Home/Daniel Larison/Self-Congratulation Will Get Conservatives Nowhere

Self-Congratulation Will Get Conservatives Nowhere

Jonah Goldberg makes a self-congratulatory claim:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom among liberals, conservatives are actually far more willing to examine their dogma and their first principles than liberals or “centrists” are.

There are self-identified conservatives quite willing to question and revisit their assumptions, but as a general statement I don’t think this holds up very well. If it were true, there would have been an extraordinary amount of re-examination going on over the last six years after the large Republican defeat in 2006. On the whole, there was no such re-examination going on, and for the most part the last six years have involved a concerted effort on the part of movement conservatives to redouble their support for their prior commitments. I don’t say that movement conservatives are more guilty of doing this than anyone else, but that is what the majority of self-identified conservatives did. This has been especially true of conservative activists, pundits, and politicians.

The claim that conservatives are more willing to examine their assumptions is a flattering conceit, but it’s one that doesn’t bear much scrutiny. In the wake of the Republican defeat in 2006, the common response was that it was the GOP that had failed movement conservatives. The hope was to shield the conservative movement from the consequences of their more or less lock-step support for the Bush agenda. Movement conservatives then did two things: they intensified their support for the Iraq war by making the “surge” a litmus test, and they pretended that the GOP had lost control of Congress because of earmarks. When their response wasn’t frivolous, it was horribly misguided. At no point was there any serious re-examination of prior assumptions or commitments. Losing in 2008 didn’t prompt any significant re-thinking, and the less said about the last four years the better.

If they are going to learn from the last decade, one of the first things that movement conservatives need to recognize is that they are not very good at re-examining assumptions or questioning their “dogma.” Some of them may be very good at rephrasing or restating that “dogma” in slightly new ways, but there isn’t much in the way of examination of that “dogma.” Insofar as movement conservatives embrace conservatism as an ideology and conform themselves to it, they are arguably more rigid in their thinking than those outside the movement. If they don’t want to keep falling into the same bad habits of enabling Republican failure, breaking out of those patterns is something that movement conservatives need to start doing.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles