Cameron and American Conservatism
July 11, 2009
(Cross-posted at Post Right)
It’s probably a bad idea to get into the habit of linking as heavily to the Times as I have been in the last few week, but, I was really quite impressed by this weekend’s profile of David Cameron… Go take a peek:
Conservatives — or Tories, as they are also called — are counting on Cameron to rescue them from the ideological confusion and public contempt that has been their lot since New Labour, behind Tony Blair, drove them from power in 1997, handing the party its worst drubbing since its founding in the 1830s. Tories have spent 12 years mulling over, and fighting over, a version of the problem that now confronts American Republicans. Cameron’s rise has led some conservative thinkers in the United States, notably the Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, to suggest that Republicans follow his lead. Speaking to Charlie Rose in April, Brooks described Cameronism as the “natural alternative” to the “technocratic” politics of Barack Obama and summed up Cameron’s philosophy this way: “You’re going to champion the technocrats in government; I’m going to champion every other institution in society, whether it’s family, career associations, the church — every other association you can think of.” A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.
At times I’m inclined to agree with Brooks that the Cameron-model may be the only real alternative open to the Republican party in the age of Obama and Palin. If the big business/big government model remains effectively dead, Paul-style libertarianism stays vibrant but fringey, and the Dems succeed in positioning themselves as the party of bureaucratic competence, then the kind of broad-minded communitarian ethos represented by someone like Cameron might very well have a chance. That is, of course, provided they can find the right leader for it, a mighty big if indeed.
And that leadership vacuum is hardly the biggest problem faced by those sympathetic to Cameron’s thinking. Maybe the biggest issue is the danger that those ideals would amount to nothing more than another stale rehashing of compassionate conservatism, only this time with a communitarian gloss. Granted, the last time we contemplated the dreaded double-Cs, they were completely derailed by Bush’s foreign misadventures, profligate spending, shameless pandering to social issues divorced from concrete institutions, and generally lame policy approach. That said, it seems the repeated failures of similar policies in the American scene are reflective of the fact that Americans just aren’t given to serious communitarian policy agendas… For all the civic vitality that characterized our early history, we’ve really wandered far from the place where those organizations play a significant role in our lives, and that ideologies based on them can inspire political action. (The obvious exception here being churches, but as Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone, if we take their vitality in the context of our broader civic decline, their growth is more indicative of the system’s failure to provide other outlets than indicative of genuine growth of social capital.)
The other problem, and to my mind the one most likely to damn an American Cameronism from the get-go, is the gulf separating our political situation from that of Britain. Cameron’s policies, for better or worse, are being articulated against a functional if debt-ridden welfare state with a working health care system, some measure of a social safety net, and a history of state involvement in civic life. The questions that American politics is faced with right now drive primarily in the opposite direction, namely, how to get a functional health care system, solve educational dilemmas, and construct a energy system not based on the impoverishment of future generations, all of which have been construed primarily as government’s problems and will likely remain so. Moreover, the primary issue we share with Britain, debt, won’t be solved by anything other than cuts in government and tax hikes, both of which fit comfortably into existing (or reviving) political categories. To me, it seems these differences pose an insurmountable barrier to Republican absorption of Toryism’s better impulses, and barring some radical shift in the American situation, I see little chance of any serious communitarian options emerging in the next few years, though I wish it weren’t the case.