Way back in 2007, I suggested using Henri Focillon's formulation to understand political movements. Here's my original explanation of Focillon:
In his seminal book The Life of Forms in Art, Focillon argued that all art movements move through [four phases: Experimental; Classic; Refined, and Baroque.] In the first, the artists only know that they are trying something different, perhaps in reaction to the prevailing taste, perhaps because they have a different vision. By the second phase, these artists have coalesced around some basic precepts that define their movement. Although experimentation has not ended, it now revolves around fixed points that put artists either in or out of the movement. By the refinement stage, those precepts have become accepted benchmarks for the movement, which is now only accepting tinkering with its ideas. Finally, in the baroque stage, the movement has ceased moving, with its art practically caricaturing itself. Finally, the movement collapses, and a new movement leaves its experimental phase and becomes classic.
At the time, I argued that the Progressive movement was entering its Classic phase, and that conservatism, as practiced post-Goldwater, was entering its baroque phase. I'm here to report that recent events, if we follow Focillon, indicate that the conservatives are at or close to the apex of their baroque stage.
Look at the evidence. Up to the 2008 election, the GOP could assume that they were in their period of refinement: a place where the precepts of social and fiscal conservatism were widely understood and practiced, and all that was left was to tinker with the formula. They were wrong -- the signs of disaster were there prior to the elections -- but unless progressives entered their classic period, the GOP model might have been safe for another couple of electoral cycles.
Then the financial collapse of September 2008 occurred. Swiftly, the tide turned, and the GOP fell out of power. Per Focillon, that upset to an established order brings on the baroque period, where believers in the formerly entrenched ideas use the power accumulated in their heyday to knock off the upstarts and retain their primacy. It rarely works, but it's always tried.
For conservatives, the baroque period began in earnest with the rise of Freedom Works and its Frankenstein, the Tea Party. Once you're baroque, you don't fix it; you use a stylized representation of your ideals as the ne plus ultra of your movement. In short, you slowly but surely become a caricature of yourself. You may stall or even temporarily reverse your decline; but if the competing ideas are strong -- if they're heading into their classic phase -- you will inevitably lose. Once you've resigned yourself to the loss, then and only then can you regroup, inject new ideas into your now-discredited precepts, and build a new movement.
What we are witnessing this month is the last gasp of the Reagan conservative; the twin emphasis on dubious fiscal parsimony and social policy pandering. No movement is indefinitely sustainable, but this one, which never seriously tried to solve the issues it purported to address, was particularly susceptible to a major flameout. Now that the day of reckoning is upon them, it's expected of them to rail against the forces on the other side, and to become increasingly irrational in their actions. Only when they lose -- and lose big -- will they be forced to address their shortcomings. In my view, this means a reduced emphasis on social issues. I can think of no examples of a democracy permanently reversing social progress, despite many, many attempts and even some temporary victories by reactionaries. On the fiscal side, where we're currently embroiled in a crude caricature of Armageddon, conservatives have not yet lost, though their current flailing indicates the defeat is coming soon. There will always be room in our system for a party professing belief in a limited, fiscally prudent government. Perhaps out of the ashes of the defeat that is coming their way (and I acknowledge you may have trouble believing in it), the conservatives can find their way to a responsible fiscal prudence. Time will tell how long they're stuck in their baroqueness.