The End Of Conservatism

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

POLITICS AUGUST 31, 1992

The End Of Conservatism

When conservatives repeatedly declare that George
Bush's failures as president are the result of
his having spurned their ideas and movement, they are harboring illusions born of
their fleeting success under Ronald Reagan. In fact, the
conservative movement that carried Reagan to victory barely exists any longer;
it has dissipated into various cantankerous and confused factions; and the
ideas associated with it have become obsolete, discredited, or heavily in
dispute among conservatives themselves.

It is not even clear any longer what it would mean for
Bush to follow conservatives' advice. Should he listen to Massachusetts
Governor William Weld or the Rev. Pat Robertson on the
subject of abortion and family values? Should
he give priority to Jack Kemp's proposals for cutting taxes or to Senator Phil
Gramm's urgings to reduce the budget deficit?
Should he pay attention to Representative Vin Weber's words on free trade or to
Pat Buchanan's warnings about unfair Japanese trade tactics? Should he derive
his foreign policy from Commentary or Chronicles?

As a generic political category, of
course, conservatives have not disappeared from American politics. Indeed,
there have always been politicians and intellectuals in America who
could be described as "conservatives" -- from John Adams and Daniel
Webster to Irving Babbitt and Robert Taft -- but until the
mid-1950s there was no common body of
"conservative" political ideas or any movement that was called
"conservative." Instead, conservatives and the
right consisted of disconnected and often feuding
factions that could claim few common causes.

What has happened over the last five
years is that American conservatives -- who created a coherent movement about
thirty-five years ago and won national power in 1980 -- have slipped back into the
chaos and impotence that prevailed before the mid-'50s.
They now bear far more resemblance to the
conservatives of 1952 than to the
conservatives of 1964 or 1980. And that, perhaps, is the
real reason for Bush's sputtering administration.

In the early 1950s the
different factions that were identified with the right or
with conservatives included isolationists strongly opposed to American
participation in nato and to American entry into the Korean War;
protectionists favoring the retention of
the prohibitive Smoot-Hawley tariff; nativists,
anti-Semites, and racists worried about the subversion of
white, Anglo-Saxon Christian culture; anti-democratic, neo-feudal, and
neo-Confederate reactionaries railing against urban industrialism; small
businessmen worried that the New and Fair Deals
represented the first step toward a Soviet America;
libertarians distrustful of a new national security
state; McCarthy and McCarthyite anti-Communists fearful that the United States
was about to be taken over by the world Communist
conspiracy; and Ivy League Republicans who called themselves the
"new conservatives" and favored a moderate politics modeled on Burke
and Disraeli.

There was an impassable gulf between the
Burkean conservatism of
McGeorge Bundy or Robert Taft (who sponsored a public housing bill and rejected
the label "conservative") and the
racist populism of Gerald L.K. Smith; but there was
also a chasm between the libertarians and the
McCarthyites and between the isolationists and the
anti-Communist internationalists. In the 1952
presidential election, conservatives and the right were
deeply split over Eisenhower and Taft. Much of the
old right favored Taft while the new
anti-Communists, including McCarthy, Whittaker Chambers, and Barry Goldwater,
supported Eisenhower. Some Southern conservatives, concerned about the
Republican Party's ties to Lincoln,
even backed Adlai Stevenson. The right in 1952 was
all cacophony and no melody.

Yet a decade later a powerful and recognizable
conservative movement had come into being. It got its name from Russell Kirk's The
Conservative Mind, but it derived its thrust largely from the
efforts of an improbable group of
former leftists and of William F. Buckley Jr.'s National
Review. These conservatives located the new movement on the
right wing of America's
cold war internationalist consensus -- a consensus based on the
idea that democratic America
was the leader of a free world
alliance against world communism. To achieve this redefinition, the
new conservatives had to demonstrate the overarching
importance of the Communist
threat; they also had to kick the isolationists,
protectionists, anti-Semites, and nativists out of their movement.

No book was more important in establishing the
new movement's understanding of communism than
Chambers's Witness. In this memoir of his experience as
a Communist spy, Chambers portrayed the struggle against
communism as an apocalyptic battle of good against evil
and God against Satan. At the same time, he
drew an intimate connection between the struggle against
communism and that against Democratic liberalism. "When I took up my
little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else," Chambers
wrote. "What I hit was the force of
that great Socialist revolution which in the name of
liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the
same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for
two decades." Three decades later Ronald Reagan could still recite by
heart this passage from Witness.

