Conservatism as Exorcism
May 8, 2003
Conservatives have lost their mind. Not their
minds, but their mind. What the late Russell Kirk called the
conservative mind seems to have disappeared from our political
When I got acquainted with the
conservative movement in 1965, it was still a serious thing. It had
principles, and it knew what it wanted: limited government. It had a dual
agenda: to resist and defeat world Communism, and to repeal
unconstitutional government programs at home.
There were problems with these
difficult goals, but the movement made some kind of sense. It was very
much a minority movement, even within the Republican Party, the minority
party in a country that had been voting Democratic since 1932.
Conservatives considered even Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon too
liberal. William Buckley had founded National Review in
1955 to oppose Eisenhower Republicanism to stand
athwart History yelling Stop!
By 1968, though, Buckley was
ready to endorse Nixon for president. But he suspended his support as
Nixon moved leftward; as late as 1976 his colleague William Rusher was
calling for a new majority party to replace the Republicans.
The conservative movement
spread as liberalism became entrenched. Not only did the Federal
Government keep growing under both parties; the sexual revolution
transformed the country socially, morally, and culturally.
With the election of Ronald
Reagan, a Buckley fan and friend, in 1980, movement
conservatives felt that they had triumphed. And they had, in a narrow
sense: they had won the presidency, something almost inconceivable a few
But the country they had hoped to
conserve was ceasing to exist. Even Reagan, popular as he was,
didnt dare challenge the programs left from the New Deal and the
Great Society. He couldnt begin to reverse the sexual revolution,
and he hardly tried to oppose legal abortion. He couldnt even slow
the constant expansion of the Federal Government, which had taken on a
life of its own.
Unable to face the facts and unwilling to criticize Reagan, the
conservatives took refuge in a fantasy: the Reagan
Revolution. Never mind the incongruity of conservatives hyping
revolution; to mistake Reagans superficial personal popularity for
the triumph of conservative principles was a delusion bordering on
Fortunately, the Communist
problem took care of itself by collapsing. Though conservatives had
always rightly argued that Communism couldnt work, they credited
Reagan with its failure when it fell of its own mammoth weight.
At this point, you might think (as
I did, at the time) conservatives would return to the second part of their
old agenda: restoring limited, constitutional government. But they
didnt. Instead, they adopted a habit of finding themselves
First they threw their
enthusiasm into new wars to replace the Cold War: their villains were
Panamas Manuel Noriega (remember him?) and Iraqs Saddam
Hussein. War is Big Government par excellence, but that didnt seem
to matter as long as it was waged by a Republican president (the first
Then, for eight years,
conservatives rallied against a new enemy: Bill Clinton. In their personal
animosity toward Clinton, they forgot everything else. Destroying this
archvillain became their whole agenda. Unfortunately, Clinton proved
indestructible a cheerfully elusive Bugs Bunny to the
conservatives obsessive Elmer Fudd. By now the Federal
Government was spending $2 trillion dollars a year, or about twenty
times what it was spending when the conservative movement had
started rolling. But of course conservatives no longer noticed. All that
mattered was replacing Clinton with a Republican.
Now a new Republican has won
the conservatives hearts with a new war, toppling Saddam Hussein.
The America they had once hoped to save has disappeared. Have they
noticed? Of course not. Like Reagans election, the latest military
victory has made them feel good and allowed them to pretend the country
has gained something.
Instead of fighting for great
principles, the conservatives now settle for exorcising little demons.
Buckley and Rusher are happily reconciled to George W. Bushs
Republican Party. The conservative movement itself has been taken over
by unprincipled neoconservatives.
The conservative movement once
stood for American traditions; now it stands for amnesia. It shows energy
only when given a new distraction, a new demon to exorcise, a new
short-term obsession. That way it can pretend to have won when, in fact,
it has totally abandoned any semblance of a conservative philosophy.
would have known what to call todays right-wingers: liberals.