Nothing could induce full-blown conservative nostalgia better than the little shop of horrors that was this year’s CPAC, but there are good reasons to temper any sense that the movement was actually in such great shape, say, twenty years ago. The use of Reaganite nostalgia as a club with which to beat Mr. Bush and the nightmarish GOP majority has only limited uses, and it serves as an argument that is for certain Bush apologists to knock down by throwing Reagan’s bad policies back in the face of his hagiographers. This nostalgia has limited value in no small part because most of the divergences from high conservative principle for which traditional and paleoconservatives hammer the administration are many of the same divergences that were promoted and enacted in the Reagan years–which they complained about at the time when Reagan was doing them. Because Reagan has taken on a kind of unquestionable authority and sanctity among modern conservatives, akin to Lincoln among Radical Republicans and FDR among the Democrats of the last sixty years, it is now much more useful to skate over his bad decisions and excessive optimism and reinterpret the man as someone who would have been shocked and horrified by the entirety of the Bush Era. This is because real conservatives are shocked and horrified by the Bush Era, but need to find a prominent, recent figure who endorses their view of things, which leads them to place too much weight on the good old days of the ’80s (because they would otherwise have to acknowledge that the GOP has, to one degree or another, always been at war with conservative goals, which is a rather depressing thought for many people). Judging from his rhetoric and record, I think Reagan would have been shocked and horrified by some of this era, but would have been far less shocked and horrified by other parts of it.
Of course, the relevant question any conservative should ask about any given measure or proposal is not, “Would Reagan approve?” The question is, “Does this contribute to a humane, well-ordered, decent society that enjoys the benefits of ordered liberty?” More specifically, a conservative might ask, “Does this threaten my hearth and home, my family and the more or less intact, existing communities to which I belong or does it help secure and defend them?” Whether a charismatic politician from California, who was certainly admirable in many ways, would have approved or not ultimately ought to be far down the list of questions to ask. We do conservatism no favours by investing such importance in any one figure, when it is part of the wisdom and virtue of conservatism to remember that the species is wise and the individual foolish. We would be very foolish if any of us insisted on basing most of our arguments on what any given individual’s political priorities were, and there is a certain mirroring of Bush Republican loyalism in invoking a different past Republican President as some sort of anti-Bush archetype. It is assuredly the dependence on the GOP and the debilitating effects of this attachment on the Red Republicans that have created so many problems for realising conservative goals; it has reached such a point that many conservatives can convince themselves that their own co-optation to the priorities of the GOP is proof of their great success. The contrast between Reagan and Bush is useful to show just how completely divorced from conservatism Bush has always been, but if anti-Bush conservative dissenters try to reify the ’80s as some sort of era of high principle from which we have fallen we will be setting ourselves up for a fall later.
Now, before admirers of Reagan get too upset, Reagan was obviously infinitely so much more of a movement conservative than Bush ever was. He took up the torch from Goldwater and challenged Ford when the “accommodationist” Rockefeller style was all the rage and when that approach seemed to GOP elites to be the future. (In fact, as I laid out the other day, Rockefellerism was unfortunately the future of the GOP, but this did not come about without at least some struggle.) Despite his political background, Reagan had far, far more of a pedigree as a real Goldwaterite than Bush ever did, in part because Goldwater’s legacy was obviously never fully or firmly embraced by the GOP itself and Bush was first and foremost a creature of the party establishment. One reason for this disdain for Goldwater’s legacy was, as Ross never fails to point out, that there was actually not much of a large constituency for dismantling the New Deal or the Great Society and today there is essentially none at all. (More’s the pity, I say, but it is very hard to deny this observation.) Another reason is simply the self-interested desire of Northeastern party men to keep control of the apparatus of power, which any implementation of Goldwater’s agenda would have seriously threatened.
The GOP were happy to enter Goldwater into the stories of conservative martyrology and pay his campaign some lip service as a “defining moment” in history, but they had little or no use for his ideas except to drag them out every few years as campaign slogans. By the time these people were done with intelligent limited government arguments, they might have been summed up by something as crude as the supply-siders’ “Less government, more filling!”
One of the things about the Bush years that I think really shocked a lot of conservatives was just how brazenly and openly the administration and its supporters embraced the tradition of these “accommodationists” and the neoconservatives in domestic policy. These people had always been there and had always been making arguments for basically leaving the old usurpations in place, but I think there remained a sense in the movement that this was simply tactical positioning to prepare the killing blows. So all of these people with their fundamentally center-left views about the role of government were tolerated because they could be good policy wonks (we welcomed converts, for all the good it did us back then–it contributed to winning elections and losing so much of what mattered in the process), but along the way these people, because they demonstrated some ability at wonkery and were very good at intra-movement politicking, gradually took control of more and more of the institutions and organs of opinion until they began calling the shots. Before you knew it, there was no question of shrinking government, much less returning it to its specifically constitutionally designated activities, and suddenly a great concern with making government work more effectively. Why, in the name of all this is holy, would anyone want more effective government? The one thing that gives us peace of mind about horribly powerful centralised government is that the bureaucracy manages to retard the implementation of new legislation, and this tends to limit the damage done by any new law–just consider how unsettling it is to have government running more efficiently!
A significant part of the old ideal was that we wanted government to be relatively ineffective, powerless and held in check. To make Leviathan more effective would seem to an earlier generation of conservative to be like giving your murderer helpful hints on how to more quickly strangle you. But, of course, all of this is dressed up as empowerment, which, following the logic of all such euphemisms, inevitably means further disempowering the people in question and granting more power to the state. You can reliably understand pro-government propaganda by taking whatever it says its intended benefit for the people will be and apply that benefit to the state instead. I understand that this is often a formula that wins elections. That there is something horribly wrong with all of it is also just as obvious.