By the end of last summer, it had become transparently obvious, even to the graying stallions of the “conservative movement,” that organized conservatism in the United States since the 1950’s has been a colossal failure.  The failure has been clear enough to most percipient Americans for perhaps a decade or more (an essay I published in Chronicles in 1991 announcing the news was greeted with anger and denials by the “movement”), but what really signed and sealed the perception was a long article about the “Conservative Lament” in the Washington Times on August 24 by veteran political reporter Ralph Z. Hallow.  For all the political bubbly water the conservatives quaffed at the rise and election of George W. Bush in 2000, the disappointing performance of his administration has helped confirm what must have been a lurking suspicion on the professional right that the disappointments went well beyond Mr. Bush and his policies.

“We won the battle against communism,” Phyllis Schlafly sighed to Mr. Hallow, “but I guess we’ve largely lost the battle against big government, and we’ve lost lots of our liberties.”   No veteran of the conservative movement has a better right to pass such a judgment than Mrs. Schlafly, who was responsible for one of the few unequivocal victories of the right, the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, and she at least is one burdened by no illusions of a “conservative renaissance” or other slogans that today masquerade as “conservative thought.”

Of course, it is even debatable whether it is correct to claim the defeat of communism as the one major accomplishment of the right, as most of the conservatives interviewed by Mr. Hallow, including Mrs. Schlafly, did.  The Soviet Union and its empire collapsed, and it did so soon after Ronald Reagan left office; during the Reagan era itself, however, almost no serious anticommunist conservative believed the Soviets were on the run.  Indeed, in 1987, toward the end of the Reagan administration, Rep. Jim Courter, then a rising anticommunist conservative congressman, published an article in the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review that explicitly stated that the Reagan defense build-up and “the Reagan Doctrine of promoting democratic resistance movements around the world” had both “been oversold” and that “pronouncements by the administration about ‘having the Soviets on the run’ are totally unwarranted.”

When the dust of history is finally analyzed accurately, the Soviet collapse may well be seen as mainly the result of the destructive internal economic and political policies the communists inflicted on themselves and their subjects and of the fundamental delusions on which their ideology was founded, not the result of any virtues or valor on the part of an America reinvigorated by conservative anticommunism.  Outside the Soviet Empire, of course, including inside our own country, much of the communist agenda continues to flourish, and the American right has accomplished virtually nothing in resisting or eradicating the near hegemony Marxist ideas still enjoy in American universities.

The conservative warhorses Mr. Hallow interviewed all dwelled on the central importance of one original goal of their movement, resisting the growth of “big government” and preserving the personal liberty the leviathan state threatened.  But most seemed to recognize that this goal also has not been achieved.  “What attracted me to conservatism in 1959 was the idea that maybe we could turn back the leviathan government that was taking away our liberties,” Donald J. Devine, vice-chairman of the American Conservative Union, told the Times.  “How little did I know we were living in a system with less federal presence and interference than we have now—44 years later.”  Richard Viguerie, justly celebrated for his pioneering of conservative direct-mail techniques, was one of the few activists interviewed who seemed to grasp any particular reason why the goal had not been achieved.  The problem, he argued, was that “fighting to roll back the welfare state and return to constitutional government” tended to contradict the foreign-policy goal “of fighting communism, which requires increased expenditures and a bigger role for government in the national economy,” not to mention restricting personal liberty in the interests of national security.

The rather somber reflections these conservatives, almost all of them in their 60’s or older, offered were, in fact, somewhat refreshing, since most of what you get from the professional right these days is happy talk, not just shallow bumpersticker chatter that serves mainly to inspire Teenage Republicans and the armchair Globo-Terminators who listen to Rush Limbaugh and believe every word but a smug chest-thumping about the country, the civilization, and the vital contributions that conservatives have supposedly made to them that is as repellent as it is untrue.  It was therefore bracing to listen to these elders acknowledge that the cause to which they had devoted their lives had been less than successful.

Yet, aside perhaps from Mr. Viguerie himself, not a one seemed to have a clue as to why, and, with all due respect to the direct-mail czar, his explanation by itself is insufficient.  One immediate reason for the failure of the “movement” was mentioned by David Keene of the American Conservative Union in his remark on how sagacious the movement’s leaders had been to prune it of undesirables.  “The early modern conservatives, led by Bill Buckley and others,” Mr. Keene informed us, 

had to both confront the liberal establishment and shape a movement that wouldn’t drive away more people than it attracted.  Therefore, the Birchers, racists, anarchists and assorted monarchists and kooks were turned away.

Many were indeed turned away, and some needed to be, but the real targets of the conservative movement’s obsession with “turning away” and purging anyone who did not fit were those who were not palatable to the “liberal establishment” the “movement” claimed to be “confronting.”  Only if the “movement” could convince the “establishment” that its adherents and beliefs were really no threat to the power of the establishment could the “movement” hope to gain the acceptance and “respectability” its leaders always craved.

