This is the fourth contribution to ISI's symposium, Conservatism: What's Wrong with It and How Can We Make It Right?
Despair comes naturally to conservatives. William F. Buckley famously began the publication of National Review by saying its purpose was to “stand athwart history, yelling stop at a moment when no one is inclined to do so.” While that moment, to which many date the start of modern American conservatism, was hopeful, it was rooted in a belief that a triumphant and confident liberalism was transforming society and politics in a manner that caused many on the Right to believe they were on the losing side of history.
Much has changed in the fifty-eight years since Buckley wrote those words, as conservatives have won many victories that might have been thought impossible in 1955. Yet the underlying fear that the collectivist juggernaut is too big and has too much momentum to be halted remains at the heart of the conservative consciousness.
That is certainly the case today.
The current perception of American conservatism in crisis starts with electoral politics. The Bush presidency, a moment when the country was led by a conservative president and, for the most part, governed by a conservative Congress, was thought to have failed both the country and the movement. The unpopular wars fought during this period led many to believe the conservatism had been hijacked by those who had either forgotten or never understood the idea that conservatism is incompatible with utopian schemes that seek to bring the conception of freedom to the world. The embrace of Big Government entitlements that were expanded during this period disillusioned the Right, and much of the movement’s grass roots came to believe Republicans had betrayed them.
But what followed was even worse. During the last five years, liberals have been led by a charismatic president, accomplished a legislative goal that they have sought for decades, and have been able to ensure that not even a popular backlash against it would be enough to roll back the country’s first tentative step toward nationalized health care.
The ascendancy of Barack Obama and the apparent triumph of his signature health care legislation have left conservatives despairing about their ability to win elections. But, deeply divided into factions and essentially leaderless, conservatism’s problems right now appear to go deeper than any analysis of why the Republicans lost the 2012 election or whether they have a chance in 2016.
That is because once again conservatism is at a crossroads where it must, as it did in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decide whether it is a movement that seeks to govern the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world and to therefore act as an effective guardian of the republic or if it prefers to sink back into the far more comfortable and less onerous task of articulating despair about a changing world.
At its heart conservatism must be a movement dedicated to the defense of individual liberty and the preservation of civil society, its institutions and the unique Western culture that has allowed liberty to flourish on these shores. It is rooted in a profoundly positive vision of a society in which government acts as a guardian of rights and therefore of an enabler of opportunity rather than a platform from which intellectual elites can dictate both policy and behavior. Its foundation is an understanding that fallible humanity cannot be perfected and that freedom is only preserved by the creation of a government that limits the power of the mob or of utopians to compel citizens to conform to idealistic visions that inevitably end in horror.
But the battle that every generation of conservatives must fight is against the instinct of some on the right to close themselves off to both modernity and the reality that threats to freedom arise from sources other than the editorial pages of the New York Times or the faculty lounges of Ivy League universities. Yelling stop was a good beginning for conservatives who lacked faith in their ability to fight back against the liberal tide in postwar America. But that meant more than converting conservatism to a positive creed about the expansion of opportunity and liberty rather than an endless sermon about limits. What Buckley and those who followed him also accomplished was to create a movement that understood that conservatism wasn’t merely a defense of a romanticized past or of the status quo. A half a century ago conservatives needed to choose between a positive vision that sought to defend and expand liberty at home while opposing tyranny abroad with one that had more to do with preserving racism at home and professing indifference to tyranny elsewhere. The defeat of the Soviet Union and the checks on the growth of the welfare state if not its reversal were important conservative victories that illustrated that the right need not despair of its power to change history rather than merely stop it. But those victories would have been impossible had not conservatives consciously rejected those who sought to identify the movement with ideological tendencies and prejudices that were profoundly antithetical to the freedom agenda.
Today, conservatives also face choices.
The battle over the size and scope of government in Washington is one in which conservatives can hope to eventually prevail so long as they avoid speaking as if they want no government at all. We must understand that the thing we fear most is also the only structure that can defend the thing we love most. The idol worship of the state that is the core principle of liberalism must be rejected. But the notion that liberty can be preserved without an effective government is a puerile fantasy. If conservatives are to help govern this republic and impose limits on the ability of the Left to interfere with our liberty, they must not forget this.
