The following is the first in a series of blog posts on “What Ails Conservatism.” It is inspired by George Packer’s brilliant New Yorker essay where he traced “The Fall of Conservatism” from its initial electoral successes under Nixon to what most observers believe is its collapse under George Bush.
This first part is a critique of Packer’s essay by other conservatives as well as some of my own thoughts regarding one of Packer’s major themes – namely, that conservatism’s electoral success has been built on the politics of resentment and polarization.
Believing that we can roll back the size of government and make it “small” is a pipe dream and, along with the idea that we can demand government do a million things and not raise the taxes to pay for them as well as ask government to protect us from impersonal corporations who seek to destroy competition, exploit workers, endanger our environment, foist their dangerous products on us, and generally wreak havoc on our lives and families without someone looking over their shoulder is absurd.
The idea that the market will fix dangerous working conditions for miners or force companies to end exploitive work rules and policies in service industries is just not tenable in a 21st century industrialized democracy. Neither will the market clean up toxic waste, sensibly protect the environment, establish minimum standards for drinking water and breathable air, or ensure that some of the remaining green places left in the United States can be enjoyed by our grandchildren.
These are not luxuries that we can afford to privatize or do without. They are as vital to our survival as the new Air Force fighter being developed. The question that should occupy conservatives is not whether we should have strict standards for drinking water but rather how do we reconcile conservative principles with the needs of the people in a modern society?
(Rick Moran, 10/23/07)
According to Buchanan, who was the White House communications director in Reagan’s second term, the President once told his barber, Milton Pitts, “You know, Milt, I came here to do five things, and four out of five ain’t bad.” He had succeeded in lowering taxes, raising morale, increasing defense spending, and facing down the Soviet Union; but he had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched. And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state. Wilentz notes that he presided over a period of corruption and favoritism, encouraging hostility toward government agencies and “a general disregard for oversight safeguards as among the evils of ‘big government.’ ” In this, and in a notorious attempt to expand executive power outside the Constitution—the Iran-Contra affair—Reagan’s Presidency presaged that of George W. Bush.
After Reagan and the end of the Cold War, conservatism lost the ties that had bound together its disparate factions—libertarians, evangelicals, neoconservatives, Wall Street, working-class traditionalists. Without the Gipper and the Evil Empire, what was the organizing principle? In 1994, the conservative journalist David Frum surveyed the landscape and published a book called “Dead Right.” Reagan, he wrote, had offered his “Morning in America” vision, and the public had rewarded him enormously, but in failing to reduce government he had allowed the welfare state to continue infantilizing the public, weakening its moral fibre. That November, Republicans swept to power in Congress and imagined that they had been deputized by the voters to distill conservatism into its purest essence. Newt Gingrich declared, “On those things which are at the core of our philosophy and on those things where we believe we represent the vast majority of Americans, there will be no compromise.” Instead of just limiting government, the Gingrich revolutionaries set out to disable it. Although the legislative reins were in their hands, these Republicans could find no governmental projects to organize their energy around. David Brooks said, “The only thing that held the coalition together was hostility to government.”
(George Packer, 5/20/08)
The election of 1948 was turning into a nightmare for Democrats. Their convention saw a Southern walkout against a liberal civil rights plank pushed through by the young, energetic mayor of Minneapolis Hubert Humphrey (“[T]he time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”)
Meanwhile, on his left flank, President Truman had to deal with one of the more prickly personalities of 20th century politics in Henry Wallace. The former Vice President under FDR was an unreconstructed socialist who was unhappy with Truman’s lack of committment to the more liberal domestic ideas being pushed by Wallace’s enthusiastic followers and decided to run for president himself on the Progressive Party ticket.
Faced with a three way split of his own party, Truman decided to not only make the Republican Congress (a majority achieved in 1946) the issue but also build resentment against the “barons of privilege” represented, he said, by his opponent New York Governor Thomas Dewey.
It was not the first time the Democrats used class warfare as a wedge issue to divide the electorate and appeal to a coalition first constructed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. It was “us” (ordinary Americans) versus “them” (the GOP “establishment”) and despite the divisions in the party, the old coalition held and Truman was elected by a comfortable margin. Using highly personal attacks on Dewey and the Republicans, Truman earned the nickname “Give ‘em hell, Harry.” The president gave the Republicans “hell” and then some, tying their “do nothing” Congress to the idea that they were out of touch with what ordinary Americans needed, that they were elitist, rich snobs, born to privilege and lacking in compassion.
