The Mugging of Conservatism
are feeling gloomy these days. In this country the latest Republican
revolution has been thwarted by Bill Clinton. In Britain Tony
Blairs Labor Party has routed the Tories. In France the story is the
same: a pragmatic, post-Marxist Left has stymied what recently appeared to
be a rightward trend.
Is there a worldwide conservative crackup? asks
Worldwide, seems a trifle grand for a political pattern confined to three countries. Moreover, the pattern has been misread. Conservatives in America and Britain never won as much as their press releases claimed. Yes, Ronald Reagan and George Bush won the White House with three straight landslides. But the federal government continued to grow during their administrations, a twelve-year span in which federal spending nearly doubled.
Most of that increased spending was for programs nowhere authorized by the Constitution. Yet these conservative presidents never raised the constitutional issues posed by the explosion of federal spending and national debt. They talked limited government while making no effort to restore historic limits.
So conservatives have reason to be discouraged. The Republican Party has let them down time and again. The candidacy of Bob Dole was a disappointment, yes, but what is more discouraging is the growing realization that, rhetoric aside, Reagan himself was never very different from Dole. Dole was widely ridiculed for offering, once, to be another Reagan; but Reagan was already another Dole. He left the federal government far bigger than he found it.
Of the 28 contributors to
In fact, most of these conservatives are actually neoconservatives: They want big government without too many social programs. They dont want constitutional government; they dont argue for principled limitations of any sort. Just the opposite. Above all, they want an interventionist foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
For instance, Eliot A. Cohen writes, The Founders did not envision or desire a feeble government, and they did not shrink from endorsing its essential functions. Yes, but they defined those essential functions carefully and narrowly. They were more anxious about usurpation than about any other domestic danger. And they believed that foreign corruption and entangling alliances with the Old World posed special threats to the American Republic.
That classical American conservatism is strictly taboo at
By excluding such perspectives,
Like the Republican Party,
If the neoconservatives got everything they want in the way of public policy, nothing much would be changed. The legacy of the liberal era would remain. Yet most conservatives still think the neoconservatives are their allies. If a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, conservatives have yet to realize theyve been mugged by the neoconservatives.
Over the last two generations, liberals have staged a revolution in American government while pretending only to modify the system. By contrast, conservatives have managed only modifications in the liberal system while claiming to have effected revolution. At the moment, its still the liberals country. Conservatives are just renting.
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