But as in past generations, conservatives must understand that along with the libertarian impulse in American culture, there is a rightful disgust with movements that identify with prejudice. While Buckley and others were able to chase segregationist racists and anti-Semites out of the modern conservative movement, his successors face a similar dilemma when it comes to the voices of intolerance on the issue of immigration. While defense of the rule of law is a conservative principle, preserving the current ethnic balance of the United States is not one today, any more than it was in the nineteenth century, when similar political tendencies masquerading as conservative arose. The Know-Nothing impulse is a perennial of American politics, but its current revival poses a particular problem for conservatives.
While much of the political commentary on this issue has revolved around the specific problems that such stands create for Republicans with Hispanic voters, the real problem for conservatives is more profound. Conservatism persuades and succeeds when it is identified with the expansion of liberty, not with the building of walls or its denial.
That is also true of conservative attitudes toward foreign policy.
The mishaps in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade have helped revive another perennial of American political life: isolationism. There is a reasonable argument to make against the decision to fight those wars or at least the manner in which they were fought. But one needn’t defend every aspect of these choices to understand that the belief that the conflicts there had nothing to do with American interests or our core conservative principle of defending liberty is a fallacy.
The United States cannot and should not impose its political system on every other country in the world. But as with past dalliances with isolationism, the notion that the American republic can be indifferent to the rise of powerful and violent movements abroad that are antithetical to Western values and desirous of destroying freedom is a snare that conservatives must reject.
The argument against a robust American foreign policy that seeks to defend U.S. interests is often articulated by a Left that despises American exceptionalism and liberty, as well as by a portion of the Right that fears the world. The argument heard from the Right is that international responsibilities and the conflicts that sometimes arise from them feed the industrial military complex that builds the power of the state and poses an ongoing threat to individual liberty. There is much that is true in that critique, but it ignores the basic problem that America has always faced. Though our defense has always been the function of continents and oceans rather than enemies across narrow borders, the idea that American liberty can prosper in a world dominated by totalitarians is a fairy tale. Magical thinking of this sort is generally the preserve of the utopian Left but many on the Right cling to it as they look at a world with confusing battles they would rather ignore. But just as Americans eventually came to understand the necessity of confronting enemies in the past, today’s conservatives must not fall into the trap of thinking that it can pretend Islamist terror is merely deserved blowback from unwise interventions.
Not all interventions abroad are wise and not every tactic undertaken by those government agencies entrusted to defend our security is a good idea. But to the extent that conservatives succumb to a rigid ideological libertarianism and identify their movement with opposition to a rigorous defense of the West, they are committing an egregious blunder. The problem here is not just the myth that America can ignore the world or withdraw from conflicts in which it is the only force that can effectively resist the forces of darkness. It is that a fear of abuse of power can lead one to a position in which a government that is strong enough to defend liberty is itself the enemy.
As much as Americans dislike long wars, foreign conflicts, and intrusions on their privacy, they rightly understand that there are some conflicts that cannot be avoided and must be fought. Liberals lost the trust of the American people in the latter decades of the twentieth century because they were seen as insufficiently devoted to the cause of American defense as well as indifferent to liberty. Conservatives may not have liked the wars begun under George W. Bush and understandably feel Barack Obama shouldn’t be trusted with any additional power. But if conservatism becomes identified with isolationism, it will suffer for it, just as was the case with the Left.
Despite the political circumstances of the moment, conservatives need not despair about the future of their movement. If American exceptionalism means anything at all, it is that belief in individual liberty is embedded in the political DNA of American society. The collectivist and utopian impulse that has ravaged other societies, both in the West and elsewhere, must always collide with that impulse, and the result of such collisions is an inevitable if not always swift victory for those who stand for more freedom against advocates of government as benevolent despot. On a wide range of issues involving not just spending and the desire for socialized medicine but also gun rights and the desire of liberals to engage in social engineering projects or utopian “green” schemes, conservatives are on firm ground and can hope to prevail. They should also take heart from the fact that theirs is the movement that believes in a future of opportunity in which the expansion of wealth rather than its redistribution is the goal. So long as conservatives avoid being misled into abandoning that vision by those who seek to articulate a cribbed dystopian view of the world, they need not despair of victory.
But conservatives do need to be vigilant to protect their movement from becoming identified with the twin heresies of Know-Nothingism and isolationism. These two tendencies, which have been ever present in American politics throughout our history, must be confined to the fringes where they belong lest conservatism and the cause of defending liberty find itself there too.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor and chief political blogger of Commentary magazine.