How Checklist Conservatism Failed America

how checklist conservatism failed americaConservatives have long believed that they were the only ones who could save America and return her to her former glory. But it turns out, mainstream American conservatism was built on sand. From the beginning, it rallied the faithful around simple negation: “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” What started as a clever slogan became a guiding principle. But that’s weak tea for a country birthed in a revolution based on the natural right of man to govern himself.

Perhaps conservatives took for granted the principles underlying the American Founding and the basic decency and morality of the American people. They relied upon a cultural and political infrastructure that they believed was a given never realizing that it needed to be renewed in every generation. Nor did they realize that it was under a purposeful and sustained attack from the Left. Younger conservatives may believe that Barack Obama was the first president to talk about “fundamentally transforming” America but in fact he follows a path first marked out by Woodrow Wilson a century ago.

The assault began with the Progressives in the early 20th century. Under Wilson they initially used constitutional means to pursue radical ends. Witness the passage of the 16th and 17th amendments. By the late 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt  realized he could get the Supreme Court to rubber stamp his unconstitutional New Deal power grabs simply by threatening to pack the court with new justices. It is hard to underestimate the consequences of Roosevelt’s actions in 1937, but they represented a sea change in American constitutional law that stripped power from the people and their representatives in Congress. The conservatives of the day complained but didn’t sense the mortal threat or the ruthlessness of the Left in pursuing its goals.

Conservatives certainly should have gotten the message that the rules had changed and that this was a fight for the soul of the country at least by the time Gore Vidal called Bill Buckley a “crypto-fascist” on television in 1968. By then the “politics of personal destruction” were in full effect and Progressives were leading the way. The Left was and remains engaged in a project to undo the American experiment in constitutional government and it will use any weapon at hand to do it.

The conservative response to the Left’s will-to-power politics was to create a catechism of approved policy positions and talking points, but they forgot—or never knew—the basis of the faith. In this way the modern Right resembles the mainline protestant churches hollowed out by 100 years of replacing the Christian Gospel with the social gospel. The forms are still there—the buildings, the Sunday services, the hymnals—but the substance is long gone.

Pledge fealty to the conservative trinity—strong military, free markets, and family values—and you can consider yourself a True Conservative. But these worthy goals evolved into something else altogether, something not recognizable as historic American conservatism, constitutionalism, or, in the ultimate analysis, in the interests of the American people.  

The goal of a strong military became instead endless foreign warsfor democracy” rather than for the defense of the American people that never seem to end in victory. (Conservatives interested in reclaiming free government in their country would be better off reading How Democracies Perish than neoconservative favorite, The Case for Democracy.)

Free markets became a slogan to pacify Republican voters at election time but is really just cover for globalism that benefits the few at the expense of the many and crony capitalism.

And family values became “compassionate conservatism” which in turn is used to justify everything from open borders to Obamacare.  

Congressional Republicans became well adept at this form of checklist conservatism using it to gin up support from the base during elections but abandoning even the pretense by the time they get back to Washington. Even the checklist was abandoned. Marco Rubio campaigned for the Senate as an immigration hawk only to turn his back on his constituents and join the Gang of Eight amnesty project. Had he not, he might be the Republican nominee today.

Checklist conservatism degrades politics and fails the American people by promising salvation from the depredations of the Left—salvation from the steady, incremental undermining of the sovereignty of the people—but it fails again and again because, in a famous phrase, it is not a choice but an echo. The Left offers a dramatic vision of a utopian future complete with a messianic morality which the Right counters with warmed over policy ideas from the 1990s complete with pie charts. Progressives describe their mission as a world historical voyage of discovery and conservatives only response is to ask how much the ship costs and if they can take a turn at the helm, without ever thinking to ask where the ship is going or why.

So little does the messianic Left value the consent of the governed that when they are unable to persuade the American people of the rightness of their ideas, they bully and berate them. When that doesn’t work they force permanent political changes through the unaccountable and unelected branches of the state and impose their will from above. In the biggest and most infamous cases like Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, this means using the Supreme Court to replace the U.S. Constitution with something called “constitutional law” that is made by judges, often in contradiction of both the document itself and the will of the people.

Those are the big cases. But there is also a rising tide of laws and regulations flowing forth from an alphabet soup of unelected state and federal star chambers. Consider the example of recently enacted rules from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission that require churches to provide “transgender” bathrooms and threaten to restrict what is said from the pulpit if it “directly or indirectly’ make(s) ‘persons of any particular…gender identity’ feel ‘unwelcome.’” Having used the Supreme Court to circumvent the people on gay rights, the Left’s next target is freedom of religion which, the ACLU helpfully reminds us, is just a cover for bigotry and discrimination that must be eliminated.

Where is the so-called conservative movement in all of this? Opposed to it usually. At least until they aren’t. What we’ve found is that what we thought described a political philosophy known generically as “conservatism” is often a better description of psychology or temperament. Where the Left is ideologically motivated and makes sweeping, if wrong and inconsistent, moral claims, the Right too often just likes things the way they are—the safety and security of the known. Sure, this may be a better starting point than the Left’s frenzied nihilistic rush into an unknown future where, they confidently assure us, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

But that sort of temperamental conservatism is morally and politically insufficient because it is not grounded in reason and can point to no guiding principles. Since the Left wins most—maybe all—of the major political battles, a conservatism that is based mostly on a temperamental defense of the status quo will, over time, accept and eventually defend what it opposes today. Such a conservatism is based in moral relativism every bit as much as the historicist ideologies of the radical Left. It’s supporters just don’t know it. This is how checklist conservatives become not defenders of timeless principles, still less defenders of the American people, but of a political order defined by yesterday’s radicals.

We shouldn’t be surprised at any of this because conservatives forgot two big things: the appropriate role of government and the necessity in all things of the American people. This is especially true of the generation that came of age after Reagan, though all the symptoms were there much earlier. The simple truth that the American government is an extension of the American people and exists only for their benefit—to secure their natural rights—has been lost.

So-called movement conservatives fought the culture war and lost. In good faith, they fought bad policies, endowed think tanks, backed candidates, took control of Congress and the majority of statehouses, and still the country continued moving to the Left. Government grew more remote and less accountable because while the Right was focused on the details of Congressional policy battles—each of them important but not decisive—the Left was seizing control of the courts, the administrative state, and the commanding heights of the culture.

It’s hard enough putting together a winning electoral coalition that elects a president who will appoint “conservative” judges and a Senate that will confirm them. But when the those judges have been steeped in Leftist culture it is no surprise that legal positivism has found its way even into the Federalist Society or that it was Bush appointee Chief Justice John Roberts who created from whole cloth a way to save Obamacare. When radicals captured the elite universities it set the stage for a permanent divide between the ruling the class and the rest of the country.

After Reagan left office, Republicans exchanged hard-headed interests based foreign policy for the naive belief that if we export what R.R. Reno has called the hearth gods of health, wealth, and hedonism—really just stand-ins for a shallow materialism—the world will enter into the millennial peace brought about by the end of history. Instead, it ignores the permanent reality of human nature and conflates causes and effects. Lasting prosperity is the fruit of a healthy culture not the cause of it.

Meanwhile, a lethal coalition of those guided by hopeless naivete and cunning design has led America into military conflicts without victory abroad, immigration policies that undermines the interests of American citizens, and trade deals that benefit crony capitalists here and abroad at the expense of the middle class. This cannot last.

Conservatism has been a defensive ideology for too long. Fortunately government of, by, and for the people can be recovered. But only the American people can save themselves and only then with a politics rooted in common sense morality, self-evident truths, and everyday virtue. Rote repetition of the conservative checklist won’t do.

About Chris Buskirk

Chris is publisher and editor of American Greatness and the host of The Chris Buskirk Show. He was a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute and received a fellowship from the Earhart Foundation. Chris is a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold businesses in financial services and digital marketing. He is a frequent guest on NPR's "Morning Edition." His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Hill, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @TheChrisBuskirk

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15 responses to “How Checklist Conservatism Failed America”

  1. Wonderful essay!

    This statement, for example, brought to mind the writing of Whittaker Chambers: “Such a conservatism is based in moral relativism every bit as much as the historicist ideologies of the radical Left.” I wrote a piece back in 2010 on the struggle to articulate the conservative platform that referred both to “Witness” and Chambers’s review of “Atlas Shrugged,” links here:

    In just 6 years since, liberalism’s “ice cap” has creeped further over our nation, and, as Chambers forewarned, the Right has focused even more on the same moral relativism and materialism as the Left and “blended” with it, so that now the question this new bi-partisan Ruling Class seeks to offer the rest of us does seem to be merely one of which of them will be in charge: “Who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?”

    Chambers aimed his “little sling” and hit that ice cap. Imagine what the rest of us could accomplish, “witnesses” armed not with a “conservative checklist,” but as Buskirk wrote, with “a politics rooted in common sense morality, self-evident truths, and everyday virtue.”

    • Real American conservatism is based in ethics, not morals.

  2. “Meanwhile, a lethal coalition of those guided by hopeless naivete and cunning design has led America into military conflicts without victory abroad, immigration policies that undermines the interests of American citizens, and trade deals that benefit crony capitalists here and abroad at the expense of the middle class. This cannot last.”

    Anti immigration √

    Anti free trade √

    Anti Constitution √

    Anti Natural Rights √

    Good job.

    • Wrong.
      Anti illegal Immigration
      Anti Fake Free Trade
      Anti Destruction of the Constitution
      Anti Stripping Natural Rights
      Time to go home, John.

