When one is asked about the future in the context Chronicles has set, the obvious response is to talk in political terms. But conservatism is not a political phenomenon. I have always been uncomfortable with references to the “conservative movement” when I read the political press or some of my favorite columnists. It seems like an oxymoron.
Conservativism is a philosophical attitude. To be a conservative is to accept the fallibility of man and the imperfectibility of human institutions. It is an odd kind of skepticism, because it is a skepticism based on, finally, faith. If God created man to be the creature he is, then it is not for us only to accept man as he is but to try to understand man as he is—and to understand joyfully. That requirement for joyful understanding gives the positive dimension to conservatism. In fact, it makes it kind of fun.
The Founders, despite their differences, were almost uniformly conservative in contemporary terms. Their knowledge of history was deep, and therefore they were not optimistic about the construction of a government that would both preserve liberty and promote the growth and expansion of the common wealth.
In some conservative circles today their lack of optimism translates into pessimism. I would argue there is a profound difference. Pessimism is a surrender of faith, a spiritual shrugging of the shoulders. But the Founders, looking back over five thousand years of history, were not pessimistic; they were realistic about the limitations of human reason and human accomplishment.
Looking forward, our attitude should be the same. Conservatives will never besiege a Bastille, storm a Winter Palace, parade into Havana. We’ll simply go about the business of being normal. That means we’ll spend a great deal of time reminding our fellow citizens and arguing with our fellow Republicans about what government can be expected to do and what our culture ought to preserve and pass on. If all goes well, we’ll keep this magnificent experiment called America going for another century or two. If I’m supposed to have aspirations, that’s about the best I can come up with.
To look at the present out of which the future grows one must conclude that American conservatism is now only a footnote in the history of the rise and fall of the American Republic. It has been reduced to a remnant of the body politic.
At the national level, most prominent people who call themselves conservative are not. They are either Republican partisans, like Representative Newt Gingrich, trying to compete for votes by painting the old welfare state with new rhetoric, or they are an American imitation of the British Tory, imperialist to the bone and elitist to the marrow.
The only powerful political movement left in the present is imperialism, or transnationalism. It encompasses both Democrats and Republicans, both those who label themselves liberal and conservative, both the New Right and the Old Right, as well as those democratic socialists who branded themselves neoconservatives to explain their imperialistic aims. Like the British in the 1920’s, they all cling to the fantasy of a superior America, powerful enough militarily and economically to impose what they suppose are its values at a tidy corporate profit on the rest of the world. Most recently they have exulted in a military victory over a Third World country while conveniently ignoring the begging bowl that accompanied the tanks and the necessary acquiescence—not likely to continue—of the Soviet Union. Genuine American conservatives are found only in pockets and are generally denied access to the great organ of propaganda—network television. Thus there is faint hope that seeds of conservative thought can be planted by national leaders.
But a look at the soil itself—the American people—withers even faint hope. Where is there any sign of conservative values among the people? The mobility of the population, its concentration in urban centers, seems to have destroyed any sense of community. The deliberate post-World War II effort to devalue nationalism in public education seems to be the only aspect of public education that has succeeded. There is little sign of enlightened nationalism, only occasional bursts of jingoism and the steady grumbling of the welfare statists who complain of foreign aid only because they want the money spent on themselves.
George Washington said you could not maintain a free republic without virtuous people. Thomas Jefferson said you could not maintain one with ignorant people. They were both right.
The defeat and disappearance of what has been known as conservatism in the 20th century is a subject worthy of a large book. What would be said in such a book would depend on whether we took a historical focus of a few years, a few decades, or a larger span. And on whether we looked at political parties and mass politics, intellectual movements, or far-reaching social change.
It is possible that the most recent American experience in international adventurism has effectively finished off what we have known as conservatism, and also what has been known as liberalism—both swallowed up by the imperial state, for which ideas, principles, and even material interests are expendable. For the latest adventure, unlike earlier ones, has not occurred because of unavoidable conflict, but by deliberate choice.
