The End of Conservatism?

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The End of Conservatism?

April 27, 2009 16 min read Download Report
Lee Edwards
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought
Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.

The modern conservative movement began as a Remnant with Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov; grew into an intellectual movement with Friedrich Hayek, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk; blossomed into a political movement with William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater; burst into full bloom as a governing movement with Ronald Reagan and The Heritage Foundation and other organizations; succumbed to hubris with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay; imploded under George W. Bush and the neoconservatives; and is now wondering whether it is headed for the ash heap of history.

Let us begin our examination of the state of American conservatism with a little history.

Forty-five years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson won the presidency in a landslide, receiving 61 percent of the popular vote and carrying 44 states for a total of 486 electoral votes. Johnson's coattails were long and wide: Democrats wound up with a two-to-one majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives-- the largest Democratic majority in the House since the high point of the New Deal.

The political historian Theodore White concluded that "the elections of 1964 had left the Republican party in desperate condition."[1] Because Barry Goldwater had run a defiantly conservative campaign from beginning to end, most political experts were quick to second White's bleak assessment of Republicanism and go him one better with regard to the state of American conservatism.

Walter Lippmann, the preeminent pundit of the day, wrote that the returns disproved "there is a great latent majority of 'conservative' Republicans." Author-journalist Robert J. Donovan said that if Republicans are seen to be "the voice of right-wing radicalism," they "will remain a minority party indefinitely." The New York Times's James Reston summed up that "Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election...but the conservative cause as well."[2]

Conservatives dismissed this doomsday analysis. Ronald Reagan, fresh from his widely hailed national television address on behalf of Goldwater, wrote that the landslide majority did not vote against conservatism but against "a false image" of conservatism that "our liberal opponents successfully mounted."

Frank Meyer, the politically astute senior editor of National Review, pointed out that despite the caricature of the conservative cause as "extremist, radical, nihilist, anarchic," two-fifths of the voters voted for the conservative alternative to liberalism.[3] Meyer's implication was clear: You can build a powerful political movement on a foundation of 27 million true believers.

So who was proved more correct in their assessment of the returns--Walter Lippmann or Ronald Reagan?

From Goldwater to Reagan

Reviled and rejected in 1964 as no other presidential candidate in the 20th century--one magazine cover screamed that he was "psychologically unfit" to be President--Barry Goldwater was easily reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 while the President who buried him in an historic landslide dared not seek reelection.

Looking back, we can see that the 1964 election results and the 1965 passage of the Great Society into law marked the apogee of modern liberalism. In 1966, the Republican Party, led by Goldwater conservatives, gained 47 seats in the House of Representatives and three seats in the Senate.

Fifteen years after the so-called Goldwater debacle, Ronald Reagan announced that he would again seek the Republican nomination for President. The immediate reaction of the punditocracy was that Reagan was too old--he was nearly 69--too conservative, and too dumb to be President. How could anyone who had hosted a TV program called "Death Valley Days" cope with the multifaceted responsibilities of the leader of the free world?

The New Republic characterized Reagan as an "ex-movie actor, darling of the rabid international innocent, and an economic extremist." Sociologist Robert Coles called the prospect of Reagan winning the GOP nomination "preposterous," while James Conaway wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that among the news media, the idea of Reagan as President "was more than [they] could bear."[4]

Yet, a decade later, when Ronald Reagan left the White House, historians and politicians poured forth a stream of encomiums about his presidency, citing the restoration of Americans' confidence in themselves, the impressive economic recovery, and the end of the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

Summing up his presidency after his death, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund Morris said, "We know his greatness as a president by what we don't see today.... Where is the Soviet Union? Where is the double-digit inflation? Where is the national malaise?" "On foreign policy," remarked Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy, "[Reagan] will be honored as the president who won the Cold War."

Still, not everyone sang Reagan's praises. The Reagan legacy, said Nobel Prize economist James Tobin, was "a crippled federal government." "I don't think history has any reason to be kind to him," said CBS's Morley Safer.

So who was more correct in their assessment, Morley Safer or Edward Kennedy?

American conservatism has undoubtedly suffered steep ups and downs in the post-World War II period. Indeed, it seemed on the edge of extinction after the crushing defeat of Goldwater in 1964, after Reagan's failure to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, and after Bill Clinton's "Third Way" victory in 1992, but each time conservatism rose from the ashes like the fabled phoenix.

A New Era for Conservatives?

Today, liberal pundits and historians are at it again. Amnesic as ever, they are saying that in the wake of last November's elections, American conservatism is headed for the ash heap of history.

The country is no longer "America the conservative," asserted senior editor John Judis of The New Republic, but "America the liberal."

Barely able to contain herself, the editor of The Nation trumpeted that the election of Barack Obama marked "the collapse of conservatism."

