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108-JamesKurthThe most recent one, from James Kurth, we at The Imaginative Conservative must take seriously. Dr. Kurth is a veteran teacher and writer, not about the ephemera of American politics (aren’t you sick to death of “pundits” and other self-important journalists?), but about serious matters of national defense, military and strategic affairs, international politics, always thought out in the larger context of the politics and culture of America and Western Civilization. That he thinks about important things in a large cultural context is partly due, no doubt, to his long professorial career at Swarthmore College. Instead of chasing foundation and government grants he was teaching students—some of the brightest students anywhere. Since retiring from full time teaching he has spent much of his time as a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, among things serving on the Board of Editors of Orbis, FPRI’s prestigious journal of foreign affairs. Dr. Kurth is also a professed conservative and evangelical Christian (Presbyterian branch).Although one may ponder how the elections of 2012 may legitimately be considered a defeat for conservatives, said elections are producing yet another round of conservative breast beating and jeremiads, and more predictions of the demise of the Right.

The essay in question is, “The Crisis of American Conservatism: Inherent Contradictions and the End of the Road,” which appears currently in FPRI e-notes. It is not a very long essay, and I hope our readers will take the time to study it. His thesis is deceptively simple: American conservatism contains “paradoxes” which have popped up regularly during the past several decades. Two phases of American conservatism have collapsed in “debacles,” largely, failure to respond to economic crises in the 1930s and 2000s. He concludes, “American conservatism will once again have to be reinvented and the Republican party will have to appeal to new constituencies or they, like the Federalist, Whigs, and traditional conservatives before them, will disappear or be eclipsed.”

He outlines the paradoxes in “The Three Dimensions of American Conservatism”: those who are most interested in economic issues, in social/moral issues, and in national security issues. This corresponds roughly to the libertarian, traditionalist, and anti-communist factions which coalesced to form the 1970s “reinvention” of conservatism that led to the Reagan ascendancy. The theme that emerges in his narrative is that in all three dimensions, even during the Reagan years, what emerged was “merely pseudo conservatism.” Republicans talked freedom but sustained the New Deal and their own historic coziness with big business and big banks. Republicans gave rhetorical lip service to the great social/moral issues but didn’t deliver much on abortion, immigration, the family, or any other major concern of the religious right. Republicans, while generally tough on communism, gradually turned security issues over to neo-conservatives, who shifted the old liberal internationalism into “hyper-nationalism,” and marched into the middle east without sufficient awareness of how implausible it was to apply Cold War policies and assumptions to the vast areas controlled by resurgent Islam. This resulted in another kind of “pseudo-conservatism,” and Kurth’s judgment: “Overall, then, neo-conservatism is not conservatism at all.”

A similar narrative picture carries the story through the Bush administration and up through the 2012 elections with little change in conclusion. The Republicans continue to “articulate the rhetoric of traditional, free-market conservatism,” and this has been enough to keep most business in the party (even small businesses), despite the lack of substantive, truly conservative policies. In the “religious and social arena,” what has emerged is a significant weakening and marginalization of a powerful part of the Reagan coalition, to the point that the religious right is merely a “subordinated component within today’s American conservatism.” In the security arena, neo-conservatives continue to dominate, to the exclusion of any other important point of view.

Dr. Kurth concludes with a “Prospects for the Future” section, where, among other things, he suggests that “some new version of American progressivism will be in political ascendancy” for quite some time, especially in the presidency. There will be, he thinks, an increasing role of racial identity and a potentially increasing role for gender identity in American politics in general, and this means that to survive and prosper, conservatives (Republicans) will have to find ways both to hold on to their traditional support groups and to make their appeal broader. The progressives may aid in yet another reinvention of conservatism because of their own internal contradictions and their extreme policies on behalf of their core racial constituencies. But unless the Republicans decide to become essentially the white party, which is probably self-defeating, Kurth sees little likelihood that Republicans will effectively compete for either Hispanics or women who identify themselves primarily as women. The tiny hope he holds out is itself rather gloomy: “It will only be if the conservatives and the Republicans can convince large numbers of American women that their principal concern must be about conserving something important to them that American conservatism will have a future.”