It would be interesting to pursue Roman analogies and what they suggest about the long-term perils of bankruptcy and proletarianization for the state that undertakes the imperial role. But it is perhaps enough to point out that the bill is not in for the economic and psychic costs, and they cannot be discussed until the present euphoria has passed. And that politicians will be able to obfuscate the costs for a long time.
It would also be interesting to chart the course of movement of intellectual conservatism into the terminal state of vulgarity and triviality in which George Will can be regarded as a leading intellectual. However, I will focus in this brief space on the strange and almost unnoticed failure and betrayal of conservatism as a domestic political movement, despite three resounding national election victories.
The chief reason for this failure is that conservatism allowed itself to be captured within the contaminated vessel of the Republican Party. Our President, who was elected three times on an anti-affirmative action platform, is for affirmative action. And who can gainsay the Great Emancipator of Kuwait? He was elected by millions concerned about the Willie Hortons of the world. We have no evidence that he has done anything about the Willie Hortons. We have no evidence that he wishes to do anything. The only evidence we have is that he wants the votes of those who are concerned.
He was elected, after an explicit promise, by the votes of millions of middle- and working-class Americans who sought some remedy for the government burden on their earnings. They now face increased government spending and greater taxes, to bail out the bureaucracy, the bankers, and the sheiks. Northeastern yuppies who voted for Dukakis may take a tax deduction for the interest on their vacation homes. The millions of middle-class people who voted for Bush cannot take a deduction for the interest paid to buy a car needed to get to work and support the government.
The difference between the Democratic and Republican parties—and this dichotomy can be found in earlier periods of the history of the vile American two-party system—is that the Democrats serve their constituency. The unions, minority groups, bureaucrats, and assorted social enemies who support them can expect to profit by their victory. And also by their defeat, since the other party neither wants to nor can provide effective opposition to their agenda.
The Republicans have been talking about the Emerging Republican Majority, Middle America, the Silent Majority, etc. for more than two decades now. Some pundits have wondered why this Majority has not emerged. The explanation is simple. It has been betrayed by the Republican Party, which wants its votes but not its platform. The only effective conservative movement in recent history in mass politics was that of a non-Republican, George Wallace, which made a far profounder change in American politics than the so-called Reagan Revolution. If Wallace had not badly scared the leaders of both parties, they would not now be giving even lip service to the concerns of Middle America. The function of the Republican Party is to capture and contain those concerns.
Many political movements and tendencies emerged in postwar America—those of Johnson, Nixon, Wallace, Reagan, and others. But the winner has been that tendency that had the least popular support: Nelson Rockefeller’s. His Liberal Republicanism of the 1960’s postulated that the Republicans could do everything the Democrats could do, but could do it better. (Meanwhile minimizing impact on the inherited wealth of the Northeast.) Thanks to the nature and history of the Republican Party, despite unfailing rejection at the polls, that regime is now triumphant.
MURRAY N. ROTHBARD
Access to political power during the 1980’s completed the transformation of the old conservative movement into an ignoble scramble for government jobs. The movement was shorn of all principles except two: the major foreign policy axiom of all-out opposition to the Soviet Union and to its satellite Communist parties throughout the globe; and the relatively trivial supply-side axiom of cuts in marginal tax rates. All other aspects and policies of the gigantic welfare-warfare state brought to us by the New Deal and its heirs have been embraced and accelerated by the conservative movement.
Indeed, all Republican administrations since World War II have engaged in an orchestrated minuet with the Democrats, the inevitable result being the continuing advance of statism and the permanent imposition of the leviathan state upon the backs of the American people. Each Democrat regime brings an accelerated intensification of Big Government, accompanied by much hoopla and fanfare: the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society. Each Republican administration, in the meanwhile, rejecting “reactionary” and “dogmatic” pleas to repeal or roll back statist advance, merely slows down the rate of growth of state power, thereby giving deluded conservatives a crumb or two to cheer about. Indeed, the function of every Republican regime, beginning with Eisenhower, was to be “responsible” and “enlightened” rather than reactionary, to the great plaudits of the liberal media; in short, to consolidate the New Deal or the Great Society, and thus to prepare the push for the next giant step toward collectivism.
