George Packer’s essay on the fall of conservatism has generated a bit of internet buzz — rather more than the substance of the piece merits. The best line of Packer’s article comes from Pat Buchanan, who paraphrases Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” (George Nash, the historian of the conservative intellectual movement, applied this same line to the movement at a Philadelphia Society event two years back, though Nash then pulled back his punch.) I think Buchanan is right, but the sad thing is that a scam can be just as self-sustaining as any honest movement or business — maybe more. If the conservative movement is dead, it’s the living dead.
A further problem with pronouncing the death of conservatism, though, is that this isn’t the first time the patient has died. Conservatism was dead after Goldwater went down in a landslide in ’64. It was dead again after Watergate. It was cracking up in the Bush I years which, of course, ended just as the Bush II years will probably end, with the Democrats controlling both elected branches of government. In the late ’90s, David Brooks was telling us that conservatism was running out of ideas and needed to embrace “national greatness” (i.e., the welfare-warfare state). As before, so today: Packer quotes Brooks saying, “An anti-government philosophy turned out to be politically unpopular and fundamentally un-American … People want something melioristic, they want government to do things.”
Of course, the thing that turned out to be most unpopular was a melioristic program of waging war to build Democracy in the Middle East, and if the Republicans were running these past few elections as government-cutting insurgents, I sure don’t remember it. I seem to recall the GOP running on a “values agenda” in ’06, at the same time as Ted Haggard and Mark Foley were showing us that values conservatism was for preaching, not practicing. But why blame corruption and war, the issues that actually sank the Republican Congress, when you can blame the ghost of Barry Goldwater?
(I’m digressing a bit. Brooks is a special case: a liberal who presents himself as a conservative who wishes he were a liberal. No wonder the official Right has identity issues.)
Conservatism in crisis is nothing new. It’s one of the major themes, in fact, of Donald Critchlow’s quite good recent book on the movement, The Conservative Ascendancy. The question which goes unanswered and unanalyzed by Packer and most other critics is how this movement that lurches from one rout to another is able to score big wins at least once a decade. Part of the answer is, again, that scams can be more effective than honest efforts. Part of the answer, too, is that however intellectually bankrupt conservatism may be, it looks positively solvent next to the intellectual Left.
And part of the answer is something that David Brooks and George Packer alike don’t want to hear: that limited-government principles are, on some level, popular and true. (More true than popular, it must be said.) If only conservatives stood up for them more often, they might not be in the shape they’re now in.