Something is seriously wrong with conservatism. Since Ronald Reagan’s last year in office, Republicans have only twice won a majority of votes cast for president—both times with a George Bush atop the ticket. And neither Bush was a conservative.
For 25 years, something has prevented conservatives from winning the White House and prevented the Republicans who do win from governing as conservatives. What could it be?
The Tea Party has an answer: RINOs—liberal Republicans in Name Only—have sabotaged the right, most recently in October when they collaborated with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown. Once RINOs are extinct, true Tea Party conservatives like Ted Cruz will prevail. They will close down the federal bureaucracy and stop Washington from borrowing a penny more until Obamacare is defunded and the welfare state brought to heel. If this is extremism, it’s what Barry Goldwater called extremism in defense of liberty.
But the Tea Party is wrong: this is not extremism in defense of liberty, it’s extremism in defense of failure—the failure of conservatism as it has been defined since the 1970s to become a philosophy of government.
The Tea Party’s critics in the conservative establishment—National Review’s Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, for example—are also wrong. They insist that if only conservatives support the “rightwardmost viable candidate,” with an emphasis on “viable,” they may elect another Reagan. This, of course, is what Republican voters did every time between 1988 and 2012, when they nominated two Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
What the NR editors won’t say is that, for them, this is good enough: they had their differences with George W. Bush, but on the whole his economic, social, and especially foreign policies were praiseworthy. To those who disagree with that judgment—the Tea Party, libertarians, crunchy cons, millennials, and a majority of Americans—the conservative establishment has nothing to sell. The viable right had its turn in power, and the country decisively repudiated the results.
The virtue of the Tea Party is that it has shaken up a Republican Party that under Bush had become a failure on every level: in foreign policy, in responding to a changing culture, in preserving prosperity. Some of the new leaders and new ideas the Tea Party encourages are among the most promising developments on the right in a generation.
But the vices of the Tea Party are just as real, and Senator Cruz exemplifies them. His foreign policy is characterized by reflexive, if partisan, nationalism—before opposing Obama’s plan to bomb Syria, Cruz had in fact called for “a clear, practical plan to go in. … The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right.” The Texas senator’s domestic policies, meanwhile, are the same ones the right has championed since the 1970s. Indeed, Cruz represents a brand of conservatism that belongs to that era.
Before the days of platform shoes, mirror balls, and Jimmy Carter, a different kind of conservatism held sway. It was less populist, less confrontational, and far less successful. There was a reason William F. Buckley Jr., founding father of the ‘50s right, could only say of National Review’s mission, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The 40 years from Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 to Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972 were an epoch of center-left hegemony. That was true even when Republicans won the White House. President Eisenhower was a “modern Republican,” not a conservative, and National Review refused to endorse him for re-election in 1956. President Nixon imposed wage and price controls on the country, expanded affirmative action, and inaugurated the Environmental Protection Agency.
Through most of the Western world, the gamut of practical politics ran from social democracy and socialism on the left to the mixed Keynesian economy on the right. Nixon himself said in 1971, “I am now a Keynesian in economics,” a remark often conflated with Milton Friedman’s 1965 pronouncement, “We are all Keynesians now.” The one Republican leader who bucked the consensus, Barry Goldwater, was dealt a crushing defeat in November 1964.
The eventual Reagan revolution of 1980 was less a culmination of conservatives’ toil during the 1950s and ’60s than the result of an unexpected twist in the 1970s. All around the world, the postwar consensus on what modernity meant—steady, scientific progress toward political and economic centralization—shattered, as foreign-policy journalist Christian Caryl shows in his recent book Strange Rebels. Caryl points to 1979 as the bellwether year: that was when Margaret Thatcher became leader of Britain’s Conservative Party; Deng Xiaoping rose to power in Beijing and moved the People’s Republic toward capitalism with Chinese characteristics; Iran’s Islamic revolution toppled the Shah; and Communism’s final, fatal struggle with nationalism and religion commenced with Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
American politics was likewise swept by the global revival of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and free-market economics. The formation of the Moral Majority in 1979 announced the birth of the religious right as a national force. In 1978, Jude Wanniski published what became the bible of the supply-side revolution, The Way the World Works, while activist Howard Jarvis organized the successful referendum campaign for Proposition 13 in California, which constitutionally limited Sacramento’s power to tax. Earlier in 1978, William F. Buckley Jr.—representing a now mellowed Cold War conservatism—debated Ronald Reagan over the treaties to return control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. Reagan, though older than Buckley, gave voice to the new nationalist mood on the right that saw no reason to deprive America of a strategic asset merely to honor another nation’s sovereignty.
