Dionne declares conservatism dead …

the end of the right… or at least conservatism as defined in the current American political landscape. Reporters, take note.

E.J. Dionne’s insightful column in Friday’s Washington Post is about the best review I’ve seen of the current state of politics and the potential for a very messy fall election followed by an even messier 2008 presidential election:

Conservatism was always a delicate balancing act between small-government economic libertarians and social traditionalists who revered family, faith and old values. The two wings were often held together by a common enemy, modern liberalism certainly, but even more so by communism until the early 1990s, and now by what some conservatives call “Islamofascism.”

President Bush, his defenders say, has pioneered a new philosophical approach, sometimes known as “big-government conservatism.” The most articulate defender of this position, the journalist Fred Barnes, argues that Bush’s view is “Hamiltonian” as in Alexander, Thomas Jefferson’s rival in the early republic. Bush’s strategy, Barnes says, “is to use government as a means to achieve conservative ends.”

Kudos to Barnes for trying bravely to make sense of what to so many others — including some in conservative ranks — seems an incoherent enterprise. But I would argue that this is the week in which conservatism, Hamiltonian or not, reached the point of collapse.

Note to Sam Brownback: this does not mean you’re a lost candidate in 2008. Same to any other “conservative” political candidate like Sen. George Allan, R-Va., or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Journalists need to note the Dionne Development. Big-tent conservatism, originally construed by Barry Goldwater, furthered by Ronald Reagan and altered by George W. Bush, is suffering and could be dead, but individual candidates are free to create their own coalitions and mold the party as they see fit.

For instance, we know McCain is reaching out to values voters and we know Rudy Giuliani is making a decent effort. Will other “conservative” candidates believe it is necessary to reach out to values voters? Or have values voters been tossed out with Bush and the remains of conservatism? I have my doubts.

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  • Stephen A.

    I’m tempted to say (snarkily) “they only look dead” and leave it at that. But I won’t.

    He does raise a good point that the individual candidates can build and lead coalitions. Some will be “soft” or “neutral” on morality issues, while others will be too “hard Right” and will pander to the extremes. Hopefully, some (maybe just one) will find the right balance and not slide into liberal-tarianism or extremist religion.

    Yes, it’s a very messy “big tent” over here in ConservoLand. Just like the messy tent over on the Democrat side, with pro-aborts dominating (still) and sharing an uneasy tent space with extremist anti-War Sheehanites and the Theocracy/9-11 conspiracy nutters. Even after they realize people aren’t flocking to Al Gore’s Messianic, anti-West global scare tactics… well, hopefully they will STILL embrace him.

    Looks like they have a lot to sort out, too, before they march back to power in triumph, with Murtha as their head.

    As for candidates and coalitions, Hillary’s “middle way” of trying to appear as if she shares some of the religious values of middle America is one approach, while others will try the Howard Dean direct assault on those ‘Redneck Red states’ and their ‘outdated’ religious and moral values. Edwards will be back for his class warfare angle and trial-honed mock sympathy for the poor (I guess it’s called “Red Letter Xnity”?)

    Yup, your party’s in for some fun times, too, E.J.

  • Dan Crawford

    Ah, thinking of politics analytically and philosophically – always a dangerous enterprise. Taking politicians seriously – even more dangerous.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I’m always tempt to refer to Dionne as “the liberal columnist,” but at any rate, his analysis has a ghost in it. What he really seems to be saying is that the coalition that is the republican party is to some degree coming apart. Well, maybe, but does this mean that the values voters are going to vote for Democrats instead? I doubt it.

  • http://muslimunity.blogspot.com/ Muslim Unity

    “Taking politicians seriously – even more dangerous.”

    Agree with you fullly Dan,

  • Joe Carpenter

    I think what Dionne is saying is that the conservative agenda is declining into incoherence, as this recent minimum wage hike/ estate tax repeal demonstrated.

    I doubt evangelicals or values voters will go elsewhere in large numbers, though more of them might stay at home. Down here in Texas, evangelicals really seem to form the grassroots troops who stuff the envelopes, go door to door, etc. The Republicans need these types of people very badly.

