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August 4, 2006
Not The End

One of my favorite columnists, E.J. Dionne, asks an interesting question about the future of conservatism in today's Washington Post. It relates to the ongoing debate over whether conservatives should stay within the GOP or create an ideologically pure movement:

Is conservatism finished?

What might have seemed an absurd question less than two years ago is now one of the most important issues in American politics. The question is being asked -- mostly quietly but occasionally publicly -- by conservatives themselves as they survey the wreckage of their hopes, and as their champions in the Republican Party use any means necessary to survive this fall's elections. ...

President Bush, his defenders say, has pioneered a new philosophical approach, sometimes known as "big-government conservatism." The most articulate defender of this position, the journalist Fred Barnes, argues that Bush's view is "Hamiltonian" as in Alexander, Thomas Jefferson's rival in the early republic. Bush's strategy, Barnes says, "is to use government as a means to achieve conservative ends."

Kudos to Barnes for trying bravely to make sense of what to so many others -- including some in conservative ranks -- seems an incoherent enterprise. But I would argue that this is the week in which conservatism, Hamiltonian or not, reached the point of collapse.

I doubt that many conservatives would defend Bush for creating "big-government conservatism", an oxymoron under any circumstances. In fact, the conservative base has been most restive about his spending habits and that of the leadership in Congress, which has completely abandoned the tenets of conservatism in federal government. On domestic policy, the last five years look much more like Rockefeller Republicanism than any brand of conservatism espoused over the last generation.

In that sense, conservatism has definitely moved to life support. The conservative movement has grown so frustrated with what they see as a giveaway administration that an open debate broke out among conservative pundits about the benefits of forming a third party and breaking away from the GOP altogether. That debate may have receded with the midterms approaching, but it will surely come back to the front burner in the next session of Congress.

However, the truth about ruling coalitions in democracies is that power comes from a big tent, not a narrow ideological group. Conservatives who believe that they must purge the party of unbelievers tend to forget that 25% of the votes win one nothing in a representative democracy. The only manners in which an ideological group can control the levers of governent are either by convincing a majority of people to agree with this ideology in toto or to align themselves with enough other groups to hold a majority. Parliamentary democracies do this through multiple parties and explicit coalition-building after the election; Americans do it by convincing voters to vote in one of two coalitions at election time.

Conservatism, just like progressivism and socialism, won't end with one particular election cycle. Hell, socialism has shown itself as a train wreck everywhere it has been tried, and we still have die-hard socialists in the Democratic Party attempting to implement as much of their agenda as possible. Dionne is a bit inaccurate in his description, because we still haven't seen conservatism actually used as a template for government since the Reagan administration. We do see conservative judicial nominations, which has been the part of the agenda we did manage to win in this coalition over the last six years -- but even then we had to wage an open battle with the Bush administration to get it.

Coalitons come and go, and the influence of their component groups wax and wane. The survival of conservatism relies on the intellectual vitality of its philosophical thinkers and the ability to convince people of its applicablity. The conservative movement has plenty of gas left. If anything, the big-spending habits of this generation of Republican leadership will motivate us to press harder for our candidates and our goals.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 4, 2006 1:29 PM

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