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.
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