I doubt that many realcons, as I like to call us, will see very many difficulties in Dr. Furth’s narrative. One may quibble with how he describes the influence of Friedmanism or neoconservatism in the Republican party, or in how he sees the Tea Party as having affected elections, or even in giving too little attention to the ongoing crisis in the American family. Overall, however, especially those of us who tend to be optimistically gloomy or to think that the ultimate conservative bumper sticker is “Losing Slowly,” will probably admit that he gets it just about right. Even the many conservatives who insist that the US is basically a center-right country tend now to be saying that it is hard to see where the next coalition is coming from, barring a progressive implosion, which is not all that unlikely, either.

Rather, I think that the problem with Dr. Kurth’s essay is that it equates American conservatism and the Republican party. The GOP was born progressive, it invented the Progressive Era, and, except for a short period from about Coolidge to the death of Robert Taft, has never been conservative. Even the Reagan Revolution, as Kurth admits, added up to pseudo-conservatism. The best Republicans since Eisenhower have been center-right (just as the best Democrats have been center-left), and the formula has run out.

It is even more important to remind ourselves what all conservatives know, that culture precedes politics. Politics reflects the cult, which is another way, I suppose, of saying that we get the government we deserve. People who know me are probably tired of hearing me say, “I am not a Republican. I am a conservative.” And as such, I would rather spend my energy “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” If we had strong families and churches, many of these seemingly political problems would just disappear. It is not the place here to slog through the many, many difficulties in taking this position, but suffice it to say, politics is not the answer. American conservatism will not reinvent itself in Washington.

The great service that Dr. Kurth’s essay and analysis provides is to remind us, in rather relentlessly logical terms, that what politics has seemed to offer, it has quickly withdrawn, and, even through the Republican party, will not likely give back.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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10 replies to this post
  1. Excellent and thought-provoking as ever! Many thanks!

    Were the next election year the same as the last one, yes the GOP would need to better appeal to various minorities or fail. And I cannot agree more that the GOP has rarely been conservative, so much as a vehicle for disparate interests who only shared a fear of the Democrats. But what if the world changes and challenges the self-focus of women, Hispanics and others? What if America suffers 50-60% youth unemployment as Mediterranean Europe does now? Or hunger and a govt default on various debts and commitments? Or prices continue to rise faster than official rates of inflation? priorities may then be changed to family, away from the grievances born of wealth and jealousy and thwarted aspirations.

    What if tea-partiers force out the incumbent GOP deal-makers in primaries, as so many 'unbeatable' Senators lost in 1980 because they backed the Panama Canal give-away?

    It is unlikely but possible that the GOP is captured by realcons, while economic decline is fairly dependable but on an uncertain timetable, and how people react to it is still harder to predict. Or so it seems to me but i could be delusional. in either case you are wise to recommend investing in culture!

  2. "invest in culture" is absolutely spot on. I hardly ever visit political news sites anymore. But I am here now, every day. Buckling in for the long haul; because the short haul is going to be pretty bumpy.

  3. Culture proceeds politics…where is our culture falling into abysmnal decline and living only for oneself rather than those around you? In our families.

    How many parents really fight for the souls and minds of their children. How many couples live out this fact – marriage doesn't exist to make us happy, but to make us better. How many in America's churches resist the urge to live for happiness rather than joy and endurance.

    The life that my husband and family have lived has not been easy, but has been joyful and fulfilling. It is not a McDonald's drive through type of family life, but a life geared towards long term character development- long, slow simmering of the best ingredients.

    I have discovered the Imaginative Conservative fairly recently and am rejoicing with the noursihing ideas I find here.

  4. Great conclusion and reminder: "People who know me are probably tired of hearing me say, “I am not a Republican. I am a conservative.” And as such, I would rather spend my energy “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” If we had strong families and churches, many of these seemingly political problems would just disappear. It is not the place here to slog through the many, many difficulties in taking this position, but suffice it to say, politics is not the answer. American conservatism will not reinvent itself in Washington."

