Crisis in American Conservatism


Richard W. Crockett


“Karl sent us a check.  I’m happy to receive advice from Karl Rove.”    --John McCain. 


There is a crisis in American conservatism.  It is badly divided and highly overrated as a method of solving problems. It tends to deny the existence of problems, and it does this in defense of the status quo, or it used to.    In its beginning, conservatism was an outlook toward the world, which embraced the status quo and tradition and accepted change only if that change could be justified by historical experience. Peter Vierick described this in his book, Conservatism.  If we had seen a thing done before, we might be willing to try it. Prudence and caution were its hallmarks.  Liberalism, on the other hand, was a perspective toward the world that embraced change as the march of progress and that change could be based upon man’s capacity for reason, upon a priori ideas.  Liberalism accepted that man when faced with a problem could figure out what he should do next on any given occasion, and do so even apart from any reference to historical experience. During the New Deal of FDR pragmatism was its philosophy and new ideas were assessed in terms of their consequences when applied.  Liberalism in the nineteen thirties was a kind of reconciliation between moral principal and practical experience.  Over time, conservatism became associated with specific doctrinal issues toward government, rather than the proper means for addressing historical change or for protecting tradition and tested institutions.  Generally it revealed a fundamental dislike of government institutions, and it was successful at persuading the American electorate of this view.  Ronald Reagan proclaimed that government could not be “part of the solution” because it was “part of the problem.”  This was a fundamental mistake.  Government was not the problem.  Large-scale organization (bureaucracy) in any form, public and private was a problem. Private bureaucracy was especially responsible for our ills, because it was manifestly unaccountable, and its growth was allowed, even encouraged by conservative friends of business in government.  In a series of elections since 1980, we have entrusted the government to these conservatives, never considering that to do so was like entrusting the chickens to the care of the fox. Because we not only entrusted government to them, but we allowed them to steal America’s future, and they want to do it by ignoring an important article of their own faith, that of historical experience. 


John McCain is having a hard time selling himself to conservatives as one of them, but that is not the crisis.  The crisis in American conservatism is that no one in that movement appears conservative. What passes for conservative is something that used to be called the Radical Right. What passes for conservatism is the galvanizing of the moral vision of evangelical America to the secular stinginess and ruthlessness of corporate America.  It rejects a society governed by rules and subscribes to allowing nature to take its course in economic matters. This hands power to an unaccountable elite. 


None of the new conservatives seem to want to learn from experience.  McCain certainly does not and wants to continue with the policies of George W. Bush in the war in Iraq. He is ready to stay there for 100 more years if he has to, so he tells us.  He seems to have learned nothing from our experience in this misguided war, nor has he learned that wars of aggression are neither prudent nor conservative.  The war in Iraq is radical action promoted by the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons” as the Radical Right is now called. Paul Craig Roberts, former editor of the Wall Street Journal and conservative writer who’s column appears in this paper, has called the “neo-cons”, Jacobins. If you check the history of the French Revolution, you will find that these were not the good guys. Further, McCain acknowledges that he is not comfortable with his knowledge of the economy, and then he reinforces this claim to ignorance by criticizing the idea of an economic stimulus and urges that we cut spending and deal with the deficit to address the recession.  Herbert Hoover tried that following the crash of the stock market in 1929.  It failed and kept the Republicans out of power until 1952.   Again, the “conservative” McCain is not learning from experience.


It is ironic that this is all coming down in this fashion, since it appears that the election in November is apt to be about change vs. experience.  If Barak Obama is the standard bearer for the Democrats, which seems a strong likelihood, today, the election will certainly be about change versus a defense of the policies of the Bush administration.  Now many have observed that change by itself is not an answer, because change can be for good or ill.  True enough, but the reason that this idea has so much power today is because it has a small amount of consensual content and a great amount of hope.  The consensus on the term is in its profound rejection of the present state of affairs. The hope component of the term is in the wish in the voter’s mind that the New Jerusalem will look the way that it appears in each of our mind’s eyes.  But I don’t believe we need to go that far to find the content of Obama’s change.  It appears to be nothing less than to restore our government to respectability and to place it in the service of the American people.