Whither American Conservatism?

Democratic control of the White House and Congress has prompted some profound soul-searching among conservatives. How did the powerful reign of the Right fall into such disarray? George H. Nash, a prominent historian of modern conservatism, has pondered the arc of conservative power for decades. In his latest book, "Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism," he assesses the discontent and sees signs of hope for the future.

GUEST BLOGGER: George H. Nash

Recently it has become commonplace to assert that the American Right is dead -- or at least brain dead. But is this true? How firm are the foundations of modern American conservatism? Perhaps they are sturdier than many observers think.

First, when examining the epiphenomena of contemporary politics -- especially in our era of ever more frenzied news cycles -- it is helpful to remember the ancient adage: "This, too, shall pass." The divisive Bush presidency is now over, and many of the political circumstances that dismayed and disoriented conservatives in recent years have begun to dissipate.

As George Orwell reminded us years ago, intellectuals are tempted to assume that whatever is happening right now will continue to happen -- that tomorrow will inevitably look just like today. In some ways it will, but in some ways it won't. Certainly the future is preconditioned by the past, but it is not predetermined by the past. The longer I study history, the more impressed I am by the importance of contingency -- the unforeseen and the unforeseeable -- in the shaping of human events. American conservatives instinctively look upon our history in this way: not simply as a burden or constraint but as possibility. They should therefore take heart (and indeed are already doing so) from the knowledge that "this, too, shall pass."

Secondly, in their fixation on the sound and fury of the stormy present, it is easy for conservatives and their adversaries to overlook and undervalue one of the Right's most impressive achievements during the past forty years: the creation of a veritable conservative counterculture, a burgeoning infrastructure of alternative media, foundations, research centers, think tanks, publishing houses, law firms, homeschooling networks, and more.

From the Beltway to the blogosphere, these clusters of purposeful energy continue to multiply and flourish. They comprise a significant part of what has been called the "influence industry" in Washington. From the perspective of a historian, this flowering of applied conservatism, this elaborate institutionalization of conservative impulses and ideas, is a remarkable intellectual and political development.

Think of it: When eminent conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley, Jr., Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk were writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, the number of publicly active, professing conservative intellectuals in the United States was minuscule. Today how can we even begin to count?

Since 1980 prosperity has come to conservatism, and with it a multitude of niche markets and specialization on a thousand fronts. The fruit of a generation of successful conservative institution building appears to have reached a critical mass that is unlikely to crumble anytime soon. This augurs well for the continued influence of conservatism on our national conversation.

A third source of durability for conservatives is this: on the home front, the cohesion that was once supplied by Cold War anticommunism has increasingly come from another "war" -- the so-called culture war, pitting an alliance of conservative Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Orthodox Jewish believers against a post-Judeo-Christian, even anti-Christian, secular elite whom they perceive to be aggressively hostile to their deepest convictions. Every day fresh tremors break out along this fault line- over abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and the composition of the federal courts. It is a struggle literally over the meaning of right and wrong, a battle (for conservatives) against what Pope Benedict has called "the tyranny of relativism."

Early in 2008 it became fashionable in the media to suggest that the culture wars were over as a salient feature of American life. But oh, the unpredictable contingencies of history: in the meteoric ascent of Sarah Palin to national prominence, and in the typhoon of publicity that has enveloped her ever since, the smoldering culture wars (in some ways also a class war) have reignited. For the foreseeable future, the perception of an irrepressible conflict between conservative people of faith and the secular Left is likely to energize large sectors of the American Right.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the conservative coalition seems likely to endure for a while because most of the external stimuli that goaded it into existence have not disappeared. On the contrary, they have recently grown stronger. The Berlin Wall may be gone, and with it the unifying force of anticommunism, but fresh, authoritarian challenges abound overseas on many fronts, while at home the drive for a nationalized medical care system approaches a climax. Large swatches of American life -- notably the universities, the major media, and the entertainment industry -- continue to move in directions antithetical to conservative beliefs. For defenders of Judeo-Christian ethics -- and that means most conservatives -- there remains much work to do. There is still a potent enemy on the Left.

This awareness of external challenge from the Left is integral to the prospects for American conservatism in the years ahead. The most hopeful portent for conservatives, paradoxically, may be the very audacity and perhaps hubris of their ideological foes. As the Obama administration and its Congressional supporters have lurched leftward, talk of a conservative crackup has abated -- at least on the Right. More quickly and effectively than many observers thought possible, President Obama's initiatives have galvanized his intellectual and political opponents into articulate resistance.

The language of liberty -- "Don't tread on me" -- has acquired new resonance on the Right. Just as Sarah Palin's candidacy in 2008 reinvigorated millions of despondent grassroots conservatives, the reality of liberalism in power, in 2009, has bestirred them even more.

