Kevin Williamson, columnist for National Review, recently published an article where he reflects on the state of the conservative movement. His conclusion is that while the conservative movement has its flaws, it has gone from a force that is merely, “standing athwart history, yelling stop,” to a movement that has “gained the upper hand.” With all due respect to Williamson, I believe this conclusion is delusional. Any honest assessment of the past 60 years will lead one to conclude that the movement is almost a complete failure. The only question is why the conservative movement failed.
Williamson argues that the conservative movement has gained the upper hand because the Democrats have exhausted their ideas. Rather than improving things, Obama’s presidency has been a disaster. On the other hand, Republicans are, for the moment, in the position of being able to make demands:
Setting aside for the moment any analysis of whether the Right is justified in its inconsolability, this represents a different mode of negotiation from that which prevailed under Eisenhower-ism. Then, it was the Right trying to slow down the products of liberal consensus; today, it is the Right considering the products of conservative consensus and demanding further satisfaction. “We could agree to a little bit less than that” has been replaced by “You’re going to have to give us more than that.”
I doubt many conservative voters would agree. Be that as it may, to really measure the success or failure of the conservative movement, it is necessary to go back to the genesis of the movement. The movement stands or falls on how well it has executed on its stated goals.
Principles of the Conservative Movement
In the US, the conservative movement is virtually synonymous with the founding of National Review by William F. Buckley 60 years ago. It is worthwhile to examine National Review‘s mission statement to see how it has done in achieving its stated goals:
A. Small government
Buckley believed that the main job of government was “to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property.” All other government growth tends to “diminish freedom and hamper progress.”
Grade: F. The conservative movement has been an utter failure in keeping the government small. The federal government grows exponentially regardless of who is in power. There have been some minor victories, such as when Newt Gingrich subdued Bill Clinton on welfare reform. But most of that ground has already been reclaimed by the Democrats with gains in virtually every other area.
B. Stand against social engineering
Buckley wrote: “The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order.”
Grade F. If social engineering was bad in the 1950s, it is a thousand times worse today. Political correctness is a stifling straightjacket. Uncomfortable truths cannot be discussed in the open. Any deviation from Leftist orthodoxy is punishable by complete destruction of a person’s life. The Left easily uses the government to promote their social engineering projects.
With regard to the “organic moral order,” we’ve seen the introduction of high rates of divorce, same-sex marriage, rampant promiscuity, and transgenderism—all with very little opposition by the conservative movement. In fact, when the Left unrolled its latest project—making pedophilia socially acceptable—National Review preemptively rolled over signaling that it can be counted upon to provide no resistance.
C. Defeating Communism
Buckley called Communism the “century’s most blatant force of satanic utopianism.”
Grade: B+. President Reagan, the one and only president who was significantly influenced by the conservative movement, was instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a truly great achievement, and it made the lives of millions of people infinitely better. Bravo to Bill Buckley, National Review, and the conservative movement.
But if it was such a marvelous achievement, why do I only give them a B+? Because all those Marxist sympathizers who were entrenched in academia, media, and government did not simply cease to exist with the fall of the Soviet Union. They simply relabeled themselves. They hid their true beliefs, but they continued to push the same pernicious ideas.
Of course, nobody teaches Soviet style Communism anymore, but they do covertly push a collapsing of the lower and middle classes into an amorphous mass—with the upper class safely tucked away in segregated, gated communities. National Review failed to note this dynamic. Instead it succumbed to the narrative of neocon theorist Francis Fukuyama that we had reached the “end of history” with liberal democratic capitalism as the clear winner. Because it was not purged, this Marxist inclination still exists and still continues to have a large influence in politics and academia.
D. Favoring excellence over conformity
National Review was meant to combat intellectual cliques that pushed faddish crap over true art.
Grade: F. National Review has an outstanding section devoted to culture. In NR you will find excellent reviews of the latest books, theatre, dance, opera, and classical music. In my opinion, it is the primary reason to subscribe to the magazine.
