I started noticing the fracture sometime during the Bush II administration; vast swathes of conservatives who could simply not tolerate other vast swathes of conservatives.
It was unheard of during the Reagan era – and even under Newt Gingrich in 1994, conservatism was a fairly cohesive voting bloc as well as strategy.
But somewhere during the Bush years – when our “conservative” governed more as a Democrat than his Gingrich-haunted predecessor did – the flaking started happening.
By 2008, “conservatism” had split into three separate factions. I identified them as:
- Northeastern: These are your grandfather’s Repubicans. They are focused on GDP growth and domestic and national security; much weaker on personal liberty, limited government and cultural issues. Think Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie, or the original Mitt Romney. At one point, Arne Carlson would have qualified.
- Southern: The culture warriors. Also strong on national and domestic security, but perfectly comfortable with big government. Think Mike Huckabee.
- Western: Heavily into limiting government and personal liberty, especially property and privacy rights. The heart of the Second Amendment movement. Non-intentionist on national security, laissez-faire on the economy. Think Barry Goldwater, the Paul family and the Tea Party in its original conception.
James Heaney in Federalist, in a piece called “Conservatism is Dead; Long Live Conservatism” reaches a similar conclusion.
He divides the movement…
…well, no. The “movement” is dead. He divides it also into three major centers of activity:
- Populists: Nationalists, not uncomfortable with taxes and government intervention. Mostly Trump voters, intuitively enough.
- Establishment: Focused on growing GDP. Think the Jeb or Kasich voters.
- Grass Roots: The culture warriors. Think Cruz and Rubio voters.
The problem is, the three largely detest each other – in some cases, more than the Democrats (indeed, the Populists drove a “former” Democrat who favors more Democrat-friendly policies than the other 18 contenders he beat to the nomination, all the way to victory).
Is there a way forward?
Not sure Heaney answers it. But he notes that the way back – to a fundamental definition of what conservatism is supposed to be – is important:
When the modern conservative movement started out under the political leadership of Barry Goldwater and later Reagan, it was built on centuries-old principles handed down by men like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Toqueville. In 1953, the great intellectual, Russell Kirk, summarized those central premises of conservatism.
In his “six canons,” Kirk articulated a conservativism that embraces “a transcendant order, or body of natural law,” because “[p]olitical problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” Conservatives, Kirk said, reject “uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims,” even as they recognize “ultimate equality in the judgement of God and… before courts of law.” They maintain the importance of property rights against Leviathan government, and distrust “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society on abstract designs.” Finally, a Kirk conservative is prudent, recognizing “that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.”
The modern “conservative movement” has lost touch with these essentials. The establishment builds entire fiscal plans out of the “abstract designs” of “calculators and economists,” and the Wall Street Journal editorial board wouldn’t recognize a “body of natural law” if that body hauled back and punched L. Gordon Crovitz in the nose. Even if they did take notice, the Journal and its Acela Corridor buddies would find it gauche in the extreme to actually speak out loud about political problems in fundamentally “religious and moral” terms.
The populists, for their part, often preach about problems in highly charged moral language, but their only common theme is outrage, and their chosen avatar is Trump, the serial adulterer. Moreover, their desire to burn down all our political institutions is the very definition of the “devouring conflagration” Kirk warns of.
Conservatism has failed, then, partly because a large swath of the “movement” has lost touch with its central ideas. The very word “conservative” has been badly damaged. Corrupted and polarized, the label has become little more than a tribal marker, and alienates many voters who would otherwise naturally align with Kirk’s principles.
I’m going to try to write more about this in the coming week or so.