Another in my series of puny attempts to dissect what’s wrong with modern conservatism. Part II will appear tomorrow.
I debated whether or not to make this a piece about “some conservatives” eschewing reality for an alternate universe or if I should make it about much of modern conservatism’s disconnect from the reality of 21st century America.
In the end, I think it is more important to look at how conservatism as a philosophy has closed itself off so thoroughly from uncomfortable and inconvenient truths about America. The fringe players in the movement with their litmus tests and dreams of going bear hunting with Sarah Palin are not really the problem as I see it.
Their worldview, shaped as it is by wallowing in the echo chamber of conservative media, and warped by a naive and ultimately uninformed ideological prism through which they spout nonsensical, paranoid conspiracies, may be relevant to the political health of the right but has little to do with the breakdown of conservatism as a governing philosophy itself.
In this case, it is conservatism losing its ability to question itself in a rigorous and punishing manner, preferring to maintain a comfort zone in which certain shibboleths of the past rest easily on the mind and prevent the kind of examination of underlying assumptions that any set of philosophical principles needs to maintain touch with the real world.
One might argue that the problem is really with people who hold to those philosophical principles and their refusal to challenge their beliefs. I don’t think this is necessarily true. You can’t sneeze these days without tripping over someone on the right indulging in the kind of “Woe is us” pontificating. I should know. I do it often enough. One would think with all this angst, some truths about why conservatism is where it is today and how it got there would emerge. So far, I have been unimpressed.
There have been some valiant attempts, most notably after Sam Tannenhaus’s Death of Conservatism was published. Rejecting much of Tannenhaus’s critique (as most conservatives should), the author nevertheless wallops a couple of extra base hits while socking at least one, long home run in his analysis; that modern movement conservatism isn’t very conservative at all in that it seeks to overthrow the social order rather than conserve what is best about America while channeling change into productive venues consistent with tradition and the Constitution.
Tannenhaus refers to these right wingers as “revanchists.” Indeed, there is a strong impulse even among so called “reasonable conservatives” that FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society need to be repealed or drastically curtailed. In it’s place? There things get kind of fuzzy but what emerges from many conservatives is some kind of “super federalism” where a souped up 10th Amendment would give us 50 different EPA’s or worse, where “market forces” would solve the problems of clean air and clean water.
That’s just one example, of course. And I should hasten to add that any good conservative supports a reasonable brand of federalism, not to mention a prudent regard for liberty and the taxpayer’s money that would force us to question the efficacy of hundreds if not thousands of federal programs. But, what many of the revanchists seek is not a “return” to first principles in the Constitution but rather a form of government more akin to an Articles of Confederation on steroids.
Another Tannenhaus point scored deals with the notion that movement conservatives positively hate government - government of any kind. It goes far beyond the healthy suspicion that all conservatives should possess of the positive impact government programs can have on society, and devolves into paranoia about any government program or effort to address stubborn national problems.
Here is where conservatism itself goes off the rails and feeds this paranoia, preventing conservative ideas from being brought to bear on national issues like health care, immigration, loss of industry, globalization, and adequate, sensible regulation of everything from financial institutions to the environment.
For it is not necessarily people who have become hostile to government but rather conservatism as a governing philosophy that has walled itself into a corner, refusing to confront a modern America that is less white, less agrarian, more urbanized, more technical, and developing a growing tolerance for government solutions to prickly, systemic problems experienced by ordinary Americans.
That last is the killer. Since the end of World War II and the rise of modern conservatism, it is been de rigueur for the right to promote the idea that government can be cut down to size, shrunk to an ill-defined outline that bears more of a resemblance to 19th century America than a modern society with all the miseries and challenges that reality entails.
The thrust of conservative critiques of the welfare state from Hayek to Kirk to Reagan has been that government is bigger than it should be as a result of it trying to do more than is necessary for the functioning of a constitutional republic. Indeed, a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution would cause anyone to question the manufactured justifications for everything from overly zealous government interference in commerce to the legislating of cultural issues from the bench. Conservatives rightly believe that “original intent” are not dirty words and that First Principles are in many ways as valid today as they were 220 years ago.
But over the decades, conservatism lost its flexibility in delineating a coarse ideology from this philosophy. By this I mean that conservatism has eschewed thoughtfulness for conformity. I’m not sure if you can actually pinpoint a moment where ideology trumped reason, although my personal line in the sand was the 1992 Republican convention and the rise of the culture warriors.
But that may have been the denouement to a decade or more of slow rot eating away at the foundations of a carefully nurtured worldview that fought for principle while recognizing that America was changing and that conservatism as a governing philosophy must change with it. The idea of reforming government - Reagan’s grand notion of a New Federalism, lower taxes, fewer regulations, and freer people - died in the fires of a cultural backlash that has come to define modern conservatism.
This is where conservatism lost touch with reality. The moment that the war itself became more important than the principles espoused, all semblance of rationality was tossed out the window and in its stead arose a mindless, knee jerk opposition to government and, of course, the left. As the living embodiment of Big Government, liberals became an enemy and not the political opposition. Rather than fighting to apply conservative principles to the art and artifice of government, the right chose to immolate reason, and turn its back on the reality of modern American in order to destroy their enemies.
As practiced by the most influential conservatives today, this is what passes for conservative thought. Tannenhaus correctly surmised that movement conservatism has won the battle against the pragmatists and now dominates the conservative discussion. I don’t agree with what he believes this fact necessarily portends for the future - a continued decline in influence and relevance of the right. In fact, as I will show tomorrow, there is cause for some hope that younger, more intellectually muscular conservatives who are questioning everything while searching for a new conservative paradigm that would re-integrate movement conservatives into a re-energized whole, may be the beginning of a conservative revival.
Tomorrow: Reports of the death of Culture 11 have been greatly exaggerated.