Here Comes the Conservative Civil War

Here Comes the Conservative Civil War

By Rod Dreher - November 10, 2008

And so, with a resounding, bone-rattling crash, the conservative era ends. Now the scattered and demoralized armies of the right will turn on each other with such ferocity it will make the brutal opening scene of Gladiator look like a slap fight at a slumber party. It's about to get mercenary in the woodshed.

Who lost conservatism? The first instinct among shell-shocked and infuriated partisans will be to blame anybody but their own faction for this historical repudiation. Look to the talk-radio mob to set upon conservative elites who failed to stay loyally on side, especially in the matter of Sarah Palin's candidacy. This will do nobody any good and will delay the necessary repentance, rethinking and rebuilding.

The right has developed a vicious habit of tagging any dissenting conservative as a closet liberal. This folly has constructed an airtight bubble around the GOP and conservative leaders, not only depriving conservatism of constructive criticism from within its ranks, but also reinforcing the rank-and-file's worst instincts. If the election results didn't convince Republicans that they couldn't afford to throw people out - especially their intellectuals and people who respect intellect - then their ignorance is invincible.

This election ought to once and for all teach conservatives that Ronald Reagan is dead, and he's not coming back. The intellectual poverty of the GOP primary debates showed itself by the candidates' ritualistic invocation of Mr. Reagan's name, as if saying it often enough would compensate for the lack of new ideas among the sorry bunch.

Mr. Reagan and his popular brand of conservatism arose out of a particular set of historical circumstances - specifically, the challenge of Soviet communism abroad and welfare-statism at home. It's a new day with new challenges, and the intellectually exhausted right is not up to meeting them.

Conservatives must return to the philosophical sources of our tradition and reinterpret its insights and truths for the world we live in now. Ideas really do have consequences - as, obviously, does the lack of same. Yes, conservatives have to oppose the Obama Democrats when they overreach, but if the only response conservatives offer is defensive and obstreperous, they will not soon recover.

Conservatives will go nowhere until the right owns up to the failures of the Bush years. They were chiefly a failure of competence and a corruption of professed ideals. They were also a failure of ideology. In particular:

•The idea that the American military is an omnipotent tool for spreading liberal democracy died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The right's romanticization of militarism, and its crusading pieties about the universality of democratic values, are done.

•The dogmatic conviction that the globalized free market is capable of regulating itself for the greater good of society is a spectacularly costly shibboleth, as even Alan Greenspan, the high priest of this religion, confessed recently.

•The GOP's knee-jerk hostility to environmental concerns is not only a betrayal of conservative tradition but also costs Republicans credibility with young voters. Similarly, though it's tough for social conservatives like me to admit it, we've lost the gay marriage battle, especially among the young. We're going to have to come to some sort of accommodation with it to protect religious liberty.

The good news is that Mr. Obama may be a liberal, but he did not campaign as one and is too smart to govern as one. America remains largely a center-right country, which means there are opportunities for new iterations of conservatism. All eyes should be on Louisiana's brilliant young governor, Bobby Jindal, as the one national Republican left standing who can shore up the fragments against conservatism's present ruin - and possibly reverse the tide.

Out of loss, new victories can arise. Modern American conservatism began with the crushing defeat of Arizona's Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. That laid the groundwork for an emerging conservative movement, one that would not fully arrive until the Reagan presidency set the political agenda for nearly 30 years.

It is poetic, even poignant, that conservatism ended its remarkable run with the failed 2008 presidential effort of the Arizona senator who succeeded Mr. Goldwater. It took 16 years to get from Mr. Goldwater to Mr. Reagan.

The duration of conservatism's exile from power depends on how long its civil war lasts - and who wins it.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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