Many conservatives are trying to figure out how Ronald Reagan’s conservative movement can best advance its aims in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Some believe the conservative movement must embrace Trump, whether from principle or simply to secure a place for the movement in a Trump administration. Others believe the conservative movement must reject Trump so it can credibly lead its prodigal party back from the wilderness.
All sides are united in believing the Republican Party is deeply corrupt (true enough), and that the only thing that can save the GOP is the conservative movement.
The problem is, there is no conservative movement. The “Reagan coalition” stopped existing as an operational political force some time ago. The conservative movement cannot use the Republican Party to advance its aims simply because, as a non-existent entity, the conservative movement has no aims to advance.
This will come as a surprise to many of you. After all, 37 percent of American adults describe themselves as “conservatives.” That’s 89.7 million Americans in a movement I’m saying doesn’t exist! Yet polls are often misleading, especially regarding self-identification. Self-identified labels—like “pro-life” and “conservative”—often have surprisingly little to do with voters’ actual policy commitments. To identify a real political movement, we have to dig beneath the label and find out what exactly holds the group together.
Unfortunately, when we dig beneath the “conservative” label to learn what ties bind the conservative movement together, we find nothing at all.
A Current Conservative Taxonomy
There are three factions within today’s Republican Party, all of them deeply and structurally opposed to one another. All three call themselves “conservative” and berate the other factions for their deviations from “true” conservatism, but each defines “conservatism” according to their own factional priorities.
The populists are nationalist, nativist, and pro-American. They supported Trump almost from the start, and they read Breitbart and Drudge.
Because they consider giving voice to “Americans” the defining characteristic of conservatism, populist conservatives see support for illegal immigrants as an excommunicable offense, but are open to raising taxes on the rich to keep middle-class entitlement programs running, and are largely indifferent to (or “pragmatic” about) “culture war” issues like religious liberty.
Going by presidential preference polls, populists make up about a third of the Republican party. The other factions pejoratively refer to the populists as “Know-Nothings,” among other things.
The establishment is chiefly concerned with growing gross domestic product at all costs. They supported Jeb Bush or John Kasich at the end of February, and they read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
Because they view “growth” as the defining characteristic of conservatism, establishment conservatives see tax increases or even tax cuts that do not flow directly to the pockets of so-called “job creators” as grave heresies against conservatism, but they are eager to increase immigration and happy, nay eager, to surrender to the Left on “culture war” issues.
Although smaller than the other factions, the establishment wields disproportionate clout through its well-heeled donor class. The other factions pejoratively refer to members of the establishment as “plutocrats,” among other things.
The grassroots, which fights for a culture that protects life, liberty, and the family, supported Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio by the end of February. They read the National Review, The Federalist, and First Things.
Because they see “culture” as the central feature of conservatism, grassroots conservatives obviously view so-called “culture war” issues as essential. They see economic growth as just one aspect of the movement (and do not take the establishment’s rigid view of how to achieve it), and they take a more nuanced, even “pragmatic” approach to immigration than either of the other two factions. Like the populists, they seem to make up about one-third of the GOP. The other factions pejoratively refer to the grassroots as “religious fundamentalists,” among other things.
Notice the problem.
Although all three factions describe themselves as “conservative,” they are directly (often furiously) opposed to each other on issues each camp considers essential. What’s vital to grassroots conservatives is anathema to the establishment. The cornerstone of establishment conservatism is an outrage to populists. The core of populist conservatism is—at best!—alarming to the grassroots. On and around it goes. They’ve all come up with nasty names for each other, because the three wings of “conservatism” largely hate one other.
Ragnarok for Reaganism
It is not new to say there are different schools of conservatism, nor is it new to find it’s tough to pin down a precise definition of “conservatism.” But the depth of hostility between the three camps—that’s new. An illustration: it is well-known that Republican voters (who largely identify as “conservatives”) are historically unhappy with Trump. But polls showed that, even if the nominee were someone else—Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, or Bush—Republican dissatisfaction with any one of them would have been at a historic high. No candidate had the ability to unite the party, because the factions of the conservative movement are no longer compatible.
The establishment, which was once willing to tolerate grassroots cultural conservatism (to a point) for the sake of political expediency, now openly opposes the grassroots on some of its central issues. The populists, once willing to accept the promise that sweeping free trade agreements would eventually benefit working-class whites, have lost their faith in the almighty global market. In short, the three factions of “conservatism” are now so divergent that, by-and-large, they simply cannot tolerate the core principles or favored candidates of the other “conservative” factions.
