What Has Movement Conservatism Accomplished in the Last 15 Years?

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The list isn't nearly as long as its boosters would have us think.

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Try as I might, I still can't find any evidence of Jonah Goldberg's claim that conservatives are the best at rigorously examining their own dogma. Nor has he taken me up on my offer to publicize examples of these supposed triumphs.

But he does have a new piece up to comfort his co-ideologues.

The beginning is clever:

The conservative Götterdämmerung is finally here. "Like dazed survivors in a ravaged city, America's conservatives are wailing and beating their collective breasts," opines The Economist's "Lexington" columnist. "A leading conservative thinker," asked by The Economist to "list today's conservative ideas, laughs bitterly and replies, 'Are there any?'" Reaganite former congressman Vin Weber laments in the conservative journal Policy Review, "I have never been so concerned about the future of conservative ideas." A Washington Post columnist announced that "the long descent of the Republican Party into irrelevance, defeat, and perhaps eventual disappearance" has finally begun. William Kristol of The Weekly Standard concludes that the "conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished." His magazine has dedicated an entire issue to the "conservative crack-up."

These epitaphs are all from yesteryear. The bits from The Economist and Weber were published in 1992. Kristol delivered his death sentence after various conservatives lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000 (the "crack-up" issue was in 1997). And the funereal Washington Post columnist? That was the late Robert Novak in 1976, four years before Ronald Reagan's 1980 triumph.

Let's grant the core point: the conservative movement has been erroneously pronounced dead many times before. But there's something about the mockery of Kristol's prediction that rings hollow.

Perhaps we'll see future triumphs from the conservative movement despite its present troubles. But have we seen any evidence of success since 1997 or so? George W. Bush created a new bureaucracy, expanded the federal role in education, approved a massive new entitlement, exploded the deficit, abandoned any pretense of a "humble foreign policy" that eschewed nation building, and left office having approved a massive government bailout of the financial sector. Then President Obama took office, presided over more bailouts and growing deficits, passed a health care reform bill that conservatives hate, and got reelected. Over this same period, the country has gotten more socially liberal. Gays can serve openly in the military and marry.

A majority now supports legalizing marijuana.

Circa 1997, if you'd told the average conservative that all those things would happen in the next 15 years, would they have declared the conservative movement finished? I suspect as much.

So what makes it so obvious to Goldberg that Kristol was wrong when he pronounced the movement dead back in 2000? Maybe everything we've seen since is a soulless zombie movement! Compare the setbacks the conservative movement has faced to the high points Goldberg cites:

In 1938, the American Enterprise Institute (originally called the American Enterprise Association) was founded -- to little immediate effect -- in order to combat the seemingly ever-rising tide of statism here at home. In 1955, National Review was launched to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." In 1973, the Heritage Foundation was established to push back against the liberal GOP policies of the Nixon White House. In 1982, the Federalist Society was created to provide professional and educational support for conservative lawyers and law students dissenting from the doctrine of the "living Constitution." In 1996, Fox News was launched in part to appeal to that boutique market niche -- i.e., roughly half the country -- that felt the media had drifted too far left. In 2009, the tea parties were dismissed as a racist hissy fit. At each of these junctures, conservatives were ridiculed for their fool's errands and fretted over their lost causes. When former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers famously migrated from left to right, he said, "I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism."

But Chambers was wrong.

He had joined the winning side, the side with the better arguments. The other naysayers were wrong too. Some of the New Deal survived, but many of FDR's statist ambitions were quashed. National Review didn't stop history, but it certainly changed it. The Federalist Society now claims Supreme Court justices as alumni. Nixonian liberalism is gone from the GOP. Fox News crushes its competitors. The tea parties fueled one of the biggest midterm landslides in a generation.

These are telling paragraphs. Goldberg doesn't seem very interested in movement conservatism's governing successes. His focus is on the existence of movement organizations, as if their creation and sustenance is an end in itself. Discussing National Review or the Federalist Society, this could be forgiven as shorthand. Their accomplishments are known.

But what has Fox News accomplished? What has the Tea Party accomplished? What has any movement institution accomplished in the last 15 years? Enough that the movement isn't a failure? Is a successful entertainment channel and a short-lived protest movement enough for conservatives? Is winning the 2010 midterms enough if it doesn't ultimately advance the agenda? If so, conservatives have chosen the right movement leaders. Think tank, talk radio and magazine pundits will keep getting paid and Fox profits will keep rolling in as Obama governs.

For them, the conservative movement is an end in itself.

When an ideological movement's leaders stay fat and happy regardless of ideological advances, will things ever improve?

I have my doubts.

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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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