But while NR itself has lived up to Buckley’s mission of promoting high culture, the conservative movement that NR leads has not been successful combating the decline of American culture. In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words. Look at this and then try to tell me how our culture is doing just fine:
E. Support of two distinctive political parties
Already, in 1955, there was “an identifiable team of Fabian operators is bent on controlling both our major political parties.” Buckley wanted NR to oppose this.
Grade: F. The Republicans and Democrats do have some superficial differences, but when it comes down to anything that is important, you will get the same result regardless of which party is in power. For example, the following policies always remain in place.
- Tax subsidies for the rich, especially Hollywood, hedge fund managers, and electric car manufacturers.
- Open borders.
- Support for Israel.
- A policy of destabilizing Middle Eastern governments. Republicans do more military interventions, Democrats do less, but they both do it.
- Free trade deals that always seem to screw the American worker.
The Donald Trump candidacy proves this assertion. With the exception of support for Israel, Trump challenged each of these points. The result has been that he has been attacked not by Democrats, but by the mainstream Republican Party.
National Review has been at the forefront of those attacks. They’ve published a steady stream of articles attacking Trump for having left the “conservative” reservation. Meanwhile, they’ve attacked their own readers on Twitter for supporting Trump by calling them names such as “racist peckerwoods.”
Does this sound like the same magazine that helped sink the Soviet Union? Or does it sound like they are serving the interests of their big money donors?
Why the Conservative Movement Failed
National Review was founded by the amazingly talented and erudite Bill Buckley, and it had some of the most brilliant political minds as its team of writers. So how did it and the conservative movement become a slightly less liberal version of the Democratic Party?
The Conservative Movement Focused Solely on Politics
The biggest reason is that the conservative movement tried to achieve its goals strictly by political means. It didn’t ask its followers to do anything but support “conservative” politicians. The effect of being solely a political movement is that it became all about winning the upcoming election. There was no mention of trying to change the culture. The only thing that matters is getting enough votes to win the current election.
You can see this at play in the tactics of Karl Rove. Rove was undeniably successful in getting President Bush elected twice, but it was more through tricks such as negative political ads than it was through the spread of a conservative message.
But only thinking about getting voters means that you have to water down your message to become as inoffensive as possible. You end up with a bland candidate like Mitt Romney who only talks about creating jobs—a good thing but not something that stirs the passions of voters.
Thinking only about the upcoming election also means that you have to abide by all of the Left’s rules of political correctness. You can’t be frank about the problem of letting in tens of thousands uneducated, unskilled persons from Central America or “refugees” from the Middle East—that would be racist. You can’t oppose same-sex marriage—that would be homophobic. You can’t champion masculinity—that would be misogynist.
Playing by the Left’s rules becomes a straightjacket preventing conservatives from doing anything more than stand athwart history and yell stop. At some point, the conservative movement went from being a holistic movement to being limited to economic concerns. Moreover, it was economic concerns that benefited big business. If that is a conservative movement, it is a very truncated one.
Just because the conservative movement failed does not mean that Buckley’s original ideas were bad, it just means that trying to effect change solely through the political process is bound to fail.
Practically speaking, this means that we can’t hope that some political leader is going to arise to fix our problems. Instead, we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and start changing things from the ground up.
The first step is to detach from the matrix but it can’t stop there. We’ll also have to rebuild connections to our communities, especially as the state starts to recede. Finally, it would be a mistake to ignore politics. Perhaps, as the Overton window shifts, National Review will adapt and again become a champion of conservatism. But if it doesn’t, there are outlets such as Breitbart and Return of Kings that are already starting to fill role that NR has abdicated.
Excellent write up. Can’t disagree with any of this.
Conservative movement had a chance to seize an opportunity but failed. Failed miserably.
