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Conservatism

How to revive the flagging fortunes of the Republican Party might matter to some people, but it’s not a question that should concern principled conservatives. Crypto-conservatives aplenty stand ready to shoulder that demeaning task. Tune in Fox News or pick up the latest issue of National Review or the Weekly Standard and you’ll find them, yelping, whining, and pointing the finger at our recently reelected president as the Antichrist.

Conservatives who prefer thinking to venting—those confident that a republic able to survive eight years of George W. Bush can probably survive eight years of Barack Obama—confront a question of a different order. To wit: does authentic American conservatism retain any political viability in this country in the present age? That is, does homegrown conservatism have any lingering potential for gaining and exercising power at the local, state, or national levels? Or has history consigned the conservative tradition—as it has Marxism—to a status where even if holding some residual utility as an analytical tool, it no longer possesses value as a basis for practical action?

To which a properly skeptical reader may respond, perhaps reaching for a sidearm: exactly whose conservative tradition are you referring to, bucko?

Well, I’ll admit to prejudices, so let me lay them out.

(Fans of Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman will want to stop reading here and flip to the next article. If Ronald Reagan’s your hero, sorry—you won’t like what’s coming. Ditto regarding Ron Paul. And if in search of wisdom you rely on anyone whose byline appears regularly in any publication owned by Rupert Murdoch, well, you’ve picked up the wrong magazine.)

The conservative tradition I have in mind may not satisfy purists. It doesn’t rise to the level of qualifying as anything so grandiose as a coherent philosophy. It’s more of a stew produced by combining sundry ingredients. The result, to use a word that ought warm the cockles of any conservative’s heart, is a sort of an intellectual slumgullion.

Here’s the basic recipe. As that stew’s principal ingredients, start with generous portions of John Quincy Adams and his grandson Henry. Fold in ample amounts of Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Lasch. For seasoning, throw in some Flannery O’Connor and Wendell Berry—don’t skimp. If you’re in a daring mood, add a dash of William Appleman Williams. To finish, sprinkle with Frank Capra—use a light hand: too sweet and the concoction’s ruined. Cook slowly. (Microwave not allowed.) What you get is a dish that is as nutritious as it is tasty.

This updated conservative tradition consists of several complementary propositions:

As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap. Please note this does not signify opposition to all change—no standing athwart history, yelling Stop—but fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true.

Conservatives, therefore, are skeptical of anything that smacks of utopianism. They resist seduction by charlatans peddling the latest Big Idea That Explains Everything. This is particularly the case when that Big Idea entails launching some armed crusade abroad. Conservatives respect received wisdom. The passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed. George Washington was no dope.

In private life and public policy alike, there exists a particular category of truths that grown-ups and grown-up governments will respectfully acknowledge. For conservatives this amounts to mere common sense. Actions have consequences. Privileges entail responsibility. There is no free lunch. At day’s end, accounts must balance. Sooner or later, the piper will be paid. Only the foolhardy or the willfully reckless will attempt to evade these fundamental axioms.

Conservatives take human relationships seriously and know that they require nurturing. In community lies our best hope of enjoying a meaningful earthly existence. But community does not emerge spontaneously. Conservatives understand that the most basic community, the little platoon of family, is under unrelenting assault, from both left and right. Emphasizing autonomy, the forces of modernity are intent on supplanting the family with the hyper-empowered—if also alienated—individual, who exists to gratify appetite and ambition. With its insatiable hunger for profit, the market is intent on transforming the family into a cluster of consumers who just happen to live under the same roof. One more thing: conservatives don’t confuse intimacy with sex.

All of that said, conservatives also believe in Original Sin, by whatever name. They know, therefore, that the human species is inherently ornery and perverse. Hence, the imperative to train and educate young people in the norms governing civilized behavior. Hence, too, the need to maintain appropriate mechanisms to restrain and correct the wayward who resist that training or who through their own misconduct prove themselves uneducable.

Conversely, conservatives are wary of concentrated power in whatever form. The evil effects of Original Sin are nowhere more evident than in Washington, on Wall Street, or in the executive suites of major institutions, sadly including churches and universities. So conservatives reject the argument that correlates centralization with efficiency and effectiveness. In whatever realm, they favor the local over the distant. Furthermore, although conservatives are not levelers, they believe that a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth—property held in private hands—offers the surest safeguard against Leviathan. A conservative’s America is a nation consisting of freeholders, not of plutocrats and proletarians.