The Reagan regime performed the same historical function as its predecessors, the key difference being that this was the first administration to command the allegiance, heart and soul, of the conservative movement, which at least had been healthily skeptical of all previous administrations. Blinded both by admiration for Ronald Reagan and by the lure of patronage, the conservative movement lost the last shreds of its reason for forming in the years after World War II: a burning desire to repeal and abolish every vestige of the leviathan New Deal structure, root and branch.
Conservatives themselves helped along this degeneration by embracing anti-Soviet foreign policy as their overriding principle. Not only did this lead to enthusiastic collaboration in building towards war and much of the economic destructiveness (via taxes, deficits, and military waste) of the welfare-warfare state, but also conservatives’ blind devotion to anticommunism and anti-Stalinism led them to embrace warmly and uncritically groups of socialists who differed only marginally, albeit bitterly, from various aspects of Soviet communism. Broadly, all these variants may be grouped together as “democratic socialists” or “social democrats.” Whatever each group called itself, be it Trotskyites, Lovestonites, Schachtmanites, Mensheviks, democratic socialists, Social Democrats, Truman-Humphrey Democrats, neoliberals, or neoconservatives, they all really amounted to the same thing.
Trumpeting the virtues of “democracy” or “democratic values” rather than liberty or the rights of private property, all wings of the social democrats glorify and yearn to expand the welfare-warfare state. They invariably favor central government control over diverse states, provinces, or regions, whether inside or outside the United States, and they scorn any limitations upon that centralized power. They are all for a permanent policy of massive global intervention by the United States, aiming toward a form of centralized world government to whip into line any recalcitrant nationalities or rulers of whom they disapprove. While all social democrats, as “market socialists” these days, pay lip service to the virtues and efficiencies of the market economy, for them the market must play a role strictly subordinate to a strong central “democratic” government.
The sudden collapse of Soviet and East European communism in the revolutionary implosion of 1989 has changed drastically the nature of the world and of the problems facing the conservative movement. Suddenly, its prime axiom is admitted by all to be obsolete, and what now? What are supposed to be the guiding principles of conservatism or of American policy now that the Soviet and communist threats have disappeared? Conservatives have split along an old natural fault line: one wing has discovered the pre-195 5 Old Right, and has sensibly called for a restoration of the commitment to rolling back the leviathan state and to a foreign policy of “isolationism.” The other wing, centrists guided by the powerful ruling elite of neoconservatives, urge us almost desperately to continue a policy of global intervention, despite the loss of its underpinnings. In a deep sense, the inner agenda of the neoconservative branch of social democracy is now starkly revealed: a global crusade to put down all nationalities and regimes throughout the world not subservient to its version of democratic values.
Furthermore, with the collapse of communism, the neoconservative ruling elite is now revealed to be playing precisely the same role in the intellectual or ideological arena that the Republican Party has for decades played in politics: forming a sham “loyal opposition” to the Center Establishment and to the left-liberal media, their very noisy presence serving to form the limits of “respectable” conservatism. Beyond those limits is supposed to reside only “extremism,” chaos, and the Old Right, and those can be safely ignored by respectable media opinion.
I am convinced that the first task of genuine conservatism, then, is to throw off neocon control, to reconnect with the great American heartland by unfurling the good old banner of individual liberty, the rights of private property, ultra-minimal government, and a foreign policy devoted to America first and last. It must be a policy once again devoted to the abolition of all New Deal and post-New Deal structures of the leviathan state, and to devolving the swollen federal government, especially its executive and its judiciary, into self-governing local polities.