The result of the “turning away” of which Mr. Keene and most other “movement” leaders are so proud was not only the evisceration of the right by the exclusion of any serious radical conservatism and its assimilation to the standards and values of the liberal establishment but the reduction of the ranks of the “movement” to the very cadre of bumper-sticker-quoters and Limbaugh-listeners that struts up and down the streets of Washington today—the political and ideological equivalent of a lobotomy.  The “movement” spit out just about anyone who was interesting, different, or creative, as well as anybody with any inclinations to real conservative radicalism, and the end result was a well-drilled platoon of apparatchiks, enlivened by the occasional con artist and outright crook, as well as misfits like compulsive gamblers, pillheads, and perverts.

The internal tactics of the conservative movement still do not entirely explain its failure, however, nor do the personal inadequacies of its leadership.  The tactical errors were made, and the flawed leaders emerged and remained leaders, because of deeper flaws that reflect the social and historical trends the “movement” itself sought but failed to arrest.

“Conservatism” in any society and in any era is always less of an ideology or body of thought than the natural expression of the dominant classes and forces that find themselves being threatened with displacement.  What happened in the United States of the mid-20th century is that a new ruling class displaced the old one, and the “conservatism” that emerged was the ideological and political effort to resist the process of displacement that was occurring.

The “conservative movement” that developed in the resistance to the New Deal, intervention in World War II, and postwar Soviet communism reflected the values of the old ruling class and the culture it had constructed—private property and free enterprise, small government constrained by law, the nation-state, the nuclear family and the values that bound it together, and what in general is known as “bourgeois morality.”  Yet, as the old ruling class lost power and influence and its values and institutions withered, the resistance movement it had mounted decayed, ceasing to be a real force with roots and connections in the larger society and devolving into a collection of eccentric intellectuals and academics, marginal activists, and ideological cranks of all descriptions (the latter supplying most of the kinds of “kooks” who really should have been purged but who often wound up leading the movement).  It is highly significant that the intellectual leadership of post-World War II conservatism came mainly from universities, not from business, politics, organized religion, or the literary and higher-journalistic professions.  The latter are circles that actually reflect what is going on within a society, while academic oddballs do not.  Academics may be brilliant and their ideas world-historical in importance, but what they think and write is typically quite disengaged from the social and cultural mainstream.  So far from providing the intellectual substance of a vital conservatism, the academic writers of which most conservative leaders have long boasted were evidence that conservatism was dying and could be made comprehensible only through erudite elaboration.

What remained, then, was purely and simply a “movement” defined almost entirely by ideology of one kind or another rather than a body of thought and practice that reflected the real, living classes, beliefs, and institutions of functioning society.  That is why conservative ideologists so often appeal to and identify with defunct epochs of history—the Middle Ages, the Old South, the glorious free market of the 19th century, the 1950’s, etc.  Alienated and uprooted from the society around them, they can turn only to the vanished or imaginary ones of the past.  That is also why so many “kooks” always show up in the “movement”—crackpots with various free-market panaceas, conspiracy theorists, racial obsessives, religious nuts, outright occultists, and zealots peddling one political hallucination after another, as well as the inevitable troop of health-food faddists and flying-saucer chasers.  Since the ideology to which the “conservative movement” appealed could no longer be defined and controlled by the dominant forces of the society, its natural tendency was to spin out of orbit and careen wildly across and beyond the political horizon.

The leading conservative politicians, from Robert A. Taft to the present, reflect the same trend.  Men such as Taft and his generation represented a living class and culture that genuinely sought to conserve themselves by any honorable means.  Conservatives who emerged after World War II—gentlemen like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy—were not the same kind of people, though by no means without their own virtues.  The political leaders that the “conservative movement” eventually produced were almost all total nonentities.  It is also significant that, of the most successful and enduring political figures of the American right since 1945—Nixon, McCarthy, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan—not one came out of the “conservative movement,” though some were willing to ally with it when useful, and the “movement” was quick to latch on to those who seemed to be useful to itself.  All the direct mail, campaign schools, leadership training, and youth organizations the “movement” churned out resulted in not a single successful political figure.

The American conservative movement failed because history had passed it by.  It ceased to represent any significant social force and easily fell victim to social pathologies and eccentricities, and the issues on which it tended to fixate simply ceased to be relevant to the real concerns of most Americans.  To this day, not one of the conservative elder statesmen interviewed by Mr. Hallow has had any word to say about the impact of mass immigration on American society or the erosion of the national industrial base or the cultural and economic destruction of the middle class.  Their preoccupation has mainly been with their own pet abstractions—“Liberty,” “National Security,” “A Defense Second to None,” “Traditional Values,” “the Judeo-Christian Tradition”—most of which are fine but none of which consists of much more than rhetorical opacities trying to mask the social and cultural vacuum in which the “movement” resides.

Twenty years ago, a reporter writing a story similar to the one Mr. Hallow wrote last summer would have interviewed almost all the same people who are the movement’s “elders” now.  Today, there are virtually no “conservative leaders” any younger to interview.  The American right, at least as it was defined by the “conservative movement,” is dead.  And it died childless.