Chambers, McCarthy, James Burnham, and Richard Nixon
made the conservative case for an internationalist strategy
against communism and for the creation of
a national security leviathan. Buckley at National Review was singularly
responsible for distinguishing the new conservatives
-- who included Jews and Irish Catholics in their leadership -- from the
nativists and anti-Semites of the
old right. In 1959 Buckley announced that anyone on the masthead of
National Review could not also be on the masthead of
the increasingly anti-Semitic American Mercury and that
National Review's editors would no longer write for the magazine.
Applauding Buckley's move, Chambers wrote him, "Now what is good and
strong outside us can draw to us. The dregs will be
drawn to the dregs, and sink where they
belong."

The new conservative movement
contained different factions within it, but they were always subordinated to the
larger anti-Communist, anti-liberal consensus that Chambers had first sketched
out. The new conservatives included New Deal critics like Milton
Friedman who had nonetheless embraced the New Dealers'
free trade economics; traditionalists like Kirk who were worried about the
moral corruption engendered by the spread of
market values; and defenders of the
racial status quo such as Virginian James J. Kilpatrick, who attacked Brown v.
Board of Education in the name of
states' rights. These intellectuals influenced a new generation of
politicians led by Goldwater, and the politicians in
turn mediated between the intellectuals and the
general electorate.

Goldwater, for instance, began as a conventional small
business conservative -- more concerned about Walter Reuther than Nikita
Khrushchev -- but was molded by Buckley's brother-in-law Brent Bozell (who
ghosted Goldwater's 1960 classic Conscience of a
Conservative) into a militant anti-Communist. Then, when Goldwater ran for
president in 1964, conservatives discovered from his vote that conservatism
had its most loyal following among Deep South
whites opposed to the civil rights movement.

Over the next two decades,
the movement adopted new political strategies and
incorporated new constituencies without altering its underlying worldview. What
Kevin Phillips first called the "New
Right" represented a change in political tactics rather than philosophy.
Inspired by Goldwater's showing and by George Wallace's success among Northern
as well as Southern whites, New Right activists such as Richard Viguerie and
Paul Weyrich called for conservatives to use social issues to lure erstwhile
Democrats into supporting candidates who upheld the core
conservative convictions about communism and liberalism. In 1978 Howard
Phillips, a Jew, convinced Protestant fundamentalists to set up the
Moral Majority.

The neoconservatives, identified
most closely with Norman Podhoretz's Commentary and Irving Kristol's The
Public Interest, blunted the older right's hostility to the
New Deal, making affirmative action and the Office of
Economic Opportunity rather than Social Security and the
Tennessee Valley Authority the objects of
conservatives' wrath. The supply-side economists and
their supporters at The Wall Street Journal invented an
economics that they claimed would allow conservatives to cut taxes for the
upper and middle classes without increasing the deficit.
Echoing John Kennedy, they promised that their rising fiscal tide would lift
all boats.

In 1980 the conservatives'
message, transmitted by Reagan, fit perfectly Americans' growing fears of
national decline: Reagan's militant anti-communism promised to erase the
memory of Vietnam and to counteract a Soviet arms buildup; his
supply-side economics appeared to be the solution to
a decade of Keynesian stagflation; his
opposition to busing and affirmative action a response to the gathering white
backlash; and his support for family and community an answer to two decades of
social and sexual experimentation. Reagan's message, Podhoretz wrote afterward,
was that "the decline of America ... is
a consequence of bad policies pursued by the
government and can therefore be reversed by shifting to other policies."

Reagan's landslide victory seemed to augur the
beginning of a conservative realignment
comparable in depth and scope to the New Deal
realignment of 1932, but the
big shift never took place. Instead, within a decade, the
conservative movement ran aground. For the first time since
1960, the movement had no agreed-upon national leader. Its
factions were not merely feuding but attempting to read each other out of
the movement. And its ties to its popular base were
becoming increasingly tenuous. Why did this occur?

