The Fifty Years' War

With primary season over, the stage is now set for an epic fall election. The massive electoral repudiation that increasingly looks likely for Democrats is not, however, why this vote will be historic. It will be historic because it is the most intense battle yet in the Fifty Years' War between conservatives and liberals for possession of America's political soul.

This war has been fought over what defines American freedom. Are Americans freer when they can pursue their dreams without government interference? Or are they freer when the government ensures that all their needs are provided for?

The American conservative movement was founded to oppose the latter definition. Bill Buckley's famous line from the initial issue of National Review said it all: Conservatives "stand[] athwart history, yelling Stop." The conservative movement has always been a fusion of different groups, often differing among themselves with respect to where they want the country to go. But it has always been united on one immutable principle: Liberalism must be stopped.

In the five-plus decades since Buckley's immortal words, conservatives have never failed to win a national election when liberalism was on full display. Liberals have held the presidency and Congress with large majorities four times--1964, 1976, 1992, and 2008. The first three times (and, it looks likely, the fourth time as well), conservatives soon thereafter won massive congressional victories. The first two times, conservatives also won the presidency. This evidence is clear--Americans do not endorse the rapid implementation of liberal ideals.

If Americans object to liberal policies, though, why have conservative landslides not created permanent conservative majorities? Why isn't the center-right party the natural governing class in a center-right nation?

The programs that embody the liberal welfare state threaten to ruin our nation's finances.

The answer is that liberals' view of how government can help make people free by protecting them from hardship attracts tens of millions of Americans. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use and abuse of Social Security in political campaigns. Whenever a liberal faces a challenge from a vocal conservative--from Barry Goldwater to Paul Ryan--he or she charges that the conservative wants to abolish or "privatize" Social Security. Since Reagan showed the way, conservatives have learned to promise to uphold the "social safety net" if they want to win. But this has meant that two principles, liberty and security, have rested in an uneasy political balance, a balance reflected in the rough partisan balance we have seen for all of the post-Reagan era.

This balance must shift toward liberty while respecting Americans' appreciation for the safety net. The programs that embody the liberal welfare state threaten to ruin our nation's finances. The liberal base's dissatisfaction with Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill--because they didn't go far enough--shows that their appetite for government action knows no bounds. It demands more and more, asks more and more, takes more and more. It takes John F. Kennedy's immortal challenge, for Americans to "pay any price, bear any burden" to spread liberty abroad, and stands it on its head.

Many conservatives see this challenge as a rendezvous with destiny and are preparing to meet it. They know that a responsible conservatism recognizes the legitimate claims of the weak, the poor, and the helpless. Rep. Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" has been demonized by liberals as radical and beyond the pale. But it recognizes the role the welfare state plays in a modern society and strengthens and secures the essence of our social guarantees. It and other efforts advanced by conservative policy thinkers demonstrate an American vision far from the unregulated free-for-all of liberal caricature.

We Americans must, then, finally choose. Do we want a more egalitarian, stable, communal nation, one that knows fewer lows but experiences many fewer highs, and that faces the prospect of fiscal disaster? Or do we want to renew America's promise, reapplying the principles of liberty and responsible self-government to today's problems?

That's what the Fifty Years' War has been about. That's what this year's elections (and 2012's) will be about.

Henry Olsen is a vice president and the director of the National Research Initiative at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Larry Cole

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About the Author


  • Henry Olsen, a lawyer by training, is the director of AEI's National Research Initiative. In that capacity, he identifies leading academics and public intellectuals who work in an aspect of domestic public policy and recruits them to visit or write for AEI. Mr. Olsen studies and writes about the policy and political implications of long-term trends in social, economic, and political thought.

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