Commentary Magazine

What Is the Future of Conservatism?

This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.



Though I dearly hope to be wrong about this, I fear that dark times lie ahead for our nation and for the conservative tendency in American thought and politics that should rightly offer our country its best hope for the future.

The United States is on a perilous trajectory–one all the more disturbing because it looks to have been scarcely affected by any of the great political competitions and big electoral decisions since the end of the Reagan era.

The “clear and present danger” for the United States today is domestic, not foreign. It is seen in the confluence of three major trends that are subverting what was once un-mockingly known as the American way of life.

The first of these trends is the collapse of the nation’s family structure. According to preliminary figures, almost 41 percent of American babies were born out of wedlock in 2011–twice the figure of just 30 years earlier. (For those whom the Census Bureau terms “non-Hispanic whites,” the 2011 ratio was 29 percent–higher than for African Americans back when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on the crisis of the black family in the 1960s.) By 2010, a child was more likely to grow up in a broken home in America than in practically any other Western society, including the Scandinavian ones.

Second is America’s gradual, but increasingly rapid, retirement from religion. Between 1972 and 2008, according to a Pew Research Center study, the share of American adults with no religious affiliation whatsoever rose from 7 percent in 1972 to 18 percent in 2010–but jumped between 2007 and 2012 from just over 15 percent to almost 20 percent. Of America’s Millennials, our youngest adults, born between 1981 and 1994, nearly one-third say they have no religion. So it is that America, long the conspicuous holdout against the great tide of Western secularization, now appears to be following Europe into a faithless wilderness.

Third is our citizenry’s steady slide into financial dependence on the government–a development intensified by the Great Recession, but in fact predating it by many decades. By spring 2011, according to the Census Bureau, just over 35 percent of Americans lived in homes receiving one or more “means tested” public benefit. Never before have so many healthy, able-bodied, and relatively well-to-do Americans plead “poverty” for the purpose of handouts from Uncle Sam.

These powerful, deeply entwined trends are progressively degrading both our people and our polity. They promise our descendants a country that is weak, beneath a government that is strong: one where the independence, civic vibrancy, and economic freedom we take for granted today are only memories. It is not too much to suggest that, on our current course, an ignominious end to American exceptionalism could even be within sight.

As one reflects upon this prospect, it will be immediately apparent that America’s fate is inseparable from the fate of the country’s conservative political and intellectual tendency. Almost as immediately apparent, unfortunately, is how very poorly equipped that selfsame conservative tendency happens to be today for addressing, much less mitigating, these and other threats to national well-being.

For a generation, soi-disant conservatives have been failing conspicuously in politics–ironically, never more so than when they actually gained political power. If one doubts that proposition, just consider the George W. Bush administration’s toxic popular reputation these days–an odor unlikely to change much at this point through sheer passage of time. (The public’s low regard for Bush speaks to more than his controversial intervention in Iraq, by the way.)

Of the many factors accountable for the political failure of the conservative tendency since Reagan, one of the most striking is a curious incuriosity about matters empirical: a peculiar inattentiveness to the way the world really works.

Over the past four years, for example, most self-styled conservative thinkers have betrayed no obvious interest in analyzing or understanding what went so very wrong under Bush ’43–or even in acknowledging the plain fact that things had gone wrong. Similarly, in the presidential contest just concluded, the general expectation on the right was that its nominee would win–and win big. In the event, of course, he was decisively defeated.

That may not sound too different from the story of more or less all disappointed candidacies from more or less all elections past. And yet there is a difference: This time, false hopes were bolstered by millions upon millions of dollars of seemingly solid polling data purchased from partisan allies. These expensive, beguiling, and systematically flawed numbers provided the foundation for an alternative reality–a fantasy land that adherents inhabited until it was put to a real-world test.

There seems to be a tremendous temptation nowadays for conservatives to retreat into their own alternative reality, their own preferred universe where their own preferred opinions are supported by their own preferred facts.

That temptation may have consolations–but it spells the death of honest thinking. Our country confronts fearsome problems. It desperately needs a conservative tendency that can, for a start, call the animals by their proper names.


Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is the author, most recently, of A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic.

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