    As a mind greater than mine urged a new set of three R's vis a vis our culture: Rebuke it, Redeem it, or re-purpose it. Volunteering in a local pregnancy resource center shows me the truth of Proverbs 24:11-12, and there is so much we all could be doing! Thanks for your work.

  5. It seems to me that education and family are the dual foundations of this culture. If we were to direct 100% of our resources to trying to build wisdom into our education culture, we'd lose some serious short term battles, comparable to the 2012 election, but it's the only hope we have for the long term "war."

    After all, how did we get here today? Glib answer: 100+ years of waves of progressive education.

  6. I was largely responsible for the core values and mission statement that many of the tea party groups organized under for the first two years of the movement. I have always believed, that the tea party was a cultural movement that exerted a force into the political arena. For a time, it became about electing Republicans, much to the detriment of the movement. With the loss of Romney, who many tea partiers never really supported, except in opposition to Obama, and the lackluster performance of the GOP, many of us are returning to our cultural misson. We do not have a political problem. We have a cultural problem. There are no political solutions to where we are now as a nation that do not first require a cultural shift in what we believe and value.I am a theater scholar that lives at the intersection of performance and politics and I have read Kirk's "The Conservative Mind", and am working my way through "The Roots of American Order" as a help to my dissertation on Addison's Cato and its use during the Revolutionary period. This website is also of great solace to me. Thank you, and everyone here, for all for your hard work and wonderful essays and deep thinking. Only by working together can we "redeem the time."

  7. Your work, Scott, makes you one of my heroes. The cultural side of the Tea Party movement energized countless of my old small town friends who had been either apolitical or thoughtless Democrats for many years, and they seem, like you, to have taken the elections in stride. On another note, I have a great interest in the effect of Addison's "Cato." I know about Washington's love for it, and his conviction that it would teach his officers much about the res public, but I haven't seen a lot about its broader effects. Would you be so kind as to keep me, and the readers of TIC, informed about what you find?

  8. Dr. Wilson,

    Thank you for your kind words. When the movement was most effective is was grounded in education. It is my great hope that we will return to education once again. But as with everything it is what is studied and what ideas are furthered that will matter.

    It will be my pleasure to keep you all up to date on my research. In brief, there are three main uses of it during the 1770s. Patrick Henry's quote "give me liberty or give me death" is a paraphase of a line from Cato as are Nathan Hale's last words, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." It is also well known that Cato was performed in May of 1778 as camp was about to break at Valley Forge for Washington and his staff by fellow officers and that Washington referred to it often. These three uses are cited over and over again, but with little additional depth behind the anecdotes. If there was a similar play from this century it would be the object of great study, yet there is very little written about this phenomenon and Cato is not even read or studied anymore in theater departments. I found it on my own while searching for evidence of theater's uses during the Revolutionary period.

    My interest as a scholar of performance is WHY did these men keep returning to this play? It is my belief that it is because the play is not really about the Roman Cato, but about England's Cato, Algernon Sidney and that these men, in "performing Cato" tare really "performing Sidney." That is the thrust of my argument. I would be interested to know what you and the other members of TIC think of it. Any advice is also much appreciated.

  9. Scott, Forrest McDonald, in his wonderful book, Novus Ordo Seclorum (pp.195-99) has an ingenious and I think very helpful analysis of the meaning of Cato to Washington and several other of the nationalists, as well as some very good bibliography. There is also much in this book on Bolingbroke and the English Country Party. To me, except that it slights religion, this is the most important single book on the intellectual origins of the Constitution.

  10. Because of the critical 2016 elections, the political must be the focus, but, as John Willson and Scott Boston perceive, the cultural has to be the ultimate battlefield. If I am permitted to make this request, i’d appreciate Scott Boston’s getting in touch with me via theraleighreporter@yahoo.com.

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