The Future of Conservatism

This presidential election feels significant to me and I’ve stepped up my political blogging because of it. But I just can’t shake the sense of futility of it all. I think Barack Obama is the most liberal candidate we’ve seen in my entire generation. He scares the pants off of me and I worry that he might cause serious harm to the nation’s economy, medical system, and psyche. It can’t be irreparable because it is, at root, all man-made and thus reversible, but there’s been a lot of programs that have been implemented that won’t be rolled back anytime soon.

But John McCain is no great shakes and there’s plenty on his platform that worries me almost as much. His repeated calls to service and self-sacrifice are nothing but trouble. His stance on global warming is nearly a match of Obama’s. He lambastes business at every opportunity and his campaign finance regulations have been the definition of chilling.

So when I attended the Goldwater Institute’s panel discussion on The Future of American Conservatism, I wasn’t particularly hopeful. While I wasn’t expecting an answer of “there isn’t one,” I didn’t see much of one left. The panelists were David Boaz of the Cato Institute; Mickey Edwards, an author and a founder of the Heritage Foundation; and Al Regnery, president of Regnery Publishing. It seemed to be a pretty stellar group, each of whom have, at various times, played important roles within the conservative movement.

For David Boaz, conservatism is fusionism, the style of conservatism popularized by Bill Buckley and the National Review. It is an unholy alliance between the traditional conservatives, commonly thought of as social conservatives, and libertarians. The movement reached its pinnacle under Ronald Reagan, when it effectively acquired access to political power. Boaz thinks that the fusionists wouldn’t like today’s big-government conservatism.

For Mickey Edwards, conservatism is rooted in American exceptionalism and, more specifically, the Constitution. For him, Barry Goldwater freed the movement from the more European-style conservatives and that is what led Edwards into politics. But he is amazed at far the movement has degraded: Bush’s signing statements are de facto legislation, assertions of executive privilege by Bolton and Miers are unprecedented abuses of power, and McCain et al.’s outrage at the outcome of the Guantanamo case is reprehensible. His conclusion: “Unless we fight back, the conservative movement is gone.”

Al Regnery was the most optimistic of the bunch. He cited such promising signs as the wonderful students he’s met working with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the ubiquity and prominence of the Federalist Society, and the fact that Justices Alito and Roberts were not Bush’s original choices—he buckled to pressure from the conservatives.

As you can see, the discussion didn’t really settle the matter. I went there thinking that now was the time for political action and I wanted to hear their take on how that might best be achieved. So I asked them separately after the panel if meaningful political change could ever occur without a cultural change. And each of them looked at me like I was completely nuts, as if the two were entirely separate and had nothing to do with each other. For me (and Ayn Rand, incidentally), political change of a lasting sort must be moored by a supportive culture. The history of America is one of a great cultural shift that led a significant political one. I think the culture of today is much more hospitable for American liberalism than free-market capitalism.

So I’ve decided to become more activist. I’ve given up on any notion of changing the GOP from within—I think they’re largely a lost cause—and plan to focus my efforts on making the case for capitalism and egoism. It’s a hard battle that will likely outlast me, but the political fight is premature and would just be rolled back with the next conservative or liberal win.

[UPDATE (7/21/2008): I forgot to mention my best piece of activism that night. I asked Mickey Edwards if he had read C. Bradley Thompson’s “The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism” and he hadn’t. But I had come prepared with a printed copy of it, which he gladly accepted with interest. He mentioned that he was a fan of Ayn Rand and had read all her works, although he’s one of the ones that denied my cultural support theory. We’ll just have to see if my activism bears any fruit.]

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