Skip to comments.At Low Ebb ("American conservatism is at one of its low ebbs.")
Posted on 05/21/2006 12:19:24 PM PDT by quidnunc
American conservatism is at one of its low ebbs.
Conservatives are divided, dejected, and drifting, caught between anger and indecision. The political party they've made theirs is headed for setbacks in this year's congressional elections, and further defeats loom ahead.
Of course I'm talking about the state of American conservatism in 1854, when the Whigs were crumbling fast.
Isn't that just like a conservative, to be always looking to the past to make sense of the present?
In 1854, the party of national unity and free enterprise the party of Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln's beau ideal would come apart over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the territories to slavery and the country to turmoil.
Without the Whigs, and with the Democrats soon to shatter in turn, the two parties that made up the two-party system could no longer hold the Union together. Soon the greatest of our national tragedies would be upon us: The War.
How did it happen? The forces that had united us lost their hold on public opinion. And as Mr. Lincoln once observed, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed."
One needn't go all the way back to 1854 for examples of midterm elections in which conservatives foundered, and for much the same reason: a failure to shape public sentiment. Call it a failure to engage the issues directly and engage the country's moral imagination.
After the Grand Old Party took a fall in the off-year elections of 1958, Whittaker Chambers wrote a letter to his young friend, William F. Buckley Jr., at the still new conservative magazine, National Review. If the Republican Party, he warned, "cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people why, somebody else will."
Then the Republican Party, Chambers warned, "will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth (weave and design of 1850). Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
Some of us can remember the intellectual atmosphere of the 1950s, when to be a conservative was considered less a persuasion than an eccentricity.
At the time, the Hiss-Chambers case had divided Americans into two hostile camps. Lionel Trilling, a professor of literature at Columbia and the author of The Liberal Imagination, scandalized his colleagues in the academic establishment when he described Whittaker Chambers as "a man of honor." It was Professor Trilling who, on scanning the political scene, made one of the most memorably wrong political analyses of his time. He announced that he could see no conservative ideas in prospect only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."
Lionel Trilling's assessment was all too accurate at the time. With a few exceptions like Whittaker Chambers and young Buckley, American conservatism in the '50 s was as bereft of any real ideas as the Whigs had been a century before.
Conservative thought had lost its traction with the American people during the Great Depression and never regained it. The right was fast retreating into its dark little shop, where it would fall prey to the paranoia of outfits like the John Birch Society. And once conservatives let themselves be identified with bullies like Joe McCarthy, the very phrase, "conservative intellectual," would acquire the air of an oxymoron.
Who with any political sense in the '50 s would have predicted that, by the end of the century, conservatism would come to dominate American political thought, and that the audacious Bill Buckley would begin an intellectual renaissance that only now has begun to fade?
How did it happen? It came to pass because American conservatism was able to articulate the country's values in a way that made sense to a new generation of Americans.
And what are those values? A faith in freedom in the right to life, liberty and our own property. In foreign affairs, conservatives would display a constancy of purpose that would prevail despite unsteady allies abroad and the old lure of isolationism at home. Who, besides Ronald Reagan, would have thought that the end of the Soviet Union would come not with a bang but a whimper? And with it, the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the world's two great superpowers. Talk about seizing the moral imagination .
A battle is always raging for the soul of American conservatism. It is a battle between those who would find a familiar place to hunker down, and those who would risk engagement with ideas and the world. There have always been those who would reduce the conservative impulse to something narrow and mean and afraid an exclusive little club restricted to Our Kind of People, rather than a great, open, embracing faith.
The great political achievement of Ronald Reagan was to transform a cozy club into a populist movement, and his example remains instructive. Like Lincoln before him, The Great Communicator was willing to accept the know-nothings' votes, but he drew the line at substituting their prejudices for his principles. In Mr. Lincoln's day, the Know-Nothings actually had a party, and its bogeyman was the Roman Catholic church. Today's demagogues use the latest wave of immigrants to much the same effect.
