Conservatism Is Dead

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Conservatism Is Dead

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Conservatism Is Dead

by Sam Tanenhaus
An intellectual autopsy of the movement.

The right, which for so long had deplored the politics of "class warfare," had become the most adept practitioners of that same politics. They had not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement--the Reagan Revolution--above their civic responsibilities. In 1995, the time of Gingrich's ascendancy, Kristol buoyantly spelled out the terms of revanchist strategy: "American conservatism is a movement, a popular movement, not a faction within any political party. Though, inevitably, most conservatives vote Republican, they are not party loyalists and the party has to woo them to win votes. This movement is issue oriented. It will happily meld with the Republican party if the party is 'right' on the issues; if not, it will walk away." By this calculus, all the obligations flow in only one direction. Parties are accountable to movement purists, while purists incur no reciprocal debt. They determine the "right" position, and the party's job is to advance it. Kristol does not consider whether purists might be expected to maneuver at all or even to modify their views--for the good not only of the party but also the larger polity.

Kristol went on, in this essay, to extol the contributions of two movement subgroups, the neoconservatives and the evangelicals. It was of course this alliance that most fervently supported George W. Bush during his two terms and remains most loyal to him today.

By their lights, they are right to do so. Bush, so often labeled a traitor to conservative principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors--including Ronald Reagan. Few on the right acknowledge this today, for obvious reasons. But not so long ago many did. At his peak, following September 11, Bush commanded the loyalties of every major faction of the Republican Party. The big central domestic proposal of his first term, the $1.3 trillion tax cut, extended Reagan's massive "tax reform" from the 1980s. Shortly before the Iraq invasion, Martin Anderson, Reagan's top domestic policy adviser, told Bill Keller (writing in The New York Times Magazine) that Bush was unmistakably Reagan's heir. "On taxes, on education, it was the same. On Social Security, Bush's position was exactly what Reagan always wanted and talked about in the '70s," Anderson said. "I just can't think of any major policy issue on which Bush was different." The prime initiative of Bush's second term, the attempt to privatize Social Security, drew directly on movement scripture: Milton Friedman denounced the "compulsory annuities" of Social Security in Capitalism and Freedom. Buckley noted the advantages of "voluntary" accounts in his early manifesto, Up From Liberalism. So did Barry Goldwater during his presidential campaign in 1964. Bush went further than Reagan, too, in the war he waged against the federal bureaucracy. And his attacks on the "liberal-left bias of the major media" were the most aggressive since Nixon's.

And then there was Iraq, the event that shaped Bush's presidency and, by most accounts, brought both him and the movement to ruin. It was also the event most at odds with classic conservative thinking. It is customary even now to say that the architects of the Iraq occupation failed because they naively placed too much faith in democracy. In fact, the problem was just the opposite. So contemptuous of the actual requirements of civil society at home, Bush's war planners gave no serious thought to how difficult it might be to create such a society in a distant land with a vastly different history. Those within the administration who tried to make this case were marginalized or removed from power.

In one of his prescient early writings, The Vindication of the English Constitution, a pamphlet published in 1835, the very young Disraeli reviewed the parallel democratizing experiments of his own time. In every nation where democracy had flourished, Disraeli observed, the rule of law was already embedded in social custom. This was why America had easily made the transition from a colonial protectorate to an independent constitutional society, while South American nations had not. Democracy was the fruit, not the precondition, of civil order. "Political institutions, founded on abstract rights and principles, are mere nullities," Disraeli wrote. Europe, too, had its pre-democratic places where "a comparative civilisation had been obtained under the influence of a despotic priesthood. And these are the regions to which it is thought fit suddenly to apply the institutions which regulate the civil life of Yorkshire and of Kent!"

In the end, movement conservatives got the war they wanted--both at home and abroad. It ended, at last, with the 2008 election, and the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.

What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders, if they are to ascend to the status of disinterested statesmen, is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology. And the only ideology one can meaningfully renounce is one's own. Liberals did this a generation ago when they shed the programmatic "New Politics" of the left and embraced instead a broad majoritarianism. Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition. At its best, conservatism has served the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times. There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism--a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.