  • MattK

    Unlike E.J., I never thought of Anti-Communism is the thing holding the conservative movement together. As far as I can tell, Kennedy and Johnson were pretty gung-ho anti Communists. Nixon was an appeaser. And though I am an anti-communist, it was the ideas of economic liberty and family cohesion that kept me a Republican. (see http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=Ox+Cart+Man )

    Anyway, I suppose E.J. is right about the Republicans falling apart. I became a Republican in heart at the NAE (www.nae.net) convention were Ronald Reagan gave the “Evil Empire Speech”. I was only 14 but had recently read Bastiat’s “The Law” and had bee raised in the Bible. So I suppose I was primed to join the Republicans.

    But the GOP left me.
    -War in Iraq for no good reason
    -Amazing deficit spending
    -Refusal to live by the 10th Ammendment

    and the biggest thing to me: Control of all three branches of the government but no end to abortion, no end to funding for the NEA, no end to United Nations membership, and no end to the graduated income tax.

    I recently registed as a member of the California American Independent Party (www.aipca.org/) which is what the Constitution Party (www.constitutionparty.com/) is called in my State. I suppose I will never vote for a winning candidate again. But at least I will vote for what I belive is the best choice.

  • http://lonelymans.blogspot.com Tim

    Did read that correctly? Are you calling McCain a conservative? If McCain is a conservative, then the conservative movement is, indeed, dead.

  • MattK


    I don’t know how you are defining conservative (like fundamentalist, conservative is often used to mean various things.), but one aspect of conservatism is fiscal responsibility. Consider the following:

    “The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) today honored Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a Taxpayer Hero for scoring 91 percent on its 2005 Congressional Ratings. The average for the entire Senate was 46 percent. Since 1989, CCAGW has tracked roll call votes to separate the taxpayer advocates in Congress from those who favor wasteful programs and pork-barrel spending.”

    “GOPers, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) get an “A” with a 78% score; Sen. Chuck Hagel gets an “A” with a 76% score. Sens. Frist, Brownback and Allen all merit B+ ratings with scores in the mid seventies. The Democrat scoring the best: Sen. Russ Feingold, who gets a rating of 20, which translate to a “D.” Every other Dem gets an “F”.
    The NTU (National Taxpayers Union) scores every single roll call vote and weights each vote to reflect the degree to which that vote comports with the NTU’s view of the world.”

    I know many people think he is not a conservative because of his campaign finance reform efforts, but I think we have to look at where he is coming from. He was one of the “Keating Five” and has been trying to live that down. I think he is wrong (it violatges the 1st Ammendment), but I think we can cut him some slack on this issue.

    Many people equate Republican with conservative. So when McCain opposes legislation that has broad Republican support in the Senate (as he did in 1996 with the telecom bill), even if he opposes it for being anathema to conservative principles, it looks to those who equate Republican and conservative like McCain is not a conservative.

    It is also true that he sponsored a “guest worker” bill with Ted Kennedy, and a lot of conservatives are angry about that. But speaking as a Californian, who is going to bring in the harvest if not Mexicans? We are on the verge of losing our entire apple crop. The harvest season begins in August and runs through November, but because of the crack down on border jumpers apples that should have been picked last week are still on the trees. Perhaps the conservative answer to this problem is doing away with unemplyment insurance, Social security, student financial aid, and other wealth transfer programs that allow people to not work. But until then we need Mexican labor.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    MattK, the Republican party didn’t leave you, you left the party for Libertarianism.

    Reagan never promised to leave the UN – that’s the John Birch Society you’re thinking of. He never promised to end the income tax – that’s the Libertarian/anarchist Party you’re thinking of. And if he did express doubts about these institutions, he wouldn’t be alone, that’s for sure.

    The citation of Bastiat gave you away as a devotee of the libertarian creed. I’d love to hear what you think of Ayn Rand, another starry-eyed apostle of that Utopian faith.

    If you happen to believe in God, the Constitution Party is the best you can get in the disgruntled, anti-government universe – the purgatory you get to go to instead straight to the godless, self-centered Libertarian Party – so I suppose you’ve landed in the right camp, anyway.

    But us level-headed, social/fiscal conservative Republicans are just fine where we are, and we’re going to take back the party from the corrupt Washington insiders, not abandon it for either a party of licentiousness or a party advocating outright theocracy.

  • MattK

    Stephen A.,

    It is because I do not believe utopias are possible, and because history demonstrates that attempting to build utopias result in hideous suffering that I do not follow Rand. I do not expect economic liberty to result in Heaven on Earth. I merely expect it to put a check on the evil men do.

