson’s articles were occasioned first by the landslide enjoyed by liberals in the national elections of 2008, followed by the equally stunning “shellacking” administered by conservatives in the congressional and state elections of 2010. What is going on here? Can’t American voters make up their minds – do they wish to be governed according to a liberal philosophy or a conservative philosophy? As time goes on, the differences between the liberal and conservative visions for our nation grow increasingly wide; how is it possible for the electorate’s preference between them to oscillate so wildly?

In fact, the whiplash between liberal/progressive and conservative/libertarian election outcomes has been going on for a lot longer than a few years. Consider: in 1964, liberals crushed conservatives; but in 1972, the “conservative” Nixon obliterated the uber liberal McGovern; then in the mid-70s, more so in the media than at the ballot box, the liberals roared again; only to be quieted by two Reagan/conservative stomps in the 1980s; whereupon, the liberals easily regained the White House in 1992; only to be rudely ousted from Congress in 1994; and yet, the liberals returned surreptitiously in 2000 – when they wore a Bush as a disguise; and finally, as we have observed, the country experienced liberal romps in 2006 and 2008, followed by the conservative counterpunch in 2010.

This 45-year whipsaw pattern is actually part of a longer 60-year trend, although that trend is neatly hidden behind the behavior of the seemingly fickle American voter. To explain, let us in fact go back 145 years. It took the United States, as Lincoln counted, fourscore and seven years to lay the crippling matters of slavery and secession to rest. The nation then began to live a relatively unimpeded version of the limited government, laissez-faire, individual liberty model envisioned by the Founders. That post-bellum state of affairs lasted roughly 35 years, during which time America became the freest, most prosperous, entrepreneurial, self-confident and powerful country that the world had perhaps ever seen. Every president during that period, Republican and Democratic (although Cleveland was the sole representative of the latter) subscribed to that philosophy. But the progressive movement, whose roots trace to European, Marxian socialism, invaded our shores at the end of the 19th century. For a 20-year period (1900-1920), the American people gave themselves over to its subversive charms. Every president during that period was counted among their numbers. Their legacy was the 16th, 17th and 18th Amendments to the Constitution (but to be fair, also the 19th), Wilson’s futile effort to “make the world safe for democracy,” a resurgent KKK, and the first test run for the collectivist, redistributionist, big government philosophy that has flowered so damagingly in the United States. Conservatives mounted a successful counterattack in the Roaring Twenties, but beginning in 1928 and not ending until at least 1952, liberalism reigned absolutely supreme in the US. Americans seemed to abandon their fealty to the Constitution and the Founders’ philosophy – followed so beneficially in 1865-1900 and 1920-1928 – and set off to remake the US into a social welfare state characterized by: big government, government-bestowed group rights, redistribution of wealth, anti-business policies and diminution of individual freedom.

However, thanks to Bill Buckley (and a few others), conservatives rediscovered their vision and their voice in the 1950s. Since that time the American public has grown slowly – alas, ever so slowly, and in some ways very fitfully – more conservative-minded. As more and more liberal programs came on line – and as each proved invariably a failure, damaging to society – the people slowly, painfully, reluctantly awakened to the danger that liberalism poses to the Republic. Occasionally, the electorate has thrown the liberals out on their derrieres (as in 1980, 1994 and 2010). But more often than is consistent with a conservative ascendancy theory, the liberals have been able to defend their electoral turf, retain Congress and/or the Presidency with regularity and consequently push – and periodically implement – their socialist programs. We have even experienced two extreme lurches to the left (comparable to those under Wilson and FDR) compliments of LBJ and the Barackster. Thus it is legitimate to ask: What is the evidence for the country’s gradual move to the right in the last half century; and why has it not been reflected in gradually improving electoral results for conservatives rather than the spasmodic episodes detailed above?

In answer to the first question, the evidence is two-fold. First there is the obvious change in voter self-identification. All recent polls reveal that twice as many people self-identify as conservative as the number who claim the liberal label. This has persisted, actually intensified in the last thirty years. While I have no hard data from the prior 30-year period, I lived it. I have no doubt that, while our affection for Ike and JFK was strong, our faith in Walter Cronkite was even stronger. We might not have articulated it well and we might have fooled ourselves that our political values were conservative, but in fact the vast majority of Americans were quite comfortable with the sweeping big government programs initiated in the 30s and 40s and institutionalized in the 50s and 60s. The second piece of evidence is more subtle. During their heyday – and culminating in a period (1960s and 1970s) when their peak had already passed – the liberals pulled off what can only be called a cultural coup. They took control not only of the Democratic Party, but also of the media, legal profession, government bureaucracy, educational system, public sector unions and the major foundations; in short, all the opinion-forming organs of American society. Despite their reputational collapse, liberals have been able to maintain that control. It is only in the last decade that the control has slipped a bit as the right finally began to confront the left’s domination of these segments of society. Given that control and for how long it has persevered, the fact that the right has survived – and even prospered on occasion – is dramatic testimony to a vibrant and growing conservative resurgence in America.

Now for the second question, whose answer is more complicated. What accounts for the oscillating voting pattern? If the story is one of steady, albeit exceedingly slow growth in the popularity of conservatism, why the see saw results in elections? This time the reasons are four-fold.

  • During the period 1928-1960 or perhaps even until 1980, the liberals steered the political center of gravity so far to the left, that the people lost sight of exactly where that center was. Voters thought they were dancing around the middle when in fact they were choosing between far left and moderately left alternatives.
  • One can argue that the right has drawn even in the last 30 years. But the advance has only been in the realm of ideas, philosophy and enthusiasm. In more concrete matters such as populating the bureaucracy, Election Day ground game or training the next generation of “soldiers and leaders,” the right is still woefully behind.
  • The RINO thing. The left has completely captured the Democratic Party. Sadly, the Republican Party is not guided exclusively by conservative ideas or individuals. People like McCain, the Bushes, Dole or Nixon are viewed as rock ribbed Republicans, but they are faux conservatives. The Tea Party might bring about a conservative conquest of the Republican Party, but until it does and all faux conservatives gravitate toward their natural home in the other party, the people will continue to be confused by the choices the Republican Party offers.
  • Finally, there is the point made strongly by Piereson. Namely, the liberal weltanschauung has been so deeply ingrained in government – e.g., people absolutely cannot conceive of a country without a government retirement plan (Social Security) or government health care (Medicare) – that to even contemplate a return to a conservative nature of government is unconsciously viewed as dangerous, even apocalyptic by substantial segments of the public.

It is due to the above causes that, despite a steadily growing conservative orientation in America, our elections have resulted in oscillatory outcomes. Unfortunately, a huge number of voters do not cast their ballots based exclusively on political philosophy. Subverted by the media (and the other liberal opinion-molding organs to which they are incessantly exposed), voters cannot escape the brainwashing, nor can they ignore their perceived self-interests and above all their emotions. Their elevation to the Presidency of a “hope and change” artist – one completely bereft of experience who only partially hid his radical background and inclinations – is proof of how people can succumb to such blandishments.

Yet, perhaps the accidental election of an, ultimately, anti-American president has been a blessing in disguise. The reaction to his blatantly socialist policies has certainly accelerated the move to the right in the United States. Whether this heralds a deeper, more permanent move or is just another oscillation will depend on the answer to the question posed in the title. Which brings me back to the three Spectator authors. First, I must dismiss the article by Conrad Black as unworthy of serious consideration. Black seems to believe that liberalism began in earnest under FDR and not with T. Roosevelt and Wilson, that FDR’s New Deal saved the nation from the Great Depression (hasn’t he read Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man?), and that Nixon was a great conservative president. Ridiculous! More serious are the works by Tyrrell and Piereson. Tyrrell believes liberalism is indeed dead. He asserts: “Liberals are going the way of the American Prohibition Party. It is time for someone to tell them: ‘Rigor Mortis has set in comrades.’ ” But the publisher of the magazine, Alfred Regnery, injects a humorous note of caution in his introduction to the articles: “As for Tyrrell, it would be sweet if he were more accurate in his predictions than the New York Times, but I’m not sure I’d bet the ranch on it. (Besides, liberals have been the butt of so many Spectator jokes over the years it would be a shame if they just disappeared.” In fact I think the most trenchant of the contributors is Piereson:

If there is a single lesson liberals have learned through the decades, it is that the power and resources of the state can be used to build winning political coalitions. After nearly a century of this, liberalism and the groups associated with it have intertwined themselves with the day-to-day operations of government, implementing the programs they have managed to pass into law and organizing new voting groups around them. Liberalism is no longer merely a philosophy of government, as it was in the Progressive era, but rather an integral part of modern government itself, which is why it cannot be killed off despite failures in policy, lost arguments, or even by lost elections.

As the “party of government,” liberalism by degrees has attached itself to the state such that in many areas (education, welfare, the arts) and place (Sacramento, Albany, Washington, D.C), it can be difficult to distinguish between them. …Over the course of the 20th century it [Liberalism] succeeded in rewriting the Constitution, building political coalitions around public spending, insinuating itself within the interstices of government, and gaining control of key institutions that manufacture and legitimize political opinion. Today it has retreated into impregnable redoubts encircling the state from which positions it fights a defensive struggle against voter sentiment increasingly skeptical of its program of high taxes and public spending.

It is obvious, however, that liberalism can only prosper if it can continue to build coalitions through public spending, public borrowing, and publicly guaranteed credit. These are the resources that underwrite their institutional advantages. Should these resources dry up, as they are doing as a consequence of the long recession, liberalism will unwind as a political force as public programs are cut, public employees are let go, and retirement arrangements with public sector unions are renegotiated. In some public sector states, such outcomes now appear inevitable. Conservatives are in a position to hasten this process along by refusing to approve the spending, borrowing and federal bailouts that will be required to keep public sector liberalism afloat, though at the price of being blamed for the pain and suffering associated with its collapse. But this is undoubtedly a price worth paying to guide the nation through an adjustment that will otherwise take place later and under circumstances far less to anyone’s liking.


The unchallenged hegemony that the left enjoyed for so many years has allowed them to change the frame of reference and make the unholy trio of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid inviolable. They have bankrupted the country with their unsustainable entitlement house of cards, embedded so intricately into the very guts of government, that the death of liberalism – as welcome as it might be—could very well bring great pain to the American people. If it doesn’t die, the ultimate pain might be even greater.

This article also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at