The new conservatism of the 1970s was strikingly populist: the religious right, the anti-tax movement, and neo-nationalism mobilized voters as the conservatism of the 1950s never could. This New Right, as it came to be called, not only propelled Reagan to victory in 1980 but that same November ended the Senate careers of liberal leaders Frank Church and George McGovern.
The Tea Party today can be forgiven for thinking that this rebuilt conservative movement—evangelical, anti-tax, and proudly American—offers a timeless formula for success. It would re-elect Reagan and elect George H.W. Bush by landslides, and though the coalition cracked in 1992, after Bush failed to keep the factions happy, in 1994 Republicans would take both houses of Congress and make tremendous gains in state governments. That the GOP still holds the House today is a legacy of this tide—particularly of the redistricting that Republican-controlled states carried out after 2000 and 2010 censuses.
Yet the electoral returns have been diminishing. The 1984 and 1988 elections were landslides, but 1994 was an off-year victory bracketed by presidential defeats. In 2000 Republicans again lost the popular vote for president and were reduced to parity with Democrats in the Senate. A rally effect after 9/11 and high hopes for the Iraq War bolstered Republicans in 2002 and 2004. But as the war’s popularity ebbed, the GOP lost everything in 2006 and 2008. A comeback in the midterm elections of 2010 failed to retake the Senate, and the right was disappointed again in the Senate and presidential contests of 2012.
Each time the populist wave returns, it falls a little farther from the shore. But what is receding is not conservatism, it’s the 1970s version of the American right: the coalition of fundamentalists, anti-tax activists, and nationalists. And the reason this tide continues to retreat is not only demographic: populist conservatism has never outgrown the conditions of the era in which it was born—it’s still fighting the battles of 1980.
Being out of power during two pivotal movements of the last century—in the FDR-Truman era, when the New Deal/Cold War consensus took shape, and in Carter years, when it collapsed—proved a mixed blessing: the right was free to experiment ideologically, but the ideas it devised were fundamentally negative and disconnected from the practices of power: they were not philosophies of government or cultural creativity but modes of resistance to “big government” and the countercultural left.
The New Right’s attitudes struck a chord with a great many Americans, sometimes a majority, for a particular historical moment—roughly the era from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s. As mid-century secularism, socialism, and internationalism lost their luster, the right rode to power atop the rising forces of religion, neoliberalism, and patriotism.
But the right’s ideological laboratories kept refining the product, making it ever less user-friendly in the quest for theoretical perfection. Being out of power afforded the luxury of irresponsibility—of not having to live within the limits that governing imposes on what one can imagine as desirable and possible.
Consider the religious right. There was an absolutely natural backlash in the late 1970s against the hasty push from the left for further sexual revolutions. Contraception, abortion, and homosexuality had all gone from being little spoken of and sometimes restricted by law to becoming “rights.” Many Americans, particularly Christians, felt disenfranchised.
So they voted. But they did so in reaction: what they were against was always more clear than how they could create an alternative—a modern alternative, not simply a return to an idealized past. Because the emphasis was on negation rather than a creative agenda, the question of what compromises power must make with imperfect reality could be avoided. In “principle,” divorced from practice, one can outlaw every abortion without exception and send homosexuals back to the closet.
Christian conservatives are as well-adjusted as anyone else on these questions in their own lives. But the Christian conservative who accepts sinfulness in reality cannot accept it in theory, and one who tries is liable to be trumped within the community by someone who asserts a harder line. Religious right activists thus radicalize one another and continually refine their ideology—then demand professions of principle from candidates.
