The conservative Gotterdammerung 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?’”
Former Reaganite Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) 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 in 1992. And Kristol delivered his death sentence after various conservatives lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000 (the “crack-up” issue was in 1997). The funereal Washington Post columnist? That was the late Robert Novak in 1976, four years before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 triumph.
And that’s just from the right. Since the conservative movement was born, liberals insisted it was dead. In 1956, Murray Kempton wrote in the Progressive that the “New American Right is most conspicuous these days for its advanced state of wither.” At least Kempton acknowledged it was conservative. That same year, John Fischer of Harper’s insisted the founders of the new National Review were “the very opposite of conservative.”
In short, it’s always Gotterdammerung somewhere on the right.
That’s not to say that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are doing great. They’re not. But whether fueled by left-wing glee or right-wing dread, rumors of the right’s death are always exaggerated.
It’s true that conservatives are more despondent than I’ve seen them in my lifetime. But that’s in part because they’ve had things so good. There have been bumps, but the story of the conservative movement has been one of fairly steady growth and success.
In 1938 the American Enterprise Institute was founded (then the American Enterprise Assn.) to little immediate effect, 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 ridiculed 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 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 successes were real and important. But they were not total because times change, and more to the point, total victories don’t exist in politics so long as the losing side doesn’t surrender. Just for the record, I see dismay, even despair, out there. But I don’t see much surrender.