  • Stephen A.

    Liberty checking evil is a novel concept indeed. And that sounds Utopian to me.

  • MattK

    Oh, I don’t think you understand. The idea is that what is mine is mine and you have no control over it. That is, you can’t take it, destroy it, tax it, use it, or tell me what to do with it. And the same goes for your property. You have the liberty to be good or evil ono your own land, with your own stuff. But not on someone elses land, not with someone elses stuff.

    Take public housing. In San Francisco is a project called Valencia Gardens. It was a sewer of filth, drug abuse, and crime until it was recently demolished. Could that place have existed in a land with economic liberty? A place where one is not “entitled” to someone else’s money? No. The state took money by force from one person and gave it to another. The people who lived at Valencia Gardens lived on someone elses dime, what good or evil (and it was evil enough that even the police dreaded going in the gates) they did, was financed by other people.

    That is what I mean when I say that liberty can be a check on evil.

  • MattK

    I should say that there would still be evil, and quite a lot of it, but it wouldn’t be as concentrated and it wouldn’t be forced on those who want no part of it.

  • Stephen A.

    I’m sorry, is someone in the GOP advocating vast housing projects at taxpayer expense? I missed that.

    I do understand your main argument perfectly, despite a bit of verbal obsfuscation.
    Your implications, that taxation is theft and zoning laws are evil, are misleading at best, and are clearly Utopian and typical of liberatarian misunderstandings of human nature. A conservative society isn’t one where ‘everyone does what one pleases.’ (Read more Burke, less Bastiat.)

    I find that whenever a libertarian (or a closeted one) uses the word “liberty” he uses it the wrong way, to mean “license”

    Your carefully worded statement (“…what is mine is mine and you have no control over it. That is, you can’t take it, destroy it, tax it, use it, or tell me what to do with it…”) etc., sounds plausible on the surface, but it’s a minefield of hidden philosophies and incorrect assumptions that I’m not touching, in depth.

    By the way, it’s also pure, self-centered Rand – word-for-word.

  • MattK

    I’m sorry, Stepen A. I disagree about it being self-centered. Self-centered would say “your stuff is really my stuff”. What I am saying is God gave your stuff to you, who am I to tell you what to do with it? To me that seems very not self-centered, in fact it seems self-limiting. My actions are limited by the rights inherent in your person-hood.

    I’m sorry if you thought I was obfuscating. That wasn’t my intent. I was trying to be clear, unsucsessfully it seems.

    As for sounding like Rand I don’t know how to explain that since I have never read any of her books. I tried to read a book by her disciple Leonard Piekoff about 15 years ago but never made it past the introduction.

    It is interesting that you contrasted liberty and license. Do you recall that speech by Pat Buchannan in which he said “There is no right to do wrong”? I agree with that statement. I think you are infer beliefs to me I do not hold.

    I didn’t mean to make it sound as though the GOP has a pro-public housing plank in its platform. They probably don’t even address the subject in the platform. But the GOP does subscribe to the underlying philosophy of taking one mans wealth by force and giving to another. If not in public housing then in Pell Grants and Social Security and farm subsudies amd eport subsidies. The particular programs favored by Republicans are different from the programs favored by Democrats (Except for the CPB and the NEA, apparantly) but the underlying philosophy of steal and redistribute is the same.

  • Stephen A.

    No, self-centered is constantly focusing on “MY” and “STUFF.” Serving God isn’t about self, or protecting yourSELF or hoarding one’s goods.

    The idea that God “gave your stuff to you” is (and this is pure opinion) pernicious and smacks of the health-and-wealth gospel that even Jim Bakker has renounced as shallow and materialistic.

    “Theft” and “redistribution” have particularly clever meanings in Libertarianland, so I’ll avoid a debate over those.

    As for the public housing, I think you took my statement too literary. I was simply wondering what it had to do with the failures of the GOP, or the subject at hand. Advocating public housing is obviously not one of the party’s failings.

    I’m no fan of either one, but the CPB and NEA truly are miniscule parts of the budget at this point. Art and artsy TV will flourish with or without the comparatively few dollars in public aid they receive. We’ve had discussions here about both, if you do a search on this site for these topics.