Who Killed Conservatism?

Many normal people would flinch at the assertion that conservatism and the conservative movement 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. 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.

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 seriously wounded, if not dying. The action these days is out on the fringe. The term “Alt-Right” seems to have taken over as the popular label, but it is pretty the same people who have been purged from conservatism.

Before you can finger the people responsible for killing conservatism you have to figure out what went wrong. Buckley Conservatism 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.

That combination of traditionalism and capitalism 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 probably Newt Gingrich. He emerged as the leader of the baby boomer conservatives in the early 90’s and made it into technocratic managerialism.

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.

34 thoughts on “Who Killed Conservatism?

  1. 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. They never believed in the common sense of the people, the governed; that was and is the bedrock tenet of elitism. I’m pretty sure even Buckley did not believe in the common sense of the people; he just used that quip to rattle his liberal guests on Firing Line. Now the cat’s finally out of the bag. All those conservatives in their tweedy blazers and rep ties never really liked us and couldn’t wait to get out of any room where we congregated. So the Dirt Revolution is on, but historically popular uprisings rarely turn out well. I’m not optimistic about the future of my grandchildren. Hopefully they will have the grit to get through coming storm.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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  5. 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 intellectual godfather, Russell Kirk. He brought Kirk onboard shortly after he launched National Review. This short essay of Kirk’s lays out the intellectual foundations of the early conservatism:


  6. “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.

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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 carried the implied threat that those not sufficiently celebratory were marking themselves as candidates for re-education camp.

    If conservatives are unable to conserve the right to keep perverts out of womens’ public toilets one might be compelled to ask just what, if anything, they are capable of conserving? And of course, everyone knows the answer: Nothing. After the devastation of our culture and institutions by the left, there is nothing left to conserve and the word simply falls apart for lack of any content or meaningful association.

    • 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 feinstein, boxer, pelosi, et al. What a joke. And now they are allowing the Mexicans to have their “reconquista” and reclaim their lands lost in the war with the U.S. Good luck with that. These people come from a failed state and they think they can run what amounts to one of the largest economies in the world? Get real. I want no part of it.

  10. 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.

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

  11. 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 home on weekends and holidays and of course our home is always open to them.

    These are kids who were raised by two-working parents, or in several cases, single parents. These kids openly describe how they wish their family was like ours. Not that we’re a role model, but we’re still married and we have a great relationship with our kids and they know they are an integral part of what makes a family. We encourage their participation in conversations, we listen, argue and discuss things in a very positive way. We held them accountable for their actions, praised them when their behavior or achievements warranted it, and sorted out the problems as best we could. Our kids have learned that there’s a difference between disagreeing and disrespect, and that we don’t have to agree on everything. We also taught our kids that one does not have to respect the other persons point of view when it is destructive or just stupid. Yes, we were the “square, old-school parents” – the ones their liberal friends can’t get enough of now.

    For an entire generation, many kids were raised by day care or exhausted grand parents and we’re seeing that behavior acted out in very negative ways with safe spaces and demands on universities that don’t make sense to the rest of us. At least until you realize they are acting out in the only way they know – to have a temper tantrum as one would expected when 10-15 kids are all trying to gain the attention of a single care giver. They are now looking around and are angry at their parents for not having something as simple as a “traditional” family. They realize they were tossed into a day care center so their parents could have a second car or holiday house. All those boxes of toys and PC games failed to provide the basic needs these kids are starving for, the love, affection and attention of their parents.

    Whether or not they will reverse the course by going back to old “conservative” ways of marriage, one working father, stay at home mom and avoid the vicious trap of debt-based consumerism – one can only hope. But it’s amazing to find out what these kids really want. All we have to do is take the time to listen to them.

  12. 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 other about having a Republic ” … if we can keep it,” maybe it’s tenets would have been defended more vigorously.

    The Constitution did not fail us. We failed the Constitution, failed to uphold it’s ideals and protect them … against all enemies foreign and domestic.

    The downside of capitalism, it’s short term focus, meant that post WWII, the good times meant it was time to get rich and enjoy life. So while the country grew and prospered, the foundations of the country were left largely unattended. The communist attack took on new forms and people like Joe McCarthy were demonized for pointing that out. The communist’ infiltrated every nook and cranny of our government and institutions and is largely responsible for the “progressive” direction that has occurred since. And now, a new breed of barbarian, the Islamic horde, seeks to bring down America. So an aging, progressive disease ravaged country is on it’s last legs as too many of it’s inhabitants care nothing or know nothing of its original intent, but only want their free stuff.

    Globalism, short sightedness, unbridled greed, loss of jobs while sending them to third world countries while products and services regress to quality levels most people do not even know, mean that my generation, the baby boomers lived in America at it’s apex. Unfortunately, since the man on the moon, it’s been pretty much downhill in most regards especially with regards to civil rights. The Apple iPhone, eh. Nothing compared to the planned, concerted effort of a country bent on achieving great things. And now we have SpaceX to send stuff into space more economically. So we can transport people to other worlds. As if, greed aside, that is a good thing. Look at the problem that imperialism throughout history has meant in terms of human suffering. But it was all for some person’s glory and riches. And after awhile, when the resources were used up and the land laid to waste, it was time to move on to new territories. We are no different than the Huns. And the elites think “they” can escape to other worlds because they afford to. Well, wherever you go, there you are. They escape nothing. And they never learn. But they are the smart ones.

  13. 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 the Presidency, what did he do? He (1) raised taxes, (2) did the heavy lifting on NAFTA, establishing the framework of the modern globalist economy, and (3), went to war with Saddam Hussein, establishing the model of modern Neoconservative foreign policy. Bush was elected with a clear mandate and an eight-year conservative legacy, and then proceeded to squander it spectacularly. You’re right to call out Gingrich, but it I think Bush deserves at least as much of the blame. It’s important to stay focused on what a piece of shit he was.

