February 4, 2009


Conservatism Is Dead: An intellectual autopsy of the movement. (Sam Tanenhaus, 2/18/09, The New Republic)

In the tumultuous history of postwar American conservatism, defeats have often contained the seeds of future victory. In 1954, the movement's 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 movement's first serious political journal. Ten years later, the right's 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 insurgent challenge by Goldwater's heir, Ronald Reagan, to incumbent president Gerald Ford was thwarted. But Reagan's crusade positioned him 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 further along the route to ultimate victory.

Today, the situation is much bleaker. After George W. Bush's two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive "culture war" waged against liberal "elites." That these precepts should have found their final, hapless defender in John McCain, who had resisted them for most of his long career, only confirms that movement doctrine retains an inflexible and suffocating grip on the GOP.

More telling than Barack Obama's victory is the consensus, steadily building since Election Day, that the nation has sunk--or been plunged--into its darkest economic passage since the Great Depression. And, as Obama pushes boldly ahead, apparently with public support, the right is struggling to reclaim its authority as the voice of opposition. The contrast with 1993, when the last Democratic president took office, is instructive. Like Obama, Bill Clinton was elected in hard economic times and, like him, promised a stimulus program, only to see his modest proposal ($19.5 billion) stripped almost bare by the Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, even though Democrats had handily won the White House and Senate Republicans formed nearly as small a minority as they do today. The difference was that the Republicans--disciplined, committed, self-assured--held the ideological advantage, which Dole leveraged through repeated use of the filibuster. Today, such a stratagem seems unthinkable. [...]

What passes for conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to its originator, Edmund Burke, who, in the late eighteenth century, set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the "organic" unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies. In his most celebrated writings, his denunciation of the French Revolution and its English champions, Burke did not seek to justify the ancien regime and its many inequities. Nor did he propose a counter-ideology. Instead he warned against the destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics, beginning with its totalizing nostrums. Robespierre and Danton, the movement ideologues of their day, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions and institutions of what Burke called "civil society." They placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed.

At the same time, Burke recognized that governments were obligated to use their powers to meliorate intolerable conditions. He had, for example, supported the American Revolution because its architects, unlike the French rebels, had not sought to destroy the English government; on the contrary, they petitioned for just representation within it. Had King George III complied, he would have strengthened, not weakened, the Crown and Parliament. Instead, he had inflexibly clung to the hard line and so shared responsibility for the Americans' revolt. "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation," Burke warned. The task of the statesman was to maintain equilibrium between "[t]he two principles of conservation and correction." Governance was a perpetual act of compromise--"sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil." In such a scheme there is no useful place for the either/or of ideological purism.

The story of postwar American conservatism is best understood as a continual replay of a single long-standing debate. On one side are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America's pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.

Mr. Tanenhaus's on the one hand falls victim to the deadline here: writing today he'd strike all the nonsense about GOP disarray in the face of the inexorable Obamessiah. But, on the other, he reveals a surprisingly comprehensive failure to understand George W. Bush, the Burkean revolutionary, and the last 8 years, which consisted of the Left and far Right joining in counter-revolution.

Mr. Bush's biggest victories and accomplishments--school accountability and vouchers; HSAs; FBI; homelessness reform; Welfare Reform reauthorization; subprime home-buying; tax cuts; free trade expansion; abortion and emryo limits; liberalization in the Middle East; alliance with India, Brazil, and Indonesia; etc.--all represent the adjustment of conservatism to the reality of the Welfare State, to the central American role in the universal expansion of liberty, and to the exercise of what Fred Barnes termed "strong-government conservatism" in defense of timeless conservative principles. His two big losses came to the counter-revolutionary Democrats--Social Security Reform--who are stuck in the 1930s and refuse to alter welfare programs even to make them stronger and to the far Right--Immigration Amnesty--which imagines an ancien white regime. But the point is that he fought those who are stuck in the past.

Now while it is the case that Mr. Bush was the most consistently Third Way leader the Anglosphere has yet produced, it is also the case that he was not truly revolutionary but followed in the footsteps and marched beside other politicians of both sides who have made a similar adjustment: Augusto Pinochet, various New Zealand and Australia leaders of the '80s, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Howard, Tony Blair, Stephen Harper, and so on and so forth. It is likewise noteworthy that neither of the men who sought to succeed Mr. Bush proposed any significant deviation from the policies of the last 14 years. Meanwhile, John Howard was succeeded by a Third Way leader of the Left, Tony Blair's replacement is about to lose to a Third Way leader of the Right, the Canadian Left transferred power to Michael Ignatieff, New Zealand just elected a Bush/Howard clone, and so on and so forth. The Thatcherist rout is so complete that even the Germans and the French followed suit, chucking statists in favor of leaders who consciously model themselves on Blair and Bush.