I believe that the great mass of American conservatives, those who wouldn’t know a neocon from a bean bag, are with us in these aspirations, as are a good portion of the American people. The neocon elite is rich in wealth and influence, but it is thin on the ground, and hence their evident trepidation at what genuine conservatism could accomplish if roused. The important strategic objective must be to find a way to reach the conservative mass over the heads of their official, self-appointed leaders, structures, and institutions.
After a decade of Reagan and Bush, the Washington-based conservative movement is at a dead end. Grassroots supporters have grown weary of the battle, frustrated by political betrayal and by their apparent impotence to achieve significant victories on issues they care about. Those who control the government have been only marginally inconvenienced by antiestablishment protest because, in the context of the present two-party system, fed-up Americans have no place else to go on election day. All too many conservatives have accepted the notion that their role in life is to lose as slowly as possible.
Our experience of the past several decades is that, during Republican presidencies, significant elements of the conservative agenda are repudiated and abandoned—on issues ranging from helping Gorbachev and the “New World Order” to subsidies for Planned Parenthood, the Legal Services Corporation, and the organized homosexual movement. In 1990, only six Republican senators voted against the Glean Air bill. Only 16 Republican representatives voted against the legislation in the House. Out of 100 U.S. senators, only four had the courage to stand up to the homosexual lobby and oppose the Hate Grimes bill. Only eight senators said no to the Americans With Disabilities Act, and only 20 representatives, despite the fact that this legislation requires, for example, the owner of a restaurant to hire “otherwise qualified” AIDS-infected homosexuals for food-handling positions. And, on an issue where the vast resources of the conservatives in the pro-family movement were mobilized, out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives only 64 voted to cut off the money for the National Endowment for the Arts.
All too often, self-described conservative organizations have accepted, in operational terms, the notion that there is no “truth” to the right of Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Quite understandably, the conservative rank and file have been demoralized by this courtier style of leadership. After all, “if the trumpet gives forth an uncertain sound, who will heed the call to battle?” No leader has the moral right to lead his forces into combat without a worthy objective and a sound strategy for achieving it.
Yet, which conservative elected officials or organizational representatives are genuinely committed to turning the tide away from the incremental, exponential expansion of the federal government that has accelerated during the Reagan and Bush presidencies? Energies and resources that could be applied to reconstructing our former Republic are instead being expended on petty ambitions and small purposes. Rather than challenging the flawed premises of judicial-bureaucratic statism, many content themselves with arguments over details of a left-wing agenda that ought to be comprehensively repudiated because of its inherent unacceptability. It’s past time to reassert the sound premise that the only legitimate purpose of civil government is to safeguard our God-given rights to life, liberty, and property.
Control of the presidency is essential if we are to implement an activist agenda to cut federal taxes and spending to appropriate constitutional size. A President, in one term, can terminate unconstitutional outlays and eliminate much unfair excessive taxation by using his constitutional veto authority and having his veto of revenue and appropriations bills, and even continuing resolutions, sustained by one-third plus one of the members of at least one branch of the Congress of the United States. If revenue bills are vetoed, and the vetoes are sustained, the taxes they anticipate can’t be collected. If appropriations bills are vetoed, and the vetoes are sustained, then those agencies, regulations, and programs that are based on appropriations will close down.
Even if the Republican Party were overpowered by a constitutionally conservative candidate, his ability to win the presidency in a two-way race for the popular vote would be severely limited. He could not unite his party without surrendering his agenda. However, the mathematics of the electoral college does make it possible to elect a constitutional conservative in a multiparty context. That is why, through the U.S. Taxpayer Alliance, I am working to launch, in time for the 1992 elections, a new political party that advances principles and policy objectives consistent with the Bible and the Constitution of the United States, whose purpose, both by fielding its own candidates and co-endorsing, where appropriate, candidates of other parties, is to establish a right standard for civil government and an electoral rallying point for those who, in agreement with our purposes, choose to join us. Contrary to the prevailing myth, our supporters will not be wasting their votes, as they do when they vote for a party or candidate leading them in the wrong direction.
