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 Conservatism as Exorcism 

May 8, 2003

Conservatives have lost their mind. Not their minds, but their mind. What the late Russell Kirk called “the conservative mind” seems to have disappeared from our political landscape.

When I got acquainted with the conservative movement in 1965, it was still a serious thing. It had principles, and it knew what it wanted: limited government. It had a dual agenda: to resist and defeat world Communism, and to repeal unconstitutional government programs at home.

There were problems with these difficult goals, but the movement made some kind of sense. It was very much a minority movement, even within the Republican Party, the minority party in a country that had been voting Democratic since 1932. Conservatives considered even Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon too liberal. William Buckley had founded National Review in 1955 to oppose Eisenhower Republicanism — to “stand athwart History yelling ‘Stop!’”

By 1968, though, Buckley was ready to endorse Nixon for president. But he suspended his support as Nixon moved leftward; as late as 1976 his colleague William Rusher was calling for a “new majority party” to replace the Republicans.

The conservative movement spread as liberalism became entrenched. Not only did the Federal Government keep growing under both parties; the sexual revolution transformed the country socially, morally, and culturally.

With the election of Ronald Reagan, a Buckley fan and friend, in 1980, “movement” conservatives felt that they had triumphed. And they had, in a narrow sense: they had won the presidency, something almost inconceivable a few years earlier.

But the country they had hoped to conserve was ceasing to exist. Even Reagan, popular as he was, didn’t dare challenge the programs left from the New Deal and the Great Society. He couldn’t begin to reverse the sexual revolution, and he hardly tried to oppose legal abortion. He couldn’t even slow the constant expansion of the Federal Government, which had taken on a life of its own.

[Breaker quote: How demons replace principles]Unable to face the facts and unwilling to criticize Reagan, the conservatives took refuge in a fantasy: “the Reagan Revolution.” Never mind the incongruity of conservatives hyping revolution; to mistake Reagan’s superficial personal popularity for the triumph of conservative principles was a delusion bordering on psychosis.

Fortunately, the Communist problem took care of itself by collapsing. Though conservatives had always rightly argued that Communism couldn’t work, they credited Reagan with its failure when it fell of its own mammoth weight.

At this point, you might think (as I did, at the time) conservatives would return to the second part of their old agenda: restoring limited, constitutional government. But they didn’t. Instead, they adopted a habit of finding themselves distractions.

First they threw their enthusiasm into new wars to replace the Cold War: their villains were Panama’s Manuel Noriega (remember him?) and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. War is Big Government par excellence, but that didn’t seem to matter as long as it was waged by a Republican president (the first George Bush).

Then, for eight years, conservatives rallied against a new enemy: Bill Clinton. In their personal animosity toward Clinton, they forgot everything else. Destroying this archvillain became their whole agenda. Unfortunately, Clinton proved indestructible — a cheerfully elusive Bugs Bunny to the conservatives’ obsessive Elmer Fudd. By now the Federal Government was spending $2 trillion dollars a year, or about twenty times what it was spending when the conservative movement had started rolling. But of course conservatives no longer noticed. All that mattered was replacing Clinton with a Republican.

Now a new Republican has won the conservatives’ hearts with a new war, toppling Saddam Hussein. The America they had once hoped to save has disappeared. Have they noticed? Of course not. Like Reagan’s election, the latest military victory has made them feel good and allowed them to pretend the country has gained something.

Instead of fighting for great principles, the conservatives now settle for exorcising little demons. Buckley and Rusher are happily reconciled to George W. Bush’s Republican Party. The conservative movement itself has been taken over by unprincipled “neoconservatives.”

The conservative movement once stood for American traditions; now it stands for amnesia. It shows energy only when given a new distraction, a new demon to exorcise, a new short-term obsession. That way it can pretend to have won when, in fact, it has totally abandoned any semblance of a conservative philosophy.

Yesterday’s conservatives would have known what to call today’s right-wingers: liberals.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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