I use this example from 1948 to try and illustrate some facts that Mr. Packer left out of his critique of conservatism’s electoral success. In fact, Packer writes his brilliant essay as if the entire modern history of conservatism and the GOP took place in a vacuum; that much of the strategy and many of the ideas that resulted in conservative victories at the polls were not a reaction to what the Democrats had been doing to the GOP in electoral politics for the previous 40 years encompassing their most successful period in history.
I suppose in a piece dedicated to chronicling the fall of conservatism that such details regarding the way both parties use voters’ resentments to win elections are unnecessary since Packer was looking exclusively at conservatism. But the explanation he seems to be offering as to why the GOP “Southern Strategy” and “Positive Polarization” became buzzwords posits the notion that these are concepts that have “helped the Republicans win one election after another—and insured that American politics would be an ugly, unredeemed business for decades to come.”
I’ve got news for Mr. Packer; American politics has always been an “ugly, unredeemed business.” To actually believe that the politics of fear, of division, or deliberately appealing to racial differences and divisions is something invented by Nixon and the Republicans is absurd.
In fact, I could argue that politics today is cleaner, more uplifting, less personal than the battle royales of elections past. Examine some of the post Civil War elections during the Gilded Age and you will find not only outright lies being circulated in newspapers owned by both parties but rank appeals to racism, a nauseating, virulent strain of populism that threatened violence against the middle class, and a frank discussion of the inferiorities found in various immigrant groups. And always, lurking in the background of the anti-immigrant message was the eternal Jew and his “control” of banks and money lending.
In the end, Packer’s omissions about the origins of today’s politics skew his entire narrative toward a view I found shockingly common among left wing analyses of his essay; that these tactics are unique to the right and that because they are employed by conservatives that they represent a strain on the right that will do “anything” to elect their candidates. Or what one armchair psychologist referred to as “an essentially nihilist politics of vicious opportunism, where the entire goal is power for its own sake.” Considering how much conservatism has altered the landscape in America, “for its own sake” rings hollow indeed. The road to power is always run with a mixed bag of good intentions and self-aggrandizement. It’s what gives politics its charm and attracts not only the wide eyed reformers but the gimlet eyed operators.
Conservatives plead guilty to doing anything necessary to win – as should those who deliberately tell seniors that Republicans want to take away their social security checks or run commercials in African American communities hinting that the GOP wants to reimpose Jim Crow. Doing “anything” to win is what elections are all about – have always been about in America.
Should there be a better way? Of course. But no one – not even the New Messiah – has ever run a campaign that doesn’t try and raise the temperature of the voter by bringing their resentments and fears to the surface so they can be flogged until the voter is sufficiently motivated to vote against one candidate and not for another.
But this is really just a symptom of what ails conservatism according to Packer. He’s dead right. And so much of what the author identifies as signposts on the way down for the right is so true that one can make no argument about his diagnoses: that modern conservatism is basically a negative ideology in that through its hostility to government – all government – its draconian social strictures (most notably against abortion and gay marriage), its hyper partisanship, and its encouraging the belief that liberals are immoral, unpatriotic, anti-Americans, conservatism’s claim to governance has run its course and the American people are ready for a change.
Packer is not saying anything new in his essay. Indeed, he quotes from several recent books (Packer did not quote from Without a Conscience, John Dean’s lengthy tome purporting to show the right is in love with authoritarianism and dictatorship perhaps because serious problems have been found with the methodology used by the authors of the study on which the book is based.) written by serious historians who themselves aggregate many of the concepts about the fall of the right gleaned from other sources. Packer’s brilliance – as with all great writers – lies in the way he organizes the material and intersperses personal anecdotes taken from interviews done with both old and new conservatives.
Conservative reaction to Packer’s piece has been off the mark and generally feeble. James Joyner is the only one on the right I’ve seen who has made an effort to analyze Packer’s piece in depth. Most have sniped at Packer by tearing a small piece away from the whole and calling him out for one sin or another while missing the overall.