Barack Obama's victory signaled more than "the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology," stated one-time conservative Michael Lind; "it may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States."[5]

Lind's conclusion that the era of conservatism was ended and America was at the beginning of an era of "Hamiltonian centralization and reform" was seconded not only by euphoric liberals, but by anxious conservatives ready to chart a new course even if they were uncertain about the destination.

Former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards has called for a return to the libertarian philosophy of Barry Goldwater. The villain behind the collapse of conservatism, Edwards says, was the coupling of Big Government conservatives and the Religious Right.

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson states that we need compassionate conservatism to confront global AIDS, combat U.S. poverty, and promote human rights abroad. Saying that conservatism without idealism is dead, he lists his heroes: William Lloyd Garrison, William Jennings Bryan, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Paul II--a quartet that has yet to make an appearance at the annual CPAC or the Southern Baptist Convention.

Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan lambastes arrogant neoconservatives and greedy Wall Streeters for leading us astray and sets forth an America First platform.

Cato's David Boaz invokes a plague on both Big Government conservatives and liberals and says that choice is the key--whether you're choosing a church, a school, or a lifestyle.

Let us be clear about one thing: Republicans lost in 2008 and 2006 not because they ran on conservative ideas but because they ran away from conservative ideas.

Needed: An Inclusive Constitutional Conservatism

So what is to be done? I suggest that what is now needed is a politics of inclusion, not exclusion--no casting out of social conservatives or neoconservatives or any other kind of conservative, but a renewed fusionism that will unite all the branches of the now-divided conservative mainstream. I believe that a rejuvenated fusionism can do this by blending the concepts of liberty and order, individual freedom and responsibility, limited government and a strong national defense just as the Founding Fathers did with the checks and balances of the Constitution.

Frank Meyer, the author of the original fusionism and an avowed libertarian, stated that the core principle of his theory was that "the freedom of the person [is] the central and primary end of political society." The state has only three limited functions: national defense, the preservation of domestic order, and the administration of justice between citizens.[6]

But Meyer argued that religious and traditional precepts were needed to undergird freedom, which could not exist on the relativist-materialistic premises of modern thought. In the American experience, liberty and faith are joined, not separated as the secularists have long argued.

Such a constitutional conservatism, in the words of my colleague Matthew Spalding, will unite all conservatives through the natural fusion provided by American principles. It will remind economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, cultural conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to the nation's well-being and proper place in the world.[7]

What all the brave new proposals by anxious conservatives lack is an understanding of the history of modern American conservatism. So how has conservatism survived crisis after crisis for more than 50 years and each time emerged with renewed strength and momentum?

Was it luck? Divine intervention? Well, I believe in providence, but I also believe in free will.

Was each conservative recovery simply part of the pendulum syndrome that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., suggested dominates American politics, swinging left for a generation or so, then right, then left again, ad infinitum? Or is the continuing success and durability of American conservatism due to the conscious acts of individual men and women operating on certain fundamental principles over the course of the past five decades?

The Conservative Ascendancy

Herein, I believe, lies the central reason for the viability of the conservative movement, guided by principles such as limited constitutional government, free enterprise, and traditional American values based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.

The movement has been fortunate--I might even say blessed--to have been led by a remarkable group of philosophers, popularizers, politicians, and philanthropists.

First came the men of ideas, intellectuals and philosophers like Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian-born classical liberal; Russell Kirk, the Midwestern traditionalist; and Whittaker Chambers, the one-time Communist spy turned anticommunist champion.

Next came the men of interpretation, the journalists and popularizers like the polymath William F. Buckley Jr., the columnist and television commentator George Will, and the radio talkmeister Rush Limbaugh.

Last came the men of action, the politicians and policymakers, led by what I call the Four Misters: "Mr. Republican," Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio; "Mr. Conservative," Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona; "Mr. President," Ronald Reagan; and "Mr. Speaker," Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich.

But the philosophers would not have been able to write their books and the popularizers would not have been able to publish their magazines and the politicians would not have been able to run their campaigns without the support of conservative philanthropists--men of means and vision--such as Sun Oil Company's J. Howard Pew, who gave the Intercollegiate Studies Institute its first $1,000; Colorado beer baron Joseph Coors, whose $250,000 investment enabled The Heritage Foundation to open its doors; and California oilman Henry Salvatori, who put up much of the money for Ronald Reagan's TV address for Barry Goldwater.

And I must mention another funding father, Richard Viguerie, who perfected the craft of direct-mail political fund-raising. Viguerie and his followers have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for causes and candidates, without which the conservative movement would be a pale shadow of itself.

The conservative ascendancy was also helped by the decline and fall of American liberalism, its swift descent marked by a telltale shift from concern for the common man and Middle America to preoccupation with minorities and special interests.

Conservatives triumphed in the 1980s and 1990s when their movement contained all the elements necessary for political success: a clear, consistent philosophy; a broad-based national constituency; a sound financial base; proficiency in the mass media; and charismatic, principled leadership.