    • 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

    • 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 for what got done… plus, the GOP FINALLY started the slow process of trying to figure out how to drive the bus instead of carp from row 5…. and many in DC still don’t like driving the bus, they appear to be happier to have the Donks drive it and they get to carp and then go have cocktails.

      A LOT of DC is under assault in thei Dirt Revolt of 16. Interesting times.

  14. 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 real firebrands. What is interesting, is the Alt-Right is making the cuckservatives look like cultural marxists, what with their own brand of political correctness and subservience to that total balderdash. The Alt-Right fear nothing, so in one way Donald Trump and The Alternate Right, have something very important in common. The cucks and cultural marxists, (sorry about repeating myself, it’s important to define which enemy is which no matter how slight the seeming difference here), only have power through using fear as a tool, they have no leverage with the fearless.
    Some stuff the Alt-Right come up with goes right by me, but the stuff I do grok, it gets right down to the meat and potatoes. Sometimes I think they are being pure agitators and love getting under the cucks and right wing marxists skin, and sometimes that is the point. Insurgent right? It’s open source guerrilla warfare, these guys understand if winning the minds is science, winning the hearts is an art form. They are starting a counter cultural insurgeny against the cultural marxists. Good on them. And there are a lot of people in this country who haven’t the foggiest that they are gonna have to fight, never mind how you counter culture the cultural marxists, and they look at the Alt-Right and feint with freight, when all along the cultural marxist have been waging war on them. Lord love a duck.

    So here’s the whole ugly messy thing in a nutshell: the rise of the Alternate-Right has benefitted greatly from the rise of the Donald and the Great Fuck You of the dirt people. Or maybe it might be the other way around, or both, not sure, might be part natural order out of cultural marxist chaos, though I like to think it is providence more than anything, but the Alt-Right is a serious threat to all mentioned above, (except for the Traditional Right, nothing seriously threatens the AR, they just wait till it’s time to start shooting and then it’s on like Donkey Kong, because the Traditional Right is cognitive there never was any voting our way out of this by ballot box to begin with, voting was what got us into it it to begin with, and Traditional Right is nothing if it ain’t primal, like swords and rifles, the natural rights of men first and last. It was the cartridge box got us secession from tyranny originally, to think the ballot box will do the same go around is whistling past the graveyard). The Alternative Right, is an existential force that is undermining the whole sphere of cuckservatism at its foundations, at each end of it’s spectrum, and they are panicking, like a nest of ants been torn up. But even more interesting, the cucks have a few really shrewd and cunning bullshit artists in their ranks, been grifting us dirt people for a long time, and these betrayers have turned their sights from the Traditional Right, to the Alt-Right, they write like they have pulled out the stops and are frantic to de-legitimize the Alt-Rights message, but the Alt-Right is nimble, quick, it changes its narrative and tactics on the fly, and outflanks the cucks. And it is driving everyone bat shit crazy, they are upsetting everyones apple cart and rice bowl. What is beautiful is the Alt-Right don’t hurt no one, and have shined sunlight on the right wing of the cultural marxists tactics of using the same attack methods as the cultural marxist lefts have employed for decades to attack us dirt people. So I’m saying, they got nothing, the cucks, They Are Kaput, and they don’t know it in their hubris, which is delicious. They need to go these enablers of cultural marxism, and the cultural marxists are toast without this bloodsucking partnership between the two factions. The cucks only armor was nobody knew how deep the rabbit hole went, how truly dirty and what kind of God awful traitors they are. The entire dynamic is crumbling at the foundations of statism, “fundamentally” so. The traitors within you trusted are always the worst kind of traitors. The cucks made the narrative of bitter clingers possible. But just who after all, are the real bitter clingers in reality here?

    • 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!

    • 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!

  15. 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.

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

  16. 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 just an accelerant – Big Business gives you the Leviathan State every time. As for “social conservatism,” it doesn’t stand a chance against cheap crap — when something that was an obscene luxury a generation before is available at the Kwik-E-Mart cash register, “conserving” anything seems pointless to the average consumer.

    • We have cheap crap mostly due to pulling forward trillions in hoped for productivity gains that probably will never materialize. Net out public borrowing and money creation and GDP has been close to zero for 30 years.

      • True. I’m just noting the effect. The cause is a Ponzi scheme, which creates a vicious circle — the more cheap crap is floated on borrowed money, the less people think about the “borrowed money” aspect… which makes “conservatism” seem even dumber to the average consumer… which eventually leads to an attitude like now, where you’re a stupid fundie weirdo for even suggesting that people shouldn’t live beyond their means on ever-spiraling debt.

      • That’s a good way to look at it, Z.

        Of course governments are lending themselves and a few trusted agents money at 0%, but it’s darn near impossible to borrow money to maybe make some of those productivity gains real. Even if the technology was there, why make an investment when taxes and regulation are liable to consume your ROI?

        I’m starting to be in favor of bringing back debtors’ prison for bureaucrats, bankers, and politicians. Everyone needs to have skin in the game.

  17. “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.”


    • 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?

  18. 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. We grew up with 4 channels and trusted the media. It turns out we were being lied to, laughed at and leeched on. It will continue of course because so many enjoy being lied to, laughed at and leeched on but now there is going to be a shock button zapping those in charge occasionally. I’m not sure of the direction things will go in but I will say that the GOP can be thankful it is being vetted early. It may well survive. The organisations down the track will not.

    • 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.

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

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