You don’t have to be able to read tea leaves, examine entrails, or count the warts on a horny toad to know that conservatism is headed for a smashing victory in November.
Or is it? Will the coming electoral tidal wave hide deficiencies that have yet to be addressed following a long decade of decline and exhaustion?
What has changed in the intervening months? Certainly, the rising fortunes of the GOP has energized the conservative base and instilled confidence in conservative cadres. But have any of the systemic challenges that faced conservatism following the 2008 electoral debacle been addressed?
Alas, I don’t see it. Indeed, if one were to examine what is shaping up to be the Republican agenda that will be set before the American people in November, you would be excused if you felt like you had to pinch yourself in order to make sure you were not somehow magically transported back to 1980.
Tax cuts. Check. Get government “out of the way.” Check. Less regulation. Check. Cut spending. Check. Reduce the deficit. Check. Maintain a strong defense. Check.
It’s as if the smiling visage of the Gipper himself was standing along side Republican candidates as for the 15th election in a row, some variation of the above agenda is presented as conservatism’s answer to the welfare state coddling of the Democrats and liberals.
To those who might say that conservative principles are timeless and immutable, I would wholeheartedly agree. Except that tax cuts are not a “conservative principle.” Neither is reduced spending, less regulation, or any other issue that currently substitutes for substantive thought on the right.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz crows about the right being back on top:
In late 2008 and early 2009, in the wake of Mr. Obama’s meteoric ascent, the idea that conservatism would enjoy any sort of revival in the summer of 2009 would have seemed to demoralized conservatives too much to hope for. To leading lights on the left, it would have appeared absolutely outlandish.
In late October 2008, New Yorker staff writer George Packer reported “the complete collapse of the four-decade project that brought conservatism to power in America.” Two weeks later, the day after Mr. Obama’s election, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaimed “the end of a conservative era” that had begun with the rise of Ronald Reagan.
And in February 2009, New York Times Book Review and Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, writing in The New Republic, declared that “movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead.” Mr. Tanenhaus even purported to discern in the new president “the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.”
Messrs. Packer, Dionne and Tanenhaus underestimated what the conservative tradition rightly emphasizes, which is the high degree of unpredictability in human affairs. They also conflated the flagging fortunes of George W. Bush’s Republican Party with conservatism’s popular appeal. Most importantly, they failed to grasp the imperatives that flow from conservative principles in America, and the full range of tasks connected to preserving freedom.
What Berkowitz doesn’t mention about those critiques - and many more like it on both the right and the left - is that it appeared at the time that conservatism was a hollowed out shell; that it had lost its vibrancy, it’s vim and vigor. The idea factories were still churning out papers, the intellectuals were still trying to connect history and philosophy to politics and policy, but there was a disconnect between conservative thinkers and doers.
The politicians were less interested in implementing new ideas than in trying to preserve their majorities. The activists - then as now - were more interested in giving litmus tests to candidates and politicians in order to purge those they found less than pure than in working to elect candidates who might have advanced legitimate policy alternatives to the left to deal with real world problems that had festered for decades because conservatism had failed to find a vocabulary to connect ordinary people’s concern’s with government action.
In short, conservatism had exhausted itself. The old verities were still true, and still resonated up to a point with voters. But the world had changed in the intervening 30 years between Reagan and Obama and the right was incapable of articulating how to deal with those changes both philosophically and politically.
“Small government” (and its sister battle cry “smaller government”) was no longer an adhesive that bound the movement conservatives to the libertarians because the hypocrisy of crying for cuts in the size of government when advocating massive government intervention in marriage and family matters drove many libertarians into the waiting arms of the Democrats. That, and the inability of any two conservatives to agree on how to shrink government to make it “smaller” - much less “small” - imparted an incoherence to political conservatism that people gave up trying to understand.
Libertarians are coming back to the GOP in waves because of liberal overreach in implementing Obama’s agenda, while a welcome de-emphasizing of the social issues that drove them away has taken place. Meanwhile, in the hinterlands, GOP governors have experimented with ways to apply a more pragmatic conservatism to make a difference in the lives of their citizens on issues like health care, social policy, and education - issues that heretofore were not considered “conservative” by many on the right, or at least in the way that governors like Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie were choosing to address them. And Representative Paul Ryan has stepped forward with his “Roadmap” to deal with entitlements - the first stirrings of what may be a rallying point for the “young turks” emerging as a force in the Republican party.
All of this is welcome news for the right. But the question I have for Berkowitz and other self congratulatory conservatives is what has changed in the intervening months to make anyone think there has been any kind of a “revival?” Conservative elites are not interested in governors and have been extremely cautious about Rep. Ryan’s admittedly radical ideas. The political class has resisted any kind of change, as evidenced by clinging to the Reagan agenda as if it were a talisman to be stroked and caressed so that whatever magic might be left in the mantra might rub off on them and bring them victory.
The Beck Rally as evidence of conservative revival? Spare me. It may have indicated some kind of effort at religious revival, but please don’t confuse coming back to God with politics.
In other words, when Mormons and evangelicals are at their worst and are indulging their least admirable tendencies to idolize the country at the expense of their religious teachings, there is a chance for them to find common ground. If you think that a serious religious revival in America might have something to do with a spirit of repentance and humility rather than with an extravaganza of validation and national self-congratulation, that is really a very damning indictment of what Beck is doing. As Joe Carter correctly says, “As Moore notes, the problem isn’t really Beck. The problem is believers trading the true faith for the syncretism of Christian-flavored civic religion.”
Religion and politics is a mighty incendiary mixture, and Beck’s sermonizing at the rally evoked unflattering comparisons to Father Coughlin. If Christians want another “Great Awakening,” that’s fine, more power to them. Just don’t try and drag political conservatism along for the ride. While many conservative philosophers believe it necessary for a just moral order to include a belief in God, that does not mean that you set the old fellow alongside conservative candidates during campaigns and use him as bait to capture voters. I’m sure God has better things to do than help elect a GOP majority.
As long as conservative activists and the elites reject the idea that conservatism has an activist role to play in running government; that prudent, practical, reasonable efforts by government to regulate business, protect consumers, care for the poor, ensure access to health care, protect the environment, and carry out the other responsibilities that must be shouldered by a 21st century industrialized democratic government, there will be no “revival” of conservatism except in the overheated imaginations of its ideological adherents.
November 2010 will therefore be a “false dawn” for conservatism. For once a GOP majority takes its seats in Congress (if it does), they are going to have to address the monumental problems facing America today. Looking at what they say they will do to address many of those problems, one wonders if they fully realize how fully out of touch they seem when advocating an agenda that was new when Leonid Brezhnev was in power in the old Soviet Union.