I miss the conservative political ideology I spent most of my life opposing. I miss the principles of conservatism that I vigorously argued against. I miss framing responses to the commentaries of conservative journalists. I miss debating the policies of past conservative Republican presidents. To the detriment of the American polity, classic conservatism, which was such a formidable opponent to any opinionated liberal, no longer exists.
According to George Will in his new book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” the fundamental principle of conservatism is deceptively simple: to conserve the “American founding.” Traditionally it achieved this by emphasizing the authority of family, church, tradition and local association. The intent was to control change and slow it down.
There is a “new right” in America. However, with Donald Trump at the helm, it is not an evolution of traditional conservatism, it is a full-throated repudiation. What was once pragmatic and measured is now a zealous populism mired in white nativism. What once protected foundational institutions now attacks them. What once valued experts and well-researched facts now trades in images and slogans designed to stir up outrage and tribal prejudices. What once saw change as something to avoid now seeks a headlong rush toward illiberal democracy.
Why do I mourn the loss of my sworn opponents? Traditional Republicans came at you from solid ground fortified with long-standing positions. They believed in the integrity of their elected representatives. Politics was about judgment and reason. While Ronald Reagan had charisma, no one accused him of forming a personality cult that was above Congress and the courts.
The Republican conservatives of the past supported positions based on principle and did not bow to partisan politics. In the 1960s, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen could help write the Civil Rights Act while supporting the Vietnam War. Republican Senator John Tower supported legalized abortion. Republican leaders could go to the White House in 1974 and advise President Nixon to resign from office.
Old-line conservative patriotism was about the nation-state, not about the state of a nativist nation that shunned immigrants. The key to commerce was viewed as free trade with sound trade agreements that fostered international economic harmony, not trade wars. The key to good governance was getting on with the business of keeping the ship of state on a steady course, not seeking out storms and running the ship aground.
My battles were fought against a proud coalition of foreign policy hawks, libertarians, cultural advocates of family-first and pro-business Republicans. My view of the American dream differed from theirs in significant respects. I believed conservative positions to be lacking in imagination and forward thinking. I argued that economic and racial equality was as important a goal as liberty and that government regulation was required to dampen the ill effects of market capitalism. However, no one could claim that there was not a democratic and constitutional basis supporting conservative views that saw the world differently than I did.
Donald Trump is the result of the destruction of traditional conservative values and not the cause. One must first look to the defection of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic to the Republican Party from 1948 through 1970. The baggage of states’ rights and white supremacy they brought with them placed the dark cloud of “the politics of exclusion” over the conservative movement that has only gotten more ominous over time.
The next great challenge to conservatism was the Tea Party movement that began as a response to the 2008 recession. The initial goals were to encourage lower taxes, a reduction in the national debt and smaller government. Over time, the Tea Party gained more political clout and morphed into the antithesis of traditional conservatism by becoming more populist and activist. Mainstream elected officials were forced out of the Republican Party during Tea Party primary challenges across the country.
As the complexion of the Republican Congress became more radical, the freedom caucus in the House of Representatives replaced the Tea Party as the champion of right-wing activism. The caucus made it impossible to compromise on legislation and forced moderate conservative, John Boehner, to retire as Speaker of the House.
Today, the Trump Republicans have largely abandoned the original Tea Party policies of debt reduction and shrinking the federal budget. The freedom caucus has become the president’s “Pretorian guard.” Tea Party populism has been transformed into a movement of “America First” and its activism into a vocal tribal outrage that mistrusts government with the exception of the anointed leader.
I believe that the death knell of conservatism has placed the American experiment in danger of falling apart. In an age of pandemic and national protest centered on systemic racism, politics has become a scorched earth affair with little room for compromise. Few rational politicians are left to draw up a truce and negotiate a path forward.
I nevertheless have hope that a significant number of younger Americans will rediscover the conservative ideology as envisioned by many of our founders and great political thinkers. This event could occur as they grow into adult roles that are consistent with conservative values. While I continue to believe conservative principles are on the wrong side of history in America, I would welcome them back to the national debate stage with open arms.