December 12, 2005
Conservative Movement at a Dead End?
Has the American conservative movement reached a dead end? That
is the impression you might have gotten if you attended the panel
discussions sponsored by the James Madison program at Princeton
University earlier this month.
hailed past beginnings and triumphs -- the founding of National
Review by William F. Buckley Jr. 50 years ago, the Goldwater
candidacy of 1964, the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the
rise of religious conservatives and the vindication of market
economics over the last 25 years.
were much gloomier about the present. Voters have installed Republican
majorities in Congress and a Republican president widely regarded
as a conservative. Yet federal spending has risen sharply, and
a new federal entitlement, for prescription drugs, has been added.
are not secure, and the venturesome, allegedly neoconservative
foreign policy of the administration is under harsh attack at
home and abroad. Mainstream media are more shamelessly liberal
than ever in their orientation and bias. Moreover, the Bush administration
seems to have run out of new ideas. It has been successful on
some of the issues Bush raised in 2000 and 2004 -- tax cuts and
education -- and seems to have been checkmated on others, notably
the problem, speakers suggested, is that conservatives have allowed
their movement to converge too much with Bush and his Republican
Party. Bush, after all, did not promise to govern as a small government
conservative. He recognized that Ronald Reagan, who called government
the problem, not the solution, was not able to cut back government
much, and he promised instead to promote policies that increase
choice, competition and accountability -- which he has mostly
done. But it's not immediately obvious what other federal policies
can advance those goals further. Hence, the feeling of a dead
as conservatives should know better than others, exists only as
part of a larger society. And the trend in the larger society,
contrary to what Buckley expected in 1955 and in line with his
wishes, has been to more choice, competition and accountability.
Big monopolistic firms have been overtaken by what were small
start-ups. General Motors has been replaced as our biggest employer
by Wal-Mart. Big labor unions, except in the public sector, have
grown vastly smaller. The draft military, which performed poorly
in Vietnam, has been replaced by a voluntary military, which has
performed superbly wherever it goes.
culture, so conformist-minded 50 years ago, has become more variegated,
with individuals free to choose the cultural niche in which they
live and raise their families. American society, which seemed
headed toward collectivism a half-century ago, now seems headed
back toward the democratic individualism Alexis de Tocqueville
identified in the 1830s.
a society, conservatives need not look solely to the federal government
to accomplish their political ends. The great conservative policy
successes of the 1990s -- the reduction by more than half of crime
and welfare dependency -- were the product of state and local
politicians, inspired by conservative thinkers, far more than
they were of any federal law.
move toward more accountability and choice in education, which
proceeds despite the powerful institutional opposition of the
teacher unions and education schools. Ditto, it can be argued,
the health care system. Federal standardization was successfully
resisted in the 1990s -- now our various health care systems are
constantly changing, responding not only to government regulation
but also to the economic marketplace.
questions for conservatives remain. Do citizens in this society,
whose economy offers so many choices, want choices in their public
services? Polls suggest that young citizens would welcome choices
in individual investment accounts in Social Security, but that
change was blocked by united opposition from Democrats, while
seniors -- the Americans least adept at going online and clicking
to get what they want -- grumble about the array of choices in
the Medicare prescription drug plan.
about the long-term danger of ever-larger entitlement programs?
Social Security and Medicare are scheduled to gobble up a larger
share of the economy as the population ages and the ratio of workers
to beneficiaries falls. Someday, those trend-lines will have to
be altered. But that day seems to have been delayed, which means
the alteration will be more painful when it comes.
the character of the society still seems more in sync with conservatism
than liberalism, and conservatives, of all people, should know
that their goals cannot be achieved by the federal government
2005 Creators Syndicate