This does not mean that conservatism's future prosperity is assured. The election of 2008 disclosed some problematic demographic trends, including conservative weakness among new immigrant groups and in the so-called Diploma Belt of "best educated" American counties. But the setbacks of 2008 and the "tea party" protests of 2009 have taught the Right a valuable lesson: In the words of the computer scientist Alan Kay, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

As 2009 gives way to 2010, insurgent conservatives seem determined to do just that.


By Steven E. Levingston |  December 21, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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What an arrogant and vague donkey this elephant is. He is never specific about what conservative principles are, or about the huge conflicts and contradictions within so-called conservative ranks. And he cedes no ground or validity to the principles and beliefs of anybody who isn't a "conservative" by which I think he must mean not a Republican.

Conservatives these days are radicals, subversives and traitors to the rest of us because they want to drown and starve government, break their oaths, subvert it founding principles and destroy its processes and values by supplanting our two centuries of traditions with religious beliefs, merging religion into government and stating that only they are for freedom. They cry about taxes but spend huge amounts on unnecessary weapons and ginned up wars, subsidies for corporate clients and no bid contracts.

All the principles they tout so frequently are somehow then decried when also applied to them - personal freedom but not for women, domestic spying, personal responsibility but huge earmarks for red states galore. Why are the red/GOP states the ones which have the highest divorce rates, are the largest chronic recipients of federal tax moneys above what the state paid in (state welfare), and the lowest in educational achievement? Being principles means consistent application of those principles, not only when politically convenient.

The statements by the true believer ideological historian are just too funny and weak to be credible, but then the right lives in a dream world funded by the rest of us and our sacrifices.

Posted by: enough3 | December 21, 2009 11:46 AM

This peice starts with two false premises. First, that conservatism was ever an intellectual movment. It had an intelletual vaneer to cover the same old tired pro-business and skrew everyone else that has alwyas been the undergirding of conservatism. Second, it then posits that bush was not a conservative. He was the quitntessential conservative. Fast and free with taxpayer money so long as it went into the pockets of the very rich and into the balance sheets of mega-corporations. No different than reagan or his dad on that front. He even went down the road of a belligerant foreign policy which has always been the wet dream of conservatives but which most have either had the sense (his dad) or lacked the reckless childish bravado (reagan) to actually follow. Conservaitsm has always ben a well financed sham. What remains is only there because some are really dumb and some still feel their financial well being is connected to it. The rest of the country saw it horrific daily events that conservatism is and always will be a filaure for the nation.

Posted by: John1263 | December 21, 2009 12:15 PM

The most impressive victories of the right -- he is correct -- none of those triumphs do anything to make anyones life better. they just help conservatives lie in louder unison while they destroy the body politic and while nthey streal our national wealth. The conservative counter culture as expressed through propaganda outlet is the finest acheivment he can point to -- not social security, Medicare, Clean Air and Water acts -- nothing like that -- just an infrastructure for spreading lies. What an awesome record.

Posted by: John1263 | December 21, 2009 12:18 PM

you people write these articles based on nothing...
CONSERVATISM IS ALIVE AND WELL...
deal with it...

Posted by: DwightCollins | December 21, 2009 1:01 PM

Nash, like other conservatives, fails to articulate the ultimate purpose of conservatism, which is, of course, to preserve the status quo or take us back to some ideal time which never really existed, by forcing every citizen into the same mold. What has conservatism brought us over the last thirty years? Enormous national debts without even a world war for an excuse, tax cuts for the wealthy and an eroding middle class, the exportation of our productive capabilities to low-wage countries and the resultant erosion of our national security, the list goes on and on. Oh, those people weren't really conservatives, you say? Well, then, why did you support them? Conservatives just love to use religion and culture, racism and hate, to drive wedges between people. Conservatives don't want to live and let live, they want to dictate everything from culture to religious practice to private acts in private bedrooms. Let conservatives have their way and we will end up with a repressive nightmare that will destroy our democracy.

Posted by: Chagasman | December 21, 2009 1:16 PM

Sarah Palin?!?!?! He cites Sarah Palin as a factor invigorating the right?!?!?! That speaks volumes.

Posted by: DamnedLiberal | December 21, 2009 1:17 PM

Republicans do not live by Conservative Principles.

The Republican party of the last decade and their control of all three houses of government forced the Government to grow, put the Economy in massive debt, broke the banks, started an unnecessary war over oil, became more invasive of privacy, had plenty of gay members on their team, and cheated on their wives.

All in violation of Conservative principles.

Republicans only take Conservative votes, they do not follow up with Conservative results.

Posted by: vigor | December 21, 2009 1:50 PM

I expected to read a rational, eloquent defense of conservative ideals. Instead, the author starts with a defensible premise: change is inevitable, coupled with wishful thinking that a conservative resurgence can be built on creating a set of institutions seperate from the general public, built primarily on religious beliefs. Most sad, albeit amusing, is the credit the author gives to unnamed conservatives allegedly offering intellectual and articulate resistance to the President specifically & liberals generally. Personally, I have yet to see any. With the passing of Buckley & his peers, and the ostracization of tepid conservatives like Brooks, I question whether the right will genuinely produce intellectual leaders capable of making effective arguments that will persuade moderates to see the merits of conservatism.

