Who Killed Conservatism?

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.

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The alt-right is mostly smart Gen-X and Y who have an inkling of who Newt Gingrich is but don’t care. Anyone who became rich in the 70s, 80s and 90s off the back of the GOP is dead to the alt-right. Dinosaurs, dodos and floppy disks. Retire already or better yet – die. The alt-right are people who can see what is going on and don’t like it. The days of selling out and profiting from it are over though. Journalists are big money lying puppets, elected officials likewise, union bosses can go with the GOP skeletons and their ilk.… Read more »

NikFromNYC
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NikFromNYC

I’m 50 and can only cheer the alt-right on as they wax nostalgic about bringing back 1980s vibrant enemies culture. That makes me old school cool.

Member

50 isn’t old. The last remnants of the baby boomers are needed to keep Gen X scolds in line.

NikFromNYC
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NikFromNYC

Auto-correct typo: enemies = rebellious

Bah
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Bah

“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.”

FASTER, PLEASE!

Doug
Guest
Doug

You talking about the not so narrow “conservatives” with no balls, basically the rightwing neutered apparatchik’s of cultural marxism? Ball-less wonders and insult to every Man who cherishes his consent and self determination, cock-lesservatives like the Bohener, McConnel, Ryan, Bushes, Kristol and Romney and Williams and Rove?

Severian
Guest

I find that the more history you read, the further back your “last true conservative in America” is. (Mine is Jefferson Davis). Managerialism — or just plain “industrial capitalism,” if you swing that way — is a powerful centripetal force. Davis is a good example — at the start of the Civil War, Marse Jeff had to threaten lawsuits to get state regiments to leave their borders. By the end, he had a proto-War Resources Board and was gearing up to nationalize everything that wasn’t already in enemy hands. Yes, that’s under the pressure of total war, but war is… Read more »

Drake
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Drake

Back in my early college days I was a big fan of Pete DuPont. Watched him destroy HW Bush from the right in NH debates. I wonder if history would have been different if Reagan had chosen him as VP.

TipTipTopKek
Guest

Certainly if DuPont had been the VP there wouldn’t have been an assassination attempt of Reagan by Bush family friend Hinckley.

Drake
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Drake

Also wouldn’t have been a “Read My Lips” promise – followed by flushing everything Reagan did down the toilet.

Doug
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Doug

Been watching this whole Alt-Right, verses Traditional Right, verses Neocon, verses Cuckservative, verses Cultural Marxist Light battle, I can’t but help but sense a fundamental cultural revolution of another kind is underway… that in itself is pretty sublime. I’m a more traditional right/Jeffersonian Agrarian kind of guy, if the lights went out tomorrow, I’d be happier than a pig in shit. But I dig this whole insurgency of the Alt-Right, (never mind I’m digging the dirt people revolt of The Great Fuck You happening this election scam cycle in the form of Donald Trump), some of them Alt-Right guys are… Read more »

NikFromNYC
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NikFromNYC

Nice steam of consciousness review. I came into the alt-right as a Columbia/Harvard chemistry PhD who had become a very active online climate (model) skeptic, able to for several years dominate high traffic sites like Phys.org, VICE.com and Gizmodo.com before they all banned competent voices to leave behind only amateurs easy to ridicule. Suddenly #Gamergate took over Twitter and now the Trump train alt-right. What a relief!

RobM
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RobM

I”m on board too. Good oh , there Doug. The 2016 Dirt People , Fuck You, Revolt. There will be papers written! There are so many shedding tears in every direction, I could not be happier. Moar please! Storm the gates!

Buckaroo Banzai
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Buckaroo Banzai

ZMan, I never thought about Newt this way, and you make a good case. But I think Bush the Elder has to shoulder a huge amount of the responsibility as well. His lackeys infested the Reagan administration and began undermining it literally almost from Day 1–and that’s ignoring the conspiracy theories that he was behind the failed assassination attempt (the fact that the Hinckley family was friends with the Bush family, and that the assassin’s brother had dinner plans with Neil Bush the night of the assassination attempt seems to have slipped down the memory hole). And when Bush assumed… Read more »

Dan Kurt
Member

re:”And when [GHW] Bush assumed the Presidency, what did he do?”BB
(4) Signed the Gun Control Act of 1989. Which I can tell you caused millions of gun owners to not vote for Bush in the next election.