Finally, conservatives love and cherish their country. But they do not confuse country with state. They know that America is not its military, nor any of the innumerable three-lettered agencies comprising the bloated national-security apparatus. America is amber waves of grain, not SEAL Team Six.

Given such a perspective, American conservatives cannot view the current condition of their country and their culture with anything but dismay. Yet apart from mourning, what can they do about it?

My vote is for taking a page from the playbook of our brethren on the radical left. Remember the “long march through the institutions”? It’s time to mobilize a countercultural march in an entirely different direction.

Conservatism—the genuine article, not the phony brand represented by the likes of Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, or Grover Norquist—has now become the counterculture. This is a mantle that committed conservatives should happily claim. That mantle confers opportunity. It positions conservatives to formulate a compelling critique of a status quo that few responsible Americans view as satisfactory or sustainable.

Put simply, the task facing conservatives is to engineer a change in the zeitgeist through patient, incremental, and thoughtful action. Effecting such a change presents a formidable challenge, one likely to entail decades of effort. Yet the task is not an impossible one. Consider the astonishing successes achieved just since the 1960s by left-leaning proponents of women’s rights and gay rights. There’s the model.

The key to success will be to pick the right fights against the right enemies, while forging smart tactical alliances. (By tactical, I do not mean cynical.) Conservatives need to discriminate between the issues that matter and those that don’t, the contests that can be won and those that can’t. And they need to recognize that the political left includes people of goodwill whose views on some (by no means all) matters coincide with our own.

So forget about dismantling the welfare state. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and, yes, Obamacare are here to stay. Forget about outlawing abortion or prohibiting gay marriage. Conservatives may judge the fruits produced by the sexual revolution poisonous, but the revolution itself is irreversible.

Instead, the new conservative agenda should emphasize the following:

  • Protecting the environment from the ravages of human excess. Here most emphatically, the central theme of conservatism should be to conserve. If that implies subordinating economic growth and material consumption in order to preserve the well-being of planet Earth, so be it. In advancing this position, conservatives should make common cause with tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals. Yet in the cultural realm, such a change in American priorities will induce a tilt likely to find particular favor in conservative circles.
  • Exposing the excesses of American militarism and the futility of the neo-imperialist impulses to which Washington has succumbed since the end of the Cold War. When it comes to foreign policy, the conservative position should promote modesty, realism, and self-sufficiency. To the maximum extent possible, Americans should “live within,” abandoning the conceit that the United States is called upon to exercise “global leadership,” which has become a euphemism for making mischief and for demanding prerogatives allowed to no other nation. Here the potential exists for conservatives to make common cause with members of the impassioned antiwar left.
  • Insisting upon the imperative of putting America’s fiscal house in order. For starters, this means requiring government to live within its means. Doing so will entail collective belt-tightening, just the thing to curb the nation’s lazily profligate tendencies. Conservatives should never cease proclaiming that trillion-dollar federal deficits are an abomination and a crime committed at the expense of future generations.
  • Laying claim to the flagging cause of raising children to become responsible and morally centered adults. Apart from the pervasive deficiencies of the nation’s school system, the big problem here is not gay marriage but the collapse of heterosexual marriage as an enduring partnership sustained for the well-being of offspring. We know the result: an epidemic of children raised without fathers. Turning this around promises to be daunting, but promoting economic policies that make it possible to support a family on a single income offers at least the beginnings of a solution. Yes, just like in the 1950s.
  • Preserving the independence of institutions that can check the untoward and ill-advised impulses of the state. Among other things, this requires that conservatives mount an adamant and unyielding defense of religious freedom. Churches—my own very much included—may be flawed. But conservatives should view their health as essential.

Who knows, perhaps in 2016 or 2020 the existing Republican Party’s formula of protecting the well-to-do and promoting endless war while paying lip-service to traditional values and pandering to the Israel lobby will produce electoral success. But I doubt it. And even if the party does make a comeback on that basis, the conservative cause itself won’t prosper. Reviving that cause will require a different formula altogether.

Now you’ve got my ideas. Perhaps you have better ones. If so, I’d be interested to hear them.

Books on this topic are available in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of The American Conservative.

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44 replies to this post
  1. On the money. Actually, the Fox/MSNBC/ (R)epublican/(D)emocratic establishments’ aggrandizement of the “National” govt apparatus, is wholly the problem. The feedback loop of the citizens with government actions is best when as short as possible. Make your own community a better place first, with hard work and sacrifice before worrying about a problem 5000 miles away that can only be “solved” with more money.

  2. Thank you for a well-reasoned article. I applaud the sense of stewardship and partnership with the environmental movement. However, conservatives should not accept at face value the views of liberal environmental groups that have produced current EPA policy. Stewardship, YES! Clean up the water ways and the air, protect vital wetlands. But, not every wet depression is truly a wetland. Shall we prohibit property owners, such as farmers, from tilling their soil to protect mice or flies? There must be a logical balance between protecting the environment and protecting the rights of citizens and local governments.

    • Many of the apparently absurd applications of environmental policies, especially the endangered species act, are the result of a lack of more appropriate tools (and allies).
      For example… very few people really care about the Delta Smelt, but invoking the ESA was the only tool available to ensure that parts of the Delta weren’t run dry by diverting too much water to oil extraction and agriculture.
      You’re mentioning of farmer’s tilling their soil is also a pretty good one… Since free-for-all tilling + a drought led to the dust bowl. So yeah, there is a reasonableness to restricting that.

  3. “Conservatism—the genuine article, not the phony brand represented by the likes of Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, or Grover Norquist—has now become the counterculture.”

    Well, the idea is pregnant with possibility. But, how to begin? Remember the 60’s radical long-hairs, it is said, had help from Moscow Centre. And, as conservatives, we don’t recommend the central state give out free stuff. Our ‘long march’ might be a tad more difficult. BTW, I wish you’d have mentioned John Randolph of Roanoke in the mix.

  4. I respect Prof. Bacevich for his astute opposition to the Iraq war disaster while there was still time to stop it. But I think his approach here is wrong in almost every particular, and recipe for surrender. “Forget about outlawing abortion”? Then I will forget about politics altogether, since this fundamental moral issue is the reason I got involved in the first place, and the reason my working-class Democrat family voted for conservatives. Instead of embracing smooshy communitarianism, we should be rallying to the Tea Party, trying to help libertarians become real Classical liberals, adding the 20% that is missing in their worldview, rather than trying to make common cause with ecoradicals. Yes, fight pollution, shop in small stores, go to farmers’ markets, homeschool your kids if it makes sense. But an Amish-style withdrawal from politics in a country that is SO politicized will amount to cultural suicide.

  5. As a general rule, I have enjoyed the articles I have read here, but I contest this article. It seems to me that the author is wanting us to abandon everything about conservatism accept the name. I am particularly concerned about his general abandonment of social conservatism. Social conservatism is the primary reason I am a conservative in the first place, and if I had to choose between social and fiscal conservatism, I would side with social conservatism. In the long run, an economy devoid of morality will fail regardless of the actual fiscal policies. If this means I am fighting a losing battle, then I will go down with dignity as that is what true integrity and courage and therefore character is all about. Capitulating on core values to pander to a fickle society is not good character.

    • Agreeing. Someone who says they’re a fiscal conservative (but not a moral or social conservative) is just a bit less scary than someone who wants to deconstruct both the fiscal and social/moral spheres. Perhaps this author above is not going that far.

      A sign of our general cultural decay…A few weeks ago, our local news station (I think ABC??) led with long coverage and person on the street interviews concerning the Pope’s alleged comment on gays. The story was significant, but it dragged on and on. Later, a man started reporting about the FBI raid which freed about 100 kids from some kind of slavery…in our country. He was cut off quickly…before he could say much.

      Thus another cultural shift…we have forgotten who is truly the weak, the poor, the people without voices..who need others to speak up for them.

  6. While I am in general agreement with Dr. Bacevich’s foreign policy views, this article is so jammed full of problems that it’s hard to know how to treat them briefly, but I wil do my best.

