The death of movement conservatism, an opportunity for philosophical conservatives?

13 Nov

Interesting article in the New Republic on the future of the conservative movement in wake of movement conservatism’s death.

From Sam Tanenhous:

IN THE TUMULTUOUS history of postwar American conservatism, defeats have often contained the seeds of future victory. In 1954, the movement’s first national tribune, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was checkmated by the Eisenhower administration and then “condemned” by his Senate colleagues. But the episode, and the passions it aroused, led to the founding of National Review, the movement’s first serious political journal. Ten years later, the right’s next leader, Barry Goldwater, suffered one of the most lopsided losses in election history. Yet the “draft Goldwater” campaign secured control of the GOP for movement conservatives. In 1976, the insurgent challenge by Goldwater’s heir, Ronald Reagan, to incumbent president Gerald Ford was thwarted. But Reagan’s crusade positioned him to win the presidency four years later and initiate the conservative “revolution” that remade our politics over the next quarter-century. In each instance, crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it further along the route to ultimate victory.

Today, the situation is much bleaker. After George W. Bush’s two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive “culture war” waged against liberal “elites.” That these precepts should have found their final, hapless defender in John McCain, who had resisted them for most of his long career, only confirms that movement doctrine retains an inflexible and suffocating grip on the GOP.

More telling than Barack Obama’s victory is the consensus, steadily building since Election Day, that the nation has sunk—or been plunged—into its darkest economic passage since the Great Depression. And, as Obama pushes boldly ahead, apparently with public support, the right is struggling to reclaim its authority as the voice of opposition. The contrast with 1993, when the last Democratic president took office, is instructive. Like Obama, Bill Clinton was elected in hard economic times and, like him, promised a stimulus program, only to see his modest proposal ($19.5 billion) stripped almost bare by the Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, even though Democrats had handily won the White House and Senate Republicans formed nearly as small a minority as they do today. The difference was that the Republicans—disciplined, committed, self-assured—held the ideological advantage, which Dole leveraged through repeated use of the filibuster. Today, such a stratagem seems unthinkable. There is instead almost universal agreement—reinforced by the penitential testimony of Alan Greenspan and, more recently, by grudgingly conciliatory Republicans—that the most plausible economic rescue will involve massive government intervention, quite possibly on the scale of the New Deal/Fair Deal of the 1930s and ‘40s and perhaps even the New Frontier/Great Society of the 1960s. All this suggests that movement doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.

Yet, even as the right begins to regroup, it is not clear that its leaders have absorbed the full implications of their defeat. They readily concede that the Democrats are in charge and, in Obama, have a leader of rare political skills. Many on the right also admit that the specific failures of the outgoing administration were legion. But what of the verdict issued on movement conservatism itself?

Read the rest

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