Most obviously, the end
of the cold war removed the
movement's underlying focus and rationale. Without the priority of
national defense, existing squabbles over federal spending, appointments, arts
policy, and school prayer suddenly became major conflicts. More importantly,
older conflicts that had been suppressed or temporarily resolved during the
cold war resurfaced. Conservatives began fighting over foreign aid,
immigration, Israel,
and even Jewish influence in terms little different from 1948. Just as
conservatives like Merwin K. Hart had tried to discredit Roosevelt's
and Truman's policies by associating them with prominent Jews, conservative Pat
Buchanan tried to discredit foreign policy positions by linking them to Jewish
proponents.

The noisiest quarrel occurred between
the conservatives and a group of
traditionalists including Buchanan and Kirk who called themselves
"paleoconservatives." As early as 1982, the two factions
were bickering over who should be appointed to head the National
Endowment for the Humanities, but with the
cold war gone, a typical movement turf battle escalated into an all-out war. The
paleocons accused the neocons of being
crypto-socialists and of mistaking, in Kirk's words,
"Tel Aviv for the capital of the
United States."
Neocon Richard John Neuhaus accused the paleocons of
reviving "the forbidden bigotries once confused
with conservatism."

The movement was further
fragmented rather than unified by paleocon Buchanan's presidential candidacy
this year. The neocons, backed by The
American Spectator and leading congressional conservatives, called on
conservatives to repudiate Buchanan. Human Events and some of
Robertson's lieutenants from 1988 supported Buchanan wholeheartedly. Other
conservative publications and organizations waffled and vacillated. In a
December essay in National Review, Buckley acknowledged that Buchanan's
statements "amounted to anti-Semitism," but on the
eve of the New Hampshire primary, the
magazine, with Buckley's concurrence, urged a "tactical vote" for
Buchanan. The Heritage Foundation's Edwin Feulner
branded both Buchanan's charges against the neocons and
their charges against him "insane."

The movement was equally
afflicted by the failure of conservative
economics to stem the decline of the
American economy. Instead of creating a healthy
prosperity, Reagan's supply-side policies led to a transient debt-driven boom
that was accompanied by record trade and budget deficits and by a slight drop
in real wages. When the recession began, some conservatives
finally acknowledged that the American economy
was in relative decline but insisted that the fault lay in
insufficiently or imperfectly carrying out their prescriptions. They wanted a
return to the gold standard or further reductions
in taxes on the wealthy.

A few others who acknowledged the
decline began to embrace active government intervention in investment and
trade. Conservative business groups like the Business and
Industrial Council called for the government to
protect American manufacturers against cheap foreign imports. The
policy differences between these groups and the
organizations still committed to Reaganomics loomed as large as the
differences between Democrats and Republicans.

In addition, many conservative intellectuals -- and
some political leaders, including Kemp -- simply refused to acknowledge that the
United States
was declining. Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley
maintained that the budget deficits of
the '80s were "grossly overrated" and that the
trade deficits were "meaningless and misleading." George Gilder wrote
an article for Policy Review titled "More Imports, Please." And many of
the neoconservatives, who had been oblivious to economics,
now insisted that the spread of American
democratic ideas and popular culture demonstrated that America was
still on the rise. Writing in Commentary,
however, Francis Fukuyama dismissed these arguments. "As with a star that
has gone supernova," he wrote, "the light
emanating from the United States continues to shine
brightly at the periphery of
the universe, where it is observed by various Russians,
Chinese, Lithuanians, and the like; but the
energy at the core is rapidly
extinguishing."

In the past, heated
debate over these questions might have been a sign of political
health and ferment, but in this case it was not. Like the
conservative debates over Buchanan's anti-Semitism, they were symptomatic of
a movement increasingly trapped within its own past, forced to conduct
strenuous debates in order to demonstrate what was obvious to any outsider not
encumbered by unkept promises and outworn ideological categories.

There has also been a growing gap between conservatives
and their base on such social issues as abortion and parental leave. Of
course, the fit was never perfect. In the
'60s Buckley had opposed state prohibition of abortion;
Reagan, as governor of California, signed one of
the nation's most permissive abortion laws; and the
libertarian Goldwater has always opposed government meddling in personal life.
It was the New Right's success in winning over the
fundamentalists that convinced many conservatives to close ranks around the
evangelicals' view of women and the
family.