And while it is obviously awfully early in the Obama presidency, it is already apparent that any deviation on his part from End of History orthodoxy is politically punishing. His attempts to distance himself from George W. Bush--by "closing" Guantanamo; funding foreign abortions; embracing protectionism; and pushing big government spending--are blowing up in his face. Republicans in Congress and the Bushian leaders of Canada and Britain are confronting him and forcing him back to the conservative middle.

Finally, if it is fair to say that the current GOP is having some trouble adjusting to the fact that it has to appeal to more than just white males in order to remain the majority party and that it needs to follow W's lead in using strong government to achieve conservative ends, it is also true that the new head of the Party is black, that the House leadership includes a Jew, and that not only are all the leading contenders for the 2012 nomination out of the Bush mold, but three of the leading contenders are another Bush, an Indian-American and a woman. The party nominee will favor Life, more Third Way entitlement reforms, freer trade, a role for religious organizations in the delivery of social services, an alliance of democracies in opposition to foreign totalitarians and terrorists, etc. The future of the GOP, of the country, of the West generally, and, therefore, of the world is more W.

How liberal is progressive Conservatism?: The progressive Conservatism advocated by David Cameron's party is thoroughly allied to a liberal agenda argues Oliver Letwin, who chairs the Tories' policy review (Oliver Letwin, 04 February 2009, New Statesman)

Perhaps surprisingly, the most lively discussion in British politics today is going on within and around the Conservative Party.

The discussion centres on the concept of ‘progressive Conservatism’. As David Cameron explained in his speech at the launch of the Demos Progressive Conservatism project, the fundamental thesis of a Cameron-led government would be that progressive ends can best be achieved by Conservative means.

As the deeper thinkers of the centre-left – for example, Jon Cruddas – have recognised, this agenda of progressive Conservatism poses new challenges and changes the terms of trade in British politics.

Cameron’s speech set out four goals:

"First, a society that is fair, where we help people out of poverty and help them stay out of it – for life. Second, a society where opportunity is equal, where everyone can, in Michael Gove’s brilliant phrase, “write their own life-story.” Third, a society that is greener, where we pass on a planet that is environmentally sustainable, clean and beautiful to future generations. And fourth, a safer society, where people are protected from threat and fear."

Any thoughtful and honest participant in the debate from the centre-left will, I think, be bound to admit that there is a startling similarity between these four goals and the goals of the progressive centre-left.

Rise of the red Tories: The crisis is an opportunity to sweep away the rotten postwar settlement of British politics. Labour is moribund. But David Cameron has a chance to develop a "red Tory" communitarianism, socially conservative but sceptical of neoliberal economics (Phillip Blond, February 2009, Prospect)
[T]he present moment is a challenge to conservatism itself. The Conservatives are still viewed as the party of the free market, an idea that has collapsed into monopoly finance, big business and deregulated global capitalism. Tory social thinking has genuinely evolved, but the party's economic thinking is still poised between repetition and renewal. As late as August 2008 David Cameron said: "I'm going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer," and that "radical social reform is what this country needs right now." He is right about society, but against the backdrop of collapsing markets and without a macro-economic alternative, Thatcherite economics has been wrongfooted by events.

Thankfully, conservatism is a rich and varied tradition, and re-examinating its history can provide the answers Cameron needs. These ideas are grounded in a conservatism with deeper roots than 1979, and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism—or red Toryism. This is more radical than anything emerging from today's left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn.

To date, neither political party has offered a plausible analysis of the origins of the meltdown. Brown denies all responsibility while George Osborne and Cameron hold him wholly and uniquely culpable. Given that no reasonable person can think either position is tenable, both parties have surrendered the intellectual high ground. But the financial crash does provide an opportunity to think through a renewed "one nation" conservatism. Cameron says that Disraeli is his favourite Tory. Disraeli attempted to ameliorate a society destroyed by the rampant industrialisation of 19th-century capitalism, whereas Cameron's chief target (until now, at least) has been a 20th-century creation: a disempowering, dysfunctional state. Nineteenth-century Tories criticised liberal capitalism, while 20th-century conservatives condemned the illiberal consequences of statism. But 21st-century Tories, especially against the backdrop of the current crisis, must inveigh against both in favour of the very thing that suffers most at the hands of the unrestrained market and the unlimited state: society itself. And conservatism, so imagined, could reject the politics of class—of "our people"—and the interests of the already wealthy in favour of a national politics that serves the needs of all.

It was Edmund Burke who famously spoke of conservative radicalism being founded on the little platoons of family and civic association. "To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind." This is the true spirit of Cameroonian conservatism and, taken seriously, it represents a break with the monopoly logic of the market state. But to recognise this innovation for what it is we have to contrast the potential of Cameron's civic communitarian conservatism with what it aims to transcend: the corrupt and rotten postwar settlement of British politics.

Constitutional Conservatism: A way forward for a troubled political coalition (Peter Berkowitz, Feb/March 2009, Policy Review)
The principles are familiar: individual freedom and individual responsibility, limited but energetic government, economic opportunity, and strong national defense. They derive support from Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, as well as from Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, in his most representative moments, John Stuart Mill — outstanding contributors to the conservative side of the larger liberal tradition. They are embedded in the Constitution and flow out of the political ideas from which it was fashioned. In the 1950s, they animated William F. Buckley Jr.’s critique of higher education in America in God & Man at Yale, an opening salvo in the making of the modern conservative movement. In the 1960s, they were central to Frank Meyer’s celebrated fusion of traditionalist and libertarian conservatism, and they formed the backbone of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for the presidency. In the 1980s, they inspired Ronald Reagan’s consolidation of conservatism. In the 1990s, they fueled Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution.” And even though George W. Bush’s tumultuous eight years in the White House have left conservatives in disarray, these principles informed both his conception of compassionate conservatism and his aspiration to make the spread of liberty and democracy a crucial element of American foreign policy.

Elaborated and applied in the spirit of moderation out of which they were originally fashioned, the principles of a constitutional conservatism are crucial to the restoration of an electorally viable and politically responsible conservatism. To be sure, short-term clashes over priorities and policies are bound to persist. Nevertheless, rallying around a constitutional conservatism represents a wise and winning strategy. The nation was founded on its principles. Embracing them is the best means over the long term for conserving the political conditions hospitable to traditional morality and religious faith, and the communities that nourish them. It is also the best means over the long term for conserving the political conditions that promote free markets, and the economic growth and opportunity free markets bring. And a constitutional conservatism provides a sturdy framework for developing a distinctive agenda to confront today’s challenges — an agenda that social conservatives and libertarian conservatives, consistent with their highest hopes, can both embrace. [...]

It was the entrenchment of the New Deal and the rise of totalitarianism that, in the 1950s, combined to jolt a self-consciously conservative movement in America into existence. The New Deal, as its proponents appreciated, involved a dramatic arrogation of new responsibilities by, and a great expansion of, the federal government. Meanwhile, the defeated fascist totalitarians in World War II and the aggressive communist totalitarians confronting America in the Cold War rejected individual rights, subordinated the individual to the state, presented alternatives to liberal democracy that held mass appeal, and sought to extend their reach worldwide through conquest and subjugation. To fight the collectivist impulse at home and abroad some among a new generation of conservatives turned to the restoration of traditional morality and faith. Others undertook a restoration of nineteenth century or classical liberalism, which rigorously limited the state and came to be called libertarianism. But the dominant strand in modern American conservatism set out to restore both.

Indeed, the leading voice of conservatism in America of the last half century — William F. Buckley Jr. along with his National Review, American conservatism’s flagship publication which he founded in 1955, edited until 1992, and to which he contributed until his death in 2008 — and the most influential conservative politicians during that period — Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush — contributed to the fashioning of a conservatism that combined a dedication to traditional morality with a devotion to American political institutions and traditions of individual liberty, particularly economic liberty. Often, conservative thinkers and office holders explicitly conceived of themselves as revolutionaries committed, in the light of new or newly recovered ideas, to radically reducing the role government had come to play in American life. Often, they were late to recognize the evolution of public opinion and changes in popular sentiment, along with the real technological, economic, and social transformations that legitimated growth in government. As a result, they frequently fought futile rearguard actions confusing the imperative to limit government with delusory aspirations to shrink it to eighteenth-century size. But insofar as this dominant strand of American conservatism affirmed that the fate of liberty and tradition were inextricably intertwined, it contained a vital lesson in moderation. [...]