This kind of ideological straitjacketing conditioned Todd Akin—last year’s hapless Republican nominee in Missouri’s U.S. Senate contest—to believe that conception cannot take place when a woman is a victim of “legitimate rape.” Akin could believe this medical myth because it answered a real problem that the principle of banning all abortion could not otherwise confront: namely, what to do in cases of rape, where the public is not sympathetic to the no-exceptions approach. If there are no pregnancies resulting from rape, then the problem is solved and the principle saved.
What is true of Christian conservatives is true as well of the libertarians and economic conservatives. A legalistic and strictly negative conception of principle prevents them from discussing such things as the minimum wage, income inequality, and unemployment with any flexibility—any libertarian who attempts to do so risks being outflanked by some more “principled” ideologue who insists that only by liquidating the banking system will we see unemployment vanish before our eyes.
The tendency throughout the right is for the extreme view to crowd out all others because the criteria of debate were set long ago by conditions of opposition, not governing. (To be sure, liberals have the opposite problem: the Democratic Party has been so shaped by the experience of wielding power, dating back to FDR, that its liberalism exhibits few principles that aren’t wholly subordinate to expedience.)
From the Moral Majority to the Tea Party, a right forged in opposition offers only images of a mythic past in place of present economic and cultural realities. Instead of a modern conservatism competing against what is in fact a creaky liberalism—whose corporate cronyism and cultural atomism have engendered wide dissatisfaction—we have only the conservatism of what was versus the liberalism of what is.
This accounts for why the Republican Party, even as it has grown more right-leaning and “extreme,” has failed for 25 years to nominate a conservative for president. No one can take the no-compromise ideology of libertarianism or Christian conservatism and make it electorally viable, let alone a philosophy of government. Rather than find leaders who can build plausible resumes in elected office before running for president, the activists of the right lend their support to symbolic candidacies that represent negative ideals—the ideals not of government but of protest.
Because ideological conservatives cannot accept the compromising complexities of a positive philosophy, the Republican old guard wins every time. The result is doubly perverse: instead of a serious conservative who speaks softly, Republicans wind up with unprincipled figures who become shrill in attempting to appeal to the right.
Even Ronald Reagan, the closest thing to a conservative candidate who governed as a conservative once he took office, could not overcome the failings of an ideology designed for opposition. Lifted by the populist tide that rose in response to midcentury statism’s collapse, Reagan could achieve a great deal by accelerating that collapse with tax cuts and deregulation at home and by encouraging Communism’s dissolution abroad. But the next step beyond hastening the destruction of the old order was never clear.
In terms of creating a new kind of state to replace Franklin Roosevelt’s social-insurance state, Reagan and his supporters were bereft of vision. The Republican Congress of 1994 ran into the same problem. The negative vision was not enough even on its terms because the only way to truly transform or get rid of existing institutions is to propose new ones. Absent that, a negative agenda quickly runs afoul of the needs and demands of the public—and without an alternative to propose, the revolutionaries revert to the ways of the ancien regime.
The populist conservatism that arose in the late 1970s proved adept at winning elections for a time. But because it was every bit as much a negative philosophy as the electorally unsuccessful conservatism of the 1950s, it never learned how to govern.
By embracing the 1970s right, the Tea Party ensures that all it can do is protest and obstruct. Conservatives are better off looking deeper and thinking more creatively about the arc of history. They might begin by rediscovering how 19th century conservatives resolved their culture wars of their time—between Catholics and kinds of Protestant—and met the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, which offers the closest parallel to the upheavals of our own age of globalization and technological disruption. 
Being out of power once again, the right can afford to be entrepreneurial, to rethink its premises as well as to criticize its opponents’. Indeed, the shared assumptions of both parties—neoliberalism, militarism, and social atomism—are those that most need reconsideration. The Tea Party’s insurgency has at least cleared the way for some Republicans to attempt this: one sees the beginnings in Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Mike Lee. But the Tea Party has also injected new life—or a Frankenstein’s semblance of life—into the dead right of decades past in the shape of Ted Cruz and his tactics.
The present moment may be as much a turning point as the Roosevelt-Truman and Carter eras were. If so, this time conservatives should define themselves not as the party of reaction, but as a party with a positive philosophy of government—a philosophy to shape the age.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.