Skip to comments.Is Conservatism Finished?
Posted on 12/28/2006 9:48:31 PM PST by neverdem
Even before November’s midterm elections and the Republican party’s loss of its congressional majorities, there was widespread talk of the exhaustion, even death, of conservatism in America. Over the past year or so, indeed, every new day has seemed to bring another article or book on the subject. Gathering steam as the election approached, such inquests became as popular among conservatives themselves as among liberals. Each offered a distinctive thesis or complaint relating to a perceived malfeasance of the Bush administration, whether in foreign policy, social policy, homeland security, domestic spending, corruption, or any number of other areas.
One particularly notable gesture of disaffection appeared on the very eve of the election, when, in a symposium titled “Time for Us to Go,” a group of seven self-identified conservative writers were moved to publish, in the liberal Washington Monthly, their reasons why the Republicans deserved to lose. While not exactly the “A” list of conservative minds, these writers, ranging from Christopher Buckley to Joe Scarborough (the former Florida Congressman turned talk-TV host), urged the defeat of their party for the sake, precisely, of the future health of conservatism itself. But their words contributed mightily to a growing general impression: that after a run of two decades or so, conservatism’s day in the American political sun was drawing to a close.
For liberal Democrats, this was a termination devoutly to be wished. So intense, indeed, was the pent-up need of the Democratic party and its media allies for a victory dance in the end zone that the high-stepping began long before any touchdowns had actually been scored. The columnist Joe Klein’s exultant observation in Time just prior to the elections—“2006 may be remembered as the year that the Reagan Revolution finally crested and began to recede”—was just one of hundreds of such gun-jumping predictions.
Yet it is now clear that the results of the vote, while a solid reversal not seen since the more epochal mid-term Republican victories of 1994, hardly justified this extravagance. In comparison with similar historical circumstances, the GOP’s losses were quite modest, leaving the Democrats with only relatively thin majorities in both houses of Congress. This was all the more impressive given the pervasive national mood of discouragement over the war in Iraq. Nor did anything about the GOP losses justify the claim that conservatism lost, or that the slow movement of the American electorate to the center-Right of the political spectrum has stopped or even diminished, let alone reversed.
Some Republican defeats, for example, including that of the liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, effected no change in the ideological balance and can hardly be seen as a setback for conservatism. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the remarkably easy triumph of the highly-targeted, much-reviled Senator Joseph Lieberman over his more liberal anti-war challenger was a bellwether. So too were the Senate victories of such relatively conservative Democrats as James Webb in Virginia and Robert Casey, Jr. in Pennsylvania. There was also the surprisingly strong showing of Harold Ford, Jr., the Democratic Congressman who promised Tennesseans that if they elected him to the Senate, they would get “a gun-loving, Jesus-loving American who thinks that taxes ought to be lower and America ought to be stronger.” In the event, most Tennesseans were not quite willing to buy that assertion, but there can be no doubt that they took Ford seriously in offering it.
In short, it is still unclear that the achievement of a majority of congressional members with the letter “D” after their names means a shift in the ideological balance of the nation. The internal Democratic fissures that opened up immediately after the election—as in the struggle between Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer over leadership of the House, and the patent discomfiture within the party over certain likely appointments to key committee chairmanships—suggest that electoral victory has not automatically conferred a durable majority, let alone a governing vision.
As the liberal journalist Michael Tomasky observed in an acute analysis penned in April 2006: “What the Democrats still don’t have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society.” The Democratic party won its new majorities largely on the basis of general discontent. It will take a Democratic party that actually stands for something other than the obstruction and investigation of George W. Bush to achieve more than temporary electoral reversals.