    First, Dr. Bacevich appears to recommend that “conservatives” align with the Mother Jones set on: the welfare state, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, abortion, gay marriage, environmental policy, and foreign/military policy. (There is no space here to discuss all these issues, which are all complex. I will just clarify that I am not simply dismissing views expressed by the Mother Jones set, and do see some affinities between “left” and “right.”) So, what’s left, as far as public policy is concerned, to distinguish “conservatives”? Primarily, fiscal conservatism, but it is hard to see how one can be fiscally conservative when the entire welfare state/big government complex has been taken off the table, especially given that we are also supposed to embrace environmental policies which will lower GDP grown (below, I guess, its current level of essentially zero.) I would suggest that one cannot be, in a serious way. (You can’t just defense-cut your way to a long-term balanced budget.) So, basically, in public policy, I don’t see much actual disinction at all here between Bacevich’s conservatism and sizable subsets of thought on the left. So, conservatives should just join the left? (I am not being a smart-ass and would really like some precise clarification here, if my understanding is wrong.)

    Dr. Bacevich speaks of the problem of marriage breakdown and absentee fathers. I agree with him that measures to change our economy can and should me made (though it wouldn’t be easy). (And I agree, BTW, that GDP growth is not the be-all and end-all.) But the marriage/fatherhood problem is only partly economic. (And, BTW, the economic dimension involves more than just jobs; it involves the nature of the welfare state, which Bacevich has ruled off-limits.) Our problems today are largely cultural.

    Oddly, despite getting all the conservative catchphrases right: “protecting that which has lasting value;” “Original Sin;” “morally centered adults;” “family;” [problems of] “autonomy” and “alienation;” etc., Dr. Bacevich offers little or nothing here to address these cultural issues. Now, you can’t fix culture by public policy fiat, but surely policy influences culture, just as it is shaped by it. It would be nice to know how Dr. Bacevich would address all the cultural problems he discusses.

    As for the defense of religious freedom, I’m all for it, but Dr. Bacevich is sadly mistaken if he believes that this can be promoted and defended in a grossly incompatible culture. I have already seen in my own state churches forced by the government to violate basic beliefs in ways which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

    I think many readers of this website would agree that most popular so-called “conservatives” today are far too shallow in their understanding of, and approaches to, our deep-set problems. It would be a shame if we shook off one form of bankrupt “conservatism” only to replace it with another which, despite getting some things right, would do little to “protect that which has lasting value.”

    • Prof Byrne also makes some good points. Too long, it seems we must define ourselves according to the latest boundaries, rules, game plan…set up by the extreme left.

      When will people brave the media heat and scorn…and put out a better game plan without bowing, conceding big territories to the extreme left?

  7. You, sir, are the phony conservative. I agree that Karl Rove and Grover Norquist are phony conservatives, but really, Mitt Romney? Someone who’s for free markets, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, traditional values, being your brother’s keeper, etc., is really that bad? Would you rather have had Rick “My Wife Wrote that Part” & “Women Should Stick an Aspirin Between Their Legs as Birth Control” Santorum, or Newt Gingrich, big buddy of Alvin and Heidi Toffler? You complain about how some conservatives in particular aren’t good enough, but then say we should move on from trying to get rid of the welfare state. Puh-leez! You might as well get rid of your label “conservative,” and replace it with “socialist.” And the end part really boiled my blood, your complaining of the GOP “pandering” to the “Israeli lobby” and “paying lip service to traditional values.” Sir, either you are conservative or you aren’t. “Conservative” means adhering to traditional values. If your argument is that conservatives should move to the left on traditional values, then that includes freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc., as well as gay marriage and abortion. The GOP doesn’t “pander” to the (nonexistent) “Israeli lobby.” Unlike you, apparently, we true conservatives actually believe in freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Not only that, we also believe that Jews should be able to return to their biblical homeland which they were kicked out of. Jews deserve their own country where they can freely practice their own faith on their own terms, since many are persecuted if they simply where a yarmulke in public. I wouldn’t support Israel if it was on the opposite side of the aisle—but I do. Unless you want to one day live under Sharia law, you better start supporting Israel. You, sir, are no conservative; you’re just another left-wing loon.

  8. I thought that ‘conservative’ had the same root as ‘conservation,’ which is the preservation of that which is eternal and true for all humanity for all ages, even while technology and culture swirl and change around us. That means there are some things that are always good – e.g., preservation of life and the sanctity of marriage as our Creator intended it – and that must be fought for at all times and places. It doesn’t mean that they will always prevail in popular opinion. Sometimes you just take the ‘faithful remnant’ route and wait for society to wake up from its many binges in trendy cultural experiments that eventually prove as destructive as their critics always warned.

