Conservatism is Dead, and it's Not Coming Back
To be completely truthful, conservatism properly understood has actually been near total demise ever since the election of Ronald Reagan. Nearly every ideological facet of what used to be known as American conservatism has been abandoned largely abandoned by both political parties--or is slowly being taken over in its most benign and idealistic form by the Democratic party as a secondary plank.
Gone is the Old Right--those Paleoconservatives who believe in the venerated American tradition of non-interventionism abroad and rural-values agrarian populism at home.
Gone is the Rockefeller Republican--the pro-business conservative who welcomes government investment in social programs but simply wants to run them more efficiently. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are two the very last of a dying breed--outcasts in both of America's political moieties.
Gone is the Small Government Conservative. As even the Wall Street Journal staff have admitted, "The the era of small government is over. Sept. 11 challenged it. Katrina killed it." The Republican Party is the Party of Big Government Conservatism now (whatever that means), as the Cato Institute has lamented at length.
Gone, also are the old Burkeian and Hamiltonian conservatives whose preference for aristocracy and Republic over mob rule and Democracy has given way to the pseudo-populism of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, and the unilateral attempt to ostensibly spread direct democracy across the globe.
And gone too are the old Ayn Rand conservatives: those who view selfishness as the highest good, absent all communal forces to the contrary--including not only government but organized religion as well.
All of these proud descendants of the Burkeian conservative tradition have been utterly marginalized in today's American political discourse. And there's a very good reason for that: conservatism as we know it has ceased to provide any meaningful answers for the problems that confronted by the nation and the world. Instead, we are at a crossroads of epic proportions that will determine nothing less than the future of the free world in ways that most of us probably fail to fully grasp.
In the place of traditional conservatism--as Thomas Frank and hundreds of others have pointed out time and again--is an alliance between what Markos and Jerome call the "Corporate Cons" and the "TheoCons". I would also add the "NeoCons"--though many would simply say that they are a subset of the Corporate Cons.
The problem with this categorization, however, is the obvious difficulty that two of the above are not conservative at all, while the third is ONLY conservative of religious tradition and nothing else. The old rhetorical adage "What Are Conservatives Conserving, Exactly?" is perfectly applicable for these people--none of whom are true Conservatives at all.
Indeed, there is absolutely nothing "conservative" about either a Corporate Con or a NeoCon. In fact, their economic policies are called Neoliberal in academic circles, and their speeches in defense of the militaristic enforcement of global democracy and "freedom" are in the liberal tradition of Wilson, Roosevelt and Kennedy.
Corporate Cons, TheoCons and NeoCons all shun balanced budgets. They shun George Washington's warnings against foreign entanglements. They shun the notion of small government. They shun the notion of aristocracy understood as such by the public (not that they don't attempt to enforce it de facto by other means, of course). They shun responsible stewardship of the environment. They shun the notion of investment in social programs. They shun traditional conservative pessimism about the ability of governments to enforce their traditions and beliefs onto others. And their rhetoric about the benign consequences of allowing people utter freedom to do whatever they will economically is almost Emersonian, shunning every conservative, Humeian conservative tradition.
They aren't conservatives at all, in fact. They're simply an evil version of Liberalism.
But why did this happen? It happened because, quite simply, traditional conservatism has completely outlived its usefulness in the modern world.
Every single problem that we face nationally and globally is completely beyond the scope of simplistic, old-school conservatism to address. Nearly every problem requires the mobilization of large-scale structures to resolve. Consider them:
Environmental degradation of other kinds.
The threat of catastropic "Andromeda Strain" viruses.
The worldwide drug trade.
Worldwide water shortages.
The "double-income" trap--with concomitant "latchkey kid" syndrome.
Moral degeneration (yes, it exists, as anyone who has witnessed the decline from Glenn Miller to Britney Spears, from MLK Jr. to P-Diddy, from Doogie Howser to MTV's Real World, can easily attest.)
And the list goes on and on.
Ayn Rand has no answers for these. Neither does Burke. Nor Rockefeller. Nor even the PaleoCons, for the most part.
These problems are enormous. Daunting. Intimidating. At times, they seem utterly intractable. So much so that one school of political thought has totally withered in the face of their unrelenting pressure, while the other stands at an historic crossroads that will define its future for generations.
One way or another, you see, the era of squabbling, self-serving independent nation-states each seeking gain at the expense of the other is drawing to a close. Permanently.
To Progressives, that era will be replaced with citizens in each nation working together to improve the lives of their fellow countrymen, while the nations themselves work in increasing harmony to resolve the world's great crises.
To Corporate Cons and NeoCons--best exemplified by utter fool Thomas Friedman--that era will be replaced with the Corporate Triumphalism of McDonald's Diplomacy. The rights and prerogatives of nation-states will be subsumed under the invisible aristocracy of multi-national corporations and their largest shareholders, and the health and safety of the world's population will depend on the continued growth (read, unfettered and increasing exploitation) of financial markets worldwide under the guise of democracy and "free trade".
To TheoCons, to whom both of the above are anathema, the problems are so insurmountable and so inconsistent with their fundamental belief in God's benevolence, omniscience and omnipotence--and so impossible to resolve by turning to simple human free will or "agency"--that an increasing number simply figure that God will take care of it and wrap it all up, with a a Darbyesque bowtie of rapture and Left Behind insanity.
The only exceptions to this rule are fringe far-right and far-left groups (often virtually indistinguishable), both of which also assume that the problems are insurmountable and actually look forward to global economic and environmental collapse in order to usher in a new age of simplicity/rusticity. But these secular millennarians are thankfully few and far between.
Conservatism, then, is dead. It isn't coming back. In its place we are left with three fundamental choices that will determine the future of Liberalism and the future of the free world:
1) A Progressive Liberal vision of partnership, long-term thinking and respect for the common good that disregards race, religion, language and even national boundaries;
2) A Corporate Liberal vision of unfettered economic neoliberalism that exploits people with a view toward quarterly profits and respect for shareholders only that also disregards race, religion, language and even national boundaries;
3) A devil-may-care pessimistic vision of big-government control with no vision that simply expects Jehovah to resolve everything.
May we choose wisely. The fate of the world itself depends on it.