A Dubious Bill of Good Health for Conservatism


In a symposium on the ideology, a National Review writer proclaims it healthy, even as he notes that it has no good solutions for most problems.

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Asked by Time magazine, "Is there a crisis in conservatism," Ramesh Ponnuru begins his answer by arguing for its health. "At the opening of the Obama Administration, many observers -- some of them in TIME magazine -- were willing to give the last rites to conservatism. The patient has made a speedy recovery," he writes. "It is entirely possible that within a year, control of the White House, Senate and House will belong to people who call themselves conservative and were elected by conservatives." But isn't that a dubious metric? During the Bush era, there was a period when control of the White House, Senate and House belonged to people who called themselves conservatives and were elected by conservatives. But neither the foreign nor the domestic policies that resulted were conservative. Deficits got bigger, entitlements expanded, the feds accrued power. And attempts to remake Iraq and Afghanistan failed.

If that sounds like a gloomy assessment of the past, Ponnuru is no sunnier about the future.

Here's his assessment:

The past few years have seen a heartening revival of popular interest in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as documents that should guide our political life generally and not just the deliberations of judges.

But the conservative defense of the country's founding principles is incomplete so long as it fails to apply them to the pressing challenges of our day: to show, rather than just say, that those principles amount to timeless wisdom. Conservatives have barely begun to outline a plausible alternative to Obamacare. Our economic ideas too often seem like well-developed answers to the problems of 1981. We have failed, and in some ways have hardly tried, to persuade black, Hispanic and Asian citizens that our philosophy promotes the interests of the whole nation. And none of us is quite sure what to do about the intolerable fact that in our society, familial stability seems increasingly to be becoming a luxury good.

It is confusing when a man who diagnoses conservatism as having returned to health asserts that it has nothing practical to offer on health care, the economy, the governance of an increasingly diverse nation, or family breakup among the middle class? If an ideological movement can tout the right principles, but isn't capable of translating those principles into reality, wouldn't that be a time to declare it gravely ill, rather than signing off on its health? 

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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