The other day, Vox Day had a post up about who he thinks killed American conservatism. It’s an interesting post and worth reading, even if you think he is full of nonsense. I suspect many normal people would flinch at the assertion that conservatism is dead or even dying. Instead, the normal person would prefer to say it has been betrayed by politicians, as well as their flacks in the so-called conservative media. Of course, all of this assumes one can get three people to agree on what it means to be a conservative.
There’s also an age issue. Someone in their 70’s will have a different sense of how to define conservative from someone in their 30’s. This is not an experience issue. It is a frame of reference issue. The 70-year old will have come of age when Eisenhower was the definition of conservative or maybe Goldwater. The 30-year old is walking around thinking Newt Gingrich is the archetypal right-winger. All of us are trapped in our piece of the timeline and suffer from some degree of recency bias.
If we narrow the scope a bit and just look at professional conservatism in America, the type we associate with the modern Republican Party, then it is fair to say it is mortally wounded, if not ready to die. The action these days is out on the fringe with what used to be called the Dark Enlightenment. The term “Alt-Right” seems to have taken over as the popular label, but it is pretty much the same crowd. Alt-Right has more of a racial angle, maybe, but that graphic is a pretty good visualization of the fringe. The only thing Conservative Inc has going for it these days is the platform.
Before you can finger the people responsible for killing conservatism you have to figure out what went wrong. Long time readers here will know my view on this. I’ve often argued that what I call Buckley Conservatism simply ran out of reasons to exist. It was first and foremost a defense against communism, specifically Soviet aggression abroad and communist infiltration at home. Once the Cold War ended, communism collapsed and Buckley Conservatism was left without a reason to exist. The dragon was slain and there was no need for a champion.
Buckley Conservatism was supposed to be a fusion of libertarian economics and politics with traditionalism and social conservatism. The Right would be for free markets, but also defend traditional institutions and the social consensus that promotes stability. Ronald Reagan ran on this platform in 1980 and National Review, the flagship publication of the Right, was the intellectual home of fusionism. Frank Meyer, the man credited with the concept, was a long time partner of Buckley and an editor at the magazine.
That combination of traditionalism and free markets should have been a solid foundation for a post-Cold War conservatism, but that’s not what happened. Instead, official conservatism quickly became something closer to Corporate Libertarianism. The guy to blame for that is Newt Gingrich. He emerged as the leader of the Baby Boomer conservatives in the early 90’s. He took out easy-going Bob Michel as leader of the House and famously called Bob Dole the “tax collector for the welfare state.”
Newt redefined the Official Right in the 90’s, steering it toward Jack Kemp’s managerial conservatism, with its emphasis on making government better. Instead of rolling back the welfare state, the goal was to direct the power of the Federal government toward “conservative” ends. If you look at the Contract with America, the thing reeks of managerialism. It’s the sort of technocratic agenda guys like Ramesh Ponnuru are still trying to sell, mostly because it means jobs for their friends and family.
Eventually, the Gingrich Revolution gave us Big Government Conservatism and Compassionate Conservatism, both just marketing programs for embracing statist solutions in place of traditional conservative solutions. Instead of leaving families and communities to manage their affairs, government would nudge them along with an array of tax schemes and regulatory gimmicks. Need more kids? Turn the knob for child tax credits to get the old baby makers heated up out their in flyover country!
Fundamentally, conservatism is a cultural perspective. It’s a philosophical outlook rooted in ones traditions and heritage. Managerialism is the obliteration of culture and tradition, in favor of sterile technocratic governance. Once the Official Right surrendered to this it ceased to be conservative. No conservative ends can ever be achieved at gun point. Political liberty, after all, is the minimization of the use of coercion by the state in its essential role of preventing one person’s freedom from intruding upon another’s.
That’s why Buckley Conservatism is dying. The challenges of this age are all cultural. Globalism marshals the monopoly of force of each state against the local communities trying to hold onto their traditional way of life. Mass migration disrupts the demographic balance that makes for social stability. You can’t address these forces, much less oppose them, with programs that promise to expand the role of the state in the affairs of the citizens.
The Contract with America promised to eliminate 95 specific government programs. None of those programs were eliminated. Welfare reform was passed and offered the first substantive alterations of these programs in a generation. Even so, the budget for these 95 programs during Gingrich’s time as Speaker grew by 13%. That’s the story of post-Cold War conservatism. Lots of Five Year Plans and artfully labeled agendas, but the result has been a 25 year run of expanding government and retreating liberty.
Newt’s brand of conservatism was all about avoiding the schoolyard bullies by either currying favor with them as a flunky or quietly submitting to them, pretending to maintain his dignity. It’s why the modern conservative endlessly prattles on about his principles. For them, dignified submission is a principle. The result has been a generation of failure. The Left has gone from one triumph to the next in the culture war, beating the country so out of shape a man of 1990 would hardly recognize it.
Newt is not history’s greatest monster and he may very well have been sincere in his efforts. Regardless, the embrace of credentialism, the creeping mandarinism that comes with the managerial state and the preference for technocratic solutions over traditional responses is what killed Official Conservatism. The flowering of all that was in the early 90’s when Newt and the other “Class of ’94” types seized the party and redefined conservatism. Two decades on and it is now headed for the ash heap of history.