Conservatism's death: Greatly exaggerated

COMMENTARY Political Process

Conservatism's death: Greatly exaggerated

Nov 14, 2008 3 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow

Ernest served as a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The biggest problem facing America's conservatives isn't our "progressive" president-elect or the liberal leaders controlling Congress. It's defeatism.

Liberal pundits such as the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne were quick to interpret the recent elections as "a definitive end to a conservative era." A Google search for "death of conservatism" this week produced 57,900 hits. It's the new common wisdom.

But should America's millions of conservatives be despairing? Of course not. That's what the left wants the most. "It is best to win without fighting," wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. "The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord."

Yes, the Republican Party (myself included) has let America down. But the roots of conservative principles run deep. They are alive and well. They need nourishment, not abandonment.

Solutions will not arise overnight, just as the problems did not.

America changed before its citizens ever voted for "change." Conservative icon Paul Weyrich wrote about that in 1999:

First of all, we have assumed that a majority of Americans basically agrees with our point of view. That has been the premise upon which we have tried to build any number of institutions, and indeed our whole strategy. ... The second premise has been that if we could just elect enough conservatives, we could get our people in as congressional leaders and they would fight to implement our agenda. ... We got our people elected. But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason ... is that politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture.

Weyrich was right. To surrender traditional values and embrace hedonism is to avoid personal accountability - and responsibility for self is the fulcrum upon which self-governance pivots and an essential part of leveraging its power.

Weyrich linked this to the triumph of political correctness and its stifling influence. He urged people to drop out of the decadence of popular culture.

But that does not require political surrender.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested to the Conservative Political Action Conference this spring that the Washington-centric focus is also part of the problem:

We should be developing a conservative action plan, at every level of this country, and not simply focused over and over again on arguments about the White House. ... In a fundamental way, the conservative movement has to declare itself independent from the Republican Party.

Gingrich made clear he doesn't mean a third political party, but to end the national confusion that hurts conservatism when it is wrongly equated with Republicanism.

Weyrich and Gingrich, although accurate, left out a critical component of what defined conservatism during its finest moment - optimism. That spirit was as important to President Ronald Reagan as were his political principles.

Like its grass roots, conservative institutions are ready to rebuild. Surprising cultural victories such as reinforcing traditional marriage in California, Florida and Arizona show there is unexpected strength in the values that are intertwined with conservative principles.

The president of The Heritage Foundation, Dr. Ed Feulner, picked up on that hopefulness this week as he addressed a major meeting of supporters. "Under the circumstances," he began, "I think it's appropriate for conservatives to feel unhappy about the outcome of this election. Very unhappy."

But, Feulner added:

It isn't as though we haven't been in messes before. Turn your internal clocks back 30 years to the late 1970s.
  • Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
  • The Democrats held 61 seats in the Senate.
  • They controlled 67 percent of the House.
  • Our economy was hobbled by 12 percent inflation and 9 percent unemployment.
  • The top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent.
  • We were under an Arab oil embargo that compelled us to buy gasoline on odd and even days - when gasoline was available, and it often wasn't.
  • Rather than encourage domestic oil production, our government was penalizing oil companies with windfall-profits>
  • We were ordered to turn our thermostats up in the summer and down in the winter and to wear sweaters.
  • We were at the height of the Cold War.
  • Iran had been holding 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

And yet those very circumstances enabled Ronald Reagan's election.

Feulner counseled against the defeatism being urged by the left: "They will seize upon any pretext to announce the death of the conservative movement. They've been doing it for decades. But too many conservatives today are buying into that fallacy. That is a dangerous mistake, because it will sap your will to fight."

Feulner rallied his supporters with accounts of Heritage's 10-year "Leadership for America" plan, and an admonition to "Win one for the Gipper."

The attitude needed by conservatives is shown by another from Ronald Reagan's treasure trove of stories, perhaps his very best one:

A boy wakes up on Christmas morning to find a pile of horse manure under the tree. Excited rather than upset, he grabs a shovel and digs into it. "With all this manure," the boy says, "there must be a pony in here somewhere."

We still have ponies in America. If we dig in and work, we will find them.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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