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Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged

Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged

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Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged

244 pages
5 hours
Feb 16, 2010


After reaching high levels of public popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, political conservatism has become beset with criticism and disillusionment. As demonstrated by the 2008 election results, political conservatism has been blamed for an unpopular Iraq war, an economy nose diving into recession, and a barrage of high profile instances of corporate misbehavior.

This crisis in the ideological identity of and public confidence in conservatism is partly due to conservatism itself. Contrary to the intellectual vibrancy that characterized the 1980s and 1990s, political conservatism in recent years has become complacent and dormant. It has been more focused on simply protecting political power than on reexamining its philosophical principles and policy prescriptions. Because of this failure to continually reexamine, conservatives have allowed their ideology to slip back into various ruts caused by certain historical deviations from the conservative creed. These deviations, beginning in the early twentieth century, mischaracterized conservatism as a special-interest defender of the wealthy and corporate class. The deviations also allowed conservatism to be miscast as a political creed that advocates aggressive U.S. intervention in the affairs of foreign nations.

Perhaps because of all its successes, as well as the political influence it has been able to achieve, political conservatism in America has somewhat lost its foundational bearings. Its basic principles and ideological identity have been lost amidst the various political maneuverings and issues associated with partisan politics. Consequently, conservatives need to get their ideology back to a firm foundational setting, so as to allow it to once again provide a strong beacon of guidance to American society.

In this book, Patrick Garry attempts to provide a clear definition and ideological identity to conservatisman identity that not only connects conservatism to the past, but allows it to position itself for the challenges of the future. With a concise simplicity, Garry provides a definition of conservatism that relies on two fundamental propositions. Garry also argues that the focus of conservatism needs to be redirected toward the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. As Garry argues, it is conservatism and not liberalism that offers the best hope for the poor and disadvantaged to prosper in America. This new focus of conservatism will allow conservatism to flourish as a governing ideology.
Feb 16, 2010

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Conservatism Redefined - Patrick Garry




In his 1988 presidential campaign, George H. W. Bush derided the L word—liberalism. Indeed, the focus of his campaign was often not on what he was, but on what he was not—a liberal. Twenty years later, however—and after eight years of his son’s presidency—it is conservatism that has become the dreaded political label.

Conservatism in America is mired in its worst crisis since the 1960s. This crisis accompanied the decline in public opinion of the younger Bush’s presidency—a decline that seemed to touch off a torrent of criticism against conservative values and policies. But many of those criticisms were misplaced. Partisan politics do not often truly reflect a coherent political ideology; in fact, many of the actions and positions of President Bush and the 2001-2007 Republican Congress hardly qualified as conservative. Furthermore, the policies and actions of individual presidents cannot fundamentally alter or even define a long-standing political ideology. Yet on a short-term and often superficial basis, the popularity of prominent political figures can influence the public image of the ideologies those figures profess to follow. Consequently, just as the failures of a Democratic president bring criticism and disparagement to political liberalism, an early casualty of an unpopular Republican presidency is often the credibility of political conservatism. Though it can be expected that the unpopularity of the Bush presidency has shaken the public’s confidence in political conservatism, however, the long-term strength of the conservative ideology ultimately will be determined not by individual politicians but by the wisdom and relevance of the ideology itself.

The current crisis of conservatism arises not only out of attacks from the outside, from its partisan and ideological opponents, but also from increasing doubt and confusion within conservative ranks. And this doubt and confusion results in large part because of conservatives’ failure to keep reexamining and renewing their ideology. Indeed, some of the confusions and seeming contradictions of the Bush presidency may have resulted from an underlying conservative ideology that had become stale and uninspired.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, conservatives worked diligently at energizing their political philosophy. But with their political successes over the past couple of decades, conservatives have become complacent in their intellectual rigor and have gradually lost sight of the need to continually debate and scrutinize their principles and ideas. This constant scrutiny is particularly necessary because of the complexity of American conservative thought.

Modern American conservatism has become a complicated collection of various ideological strands and factions: traditionalists, who value social order and civic virtue; libertarians, who focus on individual freedom; religious conservatives, who oppose the banishment of religion from the public sphere; and neoconservatives, who combine a democratic idealism with an assertive foreign policy. President Ronald Reagan united these strands in his battles against Soviet communism abroad and a suffocating government bureaucracy at home. But in recent years, the different sects of conservatism have fractured in their approach to such issues as immigration, government spending, foreign military intervention, environmental protection, and international trade.