They were also helped by a sixth factor--an atmosphere of crisis. In 1980, Americans were sharply aware that the nation required leaders who could cope with critical problems like inflation, unemployment, and the Soviet empire. In 1994, the people demanded that something be done about out-of-control government programs like welfare.

Unintended Consequences

But life in this target-rich environment had unintended consequences. Some Americans began to believe that government was always the problem-- a position, by the way, that Ronald Reagan never held. Antipathy and then antagonism spread, affecting everything from voter turnout to respect for government as an institution. Conservatives were obliged to explain that they were for limiting, not eliminating government. Some Americans concluded that conservatives, in their rush to wipe out 50 years of welfarism, apparently did not care what happened to people dependent on welfare.

William Kristol asked a pertinent question: "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?" Government does have its legitimate purposes, he argued, but then he overcompensated by urging a revival of "national greatness" conservatism modeled on the example of Theodore Roosevelt.

As Matthew Spalding has pointed out, T.R. is a problematic choice since Roosevelt's New Nationalism called for an activist state with strong regulatory powers, a goal at cross purposes with modern conservatism. While some conservatives might find Roosevelt's brand of vigorous leadership "refreshing," Spalding says, a better and more recent statesman to emulate is Ronald Reagan.[8]

It is beyond dispute that conservatives miss Reagan. Starting in 1989, traditional conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives have been fussing and feuding like so many Hatfields and McCoys. They miss the soothing presence of Ronald Reagan and the unifying threat of Communism.

As soon as the Berlin Wall came down, conservatives began building walls between one another. Soon there was open talk of a "conservative crackup." Sharp disagreements erupted among conservatives over trade, immigration, and the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

However, following Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, conservatives began constructing a coalition of economic free-marketers, anti-government Perot supporters, and believers in conservative family values. The last group--the social conservatives--turned out in many ways to be the most important for they provided the necessary ground troops in the political wars.

It did not trouble conservatives that coalition-building was an uneven and often frustrating process. Just as conservatives have always opposed centralized economic planning, so do they oppose centralized political planning. The conservative movement is a loosely bound movement made up, in the words of political strategist Morton Blackwell, of "activists, scholars, donors and organizational entrepreneurs held together by ... shared philosophy, shared enemies, and shared experiences."[9]

The present spirited debate about the future of conservatism among conservatives is a sign not of decay, but of vitality. Disagreement can strengthen a movement as long as the disagreements are based on principle and not driven by a desire for personal aggrandizement.

Building a Successful Movement

So where is conservatism headed? As I have said, certain elements are necessary for a successful political movement.

To begin with, it must have a clearly defined, consistent philosophy. It is a given that conservatives of all stripes honor the Constitution and its established system of checks and balances. They agree that government should be limited, individuals should be free and responsible, and there can be no lasting liberty without virtue--public and private.

These ideas are not just conservative ideas, but American ideas that have their roots in the Founding of the Republic and are endorsed by a majority of the American people. Last October, the Tarrance Group reported that 57 percent of Americans call themselves "somewhat conservative" or "very conservative" while just 35 percent consider themselves "somewhat liberal" or "very liberal." A Rasmussen survey at about the same time underscored Americans' skepticism about government, reporting that 59 percent of voters agreed with the statement that government is the problem and not the solution.[10]

Even in the midst of an economic crisis, America remains a center-right nation in its political philosophy, although the center is farther to the Left than it was 25 years ago. Many Americans have seen the future of the welfare state, and they like what they think they see, especially the entitlements.

Fortunately, there are a number of conservative scholars, young and old, committed to explaining the conservative philosophy and exposing modern liberalism, building on the work of Hayek, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and others. Present-day conservative intellectuals include Robert George of Princeton, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, Charles Kesler of the Claremont Institute, Hadley Arkes of Amherst, James Ceaser at the University of Virginia, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, and Matthew Spalding here at Heritage.

Next, a political movement must have a broad-based, broad-minded national constituency. Conservatives are independent, individualistic. They like to argue about ideas and institutions with friends as well as adversaries. They are uncomfortable with compromise and scorn accommodation.

But they have come together and stayed together when the times required it and when the right leadership managed it--as with Robert Taft in the 1950s, Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and even George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Next, a political movement must have a sound financial base. Thanks to technical proficiency and political success, the number of conservative donors has grown exponentially from a few thousand in the 1950s to more than eight million today.

The fiscal strength of conservative organizations is impressive. The combined annual budgets of the 16 most influential conservative organizations-- including The Heritage Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America's Foundation, and the Media Research Center--total $544 million in 2008 dollars. And there are the center-right foundations whose assets approximate $7.4 billion, including the Big Six--Templeton, Scaife, Bradley, Noble, Amway, and Castle Rock--and another 37 foundations across the country.

