Downfall of the Conservative Movement

The New Yorker’s George Packer writes a brilliant piece this week chronicling the downfall of the conservative movement. He talks to all of the major conservative players and his analysis is both cogent and fair. It’s a long piece, but well worth the read. Here are a few key passages.

The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing—despite being despised by significant voices on the right—shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces. “The fact that there was no conventional, establishment, old-style conservative candidate was not an accident,” Brooks said. “Mitt Romney pretended to be one for a while, but he wasn’t. Rudy Giuliani sort of pretended, but he wasn’t. McCain is certainly not. It’s not only a lack of political talent—there’s just no driving force, and it will soften up normal Republicans for change.”

*   *   *

Yuval Levin, a former Bush White House official, who is now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, agrees with Gingrich’s diagnosis. “There’s an intellectual fatigue, even if it hasn’t yet been made clear by defeat at the polls,” he said. “The conservative idea factory is not producing as it did. You hear it from everybody, but nobody agrees what to do about it.”

Pat Buchanan was less polite, paraphrasing the social critic Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

*   *   *

Instead of just limiting government, the Gingrich revolutionaries set out to disable it. Although the legislative reins were in their hands, these Republicans could find no governmental projects to organize their energy around. David Brooks said, “The only thing that held the coalition together was hostility to government.” When the Times Magazine asked William Kristol what ideas he was for—in early 1995, high noon of the Gingrich Revolution—Kristol could think to mention only school choice and “shaping the culture.”

One of the clear lessons of the dialogue on this blog is that the conservatives really don’t have anything they are “for”, except the War in Iraq. Until they begin helping the progressives in this huge reform process ahead of us, they will have nothing to offer the American people.

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0 Responses to Downfall of the Conservative Movement

  1. commonsguy says:

    That’s a great piece, particularly the last segments discussing the challenges Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain will have in November.

    This comment was getting a bit long for this box, so I tossed it up on my own blog:

  2. Hugo says:

    That which “Goldwater began” Nixon assuredly did not “bring into power”. This author is blurring distinctions so glaringly as to resemble that Kanaka chieftan who told Twain, “Ah yes, we understand Christianity; we have eaten the missionaries.”

    Nixon was what many people today (most of them anti-Semites or else anti-Semites unawares) call “neoconservative”. Not to be confused with, say, an actual conservative. I always thought that the New Republic gang just should have called themselves “Nixon liberals”. They, the Nixon liberals, are those who have operated the Executive Branch these past seven years, and frankly anyone who mistakes their manifold failures for the failures of movement conservatism just simply hasn’t yet passed his civics exam.

    One more thing: John McCain is a Nixon liberal.

  3. Alex says:

    It’s not the downfall of the conservative movement. It’s the downfall of the conservative movement as promulgated by the nutcases running the show right now.

    I am a life-long conservative — not in the bellicose style of the current party, but of the classic Jeffersonian (strongly constitutional, supporting a small government, small military, low taxes, etc.). Ron Paul encapsulated some of these ideals, but lost many reasoned conservatives with some of his beliefs (the gold standard, walls on the border, etc.).

    I was brought up in a socialist country, Denmark, and have seen how enervating socialism can be on an economic structure. However, the recklessness and destructiveness of the current administration’s economic policy is breathtaking.

    Over the years, I’ve become completely disillusioned by the GOP. Their loss of reason is almost complete. The party is owned by radical right-wingers, much as the democrats are constantly being owned by the radical fringe left. If you don’t say that you support the war, you’re an Islamic-loving, commie pinko lunatic. And then you’re unelectable, because the radical right will paint you as Neville Chamberlain, inviting terrorists into the country.

    Occasionally, I’ll listen to people like Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh or Beck, and I’m generally sickened. These aren’t conservatives in the Reagan/Goldwater style, – they’re xenophobes and fear-mongerers. O’Reilly is truly appalling. The man seems to just want to bomb the crap out of everything.

    When conservatives like Limbaugh first started broadcasting, they were like a breath of fresh air to many angst-ridden conservatives. Yes, many of their statements were over the top, but remember what things were like back then. People like Limbaugh stood up to the insanity of the political correctness that was sweeping this country back in the 80s. But after some time, their arguments became tired, vicious, and, often, ridiculous.

    The GOP’s failure is utterly complete, under the nominal leadership of patently the worst president this nation has ever seen. We have a government awash in spending, so far out of line with conservative principles, it makes the head spin.

