The 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.