A political movement must be media-savvy, familiar with and expert in the use of the latest in mass communications. Here there is a paradox: Conservatives have displayed mistrust, anger, and contempt toward the mass media for decades. Yet:

The number one columnist in America is conservative Cal Thomas. A bevy of younger writers like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Jonah Goldberg have written best-selling books and are in frequent demand as TV commentators.

The number one radio talk show host is conservative Rush Limbaugh, who has a weekly audience of some 15 million. The number two radio host is conservative Sean Hannity.

In the cable world, Fox News leads CNN in audience ratings, thanks to such commentators as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. The Fox network has been the number one cable news network for seven years.

In the world of the Internet, dominated by liberals for most of the decade, conservatives are asserting themselves with new Web sites, blogs, and experiments in Facebook and Twitter.

Which brings us to the fifth element of a political movement: charismatic, principled leadership. Today, for the first time in 60 years, there is no undisputed conservative leader--no Taft, no Goldwater, no Reagan, no designated successor like George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2000, both of whom sorely disappointed conservatives.

But there are many rising and already visible stars in the conservative firmament, such as Congressmen Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Tom Price, chairman of the Republican Study Committee; Senators John Cornyn, Tom Coburn, and Jim DeMint, chairman of the Senate Steering Committee; Governors Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Mark Sanford, chairman of the Republican Governors' Conference--plus past and future presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

With the right leadership, much of the frustration and uncertainty that characterize the conservative movement at present will fade away as they did when Taft, Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich were the acknowledged leaders of conservatism.

The One Political Constant

When the day comes, as it will, when the conservative movement unites behind the right leader and puts him on course to enter the White House, the question will be raised: Can conservatives govern? It is a reasonable question, given the glaring missteps and failures of the Bush Administration.

The answer is simple: Of course conservatives can govern.

In 1947, a Republican Congress under the leadership of Senator Taft cut federal spending and taxes and helped lay the foundation for the successful foreign policy of containment.

In 1981, the Reagan Administration overcame the opposition of a Democratic House and passed the Economic Recovery Act, which cut marginal tax rates across the board and prepared the way for a period of unprecedented economic recovery lasting more than 20 years.

In 1996, a Republican Congress under House Speaker Newt Gingrich passed, over President Clinton's veto, welfare reform which substituted work for welfare and enabled the states to reduce their welfare rolls by as much as 33 percent.

In 2001, the Bush Administration, working with a Republican Congress, enacted a monumental tax cut of $1.6 trillion--the largest in U.S. history--which kept the economy humming until the financial collapse of 2008.

The liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in 1947 that "there seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals." Five-and-a-half decades later, the conservative columnist and commentator George Will wrote that we had experienced "the intellectual collapse of socialism" around the world.[11]

The one political constant throughout these years was the rise of the Right, whose ascent to national power and prominence was interrupted by the death of its leaders, calamitous defeats at the polls, constant feuding within its ranks over means and ends, and the hostility of the prevailing liberal establishment. But through the power of its ideas-- linked by the priceless principle of ordered liberty--and the successful political application of those ideas, the conservative movement became a major and often dominant player in the political and economic realms of our nation.

So it was and so it is in these times of crisis and doubt and even fear, when conservative values are called for--prudence, not rashness; custom, not the impulse of the moment; a transcendent faith, not a fatal conceit; reform, not revolution. As we seek solutions to problems that seem almost unsolvable, we should recall the wisdom of T. S. Eliot, who reminded us that no great cause is wholly lost, because no great cause is ever wholly gained.

Lee Edwards, Ph.D., is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation and a leading historian of the American conservative movement.

[1]Theodore White, The Making of the President--1964 (New York: Signet Books, 1965), p. 453.

[2]Lee Edwards, Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1995), p. 344.

[3]Ibid., p. 345.

[4]Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980 (Rosehill, Cal.: Prima Publishing, 2001), p. 620.

[5]Michael Lind, "Obama and the Dawn of the Fourth Republic,", November 7, 2008.

[6]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996), p. 159.

[7]Matthew Spalding, "A New American Fusionism: Recovering Principles in Our Politics," Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1114, March 17, 2009.

[8]Matthew Spalding, "The Trouble with TR," National Review, February 23, 1998, pp. 31-34.

[9]Morton C. Blackwell, "Thoughts on the Conservative Movement Now," paper prepared for the Frank Meyer Society, Washington, D.C., November 18, 1992.

[10] Ed Feulner, "Conservatism's Vital Signs," The Washington Times, November 7, 2008.

[11]For the Schlesinger quote in Partisan Review, see "Notable and Quotable," The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 1961; for the Will quote, see Morton C. Blackwell, "Social Change and Friends of Liberty," address delivered at the Mercatus Center, Arlington, Virginia, July 16, 2001.


Lee Edwards
Lee Edwards

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought