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.