This era's struggle for the soul of the Republican Party can be seen up close and all too personal here in Arkansas. The party of Lincoln is being told it should demand that all illegal immigrants be deported, even if that means breaking up families, disrupting the economy and denying mothers medical care and their children an equal right to a college education.
Does anyone think these children will forget how their families, their mothers and fathers, were treated once they grow up to become voters, as they surely will? Childhood hurts endure, and their fruit is bitterness. Do we really want to let that kind of bitterness take root? Immigrant families once instilled an undying gratitude and reflexive patriotism in their children. Are we going to plant resentment instead?
Cracking down on these newcomers and their children may be a good way to win the next election and lose the next generation. In short, if Jim Holt is the Republican Party's future, it doesn't have one.
If these are times that try conservatives' souls, it might be instructive to inquire: How did conservatism make such a great comeback in American politics and thought? And how revive its appeal now?
Beyond specific policies and programs, there was something vital in the conservative cause that would prove irresistible to Americans. It was a recognition of the central, animating spirit behind values like family, community, country and Constitution. Call it the spirit of liberty. Its fruit is generosity and fellowship, not fear and suspicion. It unites, not divides. The spirit of liberty cherishes the liberty of others as well as our own. It respects no, reverences the innate dignity of each human being. It is the spirit of Lincoln, and it waits to be revived again.
Our faith in liberty may be obscured from time to time, but it is always there. All we need do is articulate it, act on it, and it will shine again. If this is a low ebb for American conservatism, there is a tide in the affairs of men, and, out in the future's depths, the next great wave of conservative sentiment is forming even now. It will yet prove cleansing, uniting, lifting, and restore the nation's confidence. No, I can't prove it, but I believe it.
Low ebb? Some would call it, the calm before the storm.
Clueless does not being to describe this nitwit.
I have my doubts. In fact the writer seems to be experiencing a bit of denial.
Please see the results of the recent Pennsylvania elections.
i can smell a major bust for the dems in nov.
with all the hype of disaster for the pubs, one can safely predict the nov elections will be underwhelming for them at the very least.
Perhaps a low ebb amongst its alleged "leadership".
The bedrock rank and file seems quite healthy thank-you, this Forum being Exhibit A.
Woof, is right. To hell with compassionate conservativism. To be compassionate for someone else, you have to take the money from my wallet. How about mean old conservatism for a change? The kind where people are treated like adults and are responsible for their actions? The kind of conservatism where good intentions mean squat. Conservatism which protects liberty and not big government. That's what we have to offer and it's not the same as statist paternalism (i.e. socialism) that the RATs are selling. Grrrr!!!!!!
If they are back in Mexico, I could care less what they think...
Conservative crack-down in progress. Rino's and rats beware.
When did rewarding criminality with welfare state entitlements become a 'conservative' value?
I guess he forgot to mention what a POS the rat party has become.
Um, in the 1850's, Catholics were no threat to outnumber Protestants anytime soon. Now, in Southern California alone, "white non-hispanics" will be a small minority in a generation. That is already a fact.
It is not "immigration" when 25-40% of a populous country leave that country and colonize another. It is, in fact, invasion.
And it is not immigration when hundreds of thousands of those people march in the streets of America under the flag of a foreign and hostile nation, while claiming the land and political power of America for themselves. That is sedition, treason, and an open declaration of war against the United States.
There are no "demagogues" on the Right on this issue. There is no historical precedent for anything like what is happening - a literal takeover of a country by what can only be called "immivasion". The only demagogues are those on the Left who refuse to allow any discussion of it, save to engage in name calling like "racist", or "nativist", or whatever idiot epithet they can hurl.
and the rats dream on, da la la, and the rats dream on.....
NOTHING in this WORLD would make a rat more happier than to be back in power...
If the author by conservatism means the party of big government, the party of internal improvements, national banks, the party that would destroy federalism and centralize the power in Washington DC I suppose he is correct. If by conservatism he means the party of limited government he isn't talking about the Whigs or the early Republican party