Conservatism Marches On

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The source: “Is Conservatism Finished?” by Wilfred M. McClay, in Commentary, Jan. ­2007.

The Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections are just the latest news to have set many conservative pundits to sounding the death knell for their movement. The title of one of the many recent books in this vein labels the lead culprit: Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause, by Richard Viguerie. According to Viguerie, Bush may have “talked like a conservative to win our votes, but [he] never governed like a conservative.” Bush’s foreign- and domestic-policy stumbles, most notably the war in Iraq, have sabotaged “the idyllic spirit of unity at home and cooperation abroad that allegedly prevailed during the Cold War years under [Ronald] Reagan,” writes Wilfred M. McClay, historian and professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chat­tanooga. But does all this mean that the conservative movement is really ­finished?

McClay believes that the “modest” election victory for the Demo­crats, which yielded only a narrow majority in both houses of Congress, does not “justify the claim that conservatism lost.” He points to the easy triumph of independent senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut “over his more liberal ­anti­war challenger” and the victories of “such relatively conservative Demo­crats as James Webb in Virginia and Robert Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania” as signs that no major ideological shift is under way. Indeed, McClay says, “the American electorate has . . . moved slowly but steadily in a conservative direction since 1968.”

McClay also questions the validity of the conservatives’ charges against Bush, each of which “rests on some ­a ­priori definition of what conservatism is and what it is not.” Jeffrey Hart, for instance, author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind (2006), speaks of conservatism “as a realistic and non-ideological approach to governance,” and chides Bush for overstepping his authority. But McClay cites many instances when leaders took actions “that involved the transgression of a ‘conservative’ principle for the sake of broadly conservative ends,” such as Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of basic civil liberties during the Civil War. Nor is Bush’s “insistence on the universal appeal of free institutions out of line” with conservatism of the past. His justifications for his Iraq policy echo Reagan, who once said, “It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”

To some conservatives, Bush’s evangelical Protestantism—“the source of his involvement of the federal government in promoting educational reform, his faith-based initiative, his African AIDS in­it­iative”—“reeks equally of ­do-­goodism and unlimited govern­ment.” McClay points to the words of one of conservatism’s founding voices, Russell Kirk, who said, “There exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Even Reagan, McClay reminds his fellow conservatives, frequently quoted Scripture, and favored making inauguration day “a day of prayer.”

It’s “ridiculous,” McClay adds, for conservatives to recall the Reagan years as a time of comity. Viguerie himself charged in 1987 that Reagan had “changed sides” and was allied with liberals and the ­Soviets.

McClay believes that the current attention focused on conservatism’s “demise” is the best evidence that it is, “intellectually speaking, where the principal action remains.” The Democratic Party has so far found “clarity only in discrediting George W. Bush and regaining office.” But he cautions that “conservatism in American politics is less an ideology than a coalition.” As in any coalition, “not all of the pieces fit together coherently.” Conservatives would do well, McClay concludes, to “remember Ronald Reagan as a leader who not only embodied the distinctive characteristics of American conservatism but who finessed its antinomies and persevered against the contempt and condescension of his own era.” A more realistic view of the past, in other words, may help conservatives “regain their bearings and prevail.”

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