Pronouncing the death of political movements is a facile thing, especially when one appears as down in the mouth as conservatism appears at this moment. But in truth, it’s not conservatism that’s down in the mouth, but the politicians and the party that conservatives entrusted to carry out conservative principles that are in peril.
Much of Packer’s article focuses on political tactics and strategy, particularly the uniquely craven ones devised and implemented by Richard Nixon and a young Pat Buchanan. What Packer never completely acknowledges is that politics is supposed to be only the means, not the ends. One of the reasons so many nostalgic conservatives tiresomely invoke Ronald Reagan is that Reagan often seems like the last successful Republican politician to fully personify that standard. Not only did Reagan come to office with a full set of conservative principles to guide him, he only sought office because his passion for those principles compelled him to do so.
I think Goldfarb is making Packer’s point perfectly while not seeing the nose in front of his face. Yes it is conservative ideology that has fallen – and for exactly the reason Goldfarb inadvertently gives; its ideas were fresh 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan ran for president but stale as 3 week old bread today.
The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing—despite being despised by significant voices on the right—shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces. “The fact that there was no conventional, establishment, old-style conservative candidate was not an accident,” Brooks said. “Mitt Romney pretended to be one for a while, but he wasn’t. Rudy Giuliani sort of pretended, but he wasn’t. McCain is certainly not. It’s not only a lack of political talent—there’s just no driving force, and it will soften up normal Republicans for change.”
On May 6th, Newt Gingrich posted a message, “My Plea to Republicans: It’s Time for Real Change to Avoid Real Disaster,” on the Web site of the conservative magazine Human Events. The former House Speaker warned, “The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Reverend Wright, or (if Senator Clinton wins) anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail.” Gingrich offered nine suggestions for restoring the Republican “brand”—among them “Overhaul the census and cut its budget radically” and “Implement a space-based, G.P.S.-style air-traffic control system”—which read like a wonkish parody of the Contract with America. By the next morning, the post had received almost three hundred comments, almost all predicting a long Republican winter.
Yuval Levin, a former Bush White House official, who is now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, agrees with Gingrich’s diagnosis. “There’s an intellectual fatigue, even if it hasn’t yet been made clear by defeat at the polls,” he said. “The conservative idea factory is not producing as it did. You hear it from everybody, but nobody agrees what to do about it.”
Pat Buchanan was less polite, paraphrasing the social critic Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
And in this piece I did for PJ Media on ridding the conservative movement of Reagan’s ghost, I make the argument that the only way for the right to move forward is to move on:
The Democrats faced a similar dilemma back in the 1960’s and 70’s with the haunting presence of Franklin Roosevelt hanging over the party. The perceived commitment of FDR to the less fortunate among us allowed the Democrats to invoke his name while opening the floodgates of government spending on social programs. The debate back then was not whether a program for the poor should be passed, but rather how much we should be spending to fund it. And the party continued that kind of suicidal rhetoric well into the 1980’s until the Reagan revolution squelched it for good.
Might the Republicans be in similar danger with their reliance on the Reagan legacy to win elections and run the government? The Reagan leadership personae has moved from fond memory into the realms of myth and legend. This makes us forget certain inconvenient truths about those years such as huge deficits and the leadership failures brought to light in the Iran-Contra imbroglio. There is much good to take away from that time. But how much of the good can be transported to the present and grafted on to the current Republican party and the ideological movement that is conservatism?
Reagan stands a silent sentinel over the modern GOP, still evoking powerful emotions and loyalty among conservatives. Perhaps it is time to carefully place his legacy and memory in our national treasure chest, taking them out on occasion to examine them for the lessons we can learn rather than pushing that legacy front and center in a futile attempt to recapture the power and the glory of days long gone and a time that will never come again.
Indeed, it may be that all of us – Packer included – are confusing the GOP with conservatism. Michelle Malkin and others make that point. Packer responds in a follow up article by saying:
Here are a few conservative replies to my article “The Fall of Conservatism,” by Yuval Levin, Michelle Malkin, the editors of the New York Sun, and Andrew Sullivan. The first three defend conservatism from the charge of being “brain dead” by pointing, basically, at themselves or people like them, and adding that liberalism isn’t exactly throbbing with vitality these days. Readers can decide whether Malkin, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Powerlineblog.com, and Senator Lieberman are indicators of a movement on the rise. All three responses have the air of protesting too much; they remind me of the mocking self-satisfaction of liberals when the water was rising around them in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties.