Posted by: bsimon1 | December 21, 2009 2:02 PM

To all measurable intents and purposes, conservatism HAS been soundly discredited and can now be laid to rest for generations to come.

It's as dead as anything will ever get, and rightly so.

Those who identify themselves as conservatives are in good company: The Dodo, dinosaurs, Those who believe the Earth to be flat, and Barbers who use leeches for ailments.

Denial of their circumstances will NOT change the reality of their circumstance.

However, in about three generations, there will probably by people gullible enough to revisit the failures of Conservatism, and see something positive there ( like looking for positive aspects of the failed presidency of G.W. Bush.. nonexistent, but spin-able as positive)

Posted by: BellsBlu2 | December 21, 2009 2:06 PM

At some point conservatives are going to have to be for something, and they are going to have to be perceived as less eager to persecute large groups of citizens. Less spitful zealtry would help too.

What are conservatives for that actually help Americans cope with our problems? It's not enought to get elected by being against things. When a serious problems presents itself, voters want attempts at solutions, not to be told "just put up with it." Less tax is not an reasonable ideology unless you combine it with less spending (see G. Bush II).

Also, for too many common voters conservatives are associated with hateful attacks on their friends, relatives and co-workers (gays, immigrants, poor people, uninsured, African-Americans, non-fundamentalist Christians, etc). Voters like optimism and reasonable inclusiveness.

Finally, thoughtful voters are turned off by the thoughtlessness and vengeful rhetoric of right wing media and tea party types. Not many blacks will vote for a candidate who is associated with witch-doctor posters.

Posted by: outragex | December 21, 2009 2:21 PM

THERE IS HOPE FOR CONSERVATIVES!

ALL THEY NEED TO DO IS BECOME LIBERALS, AND THEY'LL BE RELEVANT AGAIN.

Posted by: trenda | December 21, 2009 2:37 PM

Thank you, Mr. Nash, for your hypothesis that as conservatives grow more ignorant they become wiser -you must indeed be a genius.
My daddy said it best: "The only thing worse than an ignorant fool is an educated one."

Posted by: joneshn | December 21, 2009 3:20 PM

The author seems to identify conservatism with a particular (unstated) viewpoint on "abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and the composition of the federal courts. It is a struggle literally over the meaning of right and wrong, a battle (for conservatives) against what Pope Benedict has called "the tyranny of relativism." Also, with opposition to "authoritarianism abroad".

So... nothing here about fiscal conservatism, freedom and privacy, or self reliance, which were to me the strengths of traditional conservatism.

My impression is that this latter type of conservatives have emerged under the Libertarian banner. The conservative split has already happened.

Posted by: elizh1 | December 21, 2009 3:21 PM

The author seems to identify conservatism with a particular (unstated) viewpoint on "abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and the composition of the federal courts. It is a struggle literally over the meaning of right and wrong, a battle (for conservatives) against what Pope Benedict has called "the tyranny of relativism." Also, with opposition to "authoritarianism abroad".

So... nothing here about fiscal conservatism, freedom and privacy, or self reliance, which were to me the strengths of traditional conservatism.

My impression is that this latter type of conservatives have emerged under the Libertarian banner. The conservative split has already happened.

Posted by: elizh1 | December 21, 2009 3:22 PM

The question is not why conservatism is faltering, but how they were able to deceive so many people for so long.

Posted by: JimZ1 | December 21, 2009 3:53 PM

Conservatism- It is unfortunate that a political philosophy that is so bankrupt can indeed rise from the grave.

Even as far back as John Stuart Mill, Who stated that, "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative." it was recognized that times change, people change, and situations change -but not conservatives.

I came here expecting at least a spirited defense of the indefensible and instead see more rambling half-truths and blame on non-conservatives.

Sarah Palin is indeed, like George Bush, the essence of what a conservative is, shallow, under educated, over confident, lacking the knowledge that she lacks so much knowledge, unable to even concieve the thought that other people may, through virtue of hard work, education, and the ingestion of information, may have a valid differing viewpoint. Solutions for these types of people are feel good soundbites lacking substance.

Their soul is lifted to ecstacy by their own voices, own words and "ideas", parroted at them by like minded people.

Posted by: maxtor0 | December 21, 2009 4:37 PM

Nash follows right wing form by setting up the liberals as godless unethical elites out to destroy the country. At least that seems his intent with this little gem of biased misrepresentation of liberals: "the so-called culture war, pitting an alliance of conservative Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Orthodox Jewish believers against a post-Judeo-Christian, even anti-Christian, secular elite whom they perceive to be aggressively hostile to their deepest convictions." Like many rightwing writers he does his part to feed the sense that liberals are hostile to "real American's" values. This sort of talk causes me to wonder when the self appointed "righteous" might launch a campaign to cleanse society of us unworthy sinful liberals.

Posted by: meltee | December 22, 2009 5:35 PM

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