Part of the problem with labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” consists in the fact that they have all manner of (often negative) political and social connotations. For this reason, calling Kerry a “liberal” or Bush a “conservative” has such rhetorical effectiveness. And juxtaposing one of these terms with a geographical or institutional region strengthens the verbal blow–the Massachusetts liberal, the liberal media, the Bible Belt conservative, for instance. In the end, however, they are little more than a shortcut for a lazy, uninquisitive mind, which likes to dwell at a level of generality where facts are made to fit neatly into predetermined categories, such that easy categorical disjunctions can be enacted–liberal *or* conservative. And this is more or less what George Will
is up to in his column in the *Washington Post*.
In short, Will sets out to explain “Conservatism’s 40-year climb to dominance” in light of two sources: its congruence with American values and “anomalous” religiosity and the “elaborate infrastructure” of think tanks and similar institutions. But Will fails to note–among other things that simply tell against the truth of the phenomenon he is trying to explain–that 40 years is a long time–in fact, in the Bible that’s just what it means–and a lot can happen to labels in 40 years. To claim that “conservatism” has won dominance over a 40 year struggle is to say, at the very least, that there exists a coherently self-identical movement expressed by a growing but organized body of adherents. If “conservatism” has won a victory over “liberalism,” then first of all we must at least be talking about the same teams.
But by Will’s own characterization of liberalism, we are hardly talking about the same teams. Herbert Hoover–hardly the paragon of Willian liberalism today–called himself “a true liberal” and Eisenhower, hardly a member of a liberal party by Will’s characterization, reckoned himself in that number. This cuts the other way as well. While Barry Goldwater may share party affiliation with some current conservatives, it would be wrong to say that Bush and Goldwater (and Reagan and Nixon) are conservatives in the same sense. So to claim the ascendancy of conservatism over liberalism isn’t to say that one coherent and unified ideology has defeated another (and judging by the popular vote in the last Presidential election as well as other well established data, that isn’t even clearly the case), but rather one meaningless label employed by conservative pundits (oops!) has triumphed over another.
Second, just as one might challenge the diachronic unity of the labels he traffics in. More to the point, one might also challenge the synchronic unity of such terms. Just who is a liberal (and who is a conservative) nowadays in the sense that Will intends? Both parties have, to the disillusionment perhaps of a the greater portion of the electorate, adopted the rhetoric and ideology of the other. Bush’s heavy political (but perhaps not monetary) investment in public education and other expansions of entitlement programs suggest much less than conservative ideology in the Goldwaterian sense. Besides, the Republican party encompasses quite a broad coalition of extreme social conservatives, moderates, and libertarian elements. Claiming that its recent victories (again the 2000 election–when it lost the popular vote–combined with Clinton’s two victories hardly constitute evidence of “dominance”) are a sign of core conservative values grossly oversimplifies the kinds of coalition-building necessary to win Presidential elections. But worse than that, it does violence to language.