And the New York Sun responds to Packer by basically saying conservatives don’t need new ideas, the old ones are just fine thanks:
What the New Yorker calls a lack of “fresh thinking” may be a surfeit of abiding principles and enduring ideas. The Bible is thousands of years old. The capitalism of Adam Smith is hundreds of years old. Freedom is as universal and God-given a right today as it was when it was set forth in the Declaration of Independence. What matters is less whether the ideas are “fresh” than whether they are correct. And the latest panic of beltway Republicans or New Yorker writers notwithstanding, the view from these columns is that the death of conservatism has been greatly exaggerated.
I will say this to all my friends on the right; the point is not whether conservative principles are in need of overhauling. Capitalism, freedom, belief in a just God, even American exceptionalism don’t need to be tossed out or given a scrub and repackaged with some kind of snappy jingle to accompany them. These principles are timeless, have born the test of time and cannot be abridged or destroyed because of some temporary electoral setbacks.
It is not Packer who is confused. It is all those who talk about the conservative movement and confuse it with the philosophy of conservatism who are in need of being straightened out. Sean Hannity is not conservatism. Ann Coulter is certainly not conservatism. They use conservatism as a slot machine – put in a few raggedy ideas, pump the handle, and out pours a book or two that sells well, gets the author notoriety, and creates legions of worshipful fans who salivate at the opportunity to buy the next book.
In fact, a big part of the problem is that the Coulters dominate the movement while the principles espoused by people like Buckley, Kirk, and Kristol end up being ignored. I put it thusly a few months ago:
The disconnect I speak of above arises from the cage that Republican candidates have been placed in by the various factions of conservatism that makes them slaves to an agenda that is out of date, out of touch, and after 2008, there’s a good chance that it will lead to Republicans being out of luck.
Breaking out of that cage will be difficult unless the party continues to lose at the polls. And part of that breaking free will be making the Reagan legacy a part of history and not a part of contemporary Republican orthodoxy. The world that Reagan helped remake is radically different than the one we inhabit today and yet, GOP candidates insist on invoking his name as if it is a talisman to be stroked and fondled, hoping that the magic will rub off on them. Reagan is gone and so is the world where his ideas resonated so strongly with the voters.
But Reagan’s principles remain with us. Free markets, free nations, and free men is just as powerful a tocsin today as it was a quarter century ago. The challenge is to remake a party and the conservative movement into a vessel by which new ideas about governing a 21st century industrialized democracy can be debated, adopted, and enacted. Without abandoning our core beliefs while redefining or perhaps re-imagining what those beliefs represent as a practical matter, conservatism could recharge itself and define a new relationship between the governed and the government.
But before reform comes the fall. And even if, as Yglesias believes is possible, the party and the movement are able to limp along for a few years with a cobbled together coalition, eventually the piper must be paid and the wages earned. It won’t be a quick or easy process. But it will happen nonetheless. And out of the bitterness and recriminations will emerge a different Republican party, animated by conservative principles and true to a legacy that has as its foundation a belief in individual liberty and personal responsibility.
Packer’s analysis of what ails conservatism is generally correct. And it is troubling to see so many front line conservatives either dismiss what he has to say or ignore it altogether.
To my mind, we are at exactly the point that the left was in 1980 – one reason this election is beginning to stink like a landslide for the Democrats all around. We are mostly running on the past without a clue about how to address the concerns of voters today. Where liberals were still evoking FDR in the 1980 election we are still praying for a Reagan to save us. Where liberals still believed they could propose massive new government spending programs back in 1980 (much less than the modest $800 billion over 5 years asked by Obama) conservatives today believe that we can continue to get by without addressing health insurance, wage inequality, inequitable trade agreements, and yes, climate change.
We are the dinosaur watching the comet streak toward the surface of the earth without a clue as to what is about to hit us. How we deal with the coming cataclysm will determine how long we spend wandering in a blighted wilderness.
Next on 5/31: Russ Kirk and I go to war.