Dan Kurt

RobM
Member
RobM

Buck,-a- ROO… yep. Good analysis. I’ve always had a pea under my mattress with HW. I’ve often said it, but your the first that said what I’ve long remembered. HW cause problems DURING Reagans’ terms… and then immediately squandered all that was good about Reagan, post haste. After 4 years of let’s get back to doing what we were doing in DC before Reagan interrupted us governing, we get the age of Clinton. Gingrich is not as great as he is remembered by many, BUT…. at the time… and considering the speakers that came after him…. meh… He did ok… Read more »

LetsPlay
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LetsPlay

THE big lie was that Communism died when the Wall came down. No. The Soviet Union collapsed but communism and it’s offshoots are ideas and as we have seen, those ideas now live and breathe in the USA, especially infesting places like CA, MA, NY, etc. That conservatism was limited in scope to defeating the Red Scourge, was a strategic mistake. Kind of like horse & buggy guys thinking they were in the “horse & buggy” business and not the “transportation” business. If someone had the foresight to stand as a Constitutionalist and heed the words of Benjamin Franklin and… Read more »

Karl Horst (Germany)
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Karl Horst (Germany)

There may be a slowly building backlash against liberalism in favor of conservatism but we just haven’t seen it yet. As the kids of the 60’s and 70’s rebelled against their conservative “old school” parents, I’m hearing these millennials aren’t so keen on how their liberal, consumer driven parents raised them. The friends of my university age kids actually admire that my wife is a housewife, and was always home for the kids and their friends. Our house has remained the center of family activity and many of their university friends ask if they can tag along when they come… Read more »

james wilson
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james wilson

The last conservatives were probably the anti-federalists. Certainly Ike was no conservative. When we define conservatives as someone to the right of lunatics, we are not defining a political idea, we are defining this year’s holding action. We cannot conserve what has already been lost. To regain what has been lost is not to conserve. This is a completely different mindset.

Drake
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Drake

I was a fan of Calvin Coolidge. He certainly had the right attitude about government restraint.

Christopher S. Johns
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Christopher S. Johns

A long and disreputable history of utter and abject failure killed “conservatism.” Little more than a month ago the closeted homosexual, quasi-Muslim-marxist mulatto who debases the office of president in what remains of our tortured, corrupt republic, decreed that adult males, when adorned with rouge and a dress, were hereby granted complete access to womens’ public toilets for whatever purpose as might amuse them. And the so-called opposition party, the party of “conservatism,” endorsed and ratified it with nary a protest or complaint. Such a turn of events was celebrated by our media as a supreme moral victory, and which… Read more »

LetsPlay
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LetsPlay

Let’s face it, the left is nothing but a big bully. And as I taught my kids, regardless of the social stance of “violence” being unacceptable, giving the bully a good punch in the nose will make him back off. But no one has dared to give anyone so much as a wedgie, much less a punch in the face. Especially since our half-black, half-white, muslim chief of destruction took office. The next best thing is to vote with your wallet and feet. I left Kalifornistan years ago because of the populace stupidity in continuing to elect insane kleptocrats like… Read more »

Jim O\'Neil
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As a 70 + something I gotta say your spot on about age defining one’s definition of conservatism. However I would say it is both a frame of reference and an experience issue.

snopercod
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snopercod

Is no-one going to mention Ayn Rand’s “Conservatism, an Obituary”, written in 1960?

LetsPlay
Member
LetsPlay

You just did. And …???

Hyde Yerfud
Guest
Hyde Yerfud

“Newt is not history’s greatest monster and he may very well have been sincere in his efforts.”

He’s not history’s greatest monster; but, evil is as evil does.

Member

Z-man, You know me as a bit of a contrarian and prone to picking nits here, but you nailed it this time. I lived it and you told it true. Lived it? My first political memory was watching the 1952 Democratic convention on a snowy 7″ Dumont and wondering why Harry Truman was denied the nomination. You wrote “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.” Buckley drew freely from his… Read more »

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SgtBob
Guest

Acceptance of sameness carries some blame. Light-weight plastic cars come in variations of three shapes and five colors. The same “restaurants” occupy all interstate highway intersections. Books, movies, TV shows with the same heroes, criminals and victims. Politicians read from the same scripts; only the titles differ. Bland, bland, blah.

William Cox
Guest

As stated, “Because it means jobs for their friends and family.” explains both sides of the government. Our constitutional republic must remove the clown makeup to reveal its true identity.

ChuckR
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ChuckR

Remember when Buckley said “I would rather be governed by the first 50 names in the Boston phone directory than by the first 50 names in the Harvard faculty directory” or something like that? Buckley was focused on the common sense of the people. Conservatives used that mantra for the next 60 years. But when those first 50 people from Boston showed up in the guise of Trump, conservatives, especially those at the National Review, went crazy. “You mean we are actually going to have to take these people seriously?”, they asked. So ’16 has revealed the elite’s true feelings.… Read more »