Ghost Tiger says
Great analysis Michael. I have looked into Buckley’s contribution to the conservative movement myself recently. Although his debates with Gore Vidal and his interviews of celebrities, especially Muhammad Ali, were fascinating and he was a tiger during those events, you are bang-on accurate that he only focused on winning elections. And even in that area, he gets a grade of F. Buckley’s hero was Barry Goldwater, an election loser. Buckley’s support of Reagan was lukewarm at best. Buckley opposed Reagan on the Panama Canal issue prior to Reagan’s Presidency in famous debate, and Buckely has been proven horribly wrong on that issue, whereas Reagan has been proven prophetic. Buckley appears to have been a “champagne conservative” on the Panama Canal issue, apparently trying to use his support of Panama locals as a “shield” against accusations of racism from his liberal opponents. These liberals often seemed to have more in common with Buckely as an intellectual and an academic, than did his “friends” like Reagan and the social conservative constituency that Glodwater failed to impress. Note that Goldwater failed to impress them but they LOVED Reagan, just like they LOVE Trump now. And Buckley seemed to resent them for that. He had a disdain for Reagan that is clearly shared by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly who recently wrote a thinly veiled hit-piece on Reagan called “Killing Reagan.” So, just as the conservative establishment disliked Reagan and his voters then, so it dislikes Trump and his voters now. But now, as then, it appears that the people really do know better. The founding fathers are proven over and over again to have known EXACTLY what they were doing. Goldwater and Buckley shied away from the social conservative issues, preferring to focus on the fiscal issues. But like you said, jobs and balanced budgets don’t ignite the passion of conservative voters and potential leaders. Buckley and the establishment failed to spend their political capital on fighting for what MATTERED when they had the chance. Up here in Canada, Stephen Harper failed to spend his political capital in a very similar way. Reagan spent his political capital ferociously like a tiger, and not only the left still hates him for it, but even establishment assholes like O’Reilly. And so Trump is spending his political capital, and God bless him for it. Trump 2016. Make America Great Again.
Michael Sebastian says
I didn’t realize that Buckley wasn’t a giant fan of Reagan, but it makes sense. NR has always appears to be afraid of being embarrassed by holding a politically correct opinion.
I’ve read some commentary that NR was set up to define the outer boundary of socially acceptable conservatism. In other words, it was never intended to be truly conservative even from its inception.
Mark Citadel says
Conservatism fails because it is the rightist mind’s path of legitimizing leftist ideas. At its core, the assumptions are Liberal, but through careful deception over a period of decades it can make it look as if there is a legitimate and democratic alternative to that which rightists are willed to stand against.
There has been not a single greater force in ensuring no Reactionary, no truly right wing, alternative to Modernity can rear its head than Conservatism. What the Trump candidacy shows is that the duping magic of this system is beginning to have run its course. You can only fool people so many times within a generation.
Michael Sebastian says
I hope you are right. I believe that less than half of conservatives have woken up from the lies of Conservatism. Most are still buying into the media narrative that the way to “win” involves being politically correct. No amount of evidence to the contrary seems to sway them.
Soy Boy says
“Of course, nobody teaches Soviet style Communism anymore, but they do covertly push a collapsing of the lower and middle classes into an amorphous mass—with the upper class safely tucked away in segregated, gated communities. ”
Explain? This doesn’t quite add up.
PS: anyone curious about my moniker can read my comment under Michael’s “Save the Soy Man” essay.
Michael Sebastian says
The progressive tax system penalizes people who are on their way up the ladder and it makes it difficult to accumulate wealth. If you are earning six figures in a high cost of living area like NYC, DC, or SF, you will be taxed at the top rate even though you are far from rich.
Meanwhile, very wealthy people like Romney, Buffet, or hedge fund managers, are taxed at the much lower capital gains tax rate. Buffet to his credit has pointed this out.
Meanwhile, pretty much every new government benefit goes to the lower class. This is different from the socialist economies of Europe where middle class families are able to benefit.
Even things like climate change controls are meant to put barriers to entry in place to prevent existing players from being displaced by start ups.
All this is by design as the wealthy are able to better able to fund politicians and derive political favors.