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The Death of Conservatism: A Movement and Its Consequencesby Sam Tanenhaus
American history is the record, were often told, of beginnings— dating back to the first settlements planted on the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, his classic tale of self-reinvention. The aura of newness was not merely a sentiment but also a statement of purpose inscribed in our republics founding documents and asserted in the legend novus ordo seclorum, “the new order of the ages,” stamped on the Great Seal of the United States.
This ideal has been repeated in an almost unbroken series of rededications of political purpose: Lincolns “new nation, conceived in Liberty,” Theodore Roosevelts “New Nationalism,” Woodrow Wilsons “New Freedom,” Franklin D. Roosevelts “New Deal,” John F. Kennedys “New Frontier,” and—circling back to the Great Seals inscription— George H. W. Bushs “New World Order.”
Through all this reinvention runs the theme of American exceptionalism, of a people liberated from the dragging chains of the past.
But of course history is also about endings, and so it has been in America, too. Our cherished myth of continual forward motion rests on dramatic breaks with what came before, whether the suppressions of a state church and the injustices of distant monarchy or our own discarded legacies of slavery and willful isolation from the outside world with its imposition of “entangling alliances.”
This cycle of beginnings-in-ends is being repeated again today. We stand on the threshold of a new era that has decisively declared the end of an old one. In the shorthand of the moment this abandoned era is often called the Reagan Revolution. In fact it is something larger and of much longer duration: movement conservatism, the orthodoxy that has been a vital force in our political life for more than half a century and the dominant one during the past thirty years, vanquishing all other rival political creeds until it was itself vanquished in the election of 2008.
This moments emerging revitalized liberalism has illuminated a truth that should have been apparent a decade ago: movement conservatism is not simply in retreat; it is outmoded. The evidence is not recorded merely in election returns and poll ratings. Those are unreliable and unstable measurements, spontaneous snapshots, subject to sudden change. The more telling evidence is in the realm of ideas and argument. It is there that conservatism is most glaringly disconnected from the realities now besetting America. Even as the collapse of the nations financial system has driven a nation of 300 million to the brink of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, conservatives remain strangely apart, trapped in the irrelevant causes of another day, deaf to the actual conversation unfolding across the land, in its cities and towns, in red and blue states, in the sanctuaries of the privileged and tented “Bushvilles.” This conversation has yielded a new vocabulary—rather, instilled fresh meaning in a familiar vocabulary. It includes phrases like “sensible limits,” “sound choices,” “shared sacrifice,” and “common ideals” and stresses the delicate balance between “mutual obligation” and “individual responsibility.” These words, though sometimes vague to the point of abstraction, are firmly anchored in concrete human facts: job layoffs and implausible tuition payments, dwindled savings and parched retirement funds. In aggregate they form the undertone of what Lionel Trilling,
in The Liberal Imagination, called “a cultures hum and buzz of implication”—a buzz and hum most audible today in gallows humor and nervous asides, in the anxious tones of people, tens of millions if not more, bound in uncertainty and fear, obsessed in their private lives with vast public problems that even “the best and the brightest” seem unable to comprehend, much less solve.
It is all part of an idiom conservatives were once well versed in—and in fact helped create. But today one must strain to hear any semblance of it in the words spoken and written by our professed conservatives, for on the great issues of the day they are virtually silent.
This is not to say conservatives—or what now passes for them—have fallen altogether mute. On the contrary, they continue to intone the stale phrases of movement politics. If you attended a panel luncheon of prominent conservative magazine editors, as I did in the spring of 2009 at the Harvard Club, you heard the urgent call “to take back the culture” (but from whom, exactly?), along with dire admonitions that the Obama administration had placed Americas economic “freedom” in jeopardy—this on the very morning that Wall Street had ecstatically embraced the Treasury secretarys plan for assisting the nations banks.
What these conservative intellectuals said wasnt just mistaken. It was meaningless, the clatter of a bygone period, with its “culture wars” and attacks on sinister “elites.” There was no hint of a new argument being formulated or even of an old one being reformulated. More disturbing still, not one of the three panelists acknowledged that the Republican Party and its ideology might bear any responsibility for the nations current plight. None urged the party and its best thinkers and writers to reexamine their ideas and methods. Each offered instead only the din of ever-loudening distraction, gratingly ill attuned to the conditions of present-day America.
The event was a microcosm of movement conservatism, the corollary of the actions, or rather, inactions, of conservative politicians in the first weeks of the Obama presidency, when Republican legislators marched in virtual lockstep against the stimulus program—even as free- market gurus conceded the federal government must seize command of a ravaged economy; even as Alan Greenspan, a rare penitent on the right, suggested we might need to nationalize failing banks; even as Republican governors and mayors clamored for precisely the rescue Democrats fashioned, however imperfectly, not for the purpose of creating a newly socialized state, but to keep people in their jobs, to keep schools and hospitals functioning and families from losing their homes.
How did the GOP and its intellectual allies sink into this torpor? One answer is complacency. For many years the Right, in its position of dominance, felt no need to think hard, least of all about itself. Another is that the crisis on the right is the endgame of a long- running debate—not only between conservatism and liberalism, but also within conservatism, and sometimes within the minds of individual conservatives—about the nature of government and society, and about the role of politics in binding the two. At its vibrant best, this debate, initially limited to a small group of thinkers and writers, energized the Republican Party and then ramified outward to become a broader quarrel that shaped, and at times defined, the political stakes of several generations.
In those earlier times—as long ago as the 1950s and as recently as the 1980s—conservative arguments, while expressed through politics, spoke to the deepest issues of culture and society. This is no longer the case. Instead, we hear exhortations from the Right to the Right: to uphold “basics” and “principles,” to stand tall against liberals— even if it means evading the most pressing issues of the moment. Todays conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.
Of course conservatism has fallen on hard times before—and been declared dead—only to translate presumed defeats into starting points for future triumph. In 1954, the movements first national tribune, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was checkmated by the Eisenhower administration and then “condemned” by his Senate colleagues. But the episode, and the passions it aroused, led to the founding of National Review, the movements first serious political journal. Ten years later, the Rights next leader, Barry Goldwater, suffered one of the most lopsided losses in election history. Yet the “Draft Goldwater” campaign secured control of the GOP for movement conservatives. In 1976, the challenge by Goldwaters heir Ronald Reagan to the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, fell short. But the crusade positioned Reagan to win the presidency four years later and initiate the conservative “revolution” that remade our politics over the next quarter century. In each instance, crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it farther along the route to ultimate victory. In each instance, too, conservatives could argue—and did, with persuasive eloquence—that their vision had not been rejected so much as denied the opportunity to be tested.
Today it is impossible to make this case. During the two terms of George W. Bush, conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity, though few conservatives will admit it, just as few seem ready to think honestly about the consequences of a presidency that failed not because it “betrayed” movement ideology but because it often enacted that ideology so rigidly: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive “culture war” waged against liberal enemies. That these precepts should have found their final, hapless defender in John McCain, who had contested them for most of his long career, only confirms that movement doctrine retains an inflexible and suffocating grip on the Republican Party and its most vocal advocates.
Yet there is no sign that movement stalwarts are ready to give any of this up. Some concede the Democrats are now in command and have in Barack Obama a leader of rare political skills. Some admit further that the specific failures of the outgoing administration were legion.
But what of the verdict issued on movement conservatism itself? There, conservatives have offered little apart from self- justifications mixed with shallow appraisals of the Bush years. Some argue that the administration wasnt conservative at all, at least not in the “small government” sense. This is true, but then no president in modern times, Democrat or Republican, has seriously attempted to reduce the size of government, and for good reason: voters dont want it reduced. What they want is government thats “big” for them—whether its Democrats who call for job-training programs and universal health care or Republicans eager to see billions funneled into “much-needed and underfunded defense procurement,” as William Kristol recommended shortly after Obamas victory.
Others on the right blame Bushs heterodoxy on interlopers, chief among them Kristols band of warriors at The Weekly Standard, who beguiled the administration into the Iraq war and an ill-starred Wilsonian crusade for global democracy. But here again the facts are complicated: Bushs foreign policy was indeed developed in part by neoconservatives convinced that American-style democracy can be imposed on distant lands. But it derived equally from the hard-line anti-Communist philosophy developed in the first years of the Cold War. “Paleoconservatives” deplored the overly “defensive” posture of the containment policies developed by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, with its emphasis on carefully managed alliances like NATO and the “economic diplomacy” of the Marshall Plan; later they opposed arms treaties and nuclear test bans, pressing instead for
a more confrontational “liberationist” or “rollback” approach that might include “limited” nuclear war. This ardent militarism underlay Goldwaters call in his 1960 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, for a foreign policy “primarily offensive in nature,” honed to meet “the dynamic, revolutionary character of the enemys challenge” and prepared “to engage the enemy at times and places, and with weapons, of our own choosing.”
Bush drew on this history when he announced a preemptive war against Islamic jihadists, asserting that “Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment” must now be replaced by a strategy of prevention that enables us to “take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” The trouble, as some recognized at the time, was that the administration was reviving rhetoric formulated during a period of bipolar conflict in the belief, or faith, that it could be applied to the profoundly dissimilar threats posed by a loose federation of terrorist groups.
Some critics on the right say the fault lay not with the administrations goals but with its incompetent strategies and execution, and perhaps with Bushs own rigid character. But a principal lesson of modern American politics, learned or not learned time and again, is that ideas and execution are inextricably bound. What a president seeks to do inevitably determines how he does it. If hes an ideologue, ideology will influence decisions made
at every level of government, from the appointment of federal judges, cabinet officials, and top White House advisers to the mid-level staffing of obscure agencies, from the conceptualization of global strategies and big-picture “guidances” to the drafting of specific policy provisions.
For others on the right the issue is primarily one of defective marketing. In their view, America remains a center-right nation as persuaded as ever by movement dogma. The Republicans might well have captured the 2008 election had Karl Rove and his team of operatives not grown complacent after their victories in 2002 and 2004 and failed to update “the brand” to suit changing demographics in Sunbelt states like Colorado and Nevada, with their socially liberal white professionals and economically liberal blue-collar Hispanics. But this thesis evades a big question: What does the movement have to offer such constituencies apart from a plea for their votes?
Even now, movement activists seem less intent on thinking through these questions than on stockpiling ammunition for the next election, convinced they will win if the Democrats stumble often enough or if the economy continues to worsen. This is what lurks beneath the hope, widespread on the right and voiced most openly by Rush Limbaugh, that Obamas policies will fail. Limbaughs remarks were widely condemned (though the White House gleefully seized on them as further proof of the movements appetite for destruction). Conservative politicians, at once alarmed by Limbaugh and fearful of him, twisted themselves into pained contortions of obeisance and reproof. But in strategic terms Limbaugh was acknowledging, however crudely, the heliocentrism of our two-party system as it has evolved over the past century and a half, an extended period characterized by long cycles—roughly thirty to thirty-six years—of one-party dominance. “Thumbing back through history,” the political journalist Samuel Lubell wrote in his classic The Future of American Politics, “we find relatively few periods when the major parties were closely competitive, with elections alternating between one and the other. The usual pattern has been that of a dominant majority party, which stayed in office as long as its elements held together, and a minority party which gained power only when the majority coalition split. Our political solar system, in short, has been characterized not by two equally competing suns, but by a sun and a moon. It is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out; while the minority party shines in reflected radiance of the heat thus generated.”
Conservatives today face a choice: Will they shine in reflected radiance or spin futilely on their unlit fringe orbit? If they seriously mean to offer more than nihilism, they must accept the obligation history places on the party exiled from power: the obligation to rethink and reevaluate, to undergo the serious work of self-examination and preparation.
From the Hardcover edition.
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