After a Republican Congress that ran up record deficits and became mired in lobbying scandals, after a foreign policy that made the U.S. the caretaker of an intensely divided and dysfunctional Iraqi society, and after an administration whose signature domestic programs included a massive federal prescription drug entitlement program, the federalizing of education, and an alliance with liberal Democrats on illegal immigration, conservatives are uncertain about how their current governing philosophy or agenda fits with the principles of the past. For the first time in decades, no recognizable conservative candidate even sought the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2008. The low state of conservative energy and optimism could also be seen in the relative retreat of conservative donors and activists from the 2008 presidential election. In comparison with the activism and financial contributions of liberals, the lethargy of conservatives was striking.

The current state of American conservatism, however, cannot be judged just on the performance or popularity of the Bush presidency or the Republican Congress. Indeed, some of the criticism leveled against President Bush was both unwarranted and overblown. For instance, President Bush was never given adequate credit for his success in preventing another expected terrorist attack on American soil, nor was he credited for his attempts to improve the tone and ethical standards of the presidency. In addition, President Bush did try to reinvigorate the debate over the meaning of conservatism with his advocacy of compassionate conservatism. But this advocacy, unfortunately, provided little coherent advancement or refinement of the conservative message.

Compassionate conservatism proved to be a very confusing proposal. Does compassionate conservatism mean that conservatism is insensitive to those most in need of help? How compatible is compassionate conservatism with the principle of limited government and is it just another call for big-government programs? Indeed, in its implementation of compassionate conservatism, the Bush administration presided over an explosion in government spending and budget deficits—it instituted, for instance, belated big-government relief programs that effectively tried to bribe the country to forget about how the federal government had bungled its response to Hurricane Katrina.

By its very description, compassionate conservatism is based not on objective principles, but on a kind of passing sentimentalist desire to eliminate human suffering. But this sentimentality ignores the long-held conservative recognition of government’s limited ability to achieve what are often unlimited aspirations. And it ignores the conservative distinction between what government can do and what it should do.

Restraint, a key element of traditional conservatism, has not been a visible trait of recent American governance. The number of pork-barrel projects increased from 4,326 during the final year of the Clinton administration to 13,999 in 2005. Despite the fact that by the late 1990s U.S. farm policy had finally lessened its reliance on government subsidies and moved toward a more market-based approach, the 2002 farm bill raised spending by nearly $90 billion a year. The Medicare prescription-drug benefit created a new unfunded entitlement that will burden future generations with an estimated long-term cost of $18.2 trillion. And, although conservatives have long opposed the left’s fostering of a dependency culture, the U.S. Treasury’s reliance on foreign capital to fund the American trade and budget deficits has essentially created a dependency public budget.

During the final years of the Bush presidency, conservatives often yielded to the temptation of simply joining in the chorus of attacks on President Bush. Peggy Noonan, in a Wall Street Journal column arguing that President Bush had completely discarded the principles of modern conservatism, wrote that contrary to Bush’s policies the conservative tradition on foreign affairs is prudent realism; the conservative position on borders is that they must be governed; and the conservative position on high spending is that it is obnoxious and generationally irresponsible. Though this charge had merit, such criticisms often distracted conservatives from engaging in a more comprehensive examination of the continued strength and relevance of the conservative message. Furthermore, President Bush often tried to govern according to conservative principles, but his experience reveals how difficult it is to maintain a conservative posture, because implementing a conservative ideology is not simply a matter of holding a collection of interest groups together or doling out an array of public benefits.

When he first took office, President Bush stressed the need to involve faith-based groups in addressing social problems. To meet this need, he launched his faith-based initiatives program in 2001. Within just a few years, however, this program virtually disappeared from the administration’s priorities. In the area of education, the No Child Left Behind Act strove to achieve the conservative goal of accountability, but in doing so it violated the much more fundamental conservative principle of federalism, transgressing the historic boundaries on federal interference in the operation of local public schools. Under the scheme of American federalism, public education has always been a state and local function. Schools have been operated and supervised by parents, teachers, and elected officials at the local level. But the NCLB Act subverted this arrangement, shifting authority from the state and local level to the national level, giving the federal government the power to decide what penalties to impose on which local schools and how to reform those schools. (Indeed, as a reflection of the law’s inadequacies, national tests revealed that academic gains made from 2003 to 2007 were less than those achieved in the years prior to the law’s enactment.)

One example of how difficult it is to adhere to conservative principles, especially in the face of public sentiment running in the opposite direction, can be seen in connection with the Iraq War. George W. Bush had it right in the 2000 presidential campaign when he opposed Bill Clinton’s embrace of nation-building, favoring instead a more restrained foreign policy. The Bush position coincided with the conservative belief in the importance of culture: that a democratic political system could not be imposed from the outside on a place that had no democratic culture to support it. Without the same cultural values as America, a society could not be expected to adopt the same kind of political system. As conservatives have long argued, democracy arises from, and is supported by, a particular kind of culture, and without that culture no democracy can exist, no matter how many troops try to impose it.