    • EXACTLY my thoughts. My whole childhood I would always hear “if everyone was jumping off a bridge would you do it too?” from my father. Now as an adult I see so many of my peers jumping off the deep end and I know that my little family’s values don’t match popular opinion, but man, there is a LOT of peace and joy knowing that we aren’t just following the crowd to fit in.

  9. I don’t see how Ron Paul and Reagan can be lumped together. Paul is notoriously on the side of those who opposed the voodoo economics practiced by Reagan in the 80s. The libertarians see the Reagan era as a huge lost opportunity. Reagan’s insane peace time military buildup is still costing us. The libertarians are the mortal enemies of the Neo-Conservatives, who have declared internecine war on the libertarians in the Republican party. The demand for sound money by the libertarians is of the very essence of an attack on Original Sin and its corruption of the trust built into our system which is being destroyed by our inflationary wealth transferring policies. And Social Security is broke, and it is unsustainable in a world that is constantly aging. Medicare and Medicaid are unaffordable in their present condition. The Leviathan state is crowding out genuine religion and genuine community with its inflationary policies. And while I don’t like the AIPAC and its warmongering Keynesian debt financing attempt to embroil America in an unsustainable and unaffordable conflict, AIPAC does not represent the Jews and the Jews have voted Democrat for years in large numbers. So they definitely do not accept the warmongering and police state ways of the Republicans. Israelis have told me that they were safer before we went into Iraq and they definitely don’t want us attacking Iran. This article makes good points but it is incoherent in spite of that. Try again.

  10. I also respect Mr. Bacevich, he brings up some very interesting points, especially the imperialistic policies, and not to mention the adding of writers like Flannery O’Connor who as a writer (and Catholic) myself I admire, but I also have to agree with John Z.’s comment.

  11. The most intelligent thing I read from a fellow Republican in a long time. I am a free market conservative. I voted republican in every presidential election since 1968, except one. It is obvious that our government must live within its means and do so in a manner as not to interfere with a functioning free market economy. If we desire to take control of government, we must demand government carry out one of its primary functions; protecting free markets from tyranny, both public and private. We are vocal about defending it from public tyranny, but silent when it comes to tyranny in the private sector.

    “Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” Justice Louis Brandeis 1928

    Today our focus seems to be only on the tyranny of government when it comes to free markets. We need to find the right balance….. http://bit.ly/FF1106wrc2

  12. A worthwhile article, but the problem is this is a debate among very few people. Most Americans are not ideological, so an ideological debate is lost on most. Most people who vote liberal do so because it makes them feel good about themselves — the motives are completely subjective. Conservatism today has reverted back to the reactionary, cynical, cranky roots of the 40s and 50s, and is dominated by reactionaries, cynics and cranks. Someone needs to articulate a positive conservative vision. This is a noble try, but not it.

  13. I see many valid points in Mr. Bacevich’s argument. For example there is the statement of the vitality of religion keeping us from the excesses of the welfare state. What we should understand is that state worship is a form of religion that is diametrically opposed to all Christianity stands for. I just finished reading Michael Burleigh’s book Earthly Powers that pinpoints when our descent into statism began. Our government is millenarian in that it has its own creed, beliefs and eschatology in terms of realizing the dream of free education, free healthcare, a secure retirement and well-paying job will be the realization of paradise. Without taking on this bedrock of statism, our battle with it will be well-nigh impossible and will only conclude with the nation’s collapse. I must therefore disagree with him on some of the article’s points.

  14. What a loser.

    Bacevich begins with an absurd, elitist premise: that Republicans concerned about the survival of the republic are “venting” rather than “thinking.” His “reasoned” response: “…a republic able to survive eight years of George W. Bush can probably survive eight years of Barack Obama…”

    Even in a healthy republic where all sides are equally committed to maintaining the health of the republic, it is not a given that the republic would survive whichever party takes power. If the party in power were appeasing a highly aggressive enemy, for example (think Chamberlain and Hitler,) then what Bacevich smugly calls “venting” would be the only sensible position.

    But ours is not a healthy republic, and all sides are not equally committed to it. The American left is wholeheartedly attempting to bring the republic to a close, and to replace it with an Americanized version of the rancid, one-party tyranny that dominated 1/3 of the world during the Cold War years. They have been systematically packing the courts for years to accomplish this. They have been dominating education and filling children’s heads with the rightness of their enterprise. They’ve been cooperating with international efforts for one-world government, and giving away sovereignty.

    It is by no means certain that the US will retain sovereignty independent of the UN by the end of Obama’s tenure. It is not certain that the dollar will have more than nominal value after his spending spree. Honest elections are becoming increasingly unlikely as illegals flood all fifty states with the full approval of the INS, and the Justice Department brings lawsuits against any state that dares to attempt to ensure honest voter rolls. Obama’s practice of routing government billions to his campaign supporters threatens to turn US elections into the partisan free-for-alls that characterize African republics like Kenya.

    There is no comparable threat from the right, so anybody who reasons, “We survived 8 years of Bush, therefore we can survive 8 years of Obama” is not thinking, they’re living in a dream world.

    Bacevich’s dream world extends even further. He attributes the “astonishing successes of …women’s rights and gay rights” to “patient, incremental, and thoughtful action.” He forgets the Progressives’ domination of public education, education theory, textbook composition, teacher certification, and the university, the Progressive’s domination of news reporting, TV, music, and film, the Progressives’ penchant for creating law by judicial fiat (which conservatives then obey,) the Progressives’ united tactical assault on conservative thought centers, and the impact of the complete abandonment of religious training in America. Does he really think a sober, political strategy is going to reverse that?

    Finally, like all elitists, his solution amounts to the complete capitulation of all social conservatism. We would be little more than slightly more thoughtful Progressives under his leadership. Brilliant.

    I’ll put the intellectual bona fides of my “venting” against his flaccid surrender any day of the week. Bacevich is not thinking. He’s dreaming, and he’s the reason we’re losing.

    • Your comment is spot on, I was about to leave one as well, and scrolled through and read yours. Spot on

  15. I tend to agree with Mr. Bacevich. I don’t think he is advocating–or at least that is not the way I took his comments–conservatives adopting liberal or leftist policies. To me he was saying that we as conservatives should have an interest in some of the same areas of policy as the left. If we joined forces on those policies in a form we could both live with (though probably not exactly what either wanted) we might have some success in those areas. He said “So forget about dismantling the welfare state. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and, yes, Obamacare are here to stay.” He didn’t say that the these programs had to remain as they are, however in reality whether we like it or not or consider them the best alternative or not many people are dependent on them and simply defunding them with no actual plan to deal with the results is barbaric not to mention politically untenable. I believe Kirk describe politics as the art of the possible. To many conservatives today have forgotten that. They want everything or nothing instead of at least doing what is possible.

  16. Daryl Wheeler wrote:

    If we joined forces on those policies in a form we could both live with (though probably not exactly what either wanted) we might have some success in those areas.

    A few years ago, Newt Gingrich launched an initiative called American Solutions, in which he polled people from all points of the political spectrum to find areas where large majorities (greater than 2/3) existed on policy questions. He used that to formulate several policy directions that had super-majority support.

    Some of the items that Bacevich said we should ignore were on Gingrich’s list as having firm, super-majorities among American voters, namely fixing Medicare and Social Security. Rescinding ObamaCare would probably have a similar majority.

    Furthermore, any conservative group that abandons abortion will lose nearly all the conservatives that might otherwise be interested; that’s just nuts. And the only reason there is not a super-majority on gay marriage is the Progressives’ domination of education and media outlets.

    Bacevich is not insane when he says we should abandon these things; he is firmly on the side OPPOSITE the American conservative. And he’s doing it on topics that we can, and must, win.

  17. Mr. philwynk, he said to forget about dismantling the welfare state he said nothing about ignoring it. It must be fixed if it is to be kept and is “here to stay” so that would be completely in line with what the author said and what you say Gingrich found.

    Second he didn’t say to abandon abortion as an issue, simply to forget a total ban as an immediate goal. The only way to institute a ban on abortion is to change the current make up of the Supreme Court or pass and ratify a constitutional amendment. I would say neither of those are likely in the foreseeable future. That does not preclude efforts to limit and regulate abortion. Surely it is better to have some limit on abortion than none at all.

    I am sorry, but I fail to see where the author made any of these points either/or. Nowhere do I see him saying that we must either “Sell out to the left” or “Go down with the ship.” He simply points out that there are issues–issues that should be conservative issues–where we might reach some agreement with the left.

