Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We Won?

According to Michael Lind in Salon: “No matter who prevails at the ballot box in November, John McCain or Barack Obama, the four-decade-long conservative counterrevolution is over.”

For 40 years, the radical right tried to destroy the domestic and international order that American liberals created in the central decades of the 20th century. The people who are known today as “conservatives” are better described as “counterrevolutionaries.” The goal of Barry Goldwater and the intellectuals clustered around William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review was not a slightly more conservative version of the New Deal or the U.N. system. They were reactionary radicals who dreamed of a counterrevolution. They didn’t just want to stop the clock. They wanted to turn it back.

Three great accomplishments defined midcentury American liberalism: liberal internationalism, middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and liberal individualism in civil rights and the culture at large. For four decades, from 1968 to 2008, the counterrevolutionaries of the right waged war against the New Deal, liberal internationalism, and moral and cultural liberalism. They sought to abolish middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, to replace treaties and collective security with scorn for international law and U.S. global hegemony, and to reverse the trends toward individualism, secularism and pluralism in American culture.

And they failed. On every front conservatives have failed, completely, undeniably and irreversibly. The failure of the right has left the structure of 20th-century American liberalism standing, battered and cratered but still intact.

Really? Is all that remains of the radical right just the echo of their Nuremberg-like rallies and their noise machines of talk radio? Then why is same-sex marriage still not allowed in every state, and why are reproductive rights still an issue in every election? Mr. Lind spends most of the article discussing the entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare and the downfall of the neocon foreign policy, and pays lip service to the “family value” issues.

The counterrevolutionary right failed first in the “culture war.” From the ’60s onward, conservatives lost every major battle. Conservative Republicans paid lip service to opposition to abortion and appointed strict constructionists to the federal bench. But the Supreme Court has not repealed Roe v. Wade and, because of its allergy to repudiating precedent, is not likely to do so. (Yes, even if John McCain appoints the next justice or two.) Nor has it restored prayer in public schools. What is more, in 2003 the Supreme Court struck down anti-gay sodomy laws nationwide. Conservatives responded by successfully supporting many state laws or state constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, in addition to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) enacted in the Clinton years. The recent state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in California may yet be overturned by a popular initiative. But many of the goals of the gay rights movement have been achieved far sooner than anyone could have imagined as recently as the 1990s. Meanwhile, conservative campaigns to censor movies and TV and music were doomed first by cable TV and then by the Internet.

While it serves the purposes of single-issue groups on the left to claim that the threat of the socially conservative right is growing, the leaders of the right themselves know better. In the 1990s, Jerry Falwell shut down the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson dissolved the Christian Coalition, whose membership numbers turned out to have been grossly inflated.

I don’t claim their threat is growing; I just don’t think that it’s gone away as completely as Mr. Lind does, and the simple fact that I still can’t get married to the man I love — whoever he may yet be — proves it.

For the moment, however, the prospects for the moderate, reformist center left are better than they have been in nearly half a century. If it is hard for most conservatives to admit that they have lost, it is even harder for many liberals to admit that they have won. But sometimes history forces you to take yes for an answer.

Mr. Lind suggests that it would be okay, then, if John McCain was elected president in November; the Democrats would prevent him from doing anything radical, like name another Scalia or Thomas to the Supreme Court or bomb Tehran. Sorry, but I’ve heard that before, and I’m not buying it this time.