The Nation's Pulse

Alphaomegaizing the Conservative Movement

By From the June 2010 issue

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"For one thing, we learned that the modern conservative movement, which dominates the modern Republican Party, has the emotional maturity of a bratty 13-year-old."
- Paul Krugman, New York Times, Oct. 4, 2009

"The ‘movement' -- that began 50 years ago with the founding of Bill Buckley's National Review; that had its coming of age in the Reagan Years; that reached its zenith with Bush's victory in 2000 -- is falling apart at the seams."
- Howard Fineman, Newsweek, Oct. 12, 2005

In his recent book, Speech*less, Matt Latimer, one of George W. Bush's speechwriters, reports a conversation he had with Bush while they were reviewing a speech the president was to give to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. "What is this movement you keep talking about in the speech?" the president asked him.

"Well, the conservative movement," Latimer explained. "You know, the one that started back in the sixties, when conservative groups first took root."

The president leaned forward. "Let me tell you something," he said, "I whupped Gary Bauer's ass in 2000."

Conservatives have had a lot of fun with that remark at President Bush's expense. But think about it. His father and mother didn't understand conservatism, even after serving eight years with Ronald Reagan. They distanced themselves from the Gipper as soon as they could, promising to be kinder and gentler, which turned out to be a recipe for failure.

George W. Bush is clearly an intelligent man, but not perhaps a thoughtful man, or at least not a man who thinks about political philosophy. Henry Kissinger wrote that you have to do your thinking before you come to Washington. Once in power, politics is -- has to be -- about the exercise of power. There isn't time to think about philosophy. George W. Bush may have become seriously interested in politics at the national level in 1980, when his father became vice president (though he had already run for the House of Representatives in 1978), but probably only in the power part, which at that point was all his father had time for. And by then, the conservative movement had ended. And apparently, among the hundreds of books Bush read in his reading marathon with Karl Rove, he never came across one about the conservative movement -- perhaps proving Kissinger's point.

(Yet...the remarks Bush read when he honored Bill Buckley and National Review on its 50th anniversary seemed to acknowledge, implicitly, the existence of the movement. Bush said Buckley had gathered an "eclectic group of people" to write for the magazine and that it was hard to imagine that there was once a time when the only conservative game in town was Bill Buckley and National Review.)

"Look," Bush said to Latimer, "I know this probably sounds arrogant to say, but I redefined the Republican Party." Yes, Mr. President, you did. You redefined it right out of power because you didn't understand how it had gotten into power, because you didn't understand conservatism. Or the conservative movement.

When did the conservative movement begin? How do you tell, exactly? And does it really matter? The most plausible date is November 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. launched National Review. Why then? Because the Conservative Movement -- we'll dignify it now with initial caps -- was a small intellectual movement, all of whose exponents could fit into a phone booth. One of its goals, of course, was to win elections. But it was mostly about ideas -- ideas that were worth defending even if they did not win elections. No one really expected to win elections right away.

National Review was not the first conservative voice in postwar America. Human Events had been around since 1944. The American Mercury, which had changed hands several times since its founding by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in the 1920s, had been a conservative political journal since about 1946. And a group of classical libertarians, led by Henry Hazlitt, John Chamberlain, and Suzanne La Follette, revived Albert Jay Nock's Freeman in 1950. Buckley wrote occasionally for all three of them, and worked briefly as an editor at The American Mercury. But National Review had something the other journals didn't: a leader.

Bill Buckley was the only articulate, enthusiastic, combative conservative intellectual with national stature, and even that came really only after his campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965. After that race, his nationally syndicated column, "On the Right," took off, and he started his television program, Firing Line. By then, he had already had a hand in launching conservative organizations like Young Americans for Freedom, the New York State Conservative Party, the Philadelphia Society, the Fund for American Studies, and the American Conservative Union (which, annually, brings us CPAC, Mr. President).

Buckley started making it safe to be a conservative. Before that, it was...not safe. It's not that it was risqué, as being parlor pink had been (eccentric, but also effete and not dangerous). It was much worse. Being a conservative was not "nice," not politically acceptable, and not socially acceptable. So conservatives tended to keep their heads down.

Buckley fixed that, with his band of conservative writers, gathered at National Review, sending out the encouraging words, first weekly, then fortnightly, to readers throughout the land. Eventually these writers and their younger successors were to be found at colleges and other institutions throughout the land. Twenty-five years after the launching of National Review, being a conservative was no longer like having the plague, and Ronald Reagan, a professed conservative, a proud devotee of National Review, a personal friend of Bill Buckley's, was elected president -- and running against an incumbent.

