The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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How Firm a Foundation? The Prospects for American Conservatism
George H. Nash - 01/30/09

Clearly, many conservative thinkers and activists are determined to avoid any such outcome. One of the notable features of the conservative landscape at present is the quest by the intellectual Right to revitalize its roots and recover its philosophical moorings. Last year, for example, the conservative quarterly Modern Age devoted one of its fiftieth-anniversary issues to “Conservative Reflections on Neglected Questions and Ignored Problems.” Next spring the Philadelphia Society, the nation’s oldest society of conservative intellectuals, will focus its entire national meeting on the legacy of the luminaries of twentieth-century conservatism. Meanwhile, younger authors like Ryan Sager, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat have written books attempting to reformulate conservatism for a new generation. In and of themselves, these efforts might be considered a token of vitality. Taken together, however, they convey the impression that the condition of conservatism has become problematic.

Current explanations of the conservative predicament tend to fall into two distinct categories. The first stresses the movement’s political failure and frustrations during the presidency of George W. Bush. With the exception of its Supreme Court nominations and tax-cutting policies, Bush’s administration now seems to many conservative stalwarts to have been in large measure a liberal Republican administration—more akin to Rockefeller and Nixon than to Reagan. At home, Medicare drug entitlements have been expanded, education policy has been nationalized, and federal deficit spending has been allowed to soar unchecked. The administration’s abortive immigration reform initiative in 2007 further alienated most conservatives from the man in the White House. The concurrent wave of Congressional scandals and the battle over earmarks have reminded rueful conservatives of M. Stanton Evans’ remark: many conservatives, he says, have gone to Washington believing it to be a cesspool, only to decide that it is really a hot tub.

Even more than its sometimes heterodox domestic policies, the Bush administration’s approach to foreign policy has placed severe strains on the conservative coalition. The President’s audacious assertion of executive power in the war on terrorism has rattled libertarians and others for whom the restraint of executive power is a settled conservative principle. His sweeping invocation of the language of democratic universalism has gratified neoconservatives but has struck some other conservatives as an exercise in platitudinous naiveté. For those on the Right who base their foreign policy outlook on the virtues of prudence and realism, Bush’s “hard Wilsonianism” has seemed disturbingly utopian and unconservative.

There can be little doubt that the war in Iraq proved to be vexing to the American Right. It exacerbated what is now a nearly thirty-year war between the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives. It led William F. Buckley Jr. to announce in early 2007 that if he were a member of Congress, he would vote against the proposed troop surge in Iraq. Buckley did not live to see the surge’s success—at least for the time being—but his pessimism about Iraq and his negative verdict on the Bush presidency exemplified a broader mood of disillusionment on the Right with the fruits of its political ascendancy.

This feeling of disenchantment was all the more agonizing because political victory had been so long in coming. The conservative movement as we know it began to coalesce more than half a century ago, but it was not until 2002—just six years ago—that the nominally conservative political party in the United States gained simultaneous control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. Not even Ronald Reagan had the influence over Congress that George W. Bush possessed between 2003 and 2006. Although we must not overlook the paralyzing tactics of liberal Democrats in the U.S. Senate during those years, this fact did not keep many conservatives from concluding that their leaders in Washington had squandered a historic opportunity for conservative reform.

The second cluster of explanations for conservatism’s present malaise focuses not so much on external, political circumstances but on internal factors—that is, the structure and dynamics of the conservative movement itself. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about modern American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, univocal. It is a coalition with many points of origin and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile with one another. Historically, it has been a river of thought and activism fed by many tributaries: a wide and sometimes muddy river, but one with great power, so long as the tributaries flowed into the common stream. By the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the conservative coalition had grown to encompass five distinct parts: 1) classical liberals and libertarians, apprehensive of the threat of overweening government and the welfare state to individual liberty and free-market capitalism; 2) “traditionalist” conservatives, appalled by the weakening of the ethical norms and institutional foundations of American society at the hands of secular, relativistic liberalism; 3) anticommunist Cold Warriors, convinced that America was increasingly imperiled by an evil empire seeking the conquest of the world; 4) neoconservatives—disillusioned men and women of the Left who had been “mugged by reality” and were gravitating toward the conservative camp; and 5) the Religious Right, traumatized by the moral wreckage unleashed upon America by the courts and by the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

Now so long as the Cold War continued, this coalition held together reasonably well. Anticommunism—a conviction shared by nearly everyone—supplied much of the essential unifying cement. But with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, and the departure from office of the ecumenical Reagan, long-suppressed centrifugal tendencies resurfaced on the American Right. What had once appeared to be creative tensions began to look to some like irreconcilable differences. Without a common foe to concentrate their minds and tongues, it became easier to succumb to the bane of all coalitions: the sectarian temptation, the tendency to go it alone and accentuate disagreements with one’s former collaborators.

Cropping up in both of these sets of explanation, from time to time, has been a kind of historical determinism: the notion that political and intellectual movements, like individuals and nations, have immutable life-cycles. Just as it was once believed that civilizations ineluctably pass from barbarism to Arcadian bliss to urban prosperity and eventual rot and decline, so, it sometimes seems, must the conservative movement itself pass—in Jacques Barzun’s phrase—from dawn to decadence. This half-articulated theory of social entropy underlies much of the current giddiness on the Left about conservatism’s prospects—and, perhaps, some of the angst that one finds among some commentators on the Right.

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