1) I agree with maha that it’s difficult to figure out what conservatism is, even for conservatives. In large part, this stems from what she correctly describes as antagonism. Being opposed to something is not the same as philosophical coherency–a point I’ve made about the ‘progressive’ movement.
2) I think we also agree that the modern conservatives are running the U.S. into the ground. Increasing income inequality, declining infrastructure (physical and mental), and ‘faith-based’..well…everything are all disastrous. However, if you happen to be on top, it’s one hell of a ride. I also think it can take many decades for a powerful, prosperous nation to go off the rails. If we start the clock at midway through the Carter administration, I figure we’re about halfway there.
3) I still think the primary divide is between pre-New Deal conservatives (and their descedant ‘throwback’ conservatives) and post-New Deal conservatives, who, to a considerable extent in policy terms, can be considered part of the New Deal consensus. To use an analogy, while I don’t think merit pay is the best way to improve science education in the U.S., I share the same goal with most of the ‘centrist’ Democrats who support merit pay: making science education better. We fundamentally disagree with the theopolitical conservatives (i.e., creationists), who want to ‘improve’ science education by introducing sectarian dogma into the classroom. This is a fundamental difference in kind. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t strongly and vehemently disagree with the merit pay supporters (I do); however, they are not batshit loony.
4) The role that racism plays in all of this is interesting (and utterly despicable). Ironically, many people who were part of the New Deal consensus (albeit on the more conservative end) abandoned it due to racism. They liked municipal swimming pools, library, and schools as long as these institutions were ‘whites only.’ Sadly, maintaining American apartheid was far more important to them than the notion of community (and common) goods and services (Kevin Kruse, in White flight : Atlanta and the making of modern conservatism makes this point far more eloquently than I ever could).
I don’t want to create a mountain out of a molehill here: I think maha and I agree: what passes for conservatism today is a disaster. But as tng noted in the comments:
Eisenhower was frequently derided as a “Communist” or accused of aiding and abetting Communist by the John Birch Society. Eisenhower established the interstate highway system, continued all the major New Deal programs, broadened Social Security and created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. And who can forget Eisenhower warning us of the military-industrial complex in his farewell address?
Nixon has been termed by no less than Noam Chomsky as “perhaps the last liberal President”. Nixon also supported a guaranteed income in the form of a negative income tax, established the Environmental Protection Agency and supported a war on drugs where 2/3 of the money went toward treatment programs rather than law enforcement.
These men were not conservatives as we think of them today. Both were fiscal conservatives, both were caught up in the red scare, Nixon was a paranoid with a strong need for “law and order” but both men enacted quite socially progressive legislation as well.
We’ll definitely never say that about Bush or the modern conservatives.