July 2, 1997

July 2, 1997 | Commentary on

ED070297a:Conservatism's Leaderdhip Crisis

Rip Van Winkle arose this spring from a slumber of two decades. He gazed in amazement at a world transformed.

The Soviet empire, so menacing when he fell asleep in 1977, was now on the ash heap of history. Rising protectionism had given way to exploding commerce and tumbling trade barriers. Nixon-Carter stagflation had been replaced by Reagan-Gingrich prosperity. Business and profits were no longer dirty words: Now everyone wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Prices for gasoline, airfares, and long-distance phone service had plummeted thanks to competition and deregulation. California had passed an initiative abolishing racial preferences. Federal farm and welfare programs dating to the New Deal had been abolished. Welfare caseloads in Wisconsin had fallen by half. A new emphasis on local accountability, truth-in-sentencing, and community policing was reducing crime in New York and other major cities.

Congress was debating fundamental Medicare reform that would lower costs and give the elderly more choices. Leading liberals were pushing for legislation criminalizing late-term abortions. Congressional Black Caucus leaders were breaking with the teachers unions and the NAACP by endorsing school vouchers. Conservative Republicans now controlled both houses of Congress and a robust majority of governorships.

Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep listening to a harangue by Ralph Nader. He awakened to the music of Rush Limbaugh. But one thing hadn't changed since Rip closed his eyes. Conservatives were still depressed. They were still complaining about their leaders. And they were still failing to build institutions as powerful as their ideas.

Conservatives have been singing the blues for most of the last 20 years. This is not just nostalgia for a leader like Ronald Reagan. Conservatives were unhappy during his administration, too. In October 1983, Policy Review interviewed 12 conservative leaders to ask them what they thought of Reagan. Nine gave him low ratings.

"If Reagan represents no more than a right-of-center vision of the welfare state, he doesn't represent change; he simply represents cheap government. Republicans cannot win in that framework," said a GOP backbencher now in the congressional leadership.

"The radical surgery that was required in Washington was not performed. Ronald Reagan made a pledge not to touch entitlement programs, and that's one of the few pledges he has kept absolutely," said a top conservative activist.

Conservatives thought they were losing under Reagan. They still do. Maybe it's because conservatism still isn't acting as if it wants to govern.

The crisis in the conservative movement is its dysfunctional relationship with its elected political leaders. It would be unthinkable for top liberal politicians to propose anything as significant as a budget without consulting key groups like the AFL-CIO. But that's exactly what GOP congressional leaders did with the 1997 budget agreement: They simply made the best deal they thought they could get with President Clinton, then handed it to conservative activists as a fait accompli. There was no consultation with key activists in advance; no effort to find out which reforms conservative grass-roots groups would support. GOP leaders seemed to regard the conservative movement as an annoyance, an angry constituency to be mollified, not their strongest ally.

The movement is also to blame. Conservatives expect their elected leaders to do all their work for them, to mobilize the grass roots, to persuade Americans of the importance of conservative reforms. This isn't how teachers unions or environmentalists or civil-rights leaders conduct politics. Activists on the Left organize parades their politicians can march in front of. Conservatives expect their pols to fly the banners and beat the drums themselves. Then they whine when no one marches.

Conservatives yearn for national leadership that will galvanize the country through the media. A Churchill, an FDR, a Reagan. But this is leadership for war or a catastrophe like the Great Depression. Top-down leadership isn't right for a movement that aims to decentralize power and return responsibility back to states and to the people.

Conservatism today doesn't need leaders with a dominating presence or an eloquent media personality. What it needs most are institution-builders: people who can inspire leadership in the people. Conservatives can roll back liberalism at home just as Ronald Reagan rolled back the Evil Empire abroad. But this will require, to borrow Reagan's phrase, that Big Government not merely be contained. It must be transcended. To do that, conservatives must devote the next 20 to 30 years to building private and local institutions that will outperform Big Government in addressing the nation's needs.

We'll see if they're up to it.

About the Author

Note: This essay by Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's magazine, Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship, is adapted from his article in the current issue.