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 The Mugging of Conservatism 

February 12, 2008 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, August 19, 1997]
paragraph indentConservatives are feeling gloomy these days. In this country the latest Republican “revolution” has been thwarted by Bill Clinton. In Britain Tony Blair’s Labor Party has routed the Tories. In France the story is the same: a pragmatic, post-Marxist Left has stymied what recently appeared to be a rightward trend.

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of Conservatism indent“Is there a worldwide conservative crackup?” asks The Weekly Standard. Twenty-eight more-or-less conservative writers (mostly less) offer their answers in one of those marathon symposia so typical of the conservative intellectual press.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indent“Worldwide,” seems a trifle grand for a political pattern confined to three countries. Moreover, the pattern has been misread. Conservatives in America and Britain never won as much as their press releases claimed. Yes, Ronald Reagan and George Bush won the White House with three straight landslides. But the federal government continued to grow during their administrations, a twelve-year span in which federal spending nearly doubled.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentMost of that increased spending was for programs nowhere authorized by the Constitution. Yet these “conservative” presidents never raised the constitutional issues posed by the explosion of federal spending and national debt. They talked limited government while making no effort to restore historic limits.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentSo conservatives have reason to be discouraged. The Republican Party has let them down time and again. The candidacy of Bob Dole was a disappointment, yes, but what is more discouraging is the growing realization that, rhetoric aside, Reagan himself was never very different from Dole. Dole was widely ridiculed for offering, once, “to be another Reagan”; but Reagan was already another Dole. He left the federal government far bigger than he found it.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentOf the 28 contributors to The Weekly Standard’s symposium, none even mentions the Constitution. Not one. Several, in fact, deplore what they call the “anti- government” and “libertarian” mind-set of many conservatives. One laments “mindless opposition to the state.”

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentIn fact, most of these “conservatives” are actually neoconservatives: They want big government without too many social programs. They don’t want constitutional government; they don’t argue for principled limitations of any sort. Just the opposite. Above all, they want an interventionist foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentFor instance, Eliot A. Cohen writes, “The Founders did not envision or desire a feeble government, and they did not shrink from endorsing its essential functions.” Yes, but they defined those “essential” functions carefully and narrowly. They were more anxious about “usurpation” than about any other domestic danger. And they believed that “foreign corruption” and “entangling alliances” with the Old World posed special threats to the American Republic.

[Breaker quote for The Mugging of Conservatism: No patriots need apply.]Mugging of Conservatism indentThat classical American conservatism is strictly taboo at The Weekly Standard. Its symposium includes a few token “social” conservatives, but nobody who espouses the constitutional and foreign policy views of the Founders. It finds room for a liberal Democrat, an Englishman, and an Israeli, but not for a Pat Buchanan, a Howard Phillips, a Samuel Francis, or a Charlie Reese.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentBy excluding such perspectives, The Weekly Standard is trying to pass off the neoconservative party line as the conservative consensus. It’s trying to stifle the vigorous and necessary debate over first principles that is actually raging among conservatives. In fact, the lesson of its current issue may be that the best way to avoid debate is to hold a symposium.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentLike the Republican Party, The Weekly Standard only pretends to oppose a political establishment whose principles it accepts. That’s why, despite the talents of some of its writers, the magazine is essentially boring.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentIf the neoconservatives got everything they want in the way of public policy, nothing much would be changed. The legacy of the liberal era would remain. Yet most conservatives still think the neoconservatives are their allies. If a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, conservatives have yet to realize they’ve been mugged — by the neoconservatives.

Mugging of Conservatism 
indentOver the last two generations, liberals have staged a revolution in American government while pretending only to modify the system. By contrast, conservatives have managed only modifications in the liberal system while claiming to have effected revolution. At the moment, it’s still the liberals’ country. Conservatives are just renting.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation

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