As long as modern conservatism has existed, there has also existed a genre of liberal punditry that laments the inexplicable extremism that’s taken hold of the Republican Party. This week, The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne penned one such concern-trolling piece — the kind he’s written dozens of over the past few decades — in which he argues that extremism has now killed conservatism altogether.
“It is time to read last rites over the American conservative movement. After years of drifting steadily toward extreme positions,” writes Dionne, “conservatism is dead, replaced by a far right that has the Republican Party under its thumb.”
Don’t call the priest just yet.
For starters, the driving issues of American political conservatism haven’t changed much since 1964, and they are unlikely to drastically change any time soon. Of course movements go through cycles of varying intensity, focus, tenor, and leadership (some far better than others), but most factions of today’s Republican Party, from establishment types to Tea Party types to Donald Trump types (in actions, if not always rhetoric), still lean heavily on the promise of tax cuts, deregulation, religious freedom, economic growth, constitutional originalism, and robust defense to sell their agenda. Good or bad, this underlying agenda would be just as recognizable to a Republican in 1980 as it is in 2018.
Can Democrats say the same? Now, you can argue that liberalism has evolved to be more conducive to contemporary concerns and life. But if anyone has seen a radical ideological transformation over the past two decades, it hasn’t been among Republicans. Despite the grousing of many conservatives about the GOP’s impotency, the past 50 years has seen their ideas propelled to the extent that many of today’s debates are still framed by the notions their movement popularized.
To circumvent this inconvenient history, Dionne offers a preposterous definition of conservatism to grease his argument. Conservatives don’t believe in free markets, for example, they believe in keeping the rich rich, he tells us. “Conservatism is more about tweeds and a good scotch,” is how Dionne talks about a group of ideas far more popular in Waco than Georgetown. “But — again, at its best — conservatism,” he goes on, “is supposed to be resistant to extremism precisely because it is, in principle, the antithesis of a revolutionary creed.”
Oh, it has been. According to Dionne’s definition, conservatism has been a complete success over the past decade. Even with its intermittent ugliness, infighting, and numerous missteps, it was conservatism that preserved a semblance of constitutional order and limited government. And not only through the placement of originalist judges. Whether it was their intent or not, Republicans were successful in obstructing legislative efforts intended to fundamentally transform America. The Trump administration, whether with principled intent or not, has rolled back many of norm-breaking abuses of process that defined the Obama administration.
Dionne lays out a few more examples of this supposed radicalism. The columnist, for instance, asks us to treat the National Rifle Association, a group that’s kept relatively consistent positions on the Second Amendment since it first became a civil rights advocate around 1977, as extremists. Those calling for the first-ever ban of semi-automatic weapons are the rational actors in this tale.
We learn from Dionne that the White House has linked Trump’s judicial appointments to the dismantling of regulation. “Remember when conservatives criticized the politicization of the judiciary?” Dionne asks. I do. I remember that Democrats demand conservatives stick to principles regarding process while they do as they please. I also remember that those who believe in the originalist interpretation of the Constitution, regulatory abuse is a judiciary concern. The antithesis of a revolutionary creed, if you will.
Dionne, like many others, also engages in this annual game where we pretend that CPAC represents the entire conservative movement. Yes, inviting Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (among other speakers) to a conservative conference is unfortunate and reflects a misguided attempt to reach out to the uglier strands within a movement. It’s probably comparable to allowing someone like Linda Sarsour to lead your women’s marches. No party, I’m afraid, has a monopoly on stupidity these days.
But it’s worth remembering that it isn’t Republican recklessness on the national debt or their circumventing of process that sparks real liberal furor and accusations of “extremism.” Rather, it’s the persistent, troglodytic obsession of too many voters to take seriously the antiquated notions of limited government and the Second Amendment — or, for that matter, the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth – that really sparks their ire. “Extremism” is the failure of voters to surrender to social engineering in an orderly fashion.
Yet every time someone tells us that conservatism is in its death throes, conservatism makes a miraculous comeback. Sometimes we see idealistic iteration and sometimes we see a more severe one. Some of us like to think these outbursts are driven by a constitutional idealism embedded in the DNA of American life. But maybe it’s simply the way our pluralistic system organically balances the concerns of two groups. Either way, heralding the demise of the group marginally holding back runaway government is, as always, premature.