Strong medicine is consumed only when circumstances seem to require it. But even the reluctant patient will take comfort knowing that the strong medicine is available. In God’s providence, if we do our jobs well, our countrymen may, in time of extreme crisis, accept what we prescribe.
Asking what is wrong with the conservative coalition is putting last things first. There cannot be a coalition unless there is something around which it coalesces. And there is no “there” there for a conservative coalition.
There is no center. Yes, there are millions who hold conservative values, and there are scores of organizations, perhaps hundreds. But there is no sense of a team, no movement, no elan, no leader, no feeling that we must pull together, not even a conservative community.
There are leaders, but thousands of them, all leading in different directions, not one who could really lead somewhere. It is entrepreneurial individualism run amuck, and I am as guilty as any. For to establish real individualism ego must be superseded by a sense of community, and institutions must be created that channel self-interest. Without real leaders who can also follow, no movement can exist.
If a national test were given, even just to the leaders, it would be impossible to obtain a coherent one-sentence definition of conservatism. At best, there would be libertarian, traditionalist, paleo, neo, internationalist, isolationist, free-enterprise, establishmentarian hyphenated-conservatisms in an impenetrable confusion.
No movement in any coherent sense of the term can take form in Babel. In the past, there was a movement around the definition of “libertarian means in a conservative society for traditionalist ends,” but it barely exists today. There was an initial leader, William F. Buckley, Jr., and then Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan; but now there is none. There was a movement that sacrificed to common goals, if not in a single organization, in a few that cooperated with each other, but not anymore.
To a great extent, the original core conservative movement, was a victim of its success in creating an electoral coalition around itself. A coalition, by definition, is composed of diverse elements that share only a few common goals. The worst thing conservatives could do today would be to try to build a coalition before it recreates a center around which a coalition could form. Reluctant Resident by John Nixon, Jr. As a rule, I don’t exist. When I think of wars I’ve missed And subterranean upheavals And plagues of frogs and plagues of weevils. By simply being not among Those present, I could sing a song Of ecstasy and wild thanksgiving That, as a rule, I’m just not living.
A coalition without a core is vacuous. It is modern interest-group liberalism under a different label. It is the buddy-buddyism of country-club Republicanism without the noblesse oblige. It is another amalgam of devouring pressure lobbies that cannot raise bold colors under which honest men and women can march.
So first things first. Conservative leaders must begin the difficult task of submerging some realistic part of self—and at least some of the comfortable and flattering access they hold in Washington—to a higher vision. They must agree upon a definition of the conservative vision of the common good (which necessarily has an individualistic tinge) and set subordinate interests in their proper place, even if this appears too radical to those in the seat of power. Only after this demanding effort can moral courage wrest from Babel a core conservatism worthy of popular support from which a governing coalition can be formed.
A conservative reformation need not start from scratch. Why not begin from the period that successfully launched the movement the first time? Start with the definition of libertarian means in a conservative society for traditionalist ends. Flesh this out with the I960 conservative movement credo, the Sharon Statement, which listed the essential elements as then understood—individual freedom, God-given so not rightfully limited by arbitrary human force; national government restrictions on that freedom only for national defense, internal order, and the administration of justice; a foreign policy judged by the criterion, “does it serve the just interests of the United States?”; a Constitution appreciated for the genius it showed in reserving the powers not specifically delegated to the nation as problems for the states or the people; and a free market, because only it is compatible with individual freedom, constitutional government, and the satisfaction of peoples’ needs for goods and the rewards of work.
Tradition, freedom, limited domestic and foreign government, order, federalism, and free markets—these constituted the originally successful formula. By all means change or add to them if they no longer make sense; but it is time to stop grumbling and blaming George Bush, and solve the real problem—reforming ourselves, even if it means beginning all over again.