But as the fundamentalists,
led by Jerry Falwell and Robertson, formed organizations of
their own and began issuing edicts, running candidates, and taking over local
Republican committees in the name of
God, their support became a distinct liability. The first clear
danger signs came in the 1985 gubernatorial election
in Virginia
when Democratic candidate Gerald Baliles wounded his conservative Republican
opponent simply by accusing him of being linked to the
Virginia-based televangelists. By 1988 Democrats were taking any chance they
could to tie the Republicans to fundamentalists, and
conservative Republicans, once enthusiastic, began to become queasier about
their identification with the movement.

What conservatives were discovering was that they had
aligned themselves with a movement that was genuinely reactionary and that by
its nature would dwindle rather than grow. Since the 1920s
religious fundamentalists have been trying unsuccessfully to reverse the
development of capitalism, which has progressively
freed families and particularly women from centuries of
bondage to home and soil and opened up to the broad middle
classes areas of personal freedom and discretion
previously enjoyed only by the upper classes.

While some older conservatives like Kristol have
increasingly identified with the fundamentalist
critique of modern society -- last year Kristol
published an extended polemic in Commentary against "secular
humanism" -- younger conservatives on campus and on congressional staffs
tend to be far more cosmopolitan in their attitudes. According to one estimate,
about 50 percent of the members of
Ivy League conservative organizations and about 75 percent of
the Washington Bush-Quayle staff are pro-choice. And many Washington conservatives such as Policy Review editor
Adam Meyerson see Massachusetts's
pro-choice, pro-gay rights Governor Weld as a promising presidential choice. If
Weld should run, then conservatives can be expected to begin debating abortion
and even gay rights as heatedly as they now debate immigration or foreign aid.
Still new factions will proliferate.

Some conservatives recognize that their movement has
lost its moorings, but few have any clear answers about what to do next. In the
latest Policy Review, Weber acknowledges an "idea vacuum" among
Republicans and conservatives, but his main answer is for conservatives to
press for a capital gains tax. Most of the
paleoconservatives recognize that Buchanan was not really presidential
material, but without a national leader, they remain a protest movement within
what is rapidly becoming a collection of protest
movements. Acknowledging the absence of
a national leader, Washington Times columnist Sam Francis, the movement's guru,
tries to make a virtue of necessity. "The
definition of right-wing populism is that some guy
comes out of nowhere," he says.

Many younger Washington
conservatives believe that by running for president in 1996, Kemp could revive the
conservative movement. At a private gathering of young
conservatives held last month, the host asked how
many of them would be willing to follow Kemp out of
the Republican Party if he ran. Three-fourths raised their
hands, including several who were working for the Bush-Quayle
campaign. But as Kemp demonstrated in 1988, he may be ill-suited to be a
Republican presidential candidate. His conservative war on poverty has played
poorly among grass-roots Republican audiences, and his continued commitment to
supply-side illusions about the budget and trade
deficit could distance him from almost every other voter.

American Spectator editor Robert Tyrrell's solution to
what he calls the "conservative crack-up"
is an infusion of new belief from converted liberals,
but if anything, the movement of
conversion seems to be going in the other direction.
Several of the movement's
more promising neoconservatives, including Joshua Muravchik of
the American Enterprise Institute and Penn Kemble of
Freedom House, are leaning toward Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Others I have
met are doing so privately.

As Bush enters his last political campaign, he has
suffered as much from the conservatives' decline as
they have from his. Though Bush has hewed a largely independent course on
foreign policy (where he has been most successful as president), he has
shamelessly followed whatever wind is blowing the strongest on
economic and social policy. Conservatives now cite his betrayal of
his promise not to raise taxes as a prime example of his ignoring
their advice, but conservatives were silent between June 1990, when Bush
announced he was breaking his pledge, and October, when the
first budget agreement was introduced. And rightly so, since they had no better
answer for how to reduce the deficit.

Conservatives' repudiation of Bush is part of
their own self-denial. By pretending that he is entirely separate from them,
they can delude themselves into thinking his defeat will not reflect on their
own political future. But it will: Bush lacks a domestic policy, and the
Republicans lack what Weber calls a "coherent national agenda,"
because the conservatives, who provided both
policy and agenda for the party over the
last decade, are no longer capable of doing so.

share this article on facebook or twitter

posted in: politics

print this article

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top

SHARE HIGHLIGHT

0 CHARACTERS SELECTED

TWEET THIS

POST TO TUMBLR

SHARE ON FACEBOOK