August 8, 2010


How Firm a Foundation? The Prospects for American Conservatism (George H. Nash, Winter 2009, Intercollegiate Review).

The following is an address delivered at Belmont Abbey College, October 24, 2008 at which Dr. Nash received the Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters from the Ingersoll Foundation.

We have gathered this evening—and at this conference—to consider the future of American conservatism. Until a few weeks ago, it did not appear to have much of a future at all. Writing in the September issue of the American Prospect, the liberal columnist E. J. Dionne declared flatly that “the conservative era” in American politics is “in its final days.” The “conservative project,” he said, is “exhausted.” Meanwhile in the September 10 issue of the New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, asserted that the conservative movement “has never been in poorer shape than it is today.” Indeed, he claimed, it has entered “its last and genuinely decadent phase.”

Such sentiments are by no means confined to the American Left. In the past three years an increasing number of conservative commentators have wondered aloud whether the long foretold “conservative crackup” was finally at hand. Jeffrey Hart, for example, in his history of National Review published in 2006, perceived a movement succumbing to a tide of doctrinaire, unconservative ideology and a reckless politics of imprudence. William F. Buckley Jr. reportedly believed in his last years that the conservative movement he had so tirelessly championed was (in Hart’s words) “probably finished”—a case of “intellectual suicide.” A leading conservative journalist of my acquaintance remarked a couple of years ago that the movement is suffering a nervous breakdown—a consequence, he said, of the end of the Cold War. A few on the Right have even suggested that if the movement is not already dead, then it ought to be. “Is the Conservative Movement Worth Conserving?” was the title of a posting at a prominent conservative website just a couple of months ago.

Earlier this year the New York Times’ technology columnist David Pogue listed the five stages of grieving when you lose your computer files: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Moving to Amish Country. It sounds like a fair description of the mood gripping many American conservatives in 2008. Certainly, evidence abounds of a political and intellectual movement in crisis. One sign of this is the growing tendency on the Right to classify conservatives into ever smaller sectarian groupings: neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, big government conservatives, leave-us-alone conservatives, “national greatness” conservatives, compassionate conservatives, crunchy conservatives—and the list goes on. Another sign is the volume of intramural polemic in which some of these elements have indulged in recent years. Thus the paleoconservatives relentlessly pound the neoconservatives, Straussians exchange fire with anti-Straussians, devotees of Abraham Lincoln debate his detractors, libertarians take issue with religious conservatives, and neo-agrarians critique capitalism and free-marketeers. A once relatively disciplined band of brothers (or so it used to appear in the Age of Reagan) has seemingly devolved into a rancorous jumble of factions. It calls to mind Napoleon’s answer when asked against whom he preferred to fight. He replied: against his allies. They were the ones who caused him the most trouble.

Several adventitious factors have strengthened the impression among many observers that American conservatism has come to a cul-de-sac. The deaths of Milton Friedman in 2006, Jerry Falwell in 2007, and William F. Buckley Jr. in 2008 precipitated an outpouring of anxious retrospection and an intensified awareness that nearly all of modern conservatism’s founding fathers have now gone to the grave. Coupled with this generational changing of the guard has been the phenomenal upsurge of popular interest in the life and achievements of Ronald Reagan. More than any of our forty-three presidents, Reagan has been on the minds and tongues of a nation hungering for renewal in 2008. From conservatives in particular has come the cry, “What would Reagan do?” Critics scoff at this as mere nostalgia, the rightwing equivalent of the liberal cult of John F. Kennedy. It is much more than that, but memories of the Gipper remind embattled conservatives of better days and reflect the feeling of disorientation that many on the Right now feel.

A more subtle ingredient in this mix has been the efflorescence in the past decade of historical scholarship about American conservatism since World War II—much of it written by young liberal historians. This is not necessarily a sign of declension, but it certainly testifies to the growing passage of time: the conservative movement has now been around long enough to be the object of academic inquiry. To put it another way, modern American conservatism—a marginalized orphan in academia when I began research on it a generation ago—has become middle-aged. Which, of course, raises the uncomfortable question: are old age and remarginalization just around the corner? [...]

[I]n their obsession with the sound and fury of the stormy present, it is easy for conservatives to overlook and undervalue one of their most impressive achievements during the past forty years: the creation of a veritable conservative counterculture, a burgeoning infrastructure of alternative media, foundations, research centers, think tanks, publishing houses, law firms, homeschooling networks, and more. From the Beltway to the blogosphere, these clusters of purposeful energy continue to multiply and flourish. From the perspective of a historian, this flowering of applied conservatism, this institutionalization of conservative ideas, is a remarkable intellectual and political development.

