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Is U.S. conservatism truly conservative?

Friday, January 21, 2005

A little success is a dangerous thing, especially with regard to a political movement fueled by ideas. Perhaps some sober self-examination at this time of inauguration would be prudent, if only as a healthy antidote to current conservative triumphalism.
Yes, the results of the 2004 election have been widely touted as the triumph of conservative values. An evangelical Christian took the presidential oath of office Thursday. Moreover, Republicans control the White a House and both houses of Congress and social conservatives are certainly well represented within the party.
In light of this conservative success, one good place to start some serious self-examination would be to ask some hard questions about the fundamental character of the contemporary conservative movement, especially with regard to its public face. To what extent is American conservatism really "conservative?"
I would argue that its current incarnation lacks at least two things that have traditionally characterized conservatism: civility and a principled consistency. Can today's movement be accurately characterized as based upon lofty principles and not just narrow partisanship? If you listen to conservative talk radio or to many of the talking heads on Fox News, few sound like reflective thinkers articulating carefully-reasoned arguments. Most exhibit a very un-conservative lack of civility; name calling and argument by assertion are all too common.
Moreover, most media "conservatives" fail the best test of a politics of principle -- consistency. Entertain this hypothetical for a moment: if Al Gore had instead been elected in 2000, ballooned the federal deficit and gotten the United States bogged down in a bloody nation-building venture in the Middle East, can one imagine Sean Hannity defending him? The question answers itself.
Arnold's groping
Alarms should have sounded for Americans when many self-styled conservatives in 2004 rushed to defend the groping of gubernatorial candidate Schwarzenegger, or the foul language of Vice President Cheney or the gambling of Bill Bennett. Certainly a principled consistency is the mark of those who rise above simple partisanship, yet most conservatives in the media rarely rise above the level of simple party hacks. Surely if Rush Limbaugh (who recently separated from his third wife) is considered a spokesman for traditional values, something is seriously amiss.
"So what?" you may be asking at this juncture; why does this matter? Electoral politics is a messy business and conservatives have to get their hands dirty in order to shape pubic policy. We're told that men and women of principle who remain pristine above the political fray rarely achieve much of substance in the long run. It is certainly true that we live in an anti-intellectual culture where thoughtful, reflective discourse on the public airwaves is pretty rare. Shouting matches or rehearsed sound-bites have displaced carefully reasoned argument. Obviously, conservatives haven't escaped this larger cultural climate that has reduced political discussion to something resembling an exchange on Jerry Springer.
But as one who shares many of the values and concerns of the movement, I think it would be tragic if this slide into pragmatism and politics as usual were to continue. For one, conservatives have thereby become more like their opponents. Isn't sloganeering and incivility exactly what conservatives always criticized about the ideological Left? One of the fathers of the modern conservative movement in America, Russell Kirk (1918--1994), noted that "any informed conservative is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases; he prefers to leave that technique to the enthusiasm of radicals." While decrying knee-jerk liberals, many conservatives have actually come to resemble their enemies. A thoughtless conservative movement that is simply a shill for a particular administration or a Congressional caucus isn't really authentically conservative at all.
X Dr. Gillis Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College and author of "Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks and the Path of Liberal Protestantism." Contact him at