Is Conservatism as We Know It Doomed?

The movement that William F. Buckley started has mostly made peace with the New Deal. Its members just haven't quite admitted it to themselves yet.
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Is conservatism as we know it on the path to extinction?

Jonathan Chait thinks so. "I believe this because the virulent opposition to the welfare state we see here is almost completely unique among major conservative parties across the world," he explains. "In no other advanced country do leading figures of governing parties propose the denial of medical care to their citizens or take their ideological inspiration from crackpots like Ayn Rand. America’s unique brand of ideological anti-statism is historically inseparable (as I recently argued) from the legacy of slavery. Whatever form America’s polyglot majority ultimately takes, it is hard to see the basis for its attraction to an ideology sociologically rooted in white supremacy."

There is a nugget of truth here. There's no future for the "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again" wing of the conservative movement. When the last American to have lived through the New Deal dies, I doubt any significant constituency will still dispute its legitimacy, nor do I think there's a future for the notion that it's illegitimate for the federal government to test prescription drugs or enact environmental rules. The aspect of anti-statism most inextricably tied to white supremacy—the notion that it's inappropriate for the federal government to pass and enforce laws that protect the civil rights—is thankfully going to die as well. 

I'm confident in these predictions about the future in part because I think that the right and left alike are fooling themselves about the degree of support, in movement conservatism today, for ideological anti-statism, Randian utopianism, or the notion that medical care should just be denied to sick citizens.  

There is widespread cognitive dissonance on the right when it comes to social welfare and redistribution of wealth generally.

Conservatives are partly to blame for this confusion. Consider talk-radio entertainer Mark Levin, a favorite of many movement conservatives. If you accept the argument in his bestselling book, Liberty and Tyranny, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and that America would be better with FDR's legacy undone.

But if you listen to Levin's radio show, you won't hear him agitating for the repeal of those programs or vilifying everyone who supports them as rotten statists. He understands that his audience of relatively wealthy, relatively older, mostly white conservatives don't want to end those social-welfare programs. They want to continue benefitting from them.

There is widespread cognitive dissonance on the right when it comes to social welfare, a social safety net, and the redistribution of wealth generally. Self-described conservatives often articulate their first principles as if they oppose all welfare spending. But they don't actually think food stamps or welfare checks for impoverished families should be eliminated, which helps explain why redistributive social-welfare spending exists in red states as well as blue states, in red counties as well as blue counties, across Republican as well as Democratic majorities. 

Conservatives talk tough. They're convinced the system has a lot of waste and fraud. The idea of freeloading hucksters on welfare outrages them to a degree far out of proportion to other government waste, sometimes for discreditable reasons. They're not all talk on welfare cuts, but their bark is worse than their bite. 

This is most obvious when one examines the candidates behind whom the conservative movement rallies and what happens when they actually win elections. No one who reads Ayn Rand carefully could mistake the world she hoped to create for any program by any Republican president or congressional majority. The height of movement conservatism under Reagan did not even begin to undo the New Deal. President George W. Bush expanded social welfare in the healthcare system. Neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney, the conservative alternative to McCain in 2008, can be mistaken for ideological anti-statists.

Romney either embodied or understood this cognitive dissonance better than most. He did his best to bring universal health insurance to Massachusetts, bragged about all the people he helped, and then, some years later, told donors that his opponent's supporters were just takers who vote blue for the social-welfare bribes. Remember how during the 2008 and 2012 GOP primaries, Romney reinvented himself at every opportunity even as he insisted he'd been the same guy all along? That was the cognitive dissonance in conservatism personified. 

Most movement conservatives would be loath to eliminate social welfare spending. No elected Republican has tried to do it in memory, and none ever will. Conservatives seldom rally around actual anti-statists. Yet they are loath to admit, even to themselves, that they favor some degree of redistribution of wealth. 

What's silly is suffering a portion of that hit for the ability to pretend you'd return to a pre-New Deal America if you could. Lots of conservatives do that.

It's as if they're afraid that if they admit it's legitimate for Uncle Sam to redistribute a portion of their income, they'll have no way to object if he comes for all of it. Ironically, free-market icons like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek were much more comfortable endorsing the legitimacy of a social safety net. And they were no less able to defend the market and private property!

If rank-and-file conservatives actually believed that social-welfare spending ought to be eliminated (or much more far-fetched, that the next Congress ought to implement an Objectivist policy platform), it might make sense to suffer the consequences of holding positions that are very unpopular with the electorate. What's silly is suffering a portion of that hit for the ability to pretend you'd return to a pre-New Deal America if you could. Lots of conservatives do that.

With all that in mind, let's return to Chait's characterization:

I believe this because the virulent opposition to the welfare state we see here is almost completely unique among major conservative parties across the world. In no other advanced country do leading figures of governing parties propose the denial of medical care to their citizens or take their ideological inspiration from crackpots like Ayn Rand. America’s unique brand of ideological anti-statism is historically inseparable from the legacy of slavery. Whatever form America’s polyglot majority ultimately takes, it is hard to see the basis for its attraction to an ideology sociologically rooted in white supremacy.

It's true, conservatives will never again elect a president, or even a nominee, who virulently opposes the welfare state, advocates denying medical care to citizens, aspires to implement Randian philosophy, and harbors anti-statism inseparable from slavery. Of course, it isn't clear that the conservative movement ever did elect anyone like that. Instead it elected Ronald Reagan, George H.W Bush, and George W. Bush, and tried to elect Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

One day, movement conservatives will admit that they think there should be a safety net and no Cuban embargo. On that day, they'll already have felt that way secretly for years.

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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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