Since 2016 is looking increasingly like the year that American Conservatism died, it is a good time to ask the question who killed it?
By “Conservatism” we mean the phenomenon sometimes called Movement Conservatism; which began in the 1950s, came to dominate the Republican Party in the 1960s and American political thought in the 1980s. Conservatism was a set of beliefs rather than a coherent ideology, but it was the most influential belief system in the United States for well over a generation.
The Conservative beliefs were the notions that America is the greatest of all nations and the American system superior to all others; that government is inherently corrupt and should be limited, welfare is bad, America is a Christian nation and that capitalism is inherently good and always constructive. These ideas became the dogma of the Republican Party for decades, and served as a litmus test for its leaders.
Such ideas motivated a broad movement that elected three presidents; and a Congressional majority that has lasted the better part of a generation. They also reshaped political discourse in the United States. Now that movement is shattered; its’ members are engaged in a brutal civil war, and the Republican Party has nominated a man who is hostile to much of the Conservative agenda.
Who is responsible for this situation? Who killed conservativism? Well as in any good murder mystery there are a number of suspects including:
- Donald J. Trump Sr. of New York City. No; Trump didn’t kill Conservatism he simply noticed it was dead, and took advantage of the situation. He merely exposed Movement Conservatism for what it was; a paper tiger with no popular support.
- The Conservative Media. They do bear lot of blame largely for imposing an ideological litmus test on candidates; that saddled the GOP with a wide variety of unpopular policies, and politicians that are totally out of touch with its base. This created an environment in which compromise and effective political action was regarded as a sin. Firebrands were rewarded for scorched earth tactics, while effective political leaders were demonized for achieving realistic results. A big problem is that much of the conservative media practices really lousy journalism; which made it incapable of exposing even an obvious fraud like Trump. A major flaw is their popularization of the notion that compromise is always wrong.
- The Alt-Right. The Alt-Right is not a movement but a collection of loud-mouthed intellectuals and back room propagandists that are taking advantage of the void left by Conservatism’s collapse. The Alt-Right has neither the resources, nor the ability to have destroyed Conservatism. Like the New Left; which it resembles, the Alt-Right is a band of intellectual dilettantes playing radical – not a mass movement. Most of the Alt-Right’s positions are too far-out to make it an effective replacement for Movement Conservatism.
- The Republican Establishment. They are simply too weak; too divided, and too out of touch to have killed Conservatism. I might add that they would have killed Conservatism long ago if they could have. They hate it and; as their willingness to collaborate with Trump demonstrated, are glad it is dead.
- The Religious Right. That died a long time ago, around the turn of the 21st Century if not earlier. Unfortunately nobody but Trump and Rob Dreher seems to have noticed.
- The Tea Party. It certainly did great damage to Conservatism by dragging it into the gutter and opening the door to the lunatic fringe. The Tea Party introduced ugly elements of populism including mindless pandering to the mob, a winner take all scorched earth mentality, and anti-intellectualism into the Republican Party; that paved the way for all-out class warfare and Trump. Worst of all the Tea Party produced no long lasting institutions or effective leaders, only a lot of noise and anger.
- The Liberal Media. They certainly played a role but it was as more of a facilitator; serving as an amplifier for the rantings of the Alt-Right and the Conservative media and a popularizer of Trump, rather than an active killer.
- Conservative Politicians. If any group gets the blame it is certainly Conservative politicos and their enablers in the media. By locking themselves into an ideological bubble; ignoring the changing reality on the American Main Street and spending all their time pandering to pundits, conservative political leaders created a party that was elitist, out of date, out of touch and unpopular.
- George W. Bush. He certainly deserves blame for adopting a conservative agenda that was out of touch with the country and an aggressive and unpopular foreign policy. Bush also deserves scorn for turning foreign policy over to neoconservatives. Yet he has been out of office for eight years and has had little visible public role for a long time. Bush is simply too an obscure figure to play a major political role today. There has also been plenty of time to repair the damage Bush did, but nobody has even tried.
- Neoconservatives. That small clique of warmongers and imperialists definitely alienated a large portion of the electorate in their short-sighted quest to build an American empire. They certainly made isolationism fashionable again with their small but bloody wars and arrogance. The neoconservatives also poisoned the atmosphere inside the GOP with their super-patriotism and demonization of all dissidents.
- Conservatives themselves. One can make a good case that conservatives emasculated their own movement with their rigidity, shortsightedness, lack of creativity, lack of empathy and failure to understand the common man. A particularly destructive flaw was giving power to a tiny elite composed of arrogant, self-righteous, short-sighted, narrow-minded and inflexible intellectuals. By spending all their time kowtowing to intellectuals; many conservatives alienated themselves from the American people and their own party base.
It looks as if conservatism’s death was a suicide and not a murder. The movement’s own leaders destroyed with their shortsightedness and arrogance. One has to wonder who or what will replace them as the centerpiece of the American Right.