    My understanding of conservatism is that it is not an ideology, but rather a set of principles and I see no reason to “just say no” when there are areas of possible compromise and agreement that don’t require a compromise of those principles.

  18. It’s interesting that many conservatives identify as libertarian, because speaking as an English man who’s visited the US many times, there are a large group of people who consider themselves as left-libertarians and are repelled by the statists of both parties but consider the republicans using government to interfere with their private lives and the size of the military and intelligence apparatus. On these issues they consider themselves far bigger advocates of reducing state and government power than any republican.

    The libertarians who vote republican and those who vote democrat have far more in common with each other on many policy issues than they with their respective party members.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment. I’m one of those left-libertarian Americans who feels left out of party politics and is ignored by mainstream media. Even right-libertarians get more attention and sadly they too ignore left-libertarians most of the time, if they even acknowledge our existence.

  19. As a Liberal dropping in for a good read, I can see that Mr. Bacevich’s article is spot on, and depressingly so. The proof is in the comments I’ve read. No understanding of the main points, or even the minor points. Verbal flailing about abortion and religion and the environment.

    Mr. Bacevich asked you all from the start to move on and read no further. Why didn’t you all take him up on that?

    • I’m sort of a liberal as well dropping in, although my liberalism is broad. I sometimes identify as a left-libertarian or liberaltarian. I agree with you that the article is on target. This is the only way conservatism is going to move forward in the future and compete against liberalism.

      I was raised by conservative parents and spent most of my life in the moderate, community-oriented Midwest. I appreciate the positive qualities of principled conservatism or else of the Burkean variety that emphasizes moderation and balance. I also see great value in emphasizing family, community, culture, and social capital.

      Many Americans, even liberals, could be persuaded to support a conservatism that emphasized actual conserving of what is good, what is essential and necessary. Issues like environmental health shouldn’t be partisan issues. Also, any conservatism that is worthy of its name would be based on the precautionary principle. I hope more conservatives come back to a fundamental conservative attitude, instead of the reactionary right-wing politics that have become dominant.

      Most people are tired of the divisive politics and the loss of a sense of public good.

  20. David Brin recommended this article to em, and I have to thank you for offering something about Conservatives that’s not evocative of the Spanish Inquisition.

    My one quibble, possibly medium sized, is calling on Frank Capra as a conservative. My reading of “The Name Above the Title,” Capra’s autobiography, showed that he was an active supporter of FDR’s New Deal and the Internationalist movement the post-FDR Democrats rallied behind before 1952. Anyone viewing his film STATE OF THE UNION would be hard pressed to call Capra a conservative, even by Eisenhower-ian standards.

    That said, there’s a lot here to make even older red-diaper babies willing to lend an ear…

  21. It seems to me that the main problem with what is currently called ‘conservatism’ in the US is that it has become dominated by authoritarians (followers) and people who exploit them. No, not all conservatives are authoritarian, but the overwhelming majority of authoritarians are conservative.

    If you are unfamiliar with what ‘authoritarian’ means in the sociology context…
    An authoritarian is someone who has a strong tendency to uncritically shape their beliefs around the dictates of some chosen ‘leader’ (or book in some cases). Think of the dittoheads, Randians, and such.

    There has actually been a lot of academic study into this topic starting just after WWII (for obvious reasons).
    Bob Altemeyer has written quite a good summary of the topic as a freely available book titled “The Authoritarians” http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/
    If you are a fan of GWB, you’ll probably hate Altemeyer, but you can’t deny the actual data he presents… well, you can if you are an authoritarian;)

  22. I have long respected Andrew Bacevich. But if he’s a conservative then I’m tinker bell. I consider myself a green progressive and don’t find anything to argue with in his proposals. Of course, that’s because his characterization of an idealized conservatism has nothing in common with anything a typical right wing conservative today would recognize.

    Bacevich dismisses the true father of modern conservatism, Ronnie Reagan who famously said that government was the problem (and spawned Grover Norquist), and the avatar of the know-nothing, anti-government teabilly, Ayn Rand and her disciples from Ryan to Ted Cruz to the Paul family libertarians. But that is the face of conservatism in America, which in no way resembles anything that Bacevich proposes.