Conservatives were everywhere. Conservative organizations were everywhere. Conservatism was everywhere. Not everyone was a conservative, of course. But it was no longer accurate to say that conservatives were not mainstream, not nice, not acceptable. That didn't stop left-wing ideologues from saying it, of course, but they had lost their power to derogate conservatism. The battle was over. The Movement had won.

And so the Movement ended.

Now there are conservative journals galore, for the public, for students (there are more than 100 college newspapers in the Collegiate Network run by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). More than 100 think tanks. Radio programs. A television network. Columnists. Speakers. Speakers' bureaus. Dating services! That's not a movement. That's an avalanche. A tsunami. A major portion of intellectual, political life in America.

In 2008 Eric Alterman wrote (in the Nation) about the early days of the Conservative Movement: "If you look at the great thinkers of the conservative movement, they wrote books. Not only Friedman and Buckley but also Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, even Allan Bloom." That seems to be all the conservative writers he could think of, but that's exactly the point. He could name them all. Well, maybe not all, but the leading lights. Now there's a galaxy of writers, and you can see, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, and quarterly, advertisements for their books in the conservative publications.

Today, there are so many active conservative intellectuals around, you couldn't squeeze them into all the phone booths in America.

Movements are particular crusades with limited goals. The Oxford Movement, which started the Catholic revival in the Church of England, began, according to John Henry Newman, one of its participants, with John Keble's Assize Sermon on National Apostasy in July 1833. A more or less agreed-on date for the movement's end is 1845, when Newman converted to Rome.

One could argue when the civil rights movement in the U.S. began  -- a plausible date is 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus -- but there is little question when it ended. According to Steven Hayward in volume one of The Age of Reagan, a "top aide to Martin Luther King remarked in August 1965 that ‘there is no more civil rights movement; President Johnson signed it out of existence when he signed the voting rights bill.'"

Does the cause of promoting civil rights continue? Yes, of course -- though it has now de-scended to political-football status with the extension, for 25 years, of the federal government's power to disapprove of state actions involving changing precinct boundaries, polling places, legislative districts, ballot formats, and other voting procedures.

The "Conservative Movement" is also over. Conservatives won. Conservatism is now a national intellectual, and political, force. To speak of conservatism today as a "movement" belittles it, marginalizes it, which is why it makes sense for liberals like Krugman and Fineman to use the term. But why would conservatives? The term sets conservatism back, back to the days when Bill Buckley had the phone booth nearly to himself. And the government-sponsored monopoly AT&T had all the phone booths to itself.

Now we've had a generation -- a whole generation! -- of deregulation, privatization, and tax cuts. With New York Times editorials frothing all the way. You never hear them complaining about Rosicrucians. And the Soviet Union is on the ash heap of history, exactly where, nine years before it got there, President Reagan predicted it would be, and where National Review sought to consign it when the magazine was launched in 1955.

Curiously, perhaps, the end of the movement is not signified by the number of people in the country who call themselves conservative, which is now 40 percent but in 1968 was only three points lower. What counts is the number of intellectual operations there are, because they set the tone and shape the zeitgeist (not to be confused with immanentizing the eschaton).

Are we winning all the elections? Not on your obama, we're not. But that's politics. In the intellectual world, which was where the movement began, conservatism has succeeded.

Of course there's work to be done. Young people to be taught. Old-timers refreshed. New problems addressed. As Bill Buckley said in 1964, in an address to the Conservative Party of New York State: "Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas -- the Beatitudes remain the essential statement of the Western code -- but because the idiom of life is always changing, and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life."

After the last election it became clear that we need new formulations. But we always need new formulations. We always need to rebuild. Now at least we have a foundation.

Nostalgic conservatives, seeing old age, may long for the Movement. After all, those were glory days. We were young. We had stomach for the fight. We were going to change America. And maybe the world. But the odds were long, and the money was short.

Younger conservatives (living in easier times?) may long for the fellowship of movement politics and covet the honor of its success. The struggle, the hopes, the fears, the disappointments. And some day, dawn. Maybe. How do we prove to our fathers, and our children, that we're strong? How do we prove it to ourselves?

Perhaps you can't blame them, young or old. They see America threatened, and they want to defend their country -- want to band together to serve and protect their country.

Terrific! Conservatism lives! Of course there are battles still, and unlimited battles ahead -- and there always will be: but now there are warriors to match.

But the Movement -- Bill Buckley's Movement, the struggle of the few, the happy few, the band of brothers -- is over. It ended in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Here's the real test of whether the Conservative Movement still exists. How big a crowd can you give a St. Crispin's Day speech to before it stops being a St. Crispin's Day speech?

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.