The Future

Glenn Reynolds and Ramesh Ponnuru speculate about the future:

I certainly agree with this statement by Ramesh Ponnuru: “There is a serious possibility that the libertarian wing of the conservative movement goes off in its own direction, either breaking off or allying with the Democrats.” The Democratic party, in its current configuration, is in decline. But the split between libertarians and social conservatives is likely to determine the shape of politics over the next decades.

That strikes me as deeply misguided. To regard a political party which has won the popular vote in the past three presidential elections and whose current nominee is, despite a widely noted lack of charisma, holding a narrow lead in most polls strikes me as a bit odd. More broadly, there are all kinds of median voter theorum sort of reasons to think that neither party will ever decline. Perhaps more importantly, the notion that the future will be determined by a split between libertarians and social conservatives seems to imply that the small government philosophy they both share is going to become a part of the conventional wisdom. Now I suppose that might happen, but there’s precious little evidence for it. George Bush, Tom DeLay, and Bill Frist, after all, are the ones who’ve recently brought us the largest expansion of entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson. And they lead the party that’s suppose to represent the two wings of small government politics. That sounds to me like public support for small government has sort of jumped the shark.

What’s more, while the current battles over gay rights have brough about a lot of lib/con contentiousness, I think it’s wrong to see that as a lasting feature of the landscape. Once social conservatives lose the battle over gay equality (as they’ve already lost the battles for gender equality and racial equality) it’s not clear to me that any issue of comparable emotional weight will emerge to take its place. The “culture wars” are extremely fierce right now, which makes it hard to believe that they’ll ever end, but it’s worth considering the possibility that the current ferocity reflects the fact that we’re seeing the final campaign of a decades-long struggle. The futue may (and, I think, probably will) look quite a bit different from the present.