George Packer of The New Yorker has penned the latest in a long line (reaching back many decades) of obituaries for conservatism. Like so many in the genre, it consists of a description of a movement in the midst of intellectual turmoil, searching for ways to apply its basic insights about government, human nature, and the culture to changing times, and it takes this turmoil to be a sign of decay or self-destruction. Packer discusses some of the younger conservatives (he mentions Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, and Reihan Salam, among other examples) who are working to apply conservative principles and insights to the moment we’re living in, and yet he takes these signs, too, to suggest only gloom and doom for the Right. He points to intellectual fatigue (a phrase he quotes me using in the piece) but not to promising signs of resurgence and revitalization.
Let me suggest two things he might have noted. First of all, the kind of intellectual turmoil and self-searching he cites would be almost unimaginable on the left, today or at most points in the past half century. Conservatism is an intellectual movement in a way that American liberalism generally hasn’t been. For a long time, American liberals could draw their ideas from the European Left, and from the socialist experiment. The fall of communism—which certainly ended an era for the Right, and left many conservatives searching for a clear purpose—was far more of a challenge to the Left, and one the left has yet to recover from, or even fully engage. Clintonian triangulation helped pass the time for a while in the 90’s, and anti-Bushism has helped since, but what is the worldview underlying Obama’s and Clinton’s platforms today? The relative absence of heated arguments about that question on the left is not a sign of strength.
Second, he might note the character of the Democratic resurgence in Congress, evident in 2006 and in the much-discussed triad of Republican defeats this year. The general pattern suggests a concerted effort by the Democrats to recruit socially conservative but economically populist candidates to run against Republicans. This is a smart tactic for building strength in Congress (engineered largely by Rahm Emmanuel, a former Clinton lieutenant) but it is hardly a sign of strength for the Left (which has come to define itself first and foremost in cultural terms in recent years), or of weakness for conservatism. Democrat Travis Childers, who won a once-secure Republican seat in Mississippi last week, took every possible opportunity to describe himself as “pro-life and pro-gun” and to distance himself from Barack Obama. What so many are (so annoyingly) calling the Republican “brand” is indeed in trouble, for a variety of reasons, related especially to voter concerns about competence. But the Democrats’ effort to capitalize on this opportunity has involved making the Congressional Democratic party more, not less, conservative. And when Republicans finally wake up, their response will be to become more conservative too, especially on fiscal matters. If that’s a fall, let’s start falling.
There is no question that American conservatism is trying to retool and redirect itself to new challenges; and this process is messy and in many respects quite unpleasant. It will also take time. But to mistake these efforts for a fall is to reveal a preference for cohesion over substance. A preference for cohesion is certainly one problem the American right has never suffered from—but it’s far from clear that this is such a bad thing, or that conservatism is doomed. Cheer up.