There has been much celebratory talk of the end of American conservatism, and not all of it is unjustified. When the last 01.20.09 Euro decal has been peeled from the back of the last VW, the Bush Administration will have left in its wake a tanking economy, a bloated federal government running unprecedented budget deficits, an overworked military fighting an unjust, multi-billion dollar war with a death toll numbering in the thousands, a staggering record of human rights and civil liberties abuses both at home and abroad, and an international reputation seemingly engaged in an ongoing game of limbo (How low can you go?). The script to Bush’s tenure has played out as a sprawling comedy of errors that may end up exceeding in ironic hilarity even that of their most recent predecessors. Meanwhile, floundering somewhere in that legacy will be the sorry, soggy remains of the Republican coalition, the political foot soldiers and government functionaries in whom American conservatives have invested so many of their hopes, votes, dreams, and dollars.
But the death of the political right may be overstated. For one thing, 2008 will almost certainly not be nearly as bad for the Republicans as, say, the 1980 campaign was for the Democrats. In that year, the GOP gained a net of 12 seats in the Senate and 35 in the House while steamrolling over an incumbent presidential candidate who managed to carry only six states and the District of Columbia. There is still a substantial — albeit declining and increasingly disheartened — conservative electoral base. Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, many of the Democrats’ Congressional gains have come by way of candidates who have campaigned – though not always governed – on a message more authentically conservative than that of their Republican counterparts: Travis Childers and Don Cazayoux, for example, who were the talk of the nation after winning House seats in special elections earlier this month, both campaigned as pro-gun and pro-life, while pledging to curtail illegal immigration and balance the federal budget. That they were chosen over representatives of the Party of Bush wasn’t exactly a triumph of progressivism.
Meanwhile, amidst talk of the decaying Republican brand, many overlook the fact that in many areas of political discourse conservatives really do seem to have won the war for the American mind. The days of 70% marginal income tax rates, for example, will now and forever be the province of Europe and the history books. Three in five Americans support school choice, three in four favor some restrictions on abortion, and the same number believe that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own guns. For a Democratic coalition to remain in power for any significant length of time, they will have to retreat on significant stretches of the traditional party line: The last seven years have illustrated well enough that frenetic displays of ideological purity on controversial issues do not make for long-term political dominance.
It is, however, with respect to this last front – the battle of ideas – that many have sounded conservatism’s death knell. The coalition that Barack Obama himself credited with having been the “party of ideas” of the last decade-and-a-half, the movement that began as the project of a bunch of thoughtful, counter-cultural cranks and rose to power within a half a century, is now reduced to churning out books with titles like How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) and If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans, and frantic calls for “real change” like Newt Gingrich’s knee-slapping nine point plan and Sean Hannity’s “Top 10 Items for Victory.” As Yuval Levin told The New Yorker’s George Packer, there is “an intellectual fatigue” among conservatives, “even if it hasn’t yet been made clear by defeat at the polls. The conservative idea factory is not producing as it did. You hear it from everybody, but nobody agrees what to do about it.” If watching the Republican presidential candidates yammer on about the “three-legged stool” didn’t drive this point home for you, the prospect of John McCain trying to debate Barack Obama on anything other than subsidies, earmarks, and the war ought to do the trick.
But intellectual stagnation is not quite the same as total brain death, and in all of this, there may yet be a silver lining. With power comes prestige, and with prestige come corruption and complacency. (As Pat Buchanan puts it to Packer in that same New Yorker essay, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”) If the record of the Bush Administration and its Congressional cheerleaders is any indication of its health, the American conservative movement in its present state is one that needs to grind to a halt, to take stock of what has gone so horribly wrong, to purge itself of the bad elements and seize upon what little is left of the good. Such transformation is, of course, not easy under any circumstances, but it is the sort of thing that is simply impossible for a party in power to undergo. Indeed, one need only witness the remarkable change in tone among many conservative commentators since Rumsfeld and Rove were dumped, the swing of 2006 elections toward the Democrats, and the increasing agreement amongst conservatives that George W. Bush is not, in the present circumstances, much of a political asset for evidence that this transformation is already occurring. By any reasonable measure, the present catastrophe is only a symptom of a much more profound disease. And, as with most great battlefield injuries, the best route to healing will surely be by way of a long period of convalescence.
Such a recovery needs to involve at least two elements. One, as suggested by the quote from Levin, will be a rethinking of conservatism, a more careful consideration both of fundamental principles and – perhaps even more importantly – of what it will mean to put those principles into effect in present circumstances. There needs to be a concerted effort to find ways to explain, aside from rattling off a string of party-line policies about which there is of course considerable intramural disagreement among conservatives, what it is to be conservative, and – by extension – why it is that one ought to adopt such a political stance. From here, diverse, creative, appealing, and genuinely conservative policy proposals need to be put forward that respond in simple yet dynamic ways to the range of issues (health care, economic hardship, environmental degradation, immigration, national defense and foreign affairs, civil liberties, drug policy, familial and social cohesion, and so on) facing our nation. Such soul-searching must not, however, degenerate into mere political strategizing, the hatching of plans to win over the electorate and return conservatives (or at least Republicans) to the halls of power. We already know where that road leads, and, in any case, it is often possible to bring about just as much good with a dynamic and principled opposition as with an empowered and – inevitably – corrupted majority.
Secondly, any conservative re-grouping ought to involve a redirecting of many of our energies toward understanding, enabling, and encouraging the principles of responsible and effective local governance. The increasingly strained mantras of states’ rights and the disemboweling of the great federal Leviathan will lead to nothing better than disaster if the institutions that are thereby to be empowered are not equal to the task. Young, dynamic governors like Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin should be encouraged to remain in their current positions and shore up not only the Republican bases in their respective states, but also the families, communities, cities, and economies of those states themselves. (That Mitt Romney, for all his flaws as a governor and a politician, did not stay another term and continue to do just this is hugely unfortunate.)
When it comes to national governance, the current GOP has demonstrated a level of incompetence that truly boggles the mind. While it is conceivable that the Democrats may do even worse, that is all the more reason to work in the meantime on building and maintaining subsidiary bastions of local engagement – neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, states – to showcase what bottom-up responsibility really comes to. Only by proving that it can govern at the local level will conservatives earn the trust to govern nationally.
One last point. If, as appears likely to say the least, the 2006 elections turn the Presidency over to Barack Obama and extend the Democratic Party’s majorities in the House and Senate, the hope for a real conservative Reformation should be made all the stronger by the fact that campaign contributions to Republican politicians at the federal level are sure to continue to plummet. A movement awash in cash is a movement beholden to interests that are very often not its own, and while there may be nothing wrong with money per se, the extent of corruption and corporate influence in the ultimate undoing of the Republican Machine has been well-documented. As in any tradition of redemptive soul-searching, a bit of material austerity may be just the thing to help set things right. Let’s just hope the current exile to the wilderness lasts a bit less than 40 years.
–John Schwenkler is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He blogs at Upturned Earth.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire