Conservatives 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 wars “for 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.)
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.