Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. — George Orwell, 1984
The American Conservative launched in 2002 because conservatives had become Winston from 1984. They had learned to love Big Brother under the alias George W. Bush. The establishment right was keen for war with Iraq — a war that had nothing to do with America’s national-security needs after 9/11 — and Bush’s domestic policies from immigration to deficits to entitlements were the same as or worse than a typical Democrat’s. We even warned in 2003 about America’s housing bubble. We’re not prophets, but we are realists, and a realistic conservatism could not help but see that a Republican administration was taking the country over a cliff.
For our efforts, we were tagged “Unpatriotic Conservatives“: “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.” But that attack misfired: reality defeated rhetoric. By 2006, increasing numbers of old-guard conservatives were speaking out against the disastrous turn the right had taken, and by 2008 it was clear that conservatives were going to have to rethink their commitments. (Ironically or not, the author of “Unpatriotic Conservatives” and the “Axis of Evil” conceit would be one of the earliest to do so, with his 2007 book Comeback.) John McCain’s poor performance that November was an indication of the extent to which the GOP had lost conservatives, as well as the extent to which conservatives had lost the country.
Unfortunately, what happened next was exactly what had given us George W. Bush in the first place: conservatives reinforced the GOP once more, as galvanized in opposition to Barack Obama as they had once been against Bill Clinton. And sure enough, history repeated, with a GOP this year nominating a candidate who, if anything, is worse than Bush: more reckless in his foreign-policy pronouncements, more statist in his governing record, and more detached from the concerns of the heartland. There is simply no evidence to suggest that Romney will be more conservative or, more important, a better president than Bush was. All the evidence points in the opposite direction.
So we are at the task we were at in 2002. It’s not the election that matters, it’s the conscience of conservatism: whether Romney or Obama wins, the country is in serious trouble. But how conservatives react to its trouble makes a tremendous difference: will they organize in opposition to Obama’s wars and power-grabs, or will they overlook (indeed support) measures of exactly the same kind if they are enacted by Mitt Romney? Conservatives have to undertake the painful separation of philosophy from partisanship, otherwise they will wind up like Winston. The consequences for the country will be dire: it’s not as if the left, which has never come to its senses since the end of the Cold War, offers the slightest alternative. A localist, federalist, prudent right is the only alternative to the welfare-warfare state. But building such a right, especially amid all the noise generated by partisan propaganda, is difficult. Yet it has to be done.
And something even more difficult has to be done. It’s one thing to recognize the folly of partisanship. But why did the right fall into that pit in the first place? Why did the ideological excesses of the left have to generate excesses on the right? This is a hard, uncomfortable question, one that requires examining commitments far more deeply held than mere partisan affiliation. But again it has to be done. Why do we believe in free markets, and why do we oppose big government? What does constitutionalism mean after a century — or two? — of drift away from the Founders’ design? And in the short term, what policies and what frame of mind can avoid catastrophes like those that have befallen this country in the past decade? I know of no other outlet on the right — hardly any anywhere — that is attempting to confront these questions. Everyone has formulas instead, developed decades ago to meet conditions and popular passions very different from those of today. That’s not to say that principles change, but they have to be re-examined and reapplied. No philosophy is flawless.
There’s a book by the philosopher Anthony Quinton called The Politics of Imperfection. That’s a succinct description of conservatism. What America has had too much of, from left and right alike, has been the politics of perfection — of outright Messianism. It’s time to get real. And reality is going to be unpleasant for Romney and Obama alike, as well as their partisans.