You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The End Of Conservatism

The Beaching Of The Republican Party

When conservatives repeatedly declare that George Bush's failures as president are the result of his having spurned their ideas and movement, they are harboring illusions born of their fleeting success under Ronald Reagan. In fact, the conservative movement that carried Reagan to victory barely exists any longer; it has dissipated into various cantankerous and confused factions; and the ideas associated with it have become obsolete, discredited, or heavily in dispute among conservatives themselves.

It is not even clear any longer what it would mean for Bush to follow conservatives' advice. Should he listen to Massachusetts Governor William Weld or the Rev. Pat Robertson on the subject of abortion and family values? Should he give priority to Jack Kemp's proposals for cutting taxes or to Senator Phil Gramm's urgings to reduce the budget deficit? Should he pay attention to Representative Vin Weber's words on free trade or to Pat Buchanan's warnings about unfair Japanese trade tactics? Should he derive his foreign policy from Commentary or Chronicles?

As a generic political category, of course, conservatives have not disappeared from American politics. Indeed, there have always been politicians and intellectuals in America who could be described as "conservatives" -- from John Adams and Daniel Webster to Irving Babbitt and Robert Taft -- but until the mid-1950s there was no common body of "conservative" political ideas or any movement that was called "conservative." Instead, conservatives and the right consisted of disconnected and often feuding factions that could claim few common causes.

What has happened over the last five years is that American conservatives -- who created a coherent movement about thirty-five years ago and won national power in 1980 -- have slipped back into the chaos and impotence that prevailed before the mid-'50s. They now bear far more resemblance to the conservatives of 1952 than to the conservatives of 1964 or 1980. And that, perhaps, is the real reason for Bush's sputtering administration.

In the early 1950s the different factions that were identified with the right or with conservatives included isolationists strongly opposed to American participation in nato and to American entry into the Korean War; protectionists favoring the retention of the prohibitive Smoot-Hawley tariff; nativists, anti-Semites, and racists worried about the subversion of white, Anglo-Saxon Christian culture; anti-democratic, neo-feudal, and neo-Confederate reactionaries railing against urban industrialism; small businessmen worried that the New and Fair Deals represented the first step toward a Soviet America; libertarians distrustful of a new national security state; McCarthy and McCarthyite anti-Communists fearful that the United States was about to be taken over by the world Communist conspiracy; and Ivy League Republicans who called themselves the "new conservatives" and favored a moderate politics modeled on Burke and Disraeli.

There was an impassable gulf between the Burkean conservatism of McGeorge Bundy or Robert Taft (who sponsored a public housing bill and rejected the label "conservative") and the racist populism of Gerald L.K. Smith; but there was also a chasm between the libertarians and the McCarthyites and between the isolationists and the anti-Communist internationalists. In the 1952 presidential election, conservatives and the right were deeply split over Eisenhower and Taft. Much of the old right favored Taft while the new anti-Communists, including McCarthy, Whittaker Chambers, and Barry Goldwater, supported Eisenhower. Some Southern conservatives, concerned about the Republican Party's ties to Lincoln, even backed Adlai Stevenson. The right in 1952 was all cacophony and no melody.

Yet a decade later a powerful and recognizable conservative movement had come into being. It got its name from Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, but it derived its thrust largely from the efforts of an improbable group of former leftists and of William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review. These conservatives located the new movement on the right wing of America's cold war internationalist consensus -- a consensus based on the idea that democratic America was the leader of a free world alliance against world communism. To achieve this redefinition, the new conservatives had to demonstrate the overarching importance of the Communist threat; they also had to kick the isolationists, protectionists, anti-Semites, and nativists out of their movement.

No book was more important in establishing the new movement's understanding of communism than Chambers's Witness. In this memoir of his experience as a Communist spy, Chambers portrayed the struggle against communism as an apocalyptic battle of good against evil and God against Satan. At the same time, he drew an intimate connection between the struggle against communism and that against Democratic liberalism. "When I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else," Chambers wrote. "What I hit was the force of that great Socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades." Three decades later Ronald Reagan could still recite by heart this passage from Witness.