Think of it: when Richard Weaver was writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, the number of publicly active, professedly conservative intellectuals in the United States was minuscule: perhaps a few dozen at most. Today how can we even begin to count? Since 1980 prosperity has come to conservatism and, with it, a multitude of niche markets and specialization on a thousand fronts.

Does this mean that all is well in the conservative parallel universe? Not necessarily. A few months ago the neoconservative columnist David Brooks accused the conservative think tanks of being “sclerotic.” Other conservatives have quoted Eric Hoffer’s pungent aphorism that every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and then a racket. Still, the fruit of a generation of successful conservative institution-building appears to have reached a critical mass that is unlikely to crumble anytime soon. This augurs well for the continued influence of conservatism on our national conversation.

A third source of durability for conservatives is this: on the home front, the cohesion that was once supplied by Cold War anticommunism has increasingly come from another “war,” one that seems integral to the identity of most Americans on the Right. This is the so-called culture war, pitting an alliance of conservative Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Orthodox Jewish believers against a post-Judeo-Christian, even anti-Christian, secular elite whom they perceive to be aggressively hostile to their deepest convictions. Every day fresh tremors break out along this fault line—over abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, gay marriage, and the composition of the federal courts. It is a struggle literally over the meaning of right and wrong, a battle (for conservatives) against what Pope Benedict has called “the tyranny of relativism.”

The problem is somewhat different than stated here, it is that conservatism is no longer the counterculture but the culture. This is why the natural divisions within the Right have come to the fore since The End of History. They have been exacerbated by the moderation/conservatism of the two Democrat presidents we've had since then. Where the broad conservative side of the spectrum was once held together by its uniform opposition to a Soviet-friendly American Left, activist Supreme Court, and Great Society liberal policies, there is nothing and no one left for everyone to unite against domestically.

There was high hope that Islamicism might afford a replacement, but 9-11 was a one off and you weren't going to get libertarians, Realists and paleocons to care about democratic reforms in the Muslim world. After all, they'd only supported the Cold War--and even that waveringly--because their foes on the domestic Left liked at least playing footsie with Marxism.

Likewise, there was nothing but disappointment for those who prepared to defend capitalism against the Keynesians in the wake of the credit crunch. The Death of Capitalism meme died even faster than the Death of Conservative one had, with the stimulus earning little but revulsion from the public.

Meanwhile, the media has become so diffused that conservative voices are easily heard, the Court has become so conservative that Reagan appointees are the moderates, and the great accomplishments of the Clinton Era are Welfare Reform, the budget surplus, GATT and NAFTA and President Obama's signal achievement is the twenty year old GOP plan for requiring private health insurance.

So in the absence of anything for everyone to be against, each branch of the conservative movement is liberated to follow its own path. And as each twines in on itself any deviation from that particular path can be fought with the same ferocity that used to be generally reserved for those on the Left. Feeding the fury is the fact that the mainstream of conservatism (as represented by the Republican Party base) is now in broad agreement with much of the Democratic Party base, because it has been shifted Right. So when a George W. Bush pursues compassionate conservatism--maintaining the Welfare State but making it Free Market oriented--or a freedom agenda--pushing universal democratization--or a culture of life--stem cells, abortion, marriage, euthanasia, etc.--the opposition from various wings on the Right is just as loud and impassioned as that on the far Left.

This is the reason that the leaderships of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, W, John Howard, and the like have crashed on the shoals of their own parties, not of the opposing. The sort of Third Way governance that the political center of the Anglosphere demands and rewards at the polls is anathema to many of the professionals, pundits, and ideologues of both Left and Right. These leaders win by running on Third Way reforms, replacing parties that are stuck in or have reverted to First or Second Way rhetoric (they can almost never enact policies), and are temporarily followed out of sheer gratitude. But as they enact reforms they end up losing support from their own, who find such compromise intolerable.

This see-sawing in our politics will continue until one side or the other can make the intellectual leap of accepting that we're never going back to the old ways (or the older). And whoever gets there first will dominate the political scene for quite some time. Here in the States, the GOP is particularly well positioned to make the transition, because the party membership are so heavily religious. In particular, a GOP that welcomed the generally religious Latino and black populations would be virtually unbeatable. And because so much of the Third Way is built around offering opportunities for wealth creation the alliance is even more natural. It is this coming shift in the GOP that causes many on the Right to oppose immigration who would normally be expected to celebrate the free market and free movement of peoples.

Happily, it is the GOP electorate that chooses the Party's presidential nominee, not the Beltway types, and the latter are always shocked by the conservatism of the former. We may not know exactly who will be chosen in this first genuinely open Republican primary season, but we know the general outline: it will be a Christian/social conservative governor. Thus, we know that the loudest voices in the movement will be disappointed yet again, though the national electorate will demonstrate its approval at the polls.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 8, 2010 9:04 AM
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