    The problem is that while Bacevich lays out moderate to liberal proposals, he undercuts his good intentions with bullshit like this….”In advancing this position, conservatives should make common cause with tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals.” You know what happens when granola crunching environmentalists (like myself) are dissed? We dig in our heels, get pissed off and reach for the sidearm. Just as conservatives do when you call them ossified knucklewalkers who suck up to the corporations that have decimated the middle class. Making common cause means mutual respect. You want my help in changing the status quo, show me, and my ideas, respect.

  23. “Dismantling the welfare state” is not allowed in this Utopian vision of conservatism, and yet one of your desired fulcrums for conservative action is illuminating the need to “live within our means” from a governmental perspective. I have news for you. Without at least reforming things like Medicare, SS and Obamacare, “living within our means” is not possible.

    Take a look at where we’ll be in the next fifty years in terms of unfunded liabilities; you’ll discover that conserving this country will inevitably require tough choices on the entitlement front, choices which our brothers in blue are unwilling to make. That they are not even willing to discuss entitlements, and will cry wolf at the first sign of encroachment, makes me second guess your belief that progressive-liberal intentions for this country are as sweet smelling roses, just like our own.

    As for global leadership, I, and many others, continue to believe that the American system is one of the few, if not the only system set up to properly exercise “stewardship” in an inherently anarchical international political environment, filled with bad actors, totalitarian systems, and state sponsors of that which despises, and will continue to despise, everything related to western civilization (even as they enjoy the fruits of the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit). No, this doesn’t mean deploying the American military to area regional snafu in the world; but it doesn’t mean maintaining a strong, logistically-global fighting force ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

    Some good points. Many bad points.

  24. He lost me at “Obamacare is here to stay.” It doesn’t have to be, unfortunately with his prescription it would be “here to stay.” The American people hate it. It is so hated that they can’t even implement it. I think the people who say it can’t be repealed are secretly in favor of it.

  25. If the right had stood athwart history yelling Stop at, say, Griswold vs. Connecticut, we might not now be reading “Forget about outlawing abortion or prohibiting gay marriage.” The West is existentially unsustainable due to the ongoing deconstruction of sexuality. If conservatives aren’t going to try to reconstruct it, then what’s the point of being a Western conservative?

    • I agree.

      I will reiterate: any intellectually sophisticated conservatism will require a rejection of Modernity. Any conservatism that has surrendered to a liberal social and political framework is useless. This may mean that conservatism has no place in politics. If so, so be it.

  26. Your recipe is a bit complicated for my taste. Give me a heaping helping of Chesterton. Okay on the Flannery O’Connor too.

  27. Nobody needs more of Flannery O’Connor. In fact, a prefrontal lobotomy would be more beneficial for the both of us, dear colonel. Ms O’Connor was an authoritarian, rigid personality whose Catholicism and world view have never been critically evaluated in full. Not to mention her cockeyed theology contrasted against the best of truly Catholic thinking. May she rest in peace! But the world needs none of her gratuitous violence for which she was paid.

    Alas, had you been more of a student of Ms O’Connor you surely would have disavowed her “hillbilly Thomism” and her black, awful reliance on the depravity of man to point us in a better direction. Do see Dr. Tatha Wiley’s monumental work on “Original Sin” not the twisted theological advocacies of Ms O’Connor! Her warped notion that the gospel of Christ can be visited salvicially on mankind through shock and awe violates what many of us think you stand for. Such a shame. This is written with deep regret. More homework is needed! Surely the world will not find needed answers by returning to the 13th century and the “Summa…”!

  28. Actually, you sound just like Mitt Romney, Grover Norquist, and Karl Rove.

    I think you’re a bit schizophrenic. You talk of getting back to ‘family’ but suggest giving up on abortion and gay marriage. The one Divine institution is necessarily linked to the other two Divine Comedy institutions, just as Christ was linked to the Pharisees.

    It’s a war! And you don’t win a war by giving up real estate. You don’t defeat an enemy by conceding to his terms.

    We’ve accepted pornography, abortion, sex before marriage, and neo-Darwinism as status quo. Is it any wonder murdering infants and homosexuality are now normative?

    I’m sorry to inform you. The spoils have gone to the victor.

    It’s over.

  29. I’m not a conservative, but I’d like to point out that all of the conservative parties in Europe have their own plans for defeating global warming while the US points its fingers in its ears and says, “Nyah nyah nyah, I can’t hear you!”

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