Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Wreck of the Conservative Movement

Gary Kamiya writing in Salon, wonders,

After seven years of George W. Bush, why would any genuine conservative still support his party?

Bush’s presidency has made a shambles of real conservatism. Let’s leave aside the issues on which liberals and conservatives can be expected to disagree, like his tax cuts for the rich, expansion of Medicare or his position on immigration, and focus solely on ones that should be above partisan rancor — ones involving the Constitution and all-American values. On issue after Mom-and-apple-pie issue, from authorizing torture to approving illegal wiretapping to launching a self-destructive war, Bush has done incalculable damage to conservative principles — far more, in fact, than any recent Democratic president. And he has been supported every step of the way by Republicans in Congress, who have voted in lockstep for his radical policies. None of the major Republican candidates running for office have repudiated any of Bush’s policies. They simply promise to execute them better.

The Bush presidency has damaged American civil society in many ways, but one of the most lasting may be its destructive effect on conservatism. Even those who do not call themselves conservatives must acknowledge the power and enduring value of core conservative beliefs: belief in individual agency and responsibility, respect for American institutions and traditions, a resolute commitment to freedom, a willingness to take principled moral stands. It is a movement that draws its inspiration from towering figures: Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke. It stands for caution in foreign adventures, fiscal sobriety and a profound respect for tradition.

Or at least it used to stand for those things. Today’s conservatism is a caricature of that movement: It embraces pointless wars, runs up a vast debt, and trashes the Constitution. Selling out their principles for power, abandoning deeply seated American values and traditions simply because someone on “their side” demanded that they do so, conservatives have made a deal with the devil that has reduced their movement to an empty, ends-obsessed shell. How did the party of Lincoln end up marching under the banner of Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and Ann Coulter?

Not long ago I had a grudging respect for conservative ideas. I like the idea of balanced budgets, spending only what you can afford, and everybody paying their fair share of taxes. I like the idea of limited government interference, especially in matters of the body, heart and soul, which includes keeping the government out of the bedroom, the OB-GYN’s office, and the church — and the church out of the government. I even envied — to a degree — the conservatives’ ability to be so damn sure of their beliefs, even if they were couched in old, outmoded, and odious traditions, like restricted country clubs and people “knowing their place.” Even if I thought they were absolutely wrong, they never admitted any doubts about their beliefs, and, as they say about people like that, you have to acknowledge them for their resolve. They had the ability to come up with simple answers for complex problems: nuke the Russkis, separate but equal, abortion is murder. It doesn’t solve the problem but it fits on a bumpersticker, and that certainly makes life — for them, at least — easier.

That’s all gone now. The conservative movement that I once knew is history, replaced by a shrill, devisive, and fear-mongering mindset that seems to have lost its moral compass and is obsessed with maintaining power for no other reason than to have it. Those are not conservative ideas — certainly not those espoused by the conservatives I remember, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller or even Barry Goldwater — and I’d like to have the old conservatives back. I would still disagree with them on a lot of their ideas, but at the very least I would know that they wouldn’t tap my phones, read my bank records, or brand me as a traitor.