But what about the threnodies being sung by unhappy conservatives themselves? Joe Klein’s judgment that the Reagan Revolution has crested and begun to recede is the theme of a wide shelf of angry conservative books, ranging from Bruce Bartlett’s Imposter and Stephen Slivinski’s Buck Wild to Patrick J. Buchanan’s State of Emergency, Jeffrey Hart’s The Making of the American Conservative Mind, and Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul. Not only that, but the authors of these tomes identify the chief enemy of the Reagan Revolution as none other than George W. Bush. With his wasteful spending, his lax immigration policies, his willingness to cater to influential lobbyists, his aggressively “utopian” foreign policy, and his exploitation of religion, Bush, in the summary judgment of the direct-mail maven Richard Viguerie, may have “talked like a conservative to win our votes, but never governed like a conservative.” Viguerie’s own recent book, Conservatives Betrayed, bears the subtitle: “How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.”
It would be foolish to deny the importance, or the usefulness, of closely examining the performance of the Bush administration with regard to the entire range of government policy and actions. Precisely by having made such an act of reconsideration imperative, the 2006 election results may even turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Republicans in particular and conservatives in general. This is how democracies are supposed to operate. Moreover, the ability of conservatives to engage in self-criticism is surely a salutary thing—so long as the self-criticism is both honest and accurate.
Is that the case in this instance? Before turning to the substantive points raised by Bush’s conservative critics, one is bound to note the startling weakness for hyperbole and the bitter invective in their writings, often the signs of unrealistic expectations and narrow or sectarian agendas. In addition, almost all of them judge Bush, and find him woefully wanting, by the standard of Ronald Reagan, thereby demonstrating a limited ability to recall what the now-sainted Reagan administration was actually like, let alone what sorts of criticisms it had to bear during its time—and where those criticisms came from. None seems to remember Reagan’s famous embrace of an Eleventh Commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”—let alone the context in which it arose: namely, the bitter intra-party struggles of the early 1960’s in which liberal Republicans sought to block the rising Goldwater movement in their midst.
Americans in general too easily forget such times of struggle and division, making them over into placid and uncomplicated memories. A bipartisan example of this creative amnesia occurred at the time of Reagan’s death in June 2004 and spilled over into that year’s presidential campaign. Television journalists and Democratic candidates alike repeatedly contrasted the idyllic spirit of unity at home and cooperation abroad that allegedly prevailed during the cold-war years under Reagan with the national disunity prevailing over the Iraq issue under Bush. Many Americans, even some old enough to know better, seem actually to have credited such ridiculous assertions.
We forget, too, that predictions like Joe Klein’s have been made again and again since 1981. We forget that the current charges of “theocracy” were thoroughly rehearsed in the Reagan years, when Reagan’s open support for the beliefs of evangelicals was passionately decried, and his affirmation of the veracity of the Bible was used against him (notably in the 1984 campaign) to suggest that he would recklessly seek to bring on Armageddon. And we forget that not only Reagan but every Republican President since Eisenhower has been solemnly adjudged a cretin by the national press during his time in office, only—even unto the supposedly irredeemable Richard Nixon—to be turned into a wise leader after his departure from power.
We also forget that the Reagan administration itself, far from being happily unified, was driven by internal battles between “pragmatists” and “ideologues,” conflicts that prefigured many of the policy battles of the present. And we forget that, outside the administration, Reagan got plenty of grief from his own Right as well.
The querulous Richard Viguerie, for example, an influential but notably unhappy camper in those halcyon days, began hectoring the Reagan presidency almost from the beginning, complaining to the Associated Press in January 1981 that with his cabinet appointments Reagan had given conservatives “the back of his hand.” A July 1981 op-ed by Viguerie in the Washington Post, entitled “For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over,” was thoughtfully timed less than four months after the President had nearly been killed by an assassin’s bullet. By December 1987, Viguerie was declaring that Reagan had actually “changed sides” and was “now allied with his former adversaries, the liberals, the Democrats, and the Soviets.” A year later, in the final months of his presidency, when it was clear to all that Reagan had fundamentally changed the terms of debate in American politics, Viguerie announced that, thanks to his tenure in office, “the conservative movement is directionless.”
