Untimely Observations

The Failure of "Conservatism"

Under Discussion: Critchlow, Donald T, The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History, Harvard University Press (2007), 368 pages.

In his history of the conservative movement, Donald Critchlow retells a story that should be quite familiar by now: Modern American conservatism, from its inception in the 1950s, was an intellectual synthesis of the classical liberal tradition, emphasizing individualism and free enterprise, and older European traditions expressing skepticism of liberal modernity. This intellectual framework found its expression in a fiercely anti-Communist outlook that resulted in the abandonment of the traditional foreign-policy isolationism of the American Right in favor of Cold War militarism. Regarding domestic policy, these new conservatives followed the Old Right in professing their intention to roll back the welfare state apparatus that emerged from the New Deal. This program and its accompanying ideology were sold to activists and the public at large with an emphasis on patriotism, hawkish foreign policy views, social conservatism and traditional values.

According to Critchlow, the conservatives were nearly relegated to irrelevance on the American political scene on several occasions, only to make a surprising comeback at a later point. The key events Critchlow points to are the defeat of Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, the perceived betrayal of conservatives by President Nixon and the subsequent scandals surrounding his administration, and the revitalization of the Democratic Party symbolized by the election of President Clinton in 1992. In each of these situations, Critchlow argues, conservatives seemed to be “down for the count” only to reemerge at a future point in defiance of the predictions of analysts and pundits.

Following the Goldwater defeat, conservatives were able to rebound by exploiting the emerging cultural divide concerning matters of patriotism, race, gender, sex, culture, and religion that continues to figure prominently in American politics at present. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” (a term not mentioned by Critchlow) was successful in breaking the Democrats’ hold on the South and allowing the Republicans to take the White House in 1968.

Once in office, Nixon was a disappointment to conservatives, not only failing to roll back but actually expanding and further institutionalizing the welfare state initiatives of the Great Society. His “realist” foreign policy and willingness to disengage from the Vietnam War without total victory, and the thawing of relations with China also contrasted with the ferocious anti-Communism of the American Right. The Watergate related scandals left the GOP in shambles and allowed the Democrats to make a comeback with the election of President Carter in 1976. One of the more interesting aspects of Critchlow’s thesis is his argument that Ronald Reagan’s failure to obtain the Republican nomination in ‘76 actually saved his political career, his presidential ambitions, and the conservative movement along with them. If yet another conservative hero like Reagan had suffered defeat in the same manner as Goldwater 12 years earlier, conservatism might well have come to be regarded as lacking viability as a movement capable of achieving electoral success.

Though Reagan remained personally popular with conservatives, the performance of his administration was, again, a disappointment and his successor, George H. W. Bush, was far worse. After the Democrats were able to gain control of the presidency, along both houses of Congress in 1992, the conservative Republicans made a striking comeback, with sweeping congressional victories in ‘94, the subsequent election of George W. Bush for two terms at the onset of the twenty-first century, and the total control of Washington from 2000 to ‘06.

Still, as Critchlow points out, conservatives’ behavior while in power has been strikingly different from the kind of governance the movement’s founders envisioned in the 1950s: successive Republican administrations, including the Reagan and George W. Bush ones, which were endorsed by the movement, failed in spectacular fashion to curtail the growth of “big government,” and instead launched their own “conservative” social programs in education, welfare, medicine, and even the arts.

This surprising turn-of-events brings us to a gaping hole in Critchlow’s analysis.

So far as his contingency theory goes, he makes his case fairly well. The right-wing Republicans have no doubt been given a number of political and electoral gifts over the years, beginning with the changes in American society of the kind that launched the so-called “culture wars.” Of no less significance is the persistent bumbling of the Republicans’ opponents, such as the inept administrations of Presidents Johnson or Carter and the often directionless, stale, and moribund Democratic Party and wider American Left.

This is all true, but Critchlow’s work is just as significant for what it leaves out as what it actually discusses.

The key to understanding modern American conservatism can be found in a statement on the final page of Critchlow’s book: “The GOP Right took advantage of a population shift to the Sunbelt states and the desertion of whites from the Democratic Party.” The question is why did this population shift occur in the first place and how is it relevant to the “conservative ascendancy”?

The growth of the Sunbelt population emerged in direct correlation to the growth of the military-industrial complex during World War II and the early Cold War period. The growth of industry and manufacturing in these regions was directly related to military production and this massive expansion of armaments and other war-related industries created a high-wage blue-collar sector and an expanded white collar sector that became the foundation of suburban population growth and the accompanying conservative social and political values of the emerging Sunbelt.

The military industries headquartered in the Sunbelt subsequently initiated a challenge to the traditional hegemony of the “northeastern establishment” (banking), long the center of America’s traditional ruling class. Towards this end, the arms manufacturers made common cause with other “old money” elites, such as the Texas oil and the Mellon banking dynasties. Critchlow drops hints that these forces were, indeed, the real power behind postwar American conservatism. For instance, the role of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review in providing the intellectual leadership of the conservative movement is discussed. Critchlow fails to mention that Buckley’s magazine operated at a loss for years after its inception and was underwritten by his family’s oil wealth and other donors. Critchlow also discusses the role of “philanthropies such as the Scaife Fund, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation” and “wealthy conservative benefactors such as Joseph Coors,” along with “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute whose president, A.D. Marshall, was also CEO of General Electric. There was never any company that had closer ties to the military-industrial complex than General Electric. Critchlow mentions the Heritage Foundation, as well, which was financed by the “Mellon heir Richard Scaife.”

Critchlow’s work is rather narrowly focused. He concentrates merely on the operation of the political machinery by the conservative movement’s activists and politicians and the writings and publications of the movement’s intellectuals and theoreticians (some might say propagandists). Had Critchlow examined further the broader economic, class, military and foreign policy forces behind postwar conservatism, he might have been in a better position to assess the movement’s failures and successes.

Conservatism has succeeded in achieving only one of its stated goals and that is the permanent escalation of the military budget and the permanent expansion of America’s foreign military presence. On every other issue claimed by this brand of conservatism (a misnomer?), the level of failure is overwhelming. Rolling back the welfare state? “Big government” is now bigger and more expansive than ever. Fiscal restraint? The U.S. public debt is larger than ever to the point where America biggest debtor in world history. Social conservatism and traditional values? America is a more culturally leftist and egalitarian society today than ever before, and leads the world in the advancement of “diversity” and the fight against intolerance.

Indeed, given the phenomenal success of the “conservatives” in expanding military spending and military interventionism, and their phenomenal failure at everything else, one might be tempted to argue that the former was the only issue that ever really mattered all along, and that the grassroots economic, fiscal, social, cultural, religious and patriotic conservatives who comprised the activist base and key voting blocks were, to use an ironic Leninist term, nothing more than “useful idiots.”