Ethics & Public Policy Center

Does a Conservative Reformation Loom on the Horizon?

Published in National Review - March 28, 2016 issue on April 2, 2016



It would be easy for conservatives to dismiss E. J. Dionne’s Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond as a book on the Right by a man of the Left, and one that therefore suffers from the usual sins of omission and commission.

Easy, but wrong. Dionne’s treatment is neither thorough nor wholly accurate, but he correctly identifies why conservatives either fail to win power or, when we do, do not use that power to transform America. Conservatives who want to win and effectively use political power must, then, come to grips with the central question Dionne poses: Does the intellectual legacy of Barry Goldwater prevent conservatism from being an effective governing movement?

Dionne argues that it does. He starts by correctly noting that 1950s-era American conservatism arose to oppose Republicans who were not dedicated to overturning the New Deal. He tells with persuasive detail the story of an early movement that found Dwight Eisenhower’s “Modern Republicanism” seriously wanting. One William F. Buckley Jr. quote nicely summarizes this critique. The “Eisenhower program,” he wrote, is “an attitude, which goes by the name of a program, undirected by principle, unchained to any coherent idea as to the nature of man and society.” Early conservatism meant to provide that principle, and it did so, in the pages of National Review and, most important, in Barry Goldwater’s epochal and bestselling book, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960).

Conscience grounded conservatism firmly in the Constitution and liberty and opposed virtually everything that had been built in Washington since 1932. Not just opposed, but committed to its repeal. Early conservatism debated whether to “contain” Soviet Communism or “roll it back”; Conscience applied the rollback philosophy to Washington, D.C. Goldwater told America: “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.”

The rest of Conscience shows that a Goldwateresque state would indeed, as Grover Norquist pithily says, be “small enough to drown in a bathtub.”

Dionne also shows that many of the arguments made by today’s Tea Party are substantially identical to those put forward by the early conservatives. The theory that low tax rates for the top brackets would lead to greater economic activity was not original to the 1970s supply-siders: It was made by the American Liberty League in the 1930s. The idea that conservatives lose elections because the elites running the Republican party won’t put forth a true conservative, thereby leading millions of people not to vote, was not made up out of thin air by Ted Cruz after 2012: The early conservatives said the same thing. Betrayal by GOP leaders was also central to the original conservative argument. Before there was a John Boehner and a “corrupt, crony capitalist class” to castigate, there was Dwight Eisenhower’s “dime-store New Deal” and a shadowy Eastern Establishment that supposedly forced “liberal” nominees on an unwilling Republican party. For this strain of conservatism, there is truly nothing new under the sun.

After this strong start, the book falters as Dionne labors to make the case that conservatism has remained inherently Goldwaterite in the five decades after Goldwater’s massive defeat. He correctly notes that Frank Meyer, father of longtime Federalist Society president Gene Meyer, created the theory of fusionism after 1964 to allow all different strains of conservatism to coexist peacefully. He fails, however, to note that this means there are different strains of conservatism and that this peaceful coexistence, not suppressed Goldwaterism, has been modern conservatism’s defining feature ever since. Dionne also passes over Bill Buckley’s conversion from the unrepentant opponent of Ike to a man who, post-1964, adopted the mantra that the Right must always support the most conservative electable candidate. Incrementalism, not revolution, became the Right’s approach after Goldwater’s defeat.

Dionne treats the Bush presidencies fairly, noting how each took issue in practice with the Goldwaterite strain of conservatism without mounting a political or intellectual challenge to it. By neither vanquishing neo-Goldwaterites nor converting them to their cause, both Bushes set themselves up for disappointment and challenge from those elements when events inevitably conspired to make each man politically vulnerable. But both Bushes were able to rise precisely because they could draw on fusionism and support from non-Goldwaterite conservatism in intra-party battles.

Dionne’s treatment of the Tea Party and the current administration is the weakest part of the book. If conservatives can be rightly accused of sometimes seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, Dionne’s view of the last decade is clearly a case of seeing the world through deep-blue spectacles. Obama is presented as a conciliator whose apostasies against his left fail only because of Republican intransigence fueled by the GOP’s partisanship and a hyper-Goldwaterite core. Any conservative or Republican who has been remotely involved in negotiations and disputes with Obama would find this retelling laughable. With the passage of time, a more balanced rendering of these events might be possible. But Dionne’s account is not that.

