The Spectacle Blog

Re: Conservatism R.I.P.

By on 5.20.08 | 12:29PM

I read through George Packer's New Yorker article, "The Fall of Conservatism" that Stacy mentioned yesterday, and I also would take issue with it. Rather than starting with the development of intellectual conservatism in the 1940s or 1950s, or of political conservatism with Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, Packer chooses to begin his article -- and frame his entire piece -- around Pat Buchanan and Richard Nixon crafting the Southern strategy in 1966. Most conservatives would not even consider Nixon -- who supported price controls and guaranteed income -- to be an ideological conservative. But Packer would rather taint the entire intellectual and political movement with two of its most controversial figures from the outset. All political success for conservatives, to Packer, seems to stem from dividing the country and running on a negative appeal. Only deep into the article does he get to Ronald Reagan, who he begrudgingly acknowledges "turned conservatism into a forward-looking, optimistic ideology" before criticizing him.

But what really bugs me about about the article is, through an over-reliance on quotes from David Brooks, believing in limiting the size of government gets reduced to a "dogma." Among the quotes offered by Brooks are, "The only thing that held the coalition together was hostility to government" and, on the government shutdown:

At the end of that year, when the radical conservatives in the Gingrich Congress shut down the federal government, they learned that the American public was genuinely attached to the modern state. "An anti-government philosophy turned out to be politically unpopular and fundamentally un-American," Brooks said. "People want something melioristic, they want government to do things."
To Brooks, evidently, an aversion to the expansion of government power is a sort of affectation, akin to not liking the color green or the taste of fried flounder. But conservatives believe in limiting the size and scope of government not because of some random whim, but because it is a necessary way of preserving liberty. Unlike anarchists, we believe that government is necessary to protect individual rights -- through a police force that catches criminals, a court system that prosecutes them and settles disputes among individuals, and a military that protects us from foreign threats. Far from being "fundamentally un-American," these are precisely the principles on which the nation was founded. The Declaration of Independence reads that "governments are instituted among men" to "secure" our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit --not attainment -- of happiness. The U.S. Constitution also envisioned a federal government of limited scope. As the decades have gone by, of course, Americans' conceptions of what the government should do has been greatly augmented, and we'll never return to where we were in the 19th Century. But conservative efforts to push back the expansion of government, however futile, have been rooted in the belief that people are less free when they are forced to hand over a large percentage of their wages to support government programs that they have no use for and when businesses are strangled by regulations. These beliefs are informed by the experience of totalitarianism in the 20th Century, which demonstrated the close relationship between political and economic oppression.

That's not to say that Packer (or some of the people he quotes) don't have any legitimate points about the difficulties facing the modern conservative movement, both politically and intellectually. I do think that conservatives need to do a better job of explaining why our principles are relevant to the challenges America faces today. But I see a big danger in conservatives adopting a myopic view, making snap judgments based a few lousy election cycles for Republicans, and concluding that they should stop worrying and come to love big government -- as long as it's family friendly. I never supported limiting the size of government as a political operative who thought it was a winning political strategy, but because I believe in individual liberty. So I'm not going to stop fighting encroachments of the state because David Brooks thinks it's un-American and David Frum has determined it's not an effective political strategy for the Republican Party.

Send to Kindle

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article