Whither conservatism?

Take that word in the broad rather than narrow sense.  Jim Kalb writes:

As time went on the movement followed the usual shift in emphasis from
quality to quantity: from the traditionalist, libertarian and
anti-totalitarian ideas that got it started to the forces that gave it
the means to exercise power: politic and well-connected
neoconservatives, spokesmen and operatives who could influence and
mobilize masses of religious and populist voters, and those simply
interested in power as such.  GWB’s big government borderless
“conservatism” brought that process to a conclusion: no conservative
principle at all, just power, political management, and scraps of
liberal and conservative ideology made up into banners.  At this point,
with the failure of the Bush administration, the whole thing seems to
have come to an end.  It seems that those who want to resist the reign
of quantity and the managerial state, and work toward a better way of
life, need to start again from basics.  We are back in 1945.

There is much truth to this.  As to the future, Brad Thompson offers an Objectivist viewpoint.  Here is my take on reviving classical liberalism.


Interesting paragraph, but odd reference to "neo-conservatives," especially since the "neo-conservatives" were largely those who made up a considerable portion of the "anti-totalitarian" part of the part. Also unpersuasive, because he fails to see that it was more of a case of the traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-totalitarians pointing in different directions and coming apart. I'd say that practically it was more a combination of:

1) Demise of communism, making many parts of the coalition, especially libertarian-leaners, more reluctant to support a strong defense. Islamic terrorism and failed states just not seeming like as big a foe-- but for others, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were as totalitarian as communists and worth opposing, even to replace with flawed states like those supported during the Cold War. It's unimpeachable that "the Right" as a whole during the Cold War accepted a lot of imperfection in US actions and actions of US allies. Lots of people went along because they saw in Communism a threat, not because of a philosophical commitment towards anti-totalitarianism as a charitable impulse towards those oppressed, while others felt that as a practical thing the government could do little more than present a strong defense and would be unable to save those oppressed from their own governments. Those for whom anti-totalitarianism was the major animating goal and idea were those who became the neo-conservatives. Those ideas were not abandoned, but rather became less important or impractical to the traditionalists and libertarians.

2) Seduction of power. Yes, it's all very easy to wield together a limited government coalition when you're out of power (and similarly one for federalism), but when a party has power, elements are going to want to wield it. "Big government libertarians," who favor strong government investment in cultural things they like, like science and academics and the arts, all things that help "people like them" and their friends in academia count as part of the problem.

3) Libertarian and limited government ideas unfortunately not being as popular in practice as I'd like, or at least being effectively politically repelled. The failed "government shutdown" revolt against Clinton in '95 is as responsible as anything else for Republican leadership abandoning limited government and "scary" talk about eliminating useless goverment departments. This is also related to 2)-- elements of the coalition were very happy to limit the power of Democrats to do stuff with the government, but less so about limiting their own power. Traditionalists wanted the government to continue doing things that it had done for many years, but which were anathema to libertarians. Sometimes that even meant traditionalists wanting goverment to continue not doing things that it hadn't done before, such as not recognizing gay marriage, or not funding embryonic stem cell research, while libertarians wanted change.

Also remember that most of the new Democratic gains this election went to distinctly non-libertarian members. Sure, some fiscal conserative elements, which are welcomed. But a lot are anti-free trade, anti-immigration, social conservative pro-regulation for "the little guy" if anti-spending and tax somewhat populists of the old conservative Democrat stripe.

Considering the inevitable temptations of power, some libertarians might well conclude that the best one can hope for is simply to "stand athwart history yelling stop," being the near permanent minority acting as a break on the majority.

I remember when being "on the right" went from being a nerdy and contrarian thing to a fashionable and succesful thing. It started to attract the more popular, power-seeking types which made me think of a lyric from Oingo Boingo: "I don't recognize the faces on the winning side."

I agree that John Thacker's post above is essentially right on. That the political winds would shift toward the litle guy was inevitable. However, the rise of zero-sum solutions to those problems was dictated by the GWB administration and their Republican backers.
And by the 2004 election this was obvious -- so much so that a vote for GWB was, to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of politics, was a vote for backlash.

Thank you for mentioning Brad Thompson's outstanding article on the endemic failure of conservatism to protect individual rights (as well the Objectivist alternative). I consider it to be one of the landmark essays of the past year and I truly hope that people who are as frustrated as I am with the failures of the right sit down and think though its thesis.

GWB’s big government borderless “conservatism† brought that process to a conclusion: no conservative principle at all, just power, political management, and scraps of liberal and conservative ideology made up into banners.

I don't think it's fair to blame this on Bush. At least since Reagan, maybe longer, American conservatism has been little more than an alliance in support of the Republican Party.

You can write all the profound essays you want, but that won't change a thing. If Bush were popular, if the Republicans had done well in the elections, all this angst would be non-existent, yet the incompatibilities among various conservative groups would still be there.

"Conservatism" in the US is not a consistent philosophy or ideology. It is a political coalition. Like most such coalitions it depends on success to hold it together.

Individual rights as defined by Objectives especially, and Libertarians generally, don't exist. It's the same class of problem that dooms proper Socialism: there are no human beings that can execute the plan. Specifically, Objectivists/Libertarians drone on blithly assuming that their self-interested pursuits generate no externalities (which are every bit as bad as the physical coercion Objectivist get so exercised about) to everyone else. If one could be an Objectivist completely alone in the world, great, but so far that's not possible. Same with Socialism: no one can truly operate under the assumption that they deserve no better or worse a claim on resources than anyone else. Me, I like Capitalists to create the economic/financial systems and Social Democrats to regulate them. No is happy but each is doing what they do best. It's the best and most moral compromise that imperfect and immoral humans can achieve. Assumptions which, BTW, real conservatives should hold regarding human nature.

I think that somehow some advances in understanding in social sciences are not known to masses. Ex Will Kymlicka presented phylosophical background which brings capitalism with rights of groups ( giving explanations how collective actions might be in the interest of a person and does not offend his freedom). In 'Objectivist viewpoint' the author presents some thoughts but does not prove that there is actual threat to capitalism from accepting some different point of view other than he personally favours, making others to think that ALL other positions are against capitalism ( which is not). Thus in a sence this is somewhat 'postmodernist' approach - to put some facts together and without even trying to prove to make far reaching conclusions.

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