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 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) it’s winning.

When I began to consider myself a conservative, back in 1965, conservatism didn’t 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 weren’t going to adjust their principles in order to win. They knew that if you win power by giving up your principles, you’ve 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.

[Breaker quote: From 1965 to 2003]But by winning power, the conservative movement began to loose its grip on conservative principles. It had hoped to reverse the gains of liberalism — not only Johnson’s Great Society, but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, both of which had violated America’s 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 genuine conservatism.

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 aren’t any. War against Arab and Muslim regimes — enemies of Israel — is what it’s all about. Reagan’s 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 conservatism.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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