The conclusion is as difficult as it is inescapable: the “conservative” movement no longer has either clear first principles or clear policy prescriptions on virtually any issue, from domestic surveillance to overseas military operations to taxation to policing to immigration to marriage. Self-identified “conservatives” with strong conservative credentials and large followings openly contradict one other on nearly all of them. Schisms over one or two major issues are routine within political movements, and are usually self-healing, but this isn’t a schism; this is a shattering.
Conservatism is not a political movement. It’s the memory of one. The Reagan coalition has fallen, and there is no sign it is ever coming back. “Conservatism,” insofar as it persists, is now a mere tribe, incapable of mobilizing for anything besides stopping the liberal tribe, which it pretty consistently fails to do anyway. Conservatism is dead.
Wake Up and Smell the Ashes
I have always identified as “conservative,” and maybe you do, too. For you and I, then, this is an especially strange moment. We didn’t “leave” the conservative movement; we simply find there is no conservative movement left to leave.
It is like we woke up one morning to find that our house was demolished while we were asleep. Meanwhile, our housemates are still wandering around in the ruins as though everything were normal, showering with the hose and eating breakfast on a table of rubble, homeless but oblivious. Heading down to the city planner’s office, we learn the house was condemned months ago, but our housemates couldn’t agree on a contractor to come in and fix the problems. As a great conservative president once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So it didn’t.
There’s nothing for it: we need a new house. And new roommates. This presents a great challenge to us. Yet it also presents a great opportunity to return to the lost roots of conservatism.
When the modern conservative movement started out under the political leadership of Barry Goldwater and later Reagan, it was built on centuries-old principles handed down by men like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Toqueville. In 1953, the great intellectual, Russell Kirk, summarized those central premises of conservatism.
In his “six canons,” Kirk articulated a conservativism that embraces “a transcendant order, or body of natural law,” because “[p]olitical problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” Conservatives, Kirk said, reject “uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims,” even as they recognize “ultimate equality in the judgement of God and… before courts of law.” They maintain the importance of property rights against Leviathan government, and distrust “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society on abstract designs.” Finally, a Kirk conservative is prudent, recognizing “that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.”
The modern “conservative movement” has lost touch with these essentials. The establishment builds entire fiscal plans out of the “abstract designs” of “calculators and economists,” and the Wall Street Journal editorial board wouldn’t recognize a “body of natural law” if that body hauled back and punched L. Gordon Crovitz in the nose. Even if they did take notice, the Journal and its Acela Corridor buddies would find it gauche in the extreme to actually speak out loud about political problems in fundamentally “religious and moral” terms.
The populists, for their part, often preach about problems in highly charged moral language, but their only common theme is outrage, and their chosen avatar is Trump, the serial adulterer. Moreover, their desire to burn down all our political institutions is the very definition of the “devouring conflagration” Kirk warns of.
Conservatism has failed, then, partly because a large swath of the “movement” has lost touch with its central ideas. The very word “conservative” has been badly damaged. Corrupted and polarized, the label has become little more than a tribal marker, and alienates many voters who would otherwise naturally align with Kirk’s principles.
By Any Other Name
Yet those core, conservative ideas, plainly stated and honestly championed, are still popular across a wide swath of American society, including large groups of voters who wouldn’t be caught dead identifying themselves as “conservative.” (I think here of black economic moderates, various first- and second-generation immigrant groups, white union Democrats, and others.)
The same can be said of many “grassroots” conservative ideas; Ben Domenech is right to be shocked that no major presidential candidate this year supports major abortion restrictions, even though Americans overwhelmingly do. That means there is still hope for the canons of Burke and Kirk. But our hope, ironically, no longer lies in the so-called “conservative” movement, nor in the Republican Party it animates. We need to build a new house.
For example, it is not impossible to imagine a new coalition that makes “human dignity” its watchword. The coalition would guard the life, liberty, family, and property of every individual—in the womb, on the deathbed, and everywhere in between (school, poverty, church, parenthood, the factory floor, and beyond). Likewise, the coalition would stand fast against the twin heads of Leviathan—Big Government and Big Business—by rebuilding an ownership society with strong, healthy, and independent local institutions.
With these principles, a new coalition could draw supporters from both Right and Left—libertarians, traditionalists, minorities, the Christian Left, and more—so the media would probably not label it “conservative.” Yet, in the truest sense of the word, conservative is exactly what that coalition would be.
This is only one vision of a conservative future after the conservative movement. There are many others out there. Some are good. Some are not. But we cannot properly debate how to rebuild unless we recognize the full scope of what’s been destroyed: a movement that dominated American politics for decades, that gave us “morning in America,” Antonin Scalia, the Iraq War, and, for many of us, our first political identity. It will be greatly missed.
Conservatism is dead. Long may it live.