Chambers, McCarthy, James Burnham, and Richard Nixon made the conservative case for an internationalist strategy against communism and for the creation of a national security leviathan. Buckley at National Review was singularly responsible for distinguishing the new conservatives -- who included Jews and Irish Catholics in their leadership -- from the nativists and anti-Semites of the old right. In 1959 Buckley announced that anyone on the masthead of National Review could not also be on the masthead of the increasingly anti-Semitic American Mercury and that National Review's editors would no longer write for the magazine. Applauding Buckley's move, Chambers wrote him, "Now what is good and strong outside us can draw to us. The dregs will be drawn to the dregs, and sink where they belong."

The new conservative movement contained different factions within it, but they were always subordinated to the larger anti-Communist, anti-liberal consensus that Chambers had first sketched out. The new conservatives included New Deal critics like Milton Friedman who had nonetheless embraced the New Dealers' free trade economics; traditionalists like Kirk who were worried about the moral corruption engendered by the spread of market values; and defenders of the racial status quo such as Virginian James J. Kilpatrick, who attacked Brown v. Board of Education in the name of states' rights. These intellectuals influenced a new generation of politicians led by Goldwater, and the politicians in turn mediated between the intellectuals and the general electorate.

Goldwater, for instance, began as a conventional small business conservative -- more concerned about Walter Reuther than Nikita Khrushchev -- but was molded by Buckley's brother-in-law Brent Bozell (who ghosted Goldwater's 1960 classic Conscience of a Conservative) into a militant anti-Communist. Then, when Goldwater ran for president in 1964, conservatives discovered from his vote that conservatism had its most loyal following among Deep South whites opposed to the civil rights movement.

Over the next two decades, the movement adopted new political strategies and incorporated new constituencies without altering its underlying worldview. What Kevin Phillips first called the "New Right" represented a change in political tactics rather than philosophy. Inspired by Goldwater's showing and by George Wallace's success among Northern as well as Southern whites, New Right activists such as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich called for conservatives to use social issues to lure erstwhile Democrats into supporting candidates who upheld the core conservative convictions about communism and liberalism. In 1978 Howard Phillips, a Jew, convinced Protestant fundamentalists to set up the Moral Majority.

The neoconservatives, identified most closely with Norman Podhoretz's Commentary and Irving Kristol's The Public Interest, blunted the older right's hostility to the New Deal, making affirmative action and the Office of Economic Opportunity rather than Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority the objects of conservatives' wrath. The supply-side economists and their supporters at The Wall Street Journal invented an economics that they claimed would allow conservatives to cut taxes for the upper and middle classes without increasing the deficit. Echoing John Kennedy, they promised that their rising fiscal tide would lift all boats.

In 1980 the conservatives' message, transmitted by Reagan, fit perfectly Americans' growing fears of national decline: Reagan's militant anti-communism promised to erase the memory of Vietnam and to counteract a Soviet arms buildup; his supply-side economics appeared to be the solution to a decade of Keynesian stagflation; his opposition to busing and affirmative action a response to the gathering white backlash; and his support for family and community an answer to two decades of social and sexual experimentation. Reagan's message, Podhoretz wrote afterward, was that "the decline of America ... is a consequence of bad policies pursued by the government and can therefore be reversed by shifting to other policies."

Reagan's landslide victory seemed to augur the beginning of a conservative realignment comparable in depth and scope to the New Deal realignment of 1932, but the big shift never took place. Instead, within a decade, the conservative movement ran aground. For the first time since 1960, the movement had no agreed-upon national leader. Its factions were not merely feuding but attempting to read each other out of the movement. And its ties to its popular base were becoming increasingly tenuous. Why did this occur?

Most obviously, the end of the cold war removed the movement's underlying focus and rationale. Without the priority of national defense, existing squabbles over federal spending, appointments, arts policy, and school prayer suddenly became major conflicts. More importantly, older conflicts that had been suppressed or temporarily resolved during the cold war resurfaced. Conservatives began fighting over foreign aid, immigration, Israel, and even Jewish influence in terms little different from 1948. Just as conservatives like Merwin K. Hart had tried to discredit Roosevelt's and Truman's policies by associating them with prominent Jews, conservative Pat Buchanan tried to discredit foreign policy positions by linking them to Jewish proponents.

The noisiest quarrel occurred between the conservatives and a group of traditionalists including Buchanan and Kirk who called themselves "paleoconservatives." As early as 1982, the two factions were bickering over who should be appointed to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, but with the cold war gone, a typical movement turf battle escalated into an all-out war. The paleocons accused the neocons of being crypto-socialists and of mistaking, in Kirk's words, "Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." Neocon Richard John Neuhaus accused the paleocons of reviving "the forbidden bigotries once confused with conservatism."

The movement was further fragmented rather than unified by paleocon Buchanan's presidential candidacy this year. The neocons, backed by The American Spectator and leading congressional conservatives, called on conservatives to repudiate Buchanan. Human Events and some of Robertson's lieutenants from 1988 supported Buchanan wholeheartedly. Other conservative publications and organizations waffled and vacillated. In a December essay in National Review, Buckley acknowledged that Buchanan's statements "amounted to anti-Semitism," but on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the magazine, with Buckley's concurrence, urged a "tactical vote" for Buchanan. The Heritage Foundation's Edwin Feulner branded both Buchanan's charges against the neocons and their charges against him "insane."

The movement was equally afflicted by the failure of conservative economics to stem the decline of the American economy. Instead of creating a healthy prosperity, Reagan's supply-side policies led to a transient debt-driven boom that was accompanied by record trade and budget deficits and by a slight drop in real wages. When the recession began, some conservatives finally acknowledged that the American economy was in relative decline but insisted that the fault lay in insufficiently or imperfectly carrying out their prescriptions. They wanted a return to the gold standard or further reductions in taxes on the wealthy.

A few others who acknowledged the decline began to embrace active government intervention in investment and trade. Conservative business groups like the Business and Industrial Council called for the government to protect American manufacturers against cheap foreign imports. The policy differences between these groups and the organizations still committed to Reaganomics loomed as large as the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

In addition, many conservative intellectuals -- and some political leaders, including Kemp -- simply refused to acknowledge that the United States was declining. Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley maintained that the budget deficits of the '80s were "grossly overrated" and that the trade deficits were "meaningless and misleading." George Gilder wrote an article for Policy Review titled "More Imports, Please." And many of the neoconservatives, who had been oblivious to economics, now insisted that the spread of American democratic ideas and popular culture demonstrated that America was still on the rise. Writing in Commentary, however, Francis Fukuyama dismissed these arguments. "As with a star that has gone supernova," he wrote, "the light emanating from the United States continues to shine brightly at the periphery of the universe, where it is observed by various Russians, Chinese, Lithuanians, and the like; but the energy at the core is rapidly extinguishing."

In the past, heated debate over these questions might have been a sign of political health and ferment, but in this case it was not. Like the conservative debates over Buchanan's anti-Semitism, they were symptomatic of a movement increasingly trapped within its own past, forced to conduct strenuous debates in order to demonstrate what was obvious to any outsider not encumbered by unkept promises and outworn ideological categories.

There has also been a growing gap between conservatives and their base on such social issues as abortion and parental leave. Of course, the fit was never perfect. In the '60s Buckley had opposed state prohibition of abortion; Reagan, as governor of California, signed one of the nation's most permissive abortion laws; and the libertarian Goldwater has always opposed government meddling in personal life. It was the New Right's success in winning over the fundamentalists that convinced many conservatives to close ranks around the evangelicals' view of women and the family.

But as the fundamentalists, led by Jerry Falwell and Robertson, formed organizations of their own and began issuing edicts, running candidates, and taking over local Republican committees in the name of God, their support became a distinct liability. The first clear danger signs came in the 1985 gubernatorial election in Virginia when Democratic candidate Gerald Baliles wounded his conservative Republican opponent simply by accusing him of being linked to the Virginia-based televangelists. By 1988 Democrats were taking any chance they could to tie the Republicans to fundamentalists, and conservative Republicans, once enthusiastic, began to become queasier about their identification with the movement.

What conservatives were discovering was that they had aligned themselves with a movement that was genuinely reactionary and that by its nature would dwindle rather than grow. Since the 1920s religious fundamentalists have been trying unsuccessfully to reverse the development of capitalism, which has progressively freed families and particularly women from centuries of bondage to home and soil and opened up to the broad middle classes areas of personal freedom and discretion previously enjoyed only by the upper classes.

While some older conservatives like Kristol have increasingly identified with the fundamentalist critique of modern society -- last year Kristol published an extended polemic in Commentary against "secular humanism" -- younger conservatives on campus and on congressional staffs tend to be far more cosmopolitan in their attitudes. According to one estimate, about 50 percent of the members of Ivy League conservative organizations and about 75 percent of the Washington Bush-Quayle staff are pro-choice. And many Washington conservatives such as Policy Review editor Adam Meyerson see Massachusetts's pro-choice, pro-gay rights Governor Weld as a promising presidential choice. If Weld should run, then conservatives can be expected to begin debating abortion and even gay rights as heatedly as they now debate immigration or foreign aid. Still new factions will proliferate.

Some conservatives recognize that their movement has lost its moorings, but few have any clear answers about what to do next. In the latest Policy Review, Weber acknowledges an "idea vacuum" among Republicans and conservatives, but his main answer is for conservatives to press for a capital gains tax. Most of the paleoconservatives recognize that Buchanan was not really presidential material, but without a national leader, they remain a protest movement within what is rapidly becoming a collection of protest movements. Acknowledging the absence of a national leader, Washington Times columnist Sam Francis, the movement's guru, tries to make a virtue of necessity. "The definition of right-wing populism is that some guy comes out of nowhere," he says.

Many younger Washington conservatives believe that by running for president in 1996, Kemp could revive the conservative movement. At a private gathering of young conservatives held last month, the host asked how many of them would be willing to follow Kemp out of the Republican Party if he ran. Three-fourths raised their hands, including several who were working for the Bush-Quayle campaign. But as Kemp demonstrated in 1988, he may be ill-suited to be a Republican presidential candidate. His conservative war on poverty has played poorly among grass-roots Republican audiences, and his continued commitment to supply-side illusions about the budget and trade deficit could distance him from almost every other voter.

American Spectator editor Robert Tyrrell's solution to what he calls the "conservative crack-up" is an infusion of new belief from converted liberals, but if anything, the movement of conversion seems to be going in the other direction. Several of the movement's more promising neoconservatives, including Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute and Penn Kemble of Freedom House, are leaning toward Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Others I have met are doing so privately.

As Bush enters his last political campaign, he has suffered as much from the conservatives' decline as they have from his. Though Bush has hewed a largely independent course on foreign policy (where he has been most successful as president), he has shamelessly followed whatever wind is blowing the strongest on economic and social policy. Conservatives now cite his betrayal of his promise not to raise taxes as a prime example of his ignoring their advice, but conservatives were silent between June 1990, when Bush announced he was breaking his pledge, and October, when the first budget agreement was introduced. And rightly so, since they had no better answer for how to reduce the deficit.

Conservatives' repudiation of Bush is part of their own self-denial. By pretending that he is entirely separate from them, they can delude themselves into thinking his defeat will not reflect on their own political future. But it will: Bush lacks a domestic policy, and the Republicans lack what Weber calls a "coherent national agenda," because the conservatives, who provided both policy and agenda for the party over the last decade, are no longer capable of doing so.