07/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conservatism Is Dead; Long Live Liberalism? (Part II)

George Packer argued that the steam has run out of the conservative movement, that its publications are vacuous, and its pundits a bore [discussed here]. But are there signs of a grand liberal revival? Could George Packer write a similar essay about liberal think tanks, pundits, and books? The Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the New Democrats, is barely heard of these days. The Center for American Progress is producing a steady stream of position papers, but these seem to be aimed more at policy makers than at generating liberal movement in the public square. The Brookings Institution used to be a major liberal think tank, and still produces a great variety of papers and books, but these have no shared ideological or political profile. Moreover, two of its leading economists are harping on the need to cut benefits and raise taxes in order to "save" Social Security and reduce the deficit, a rather conservative agenda. The New Republic surely shows less sparkle or verve than the conservative Weekly Standard. The most spirited of the lot is the New America Foundation, but it has no partisan political profile, agenda, or platform. Liberal thinkers may be doing a bit better than conservative ones, but this is not much of a claim.

Particularly disconcerting for those who are expecting the great liberal revival to follow the conservative demise is that significantly more Americans consider themselves conservatives rather than liberals, which is of obvious import for the forthcoming elections -- a point well documented in John Micklethwait's and Adrian Wooldridge's book The Right Nation. This basic and important fact is all too often obscured because too many observers equate being Republican with being conservative, and Democrat -- liberal. The cliché of the day is that the Republican brand is damaged, and given that Democrats are in ascendance -- it seems that liberals, ipso facto, are in ascendance too. Actually, while most Republicans are conservatives, many Democrats are not liberals.

Let's say it with numbers. Polls show that while about a third of the voters consider themselves conservative, less than a quarter consider themselves liberals (32% vs. 23%). Only one out of three Democrats considers himself liberal (one out of four considers himself conservative and the rest view themselves as moderates). In contrast one out of twenty Republicans sees himself as liberal while most (two out of every three) see themselves as conservatives. In short, the GOP is largely a conservative party, while the Democrats are not a liberal party, but only have a liberal wing whose influence is strong during the primaries but not during the general elections nor when it comes to governing. (Some find solace in that there are numerous independents out there, but these also tend to lean more to the conservative than to the liberal side, albeit it not by a large margin).

It follows that Democrats can win big in 2008, especially in electing members of Congress, but still there will be a conservative majority. Recent by-elections in three states were viewed as harbingers of things to come as Democrats won in traditional GOP Congressional districts in Louisiana, Virginia and Illinois. However, these Democrats ran as gun-loving, pro-business Democrats -- in other words, as conservatives. Indeed, Blue Dog Democrats, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in the House, find themselves growing in numbers, gaining power, and able to defy party leadership and win conservative concessions.

In short, the conservatives' well of ideas may well have run dry, but the American majority has hardly turned liberal. True, many of the conservatives are fiscal and not social conservatives; hence stem cell research, women's rights, and the environment may do well. However, a return to grand social programs for the poor and the minorities, of extensive regulation of capitalism (Wall Street, the oil companies, and banks for instance), the liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson, not to mention of Humphrey and Como, faces many more hurdles. As sociologist Dalton Conley put it in the the New York Times, "The New Deal is not coming back. Can Democrats find a fresher way?"

Is there a third way that may guide the new administration? Could the most compelling ideas be neither conservative nor liberal but communitarian?

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see The New Golden Rule. To contact him, email See also