    We have a loss of reason on the matter of immigration (with fat, happy, credit-loving Americans unwilling to work low-wage jobs, and desperate, starving, Mexicans willing to do anything, do you really think you’re just going to stop them from coming over here? And who is going to do the work anyway if we don’t have the low-wage workers?).

    We have a ridiculous war and occupation which we never should have been in the first place.

    Our foreign relations are in shambles.

    We have policies (not just the fault of the Republicans) that have created a vast crisis in the financial and credit markets, looked upon with bovine indifference by so many.

    We have had a dangerous lack of regard for the environment, with an irresponsible energy policy that continues to wreak havoc on the environment

    We have an extraordinary and (nearly) unprecedented abrogation of our constitutional rights – does George Bush even understand what Habeas Corpus actually means, and why it’s so vital a right? Does he even understand the 4th amendment? Does he even have the slightest concept that his tough, cowboy style has blasted to pieces fundamental principles that this nation was founded upon? What an utter fool.

    Worst of all, conservatives such as myself who dare put forward the thought that global warming is real, or attempt to forward a reasonable immigration policy, or stand up for the 4th amendment, are viciously attacked by the radical right. The idea of a rational middle ground is lost.

    The list goes on, with the Drudge Report gleefully spectating and setting the editorial tone for the nation. Dear Lord.

    Nevertheless, a true danger is that this country will head toward socialism as “the solution”. Democrats push “repealing tax cuts for the rich”, or increasing taxes on the “rich”, which is nonsense and just enrages. If anything, we need to take lessons from countries like Estonia, and do a radical re-work of the tax system toward a fair, flat or simple tax, not a continuation of the progressive income tax (it’s not conspiracy theory to simply mention that progressive taxation was originally forwarded by Marx as a way to destroy the bourgeoisie – and it is effective at that objective).

    Democrats push for nationalized health care, also distasteful. (Yes, we see unfairness and disparity, but others have remarkable health care through employers – so let’s fix the gaps, not move to single payer.) The list goes on – so we are at cross-roads.

    The medicine needed to fix this country is simple, yet will be too bitter to swallow for many – so we’ll put off the problem and go back to watching TV, our minds soaked and awash in chemical cocktails pushed by drug companies to handle our “anxiety”.

    The current slate of candidates is dismaying. You like Obama, and yes, he is an inspiring man. But his philosophy, as documented in his writings and speeches, is still too far on the left to give comfort to people such as myself. But just about anyone is better than what we have.

  4. STS says:


    Thanks for your comments. I’m sort of a moderate turned almost in spite of myself into an “aggressive progressive” by the insanity on the right. I think there needs to be more serious thought given to solutions that transcend our current R vs. D political conversation.

    I’m supporting Obama because in both his rhetoric and practical negotiating ability he displays the ability to shift the conversation in new directions — to “turn the page” on a stale argument in the phrase his campaign has often employed.

    I agree that his whitepaper policy positions are pretty generic Democratic boilerplate and as such lack real interest. But I’m optimistic that his temperament will lead him to seek balanced advice and that his demonstrated willingness to take political risks will foster creative thinking within his administration.

    Please keep talking about your kind of conservatism. I think the culture is in need of some of that right now. The current “conservative” impostors are being tossed out of office in a lot of unexpected places, so there is an opening for creative renewal.

  5. Jon Taplin says:

    What I have been trying to suggest on these pages for the past few months is that we need not think that the alternative to the Conservative movement that has ruled our country since Reagans election is Socialism. If we are constantly bound by these two outmoded alternatives we are trapped in a rats maze with o exit.

    What is needed is a real modification of the sort of Savage Capitalism we have been witnessing of late.

    Just how we combine market forces and other price signals such as taxes will be the key to the future. I’m going to write about it today.

  6. Pingback: The Way Forward « Jon Taplin’s Blog

  7. Rick Turner says:

    If the so-called “Conservatives” would actually conserve something other than their greed, it would be a miracle. I suspect that Alex’s view of conservatism could be quite acceptable with a bit of tweaking. There are issues on the medical front, though; you can’t have an essential part of life…medical care…have unfettered inflation forever. If the inflating cost of medical insurance doesn’t come in line with normal economic growth, it will simply be unaffordable no matter whether it’s single payer or the crazy system we have now. I know plenty of folks who spend more than 25% of their net income on health insurance, and I was one until I cut way back on benefits and went way up on deductible. That’s not OK.

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