It is especially pertinent to recall such statements when one opens Viguerie’s current book, a catalog of Bush-administration horrors whose pages are replete with inspirational Reagan quotations and the highest praise for Reagan and his appointees. For a movement that claims to rest upon long perspectives and deep cultural sources, American conservatism can be remarkably short-sighted, impatient, brittle, fractious, and downright petulant. Indeed, conservatism has been found by its adherents to have “cracked up” or “lost its soul” more times than are worth counting in the years since 1980 (at least as many times as America has “lost its innocence”).
But these crack-ups have been mainly in the eyes of their beholders. The simple fact, to repeat, is that the American electorate has, by most measures, moved slowly but steadily in a conservative direction since 1968, in a pattern that the two moderate, Southern Democratic presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did more to confirm than to interrupt. The adjustments brought about by the 2006 midterm elections have done little to alter this pattern.
Still, pointing to long-term political success does not necessarily answer the charge that the Bush administration represents an egregious departure from or even a betrayal of conservative ideals and principles. This is precisely the contention of Jeffrey Hart, a longtime senior editor of National Review. Near the conclusion of his The Making of the American Conservative Mind,1 a relaxed, chatty, anecdotal account of the past half-century through the lens of National Review’s reporting and editorials, Hart comes down hard on Bush, a “transformative” President who in Hart’s judgment is emphatically not a conservative one.
Hart finds two principal and related failings in Bush. First, in the Iraq war, and in seeking to “cure” the problems of the Middle East by imposing a regime of “modernization and democratization,” Bush has demonstrated that he is at heart a “hard Wilsonian”—that is, a utopian thinker who has wedded the use of “concerted military force” to Woodrow Wilson’s very unconservative brand of “optimistic universalism.” Second, Bush’s determination to allow his own evangelical Christianity to influence his thinking and actions, particularly in his zeal for large-scale social and moral reform, departs from “the accepted convention in America . . . that religious beliefs are a private matter.” It also runs counter to the strong conservative preference for “magisterial” and “traditional” forms of religion that, unlike evangelicalism, do not so much challenge a culture as stabilize it.
Hart’s criticisms, stated relatively mildly in his book, took on much more strident expression in his contribution to the pre-electoral Washington Monthly symposium. There, Hart described Bush as “a man who has taken the positions of an unshakable ideologue” on issues ranging from the Terri Schiavo case to supply-side economics. If conservatism is a “politics of reality,” this President, wrote Hart, lives sheltered in delusion. No longer is the adjective “Wilsonian” sufficient to describe his disconnectedness from reality. Indeed, Bush’s naïve belief in the universality of the human preference for freedom over tyranny makes “Woodrow Wilson look like Machiavelli” by comparison.
In the end, Hart finds that “Bushism” has so subverted the principles of conservatism as to have “poisoned the very word.” Others are of the same opinion. In particular, the vexed question of religion, and of religiosity, has given rise to its own avalanche of conservative anti-Bushians, including not only Hart but Kevin Phillips in his over-the-top American Theocracy, Damon Linker in The Theocons, and especially Andrew Sullivan in The Conservative Soul.2
Although all of these authors complain about the excessive influence of religious faith in present-day conservative politics, the specifics of their indictment vary. Where Hart focuses on the emotionalism of evangelical Protestants, Linker concentrates on the influence of a small cell of conservative Catholics around the journal First Things while Sullivan, who paints with a broad brush, denounces “Christianists” (his analogue to “Islamists”) of all persuasions.
“The defining characteristic of the conservative,” Sullivan asserts, “is that he knows what he doesn’t know.” This stance of systematic modesty, or principled unprincipledness, undergirds the way Sullivan himself, an avowed if unorthodox Catholic, proposes to understand politics, culture, society, and religion itself. His own, properly “conservative” perspective, he writes, stands as a bulwark between two antithetically dangerous forces: “fundamentalism,” which fraudulently claims to be in full possession of the truth, and “nihilism,” which fraudulently denies that truth exists. But, for Sullivan, the former is a much greater enemy than the latter. Fundamentalism, he asserts, turns religion into a “mechanism for social order” or “a regulatory scheme to keep human beings in line.” By thus denying the essentially individual and mystical character of religious experience, it amounts to nothing less than a “profound blasphemy.” Judged according to this standard, it would appear, George W. Bush is the blasphemer-in-chief.
What are we to make of these various charges, each of which rests on some a-priori definition of what conservatism is and what it is not? Let us begin with the prudential character of conservatism as a philosophy of government. This is what Jeffrey Hart has in mind when he speaks of conservatism as a realistic and non-ideological approach to governance. But Hart seems blind to the significance of his own insight. For in American history there are examples aplenty of actions taken by prudential leaders that involved the transgression of a “conservative” principle for the sake of broadly conservative ends.
One such principle, according to some conservatives, is the limitation of executive power. But Thomas Jefferson, who himself held a strict-constructionist view of executive authority, violated that view in order to undertake the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation and made it a continental power. Abraham Lincoln made extensive use of executive authority, including the suspension of basic civil liberties, in order to prosecute the Civil War and save the Union. During the Eisenhower administration, the exercise of federal authority to enforce basic civil rights for blacks in the Jim Crow South righted a historical wrong that seems unlikely to have been righted in any other way.
It is in fact a perfectly respectable conservative principle that leadership sometimes demands bold actions undertaken with the right ends in view. This, indeed, is the situation in which we find ourselves today, in what is likely to be a prolonged conflict with determined, well-organized, and well-funded transnational Islamic terrorists. It was one thing to assert, with John Quincy Adams in 1821, that the United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy; at the time, in any case, there was hardly much choice about the matter. It is quite another thing to stand on such a dictum in 2006, in the name of limited government, while remaining oblivious to the nature of the challenges before us.
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, along with the incapacity or unwillingness of international and multilateral organizations to contain or control them and our own growing vulnerability to their use by shadowy proxies or groups accountable to no one, leaves the United States no responsible choice but to act vigorously and even preemptively in ways that an older conservatism could never have envisioned and would not have approved. That fact does not make such action imprudent; on the contrary, a failure to act, because of prior ideological commitments to a particular understanding of conservatism, would represent a lapse of prudence, and a betrayal of the core conservative imperative to defend and protect what is one’s own.
Nor is Bush’s insistence on the universal appeal of free institutions out of line with a sensibility that since the American Revolution has envisioned the United States as a carrier of universal values and a beacon to the rest of the world. Hart decries this “Wilsonian” aspect of Bush’s presidency as a form of Jacobinism, promising the forced conversion of the world to American values and practices. But what has Bush said that is not a restatement of what Ronald Reagan said so often and with such conviction? Consider Reagan’s address to the British parliament on June 8, 1982, a self-conscious echo of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 36 years earlier:
We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. . . . The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.
While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.
Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in Communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second-oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.”
. . .
I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I believe that Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last—last—pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man. For in the words of Isaiah: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.”
I am told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I am deeply grateful. We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inauguration Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.
Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, will be spending the spring 2007 semester as senior Fulbright lecturer in American history at the University of Rome. His most recent book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans).
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1 Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 425 pp., $15.00.
2 HarperCollins, 304., $25.95.
3 Bush's Calling, COMMENTARY, June 2005.
© Copyright 2006 Commentary. All rights reserved
Ideologies never die, they are simply transformed temporarily into a new format. Communism isn't dead, it is simply awaiting the generation that will have historical amnesia and will be resurrected again. There is nothing new under the sun. We have been at war with Islam since it's inception. It is us in the west that forgot that. The Muslims have not. The pendulum always swings. Great leaders are always followed by the mediocre ones who screw things up.