Notwithstanding his reputation as he left office as a supremely polarizing figure, George W. Bush’s advocacy of compassionate conservatism in the 2000 presidential election suggested that the Texas governor, and his campaign architect Karl Rove, took the spectacle of Gingrich’s rise and fall to heart. Compassionate conservatism aimed to wed two convictions that did not obviously go together but which, if skillfully handled, could prove mutually supportive. The first, associated with the left but which Bush correctly judged crossed party lines and ran deep in America at the turn of the twentieth century, was that government had acquired a responsibility to assist the sick, the elderly, the involuntarily unemployed, and others who could not care for themselves. The second, which he shared with his evangelical base, was that in many cases religious organizations delivered care that was better targeted and more effective than that delivered by government. By providing government funds to faith-based relief organizations that agreed not to proselytize in the course of delivering food, shelter, and health care, compassionate conservatism sought to limit government’s role, respect the separation of church and state, and enhance religion’s contribution to the public interest.

And Bush’s democracy agenda, developed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, wove together convictions thought to derive from antagonistic sensibilities. On the one hand, he believed with hawks that the United States must take the battle to the Islamic extremists and the states that harbor and finance them. On the other hand, he became convinced along with today’s liberal internationalists and progressives going back to Woodrow Wilson that the United States advanced its security interests by using diplomacy, financial assistance, and development expertise to promote liberty and democracy abroad.

Flashpoint! A Woman’s Right To Choose (Gary Graham, 1/27/09, Big Hollywood)
I’m not a person filled with hate. I don’t brew strong stomach acids when I hear/see things I think horrendously idiotic or unjust in the news or on the street. Initially, my reaction is to laugh. The irony is simply too much, and I crack up. Generally, it’s either laugh…or cry. And who wants to spend the day in tears? For I would, were I to give in to that option of dealing with the utter, naked insanity in our midst on a daily basis. I’m not just talking about something that ‘isn’t quite right’ or… ‘is just a tad out of whack’…I’m talking about the United States of America in this year of 2009 being completely off its moorings and slipping into the abyss.

“What the hell is Graham on about now?? What momentous, screeching rant is he conjuring up now; can somebody put him on a stupid TV show so he’d shut up already??” – Your name here.

No. I’m going to say it. I’m going to say what millions know in the front of their brains, and many, many more millions know in the depths of their hearts…but won’t allow themselves to think it, much less feel it. And believe me, I know I’ll be hated for saying it, I’ll be hated by people who don’t know me, have never worked with me, have never golfed with me, had a drink with me, shot the shit with me. They’ve never met me, don’t want to meet me…but they will hate me. I’m going to say it anyway: Abortion is murder. [...]

I have been on all sides of this issue for most of my life, and I can simply not escape the logic. That fetus a pregnant woman is carrying inside of her, regardless of the gestation stage, is a living, breathing human being. Yes, breathing – the amniotic sac forms 12 days after conception, and in the second trimester the baby is actually breathing the amniotic fluid. It’s not an ‘unviable tissue mass.’ Not a wart, a mole, a skin outcropping, a boil, or a bundle of uncoordinated cells. It’s not just a ‘fetus’.

It’s a baby. Not fully developed, true. Like an infant is not a fully developed and mature adult. But it’s a baby.

How Firm a Foundation? The Prospects for American Conservatism (George H. Nash, 01/30/09, Intercollegiate Review)
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.

There is one other explanatory framework that has recently arisen to account for conservatism’s success and, inferentially, for its supposedly imminent demise. It is the thesis—popular among some left-of-center academics—that in political terms American conservatism arose in reaction to the tumult of the 1960s and that as the traumatic Sixties recede into the past, so will the voting patterns associated with it. Put more bluntly, it is the thesis—again, popular among some on the Left—that the key to the conservative ascendancy since 1968 has not been conservative ideas or the failures of liberalism but something uglier: the racial prejudice of white people.

Although most scholars, I believe, would reject this line of historical analysis as crudely simplistic, nevertheless, on both sides of the political divide one detects at times a sense—of hope on the Left and fear on the Right—that conservatism is doomed to political decrepitude as America becomes more multiracial in character. It is one more manifestation of the nervousness with which some conservatives are facing the future.

So, then, are Dionne, Tanenhaus, and other declinists correct? Is the house of conservatism in shambles and about to collapse? When addressing such questions, historians are expected to be judicious, and accordingly, I begin with the judicious words of Mark Twain. When informed in 1897 that a newspaper in New York had reported that he had died, he told a visiting journalist, “Just say the reports of my death have been grossly exaggerated.”

How firm are the foundations of modern America conservatism? Let us look further. Perhaps they are sturdier than many observers now think.

There are several reasons for considering this possibility. First, when examining the epiphenomena of contemporary politics—especially in our era of ever more frenzied and frothy news cycles—it is helpful to remember the adage, “This, too, shall pass away.” The divisive Bush presidency is nearly over, and the Iraq war gives signs of winding down. Slowly, some of the “external” political circumstances that so dismayed conservatives in recent years have begun to dissipate.

As George Orwell reminded us years ago, one of the temptations to which intellectuals are susceptible is to assume that whatever is happening right now will continue to happen—that tomorrow will inevitably look just like today. [...]

Ideas, too, have consequences, as Richard Weaver long ago reminded us, and it is in this realm that conservatives face challenges that should curb any temptation toward triumphalism. Consider for example, the phenomenon known as globalization. When we use this word, we tend to think first of the globalization of markets—of free trade in goods and services across national borders. But far more significant, I think, is the accelerating globalization of human migration patterns, with cultural and political consequences that we have scarcely begun to fathom. More people are now on the move in the world than at any time in the history of the human race, and more and more of them are making America their destination. The number of international students, for instance, attending American colleges and universities is now approximately 600,000 per year—a figure more than double what it was in 1980.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans are electing to live outside the United States. At least four to six million Americans are now permanent residents abroad. Among American college students, particularly those matriculating at elite institutions, it is now quite common to spend one’s junior year overseas—something very few could afford to do just a generation ago.

This unprecedented intermingling of peoples and cultures—abetted by rising prosperity, expanding air travel, and the incredible velocity of mass communication—has already begun to have ideological ramifications. In the United States, it has been accompanied by the emergence of multiculturalism as the driving philosophy of our educational system. It has been accompanied by the deliberate dilution of traditional civic education and the resultant explosion of cultural illiteracy about America’s heritage. It has been accompanied, in the field of historiography, by narratives which accentuate the failures and blemishes of the American experience. It has been accompanied by the rise of a liberal, cosmopolitan elite imbued with a post-national, even anti-national sensibility and motivated by what the historian John Fonte calls “transnational progressivism”—an ideology profoundly antithetical to conservative beliefs.

What does all this portend for the party of the Right? For generations, American conservatives have been united in their defense of our nation, of our inherited constitutional order, against enemies both foreign and domestic—something relatively easy to do during the Cold War but increasingly difficult today. Traditionally, American conservatives have been Eurocentric in their political and cultural discourse, but how can conservatives convincingly articulate this perspective to non-Europeans immigrants and to millions of superficially educated young Americans at a time when Europe itself no longer seems Eurocentric?

These are not idle questions. The political scientist James Ceaser recently observed that for thirty years the conservative movement in the United States has been defending ideas “that almost all other nations in the West are abandoning”: “the concept of the nation itself,” “the importance of Biblical religion,” and “the truth of natural right” philosophy. Traditionally Americans have adhered to a form of national self-understanding that scholars term American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan did, and he carried the country with him. Now, increasingly, the Reaganite vision of American goodness and uniqueness that most conservatives embrace seems both more exceptional and more vulnerable than ever.

With what arguments, symbols, rituals, and vocabulary can conservatives make their case for the American way of life that they cherish to those for whom the traditional arguments, symbols, rituals, and vocabulary are either unfamiliar or seem hopelessly passé? Again, this is not a trivial concern. It lies at the very heart of our current election campaign. Behind the disputes over public policy and personal fitness for the presidency, behind the vehemence of the culture war surrounding Governor Palin, lurks the question: What kind of a polity does America desire to become? As the conservative British commentator Gerard Baker recently noted, the election of 2008 has turned into a “struggle between the followers of American exceptionalism and the supporters of global universalism.” Whatever the outcome on November 4, American conservatives have not yet adequately articulated their convictions in terms that can appeal to people outside their own camp and particularly to those whom James Burnham called the “verbalizers” of our society.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 4, 2009 8:22 AM
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