Indicative of this is his resurrection of the progressive refrain that conservatism is, at its heart, at worst racist and at best racially tinged. He presents this argument throughout, and it is true that pre-1964 conservatism was at worst racist and at best racially insensitive. But to think that nothing whatsoever has changed in the ensuing 50 years flies in the face of the facts. The very white southerners in Tennessee, for example, who moved from Kerry to McCain in 2008 — often touted on the left as proof of conservative racialism — backed a black moderate Democrat, Harold Ford, for the Senate in 2006 at much higher rates than those at which they would back Obama in 2008. South Carolina whites elected Nikki Haley, a conservative of Indian ancestry, and Tim Scott, a black conservative, to statewide office in 2010 and 2012 respectively. The fact that white southerners can back black and other non-white candidates over white opponents in races that immediately bracketed 2008 suggests that the story of what happened in the rural, conservative South is much more complicated than progressives such as Dionne want to admit.

But these flaws do not detract from the salience of his main point, that the recurrent problems the Right has in both winning elections and enacting meaningful policy changes are directly tied to its difficulty in dealing with the Goldwaterite heritage. It is quite clear that there is no appetite in America for the sort of rollback that Goldwater advocated. Indeed, even the most ardent tea-partiers and neo-Goldwater groups shrink from claiming that there is. Ted Cruz and the Heritage Foundation, for example, proclaim that they merely want to reform and shrink the welfare state, not repeal it. Full-throated Goldwaterism is found only on the hard-core libertarian right, a movement that, it should be noted, started in earnest only after Meyer’s fusionism tempered the original anti-statist core of conservatism. If Goldwaterism is at heart a love of liberty, it seems that today it is a love that dare not speak its name.

Nevertheless, conservatism remains a movement that defines itself largely by what it is against rather than what it is for. This was fusionism’s primary contribution; by downplaying the differences among conservatives regarding what we are for, we could better mobilize politically to combat what we all agreed we were against — Soviet Communism and the rapid advance of federal-government spending and regulation.

Conservatism’s weakness today comes from the fact that these core ambitions have either been met (the defeat of the Soviet Union) or prove to be insufficient in practice. Once we win elections, we find it is not tenable to simply not do liberal things. Conservatism in power must act, and since conservatives themselves differ and have always differed about how to act, conservatism in practice finds it difficult to do anything other than preside over existing government structures. In this sense, all strains of conservatism have become mere tax collectors for the liberal welfare state.

Fusionism created a political confederation, uniting different conservatisms in opposition to a clear and present danger, mainly the Soviet Union. In this sense, it was like the original Articles of Confederation uniting the Colonies in opposition to King George. Once the common enemy had been defeated, however, the Articles proved insufficient for the newly independent country to govern itself. It was only with the replacement of confederation with federation, the replacement of the Articles with the “more perfect Union” of the Constitution, that America could truly start to act as a sovereign state.

This is the challenge those of us who are known as Reformocons face. Dionne says that we have not yet challenged the existing intellectual architecture of the Right, and in this he is largely correct. The movement is badly in need of a Conservative Reformation, and Reformocons must decide what we want to reform and why.

If our reforms are primarily tactical and programmatic, they might lead to temporary success but they will ultimately be found wanting. Recall that the heart of Buckley’s critique of Ike was not that he was liberal but that his approach was “undirected by principle.” Ike’s Modern Republicanism, Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council and the Third Way, and Tony Blair’s New Labour shared this characteristic, and all withered quickly under fire from within because their partisans desperately wanted something principled they could be for.

I believe not only that such a unifying principle can be found, but that it already exists. It is the intellectual legacy of Ronald Reagan, which when studied on its own yields an affirmative fusionism that unites the different strains of conservatism into something mighty and new. Dionne contends that my view is romantic, but it is anything but. The real Reagan romantics are those who view him through their own ideological lenses and thus fail to see him for what he really was.

A conservatism that pays lip service to the Goldwaterite ideal of welfare-state rollback will neither succeed politically nor be effective in providing a principle that explains why we want what we say we want, a government that gives Americans a Better Deal, one that gives us more for less. It will forever define success in ways that are not achievable and do not even represent what most conservatives want to achieve. It will, under the guise of uniting us, in fact divide us and inevitably lead to deeper and bitterer divisions until at last the entire conservative edifice will be a house divided, and fall.

We conservatives face our own rendezvous with destiny, our own time for choosing. We either face up to it and finish the work we have been bequeathed, to reform conservatism in line with all of its principles and transform a negative confederation into a positive federation, or we condemn our movement to “a thousand years of darkness.” Dionne’s book, for all its faults, clarifies the challenge we face.

— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article is adapted from one that ran in the March 28, 2016 issue of National Review.

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