American conservatism is in disarray. While the Democratic primary has become increasingly combative in recent weeks, and the liberal establishment’s unprecedented
Indeed, with the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Hillary Clinton’s tail, liberalism seems to be evolving into a more progressive movement. On the Republican side, with Donald Trump still dominating in national polls, the conservative movement seems to be dissolving.
Though the New York billionaire was defeated in Iowa, finishing second place to another populist, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, it is still looking very likely that he could be the Republican Party’s nominee for president. This has genuine conservatives panicking; so much so, in fact, that William F. Buckley’s brainchild, the National Review, released a special issue last month that was entirely dedicated to stopping the real estate mogul, with articles from about two dozen popular conservative pundits.
“Some conservatives have made it their business to make excuses for Trump and duly get pats on the head from him,” wrote the editors. “Count us out. Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”
While the Donald has dominated with his boisterous personality and right-wing populism, Ted Cruz -- whose political opportunism could make Bill Clinton blush -- is polling second nationally, and managed to win the Iowa caucuses thanks to his popularity among evangelicals. Yet Cruz is universally despised by his Republican colleagues as a grandstanding megalomaniac who cares more about his own success and image than the Republican Party’s, and he has been quite all right with telling outright lies in order to advance his campaign. In other words, he’s kind of like Trump.
The success of these two demagogues may very well accelerate the decline of the conservative movement, but -- truth be told -- conservatism has been showing signs of decay for some time now.
The modern conservative movement was born in the 1960s, and, as with past movements, it was born in reaction to the various radical forces of its day -- international communism, the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism and so on. Before the rise of modern conservatism, New Deal liberalism was the reigning ideology, and the nationwide coalition that FDR had built remained strong throughout the postwar years. The welfare state was extremely popular, and most postwar conservatives would not dare touch New Deal programs. As Dwight Eisenhower wrote in a letter:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
In the decade following Eisenhower’s presidency, however, social liberation movements -- especially civil rights -- fundamentally altered American politics, advancing the rights of oppressed ethnic and social groups, while providing conservatism with the perfect reactionary trigger. The movement quickly adopted the language of the left, and identity groups who saw their privileges diminish took on the role of victims being punished by the federal government, liberal elites, and so on. As Corey Robin writes in his 2011 book, "The Reactionary Mind":
“Goldwater lost big in the 1964 presidential election. His children and grandchildren went on to win big — by broadening the circle of discontent beyond Southern whites to include husbands and wives, evangelicals and white ethnics, and by continuing to absorb and transmute the idioms of the left. Adapting to the left didn’t make American conservatism less reactionary -- any more than Maistre’s or Burke’s recognition that the French Revolution had permanently changed Europe tempered conservatism there. Rather, it made conservatism suppler and more successful. The more it adapted, the more reactionary conservatism became.”
Fifty years after the birth of modern conservatism, the discontent is still strong, and the right is still reacting to social progress as if it were some kind of insidious and oppressive force, with homophobic lawbreakers like Kim Davis playing the victim. The election of Obama increased the reactionary disposition, in no small part because of his race (and supposed radicalism), and seven years later, we see the result in the 2016 GOP primary -- with Trump, who was a leading birther, running on a platform based almost entirely on white identity politics.
But the coalition that formed out of the '60s and '70s between Southern whites, Evangelicals, business elites, blue-collar whites and free market conservatives is wearing thin. First off, the country is becoming more socially liberal with each passing year, while its demographics will only become more ethnically diverse in the future. For a movement that has been so reliant on social conservative causes and the white majority vote, this is an unsettling historical development.
And yet, at a time when the GOP should be considering how to evolve on certain social issues and reach out to non-whites, its presidential front-runners are instead doubling down on these reactionary causes. In Iowa, about two-thirds of the vote went to Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson -- who came in fourth with 9 percent -- all of whom represent the more reactionary and anti-establishment part of the base (in national polls, these three candidates capture almost the same majority). This majority is rejecting establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who would probably give Republicans a much better shot at challenging the Democrats.
While Trump may not be a true conservative (he is certainly not a free market conservative), he is very much a reactionary -- at least he is playing one on TV -- and the conservative movement has long been based on the reactionary impulse. The segment of voters that Trump and Cruz are courting care less about the conservative values of an elitist like George Will than about stopping the “browning of America” and “kicking ISIS’ ass,” as that other reactionary, Sarah Palin, put it. Trump’s historic run has revealed a schism in the conservative movement that has been forming for decades between the more reactionary voters and the conservative elite, and no matter how you look at it, this division has dire implications for the future of conservatism as a nationwide force.