Illuminating lessons of 2013

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 08:26 PM

This report on the State of Conservatism comes at the end of an annus mirabilis for conservatives. In 2013, they learned that they may have been wasting much time and effort.

Hitherto, they have thought that the most efficient way to evangelize the unconverted was to write and speak, exhorting those still shrouded in darkness to read conservatism's most light-shedding texts. Now they know that a quicker, surer method is to have progressives wield power for a few years. This will validate the core conservative insight about the mischiefs that ensue when governments demonstrate their incapacity for supplanting with fiats the spontaneous order of a market society.

It is difficult to recall and hard to believe that just three months ago some conservatives, mirroring progressives' lack of respect for the public, considered it imperative to shut down the government in order to stop Obamacare in its tracks. They feared that once Americans got a glimpse of the law's proffered subsidies, they would embrace it. Actually, once they glimpsed the law's details, they recoiled.

Counterfactual history can illuminate the present, so: Suppose in 2012, Barack Obama had told the truth about the ability of people to keep their health plans. Would he have been re-elected? Unlikely. Suppose in 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts, instead of rewriting the health care law to save it, had been the fifth vote for overturning it. Would Obama be better off today? Probably.

Franklin Roosevelt, emboldened by winning a second term in 1936, attempted to pack, by expanding, the Supreme Court, to make it even more compliant toward his statism. He failed to win congressional compliance, and in 1938 he failed to purge Democrats who had opposed him. The voters' backlash against him was so powerful that there was no liberal legislating majority in Congress until after the 1964 election.

That year's landslide win by President Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, less than 12 months after a presidential assassination, left Democrats with 295 House and 68 Senate seats. Convinced that a merely sensible society would be a paltry aspiration, they vowed to build a Great Society by expanding legislation and regulation into every crevice of Americans' lives. They lost five of the next six and seven of the next 10 presidential elections. In three years we shall see if progressive overreaching earns such a rebuke.

In 2013, the face of progressivism became Pajama Boy, the supercilious, semi-smirking, hot-chocolate-sipping faux-adult who embodies progressives' belief that life should be all politics, all the time -- come on, everybody, spend your holidays talking about health care. He is who progressives are.

They are tone-deaf in expressing bottomless condescension toward the public and limitless faith in their own cleverness. Both attributes convinced them that Pajama Boy would be a potent persuader, getting young people to sign up for the hash that progressives are making of health care. As millions find themselves ending the year without insurance protection and/or experiencing sticker shock about the cost of policies the president tells them they ought to want, a question occurs: Have events ever so thoroughly and swiftly refuted a law's title? Remember, it is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  

From Detroit's debris has come a judicial ruling that the pensions that government employees unions, in collaboration with the political class, extort from taxpayers are not beyond the reach of what they bring about -- bankruptcy proceedings. In Wisconsin, as a result of Gov. Scott Walker's emancipation legislation requiring annual recertification votes for government workers' unions and ending government collection of union dues, more than 70 of 408 school district unions were rejected.

This year's debate about the National Security Agency demonstrated the impossibility of hermetically sealing distrust of government to one compartment of it. Worries about the NSA's collection of metadata occurred in a context of deepened suspicions about government because of this year's revelations that the administration has corrupted the Internal Revenue Service, the most intrusive and potentially the most punitive domestic institution. Conservatism is usually served by weariness of government.

The prophet Al Gore has given many hostages to fortune and this year fortune shot another of them. In 2008, he predicted the North Polar ice cap would be gone "in five years."

Finally, a regularly recurring fever of progressive indignation about the name of Washington's professional football team again waned without success, which means Oklahoma will not have to change its name. "Oklahoma" is a compound of two Choctaw language words, "okla" meaning people, and "homma" meaning red.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.