The Unmaking of Conservatism
April 24, 2003
Conservatism or at least something calling
itself conservatism is now fashionable, and those who claim the
label are triumphant today. Their government has just won a war, and they
can afford to gloat not only over liberals, but over an older breed of
conservatives who are suspicious of big government even when (or
especially when) its winning.
When I began to consider myself
a conservative, back in 1965, conservatism didnt seem to have
much of a future. Lyndon Johnson had just crushed Barry Goldwater in
what looked like a final showdown between the philosophies of limitless
and limited government. I was clearly enlisting in a losing cause.
But that, in a way, was what
attracted me to conservatism. It was a philosophy of reflective losers,
men whose principles and memories gave them resistance to the
conquering fad and its propaganda. Such men hoped for victory, naturally,
but they were fighting heavy odds, fierce passions, and powerful
interests. They were ready for defeat, but they werent going to
adjust their principles in order to win. They knew that if you win power by
giving up your principles, youve already lost.
I was a college student, and my
reading in English literature had already predisposed me to conservatism.
The great writers I admired Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Samuel
Johnson, Edmund Burke, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis,
George Orwell, Michael Oakeshott were all notable for opposing
the fads and enthusiasms of their times. They took being in the minority
for granted. They even treasured solitude and meditation. Their minds and
hearts were closed to statist propaganda and the passions it sought to
incite, and they were prepared to endure abuse and libel for refusing to
join the herd especially what has been wittily called the
herd of independent minds.
It soon turned out that the
Goldwater campaign marked only the beginning, not the end, of a powerful
new conservative movement, which astonished itself by managing to get
one of its own, Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980. Few had
imagined this possible in 1965.
winning power, the conservative movement began to loose its grip on
conservative principles. It had hoped to reverse the gains of liberalism
not only Johnsons Great Society, but Franklin
Roosevelts New Deal, both of which had violated Americas
constitutional tradition of strictly limited and federal government. Now it
quietly dropped its original goals.
As a powerful movement,
conservatism also attracted new members who were more interested in
power than in principle. Some of these were called
neoconservatives admirers of Roosevelt and recent
supporters of Lyndon Johnson who cared nothing for limited government
and the U.S. Constitution. Few of them, if any, had voted for Goldwater.
The chief common ground
between the conservatives and the neocons was an anti-Communist
foreign policy. All talk of deeper principles and of repealing the
welfare state was discreetly dropped for the sake of harmony
within the movement and political victory.
The conservatives wanted to
keep the neocons within the movement. In this they succeeded only too
well. Today the neocons have not only stayed; they have taken over the
movement and pushed the principled conservatives out or cowed
them into silence, which comes to the same thing.
The older conservatives were
wary of foreign entanglements and opposed on principle to foreign aid. But
these are the very things the neocons favor most ardently; in fact, they
are the very things that define neoconservatism and separate it from
As the neocon Max Boot recently
wrote, Support for Israel [is] a key tenet of
neoconservatism. He failed to name any other key
tenets, because there arent any. War against Arab and Muslim
regimes enemies of Israel is what its all about.
Reagans all-out support for Israel, when Jimmy Carter was toying
with Palestinian rights, is what won him neocon support in 1980.
A Rip Van Winkle conservative
who had dozed off in 1965 would wake up in 2003 to find a movement that
has almost nothing to do with the creed he professed when he last closed
his eyes. It also has nothing to do with the conservative temper we find in
the great writers of the past. It has everything to do with a shallow
jingoism and war propaganda. It has become the sort of hot fad wise
conservatives used to avoid, back when wise conservatives still defined