God help me, there’s something relevant in the WSJ opinion page about this. As the author is an actual conservative, his perspective is interesting. The numbers sound vaguely right.
If conservatism has a future, those who want to fashion it need to acknowledge and understand this stunning defeat. In National Review last year Ramesh Ponnuru said the “real crisis” is that, while a conservatism whose “central mission” does not emphasize the fight against Big Government is inconceivable, a “political coalition in America capable of sustaining a majority” for that mission is unimaginable. Conservatism, in other words, can have a purpose or it can have a prospect. It cannot, apparently, have both.
This political problem will only become more acute as the challenges of governance become more severe. One yardstick may help conservatives feel a little better about themselves. In 1981 federal spending was 22.2% of GDP; last year it was 20.3%. This measure hovered in a very narrow band for the whole era, never exceeding 23.5% or falling below 18.4%. Adding expenditures by states and localities confirms the picture of a rugby match between liberals and conservatives that is one interminable scrum in the middle of the field. Spending by all levels of government in America amounted to 31.6% of GDP in 1981, and 31.8% in 2006.
Conservatives, though, can’t take much solace from fighting Big Government to a draw. Looking back, the dynamic growth of the American economy after 1982–real per capita GDP was two-thirds higher in 2006 than in 1981–offered a great opportunity to reduce the relative size of the public sector. This economic vigor meant that more people had more money to spend on their own health, education and welfare, presumably enabling the government to spend less for such purposes. It also meant that government spending could have grown robustly and still expanded more slowly than the economy, leaving the public sector to absorb a significantly smaller portion of GDP in 2006 than it did in 1981. Even this modest achievement eluded conservatives.
There would be many more harsh judgments about how this or that faction betrayed the conservative campaign against Big Government. All such explanations, however, agree on one dubious premise: But for the weakness or hubris of some key player, the conservative project could have succeeded. That premise disregards the central fact–cutting back the welfare state is very, very difficult. Paul Pierson, a political scientist at Berkeley, showed in “Dismantling the Welfare State?” (1994) that Margaret Thatcher had no more success in curtailing Britain’s social programs than our conservatives had in undoing ours. As prime minister for 11 years, Mrs. Thatcher had more leverage to change policy than President Reagan or Speaker Gingrich ever possessed. Mr. Pierson concludes, however, that her government “had only modest success” in cutting back individual welfare state programs, while her record in modifying the context of future struggles over the welfare state “was if anything less impressive.”
Lacking an appreciation of the challenges they would face, conservatives never developed a political strategy adequate to the task. There was no systematic effort to pare back the welfare state, no disciplined preparation for the inevitable and aggressive counterattacks by interest groups and liberal journalists. Instead, conservatives time and again were shocked to discover that the people who built the welfare state were so unhelpful about dismantling it. Right-wingers fell into long periods of sullen, stupefied resentment, punctuated by frontal assaults that were brief, furious and futile. Think of David Stockman’s crusade to cut spending in 1981; or the 1995 government shutdown, the Pickett’s Charge of the Gingrich rebels.
He does skip over the whole “most government programs are actually popular”, bit, amusingly, and goes on about voters corrupted by liberalism(?), but conservative media-speak it’s unusually factual.