In the end, Hart finds that Bushism has so subverted the principles of conservatism as to have poisoned the very word.
I have found this to be true, GWB's great falling won't be Iraq, it will turning turning "conservatism" into a slur.
At the end of the day however, Conservative issues still sway people, no one outside of Europe likes to be taxed, or to have Govt in their lives, or looks forward to "mandates" or relishes America no longer being a great nation.
We can survive GWB, but do we know how to?
I don't know. Was it finished in November 1964?
Not as long as I'm breathing.
Is libertarianism, the new conservatisim?
What would Ronald Reagan do?
Conservatism is far from finished. Maybe taking a bit of a break for the time being, but far from finished.
Most newly elected Democrats ran on tickets moving towards conservatism as they realize the majority of Americans, even their Democrat constituencies, are conservative, do some point. Even Hillary moves right to get elected, as did her husband, Bill, in 1992.
Republicans were defeated in this last election, not conservatism. Republicans largest problem is they moved away from conservatism as challengers moved towards it.
I haven't finished the article, yet.
Just the opposite is true. The Republicans lost because America is MORE conservative than the current crop of Republican candidates.
Finished? In my mind, it's not yet begun...
As the left moves ultra-left, the right begins to fill some of it's void- creating another void to it's right. This void (if large enough) could be filled by a supra-nationalist/ constitutionalist who'd then send the Republicans further left, thus knocking the Dems into the dustbin (or into the new Republican party).
In order for a political system to remain healthy, two distinct ideologies must be present--not two that blur their differences. The good news for conservatives: the void on the right is getting huge. Bad news for the left is that, should some party occupy this space, they get nudged over the cliff.
With all due respect, what a load of b***l. You can't kill an ideology. As long as even one percent of the population adheres to it, it is still part of the political debate.
How come these articles are written about conservatism, which is the favored politics of at least 20-30% of the populace, yet no one is pulling the plug on communism, socialism and other nutball left mindtraps which are lucky to command one percent of the voting public?
Speaking of the left 'isms', can anyone name even one success attributable to any of them? Consensus does not equal empirical achievement. We are living in the afterglow of the success of a conservative political revolution. One that ended the Soviet threat and jump-started the American economy. That is what Conservatives can point to.
No matter what our opponents throw at us, we Conservatives have something they will never have; clear, unequivocal proof that our system works. We can hope that that will make possible another conservative wave in the future. In any case, though, why should any thinking person give up on Conservatism? Since when did 'accepted wisdom', little more than what the political fad of the time is, become a thought process?
Isnt God dead ? I think I heard that a while back
Then Art was declared dead ....uh werent Democrats dead ?....Eagles are dead I think ....Bears are dead... Earth
Its hard to keep up with all the dead stuff out there
That may well be so, but it certainly helps that they fear the mainstream media more than their own voters. When they had the chance to do the "Nuclear Option," they chose not to, because the media said how bad it would be. When they had Specter out of the big committee chair, they negotiated him right back in because the media said they should. When Lott praised an imperfect old man, he had to resign his seat because the media said it was a hate crime to praise that particular old man. They passed the McCain-Feingold "reform" bill because the media thought it was a good idea.
Time and again, conservatives have said what they wanted, and the media said what they wanted, and elected Republicans chose to do what the media said. Since their voters had little to illuminate their actions, compared to established media outlets, they chose the path of least resistance. It's funny, Republicans pay big dollars to mainstream outlets to air their political ads, and the time in between the ads is spent rebutting those ads. You would think they would figure out somewhere else to spend their money, than supporting their enemies.
The way the news media operates is nothing less than fascism. They own the instruments of information, and charge us for access to a small portion thereof. Screw them. Don't buy their newspapers. Don't watch their evening news. Don't set MSN as your home page. Don't use AOL. Don't subscribe to their magazines. Now that we have taught our politicians a lesson, we need to teach the MSM.
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