      • By 2020, the Chinese will have a navy three times the size of our Pacific Fleet. Now who do they wish to one day challenge with an armada of 300+ ships? Singapore?! Or maybe that military powerhouse known as New Zealand.

        Your desire for slave labor economically enriches those who would kill us all if given the chance.

      • What?!? That makes no sense. For one thing, where do you think China gets its money? From low cost labor, which we don’t have. By giving foreign workers a chance in the US, we would have low cost labor so we wouldn’t need to ship jobs to China, and would have more jobs for everyone. And, the children of these people would be doctors, engineers, scientists. What we do prevent women from coming to the US with their husbands or boyfriends and having American children and future taxpayers. We should have a population of 400-500m which would effortlessly fund a far more powerful military.

        You should study economics someday.

      • We can beat the Chinese only if we get our own slave labor, but how the hell would that work?

        Unless you can present some realistic plan to eliminate OSHA, ban all forms of labor unions, remove minimum wage laws, and repeal every single environmental protection law on the books, then whatever you argue is completely impossible. Americans actually like clean air and water.

        The ChiComs need our business more then we need them, if your sole goal is deporting jobs then you can at least find better business partners.

      • Giving people who make $5/day $5/hour and a future is not “slave labor”.

        We should remove a lot of that stuff. The minimum wage and OSHA are unconstitutional. State business.

  3. Checklist conservatism is conservatism. Conservatism seeks to conserve the good in the face of change, which assumes that change is inevitable. Conservatism is a product of the Enlightenment, as by that time the ancien regime was untenable. Conservatism replaced what in Anglo societies is called Toryism. Toryism is the ancien regime: aristocracy, monarchism, and church. Toryism is the right on offense, while conservatism is the right on defense.

    In the liberal project, the USA is the linchpin. The American Revolution kicked off the revolutionary era, emboldening French liberals which led to the French Revolution and the modern age. The fundamental contradiction of the American right is that it is trying to conserve 18th century liberalism, which is just a historical way station on the liberal journey. That is a doomed project, as all efforts to create a mythology of that time (Manifest Destiny, the Founding Fathers, exceptionalism, Scottish Enlightenment worship) have failed. American conservatives, confronted with the march of modernity, need to take a look in the mirror, not as conservatives, but as Americans. The USA has been driving liberalism for nearly 250 years.

    People on the right need to come to grips with the fact that, as de Tocqueville observed, democracy encourages the breaking of traditions, the subversion of the spiritual for the material, and a general mediocrity among people. I have given up on the middle way of a constitutional republic. Rome fell, and the USA is falling. Continuing along the democratic path leads to more liberalism.

    Toryism is an aristocratic ideology, and as such excludes most people. It will never win in a democracy. Democratic collapse will have to happen first, which as the examples of ancient Greek city states and Rome show, is usually because of economic dysfunction caused by inflation. It seems we are well on that path.

    Elites are also becoming more powerful because of technology. An emergent aristocracy, not of the robe but of the sword, is forming. It is not dependent on institutions or traditions for its power, but rather is a true aristocracy – a minority which is powerful enough to rule the majority.

    I don’t advocate for a coup, or even worse fascism, which is the ancien regime without God. Memories are long and people will remember what was done. Rather democracy must fail on its own, and the right must pick up the pieces. Only this will legitimize a new aristocracy, as people trade in liberty and equality for stability and competence.

    The only problem is that we have to pass through a dark age to get there. Hopefully it will be short given the compressed historical timelines of the contemporary age.

  4. Sadly, conservatives actually need a checklist, since they don’t understand the Founding of America, Natural Rights or the Constitution.

  5. I would argue that the “fundamental transformation” began way before Wilson. West Coasters have a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the founding.

  6. A wonderful essay. It is unfortunate that I am just seeing this October 4 essay on December 19 at American Greatness. Conservatives need to go back to that basic trinity. Too many neocons preach more disastrous foreign intervention for no American purpose. Too many use free market as a way to gut American manufacturing. Too many use family values as a door to Socialism. Conservatives dodged a bullet with the defeat of Hillary. Let us hope President Trump is an improvement.

  7. ALL political / religous entities have a manifesto. But, the perpetrators neglect a fundamental tenet. “I know I am right but, I do not who is wrong.”

    The US Constitution was written for the exercise of a representative, democratic white, male, landowner. The concept of a white female enjoying suffrage was inconceivable. Female suffrage was reluctantly granted.

    “Conservative” politics have prevailed since the “Signers” assured only white males of primarily western Europe origen would benefit.

    I will not bore you with the disenfranchisement of the US native population, let alone those uppidity Negroes demanding Constitutional equity. (When US of A Constitutional guarantees are not equitably granted, the aggrieved
    party seeks redress. Ergo, judicial, legislative, executive interference. )

    As an aside..Affirmative Action? Ever since the first white male stepped ashore it has been “white” affirmative action. All minorities want is a slice of your white pie.