George Packer’s big “fall of conservatism” article surveys the state of both the movement and the GOP, and the early criticisms have been right to point out that political viability and intellectual vitality are not necessarily related and may have very different causes. What is striking about the state of conservatism and the Republican Party alike is that both have gone into their respective tailspins pretty much simultaneously, which is in large part a result of hitching movement conservatism to the GOP and making its institutions into the party’s policy shops and, more often than not, the party’s policy apologists at a time when the GOP for the most part pursued unusually bad policies. Over certain things, such as immigration, you could see glimmers of independence and proof that there were some things that movement conservatives were not going to abandon or minimise because it satisfied the administration and its allies, but these episodes are noteworthy because they have been relatively so very rare.
Movement conservatism has become stale, uncreative and in a lot of ways uninteresting because it no longer seems to take account of the real world. What do I mean by that? I mean that in the political sphere movement conservatism, on the whole, seems to have forgotten its basic lessons about the corrupting influence of power, the dangers of concentrating power in too few hands, the limits of what government can accomplish and the bedrock principles of constitutional republicanism. It wants credit for being sober, prudent and responsible, but does not want the discipline or the vigilance that these things require. At home it has been and, unfortunately, continues to be all to ready to serve as a defender for executive usurpation and misrule, and it has tied itself so closely to Iraq that it will have to spend several decades rebuilding credibility on national security with the public beyond the true believers. In foreign affairs, it has more often than not taken complete leave of its senses, whether or not this is an entirely new thing, and has grown accustomed to seeing a global counterinsurgency as an apocalyptic battle for the fate of the world, as if to acknowledge that most U.S. deployments around the world make no sense unless we can exaggerate our enemies into some “existential threat” that threatens to destroy us all. It remains true what Prof. Lukacs said of conservatives over twenty years ago: “American conservatives welcomed (at worst) or were indifferent (at best) to the dangers of excessive American commitments to all kinds of foreign governments…,” except that today there is a great deal more welcoming. Not having learned that one of the principal mistakes about Iraq was the hyping of what would have been a minimal threat had the government’s claims been right into a grave danger, the same alarmism has been applied to other smaller, relatively weak states that pose no significant threat to us. Conservatism builds its reputation through counseling caution, restraint, responsibility and a sober and realistic assessment of the way things are; when it becomes caught up in ideological fantasies and alarmist overreactions it not only loses reputation but also intellectual coherence and rigour. The fantasists, who paint dark pictures of Venezuelan empire and the restored caliphate setting up outposts in Rome, then have the gall to lecture the rest of us that we “don’t get it” or “don’t understand” the world around us.
This is not, however, another Gerson/Brooks complaint that there are too many conservatives attached to the “dogma of limited government”–where were all these “dogmatic” government-shrinkers for the last 10 years? Arguably, in practice, movement conservatives effectively gave up the fight for limited government over ten years ago and have really never looked back. Now they are reduced to muttering about earmarks, because they seem not to have the arguments for reforming or reducing entitlements. They still trot out the phrase “limited government” to mobilise voters, but one reason the “purists” have grown disenchanted with the party is that this abandonment of small government ideas became perfectly clear during the Bush Era, even though the abandonment had started earlier. Why were they abandoned? In short, because they were deemed to be unpopular, and the value of any conservative idea in those days was based on whether it could win Republicans elections. The era of big government was over, yet it had only just begun anew.
The “reformists” are typically more creative, but by and large have accommodated themselves to both the welfare and warfare states. They deserve more attention than I can give them at the moment, but I will try to return to this question in the next few days.