America’s founding generation resisted war, recognizing that it often unduly expanded the power of the executive branch. It was this danger that caused conservatives to lead the anti-imperialist movement following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Indeed, the conservative tradition in America has always been wary about the exercise of military power. Russell Kirk, perhaps the nation’s preeminent conservative scholar, advocated restraint in foreign policy and warned against the use of military force. According to Kirk, American foreign policy should not be a force for making things right all over the world, nor should its object be the worldwide spread of American democracy. Kirk had little faith in the success of a culture poured in from outside. In The Conservative Mind, he argues against an insidious and portentous imperialism that believes all the world should be induced to embrace American principles and modes of life. Robert Nisbet likewise argued that war had a destructive domestic effect, undermining people’s attention to the true conservative values of communal bonds and cultural standards. He also feared that a militant nationalism could delude people into giving up their liberties in exchange for imperial conquest.

Some of the most ardent intellectual support of the Iraq War came from the views and policies of what has become known as neoconservatism. Neoconservatives descend from anti-communist Democrats who, having failed to stem the leftward drift of the Democratic Party, began migrating to the right. Although neoconservatives have taken much criticism for their support of the Iraq War, they have since the 1960s exerted an influential and positive effect on both public policy and conservative ideology. Neoconservatives exposed many of the detrimental effects of big-government bureaucratic liberalism. Neoconservatives like Daniel Bell, William Bennett, Kay Hymowitz, and Irving Kristol have illustrated the importance of a traditional understanding of cultural issues such as family, crime, and education. (These momentous contributions are outlined in detail in the next chapter.) Neoconservatives also continued to advocate for a strong national defense, even as post-Vietnam liberalism pushed for retreat. But with the Iraq War, this strong advocacy of military action may have gone too far. By ignoring the traditional conservative belief in limited government, it may have led to a distorted public perception of conservatism.

According to the neoconservative view, the U.S. has a moral duty to spread democracy, and by military force if necessary. But this idealistic view looks only at the moral desirability of democracy, not at whether cultures in such places as the Middle East can sustain democratic government. Many neoconservatives, for instance, believed that the military defeat of Saddam Hussein would automatically lead the Iraqis to embrace Western-style democracy, even though Iraq was beset with sectarian strife and animosity for the West.

The neoconservative outlook envisions a far more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy than traditional conservatism has ever supported. Traditional conservatives are much less inclined to throw the U.S. into the internal affairs of foreign countries. To traditional conservatives, the primary goal of U.S. military policy should be the direct defense of vital national interests: the protection of American democracy, not the imposition of democracy around the world. This position coincides with George Washington’s warnings against foreign entanglements and John Quincy Adams’s refusal to embark on military actions abroad. Indeed, the founding generation rebelled against foreign empires and colonialism. They strove to create a nation that would import immigrants to support its cause, not export its cause to reluctant foreign nations. To the founders, American exceptionalism would exist not in its military power, but in its values and institutions at home.

Just as the nation’s founding generation did not think it proper or prudent to impose its new system on other nations, modern conservatives do not think that the way to protect national security is to impose American democracy on the rest of the world. By definition, conservatives are skeptical about the ability of government to change cultural norms. Just as the federal government in Washington, DC, should not tell people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, how to live their lives, it should not try to impose a democratic culture on a Baghdad that has never known or practiced such a culture. To traditional conservatives, the attempt to rebuild Iraq as a Western-style democracy resembles the Clintonian fiascos of attempting to militarily transform Somalia and Haiti into democracies.

Ronald Reagan had no desire to remake other nations. He wanted the U.S. to be free of Soviet power, to possess a vibrant national strength, but he did not think that the U.S. should be running the internal affairs of other countries or be transforming their political identities. He encouraged and supported freedom fighters in places like Angola, Poland, and Afghanistan, but he knew that freedom had to be won by those who desired to live it and that democracy could not be imposed from the outside. This is why President Reagan resorted to military force far less often than did many of his predecessors, and all of his successors.

Conservatives believe in a strong America able to protect its national security, but they do not believe in expansive executive powers or grandiose proclamations about transforming the rest of the world. Such powers and proclamations were characteristic of the mistaken foreign policy beliefs of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1918, Wilson went to Europe, intent on creating free democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. Wilson ignored advice that

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