Is (Was) Conservatism a Mass Movement?

I’m finally getting around to writing about this recent Henry Olsen essay, “Movement Conservatism Was Dying Before Trump.”  When it was first posted, Jonah Goldberg was not a fan; Olsen responded briefly to Goldberg and at greater length to Charles Murray.  Although I enjoy Olsen’s The Working Class Republican, in general I am of a disposition to agree more often with Goldberg or Murray about things.  In this case, however, I want to pessimistically riff on Olsen’s theory because I think it’s useful for conservatives — particularly those who see it as an intellectual pursuit — to at least consider some inconvenient possibilities.

Olsen begins by claiming that the “fusionism” originating in the early pages of National Review (esp. from Frank Meyer) may have united a number of factions, but that the real glue was anti-Communism; once we won the Cold War, that coalition began coming apart.

I don’t think that’s entirely true, but there’s enough truth in it to consider more thoroughly.  Meyer’s fusionism tended to be shorthanded as uniting small-l libertarians and traditionalists.  But what you see in NR‘s mission statement got refined over time by William F. Buckley and popularized by Ronald Reagan into what was called the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and foreign policy conservatives.

What is only implicit in some of Olsen’s essay is the degree to which the left helped make this happen, particularly once the New Left started gaining power within the Democratic Party.  That is, one major reason, fusionism succeeded was because the left started alienating the people whom the theory required.

This alienation happened at both the elite level and the mass level.  Among the elite, former Communists and Democrats, like Irving Kristol and Jeanne Kirkpatrick were moved on an intellectual or ideological level to reject the dovishness of the Democrats on foreign policy, while people like Richard John Neuhaus morally and theologically opposed the left’s embrace of abortion rights.

But it was a less intellectual exercise for someone like Peggy Noonan — at least at first.  Rather, she realized she was not of the left after personally witnessing the ingratitude and contempt the left had for America, particularly those fighting and dying in our long struggle against Communism.

What may go unappreciated is the degree to which many people migrated from the Democrats to the GOP based on lived experience and never took the intellectual journey that someone like Noonan eventually did.

After all, Richard Nixon was a fairly progressive Republican, not Reaganesque.  But Nixon romped to re-election because George McGovern’s version of the Democratic Party could be characterized as favoring “acid, amnesty [for draft-dodgers], and abortion.”

By the end of the 70s, stagflation had disproved Keynesian economics, the abortion, divorce and crime rates had soared, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan while Iran took our embassy hostage.  There were plenty of reasons for the conservatives being effectively purged by Democrats to look elsewhere.  And Reagan himself used to say that he did not leave the Democratic Party so much as it left him.

All of which is to say that while Buckley, Meyer, and others should be given enormous credit for building an intellectual movement and significant conservative institutions that could serve a president like Reagan when he arrived — and even for foreseeing the type of coalition that might elect a Reagan — the actions of the left were also important, as was the historical moment.  Modern conservatism was not a Field of Dreams that merely needed to be built for people to come.  And the voters who elected Reagan were not necessarily a movement of Buckleyites or Hayekians so much as they were repelled by the left for a variety of less-intellectualized reasons. (It does not thrill me to write that, but it should be considered.)

Olsen is correct to claim that our victory in the Cold War also had the effect of weakening one of the three-legs of the stool that got Reagan elected.  I think he may be on less solid ground in claiming that the GOP winning control of Congress in 1994 was the other major factor.

Rather, I would argue that Reagan’s successes in cutting income taxes and then reforming the tax code were the second “catastrophic success” for the stool.  Once you moved so many people off the tax rolls, the issue would move far fewer voters.  As Olsen himself has noted, Reagan was always more opposed to the great Society than the New Deal.  And George H. W. Bush had no particular zeal for dismantling the administrative state, leaving the much less politically popular aspects of the GOP economic agenda, notably entitlement reform, undone.

Indeed, as Olsen noted on Twitter, in the immediate post-Cold War moment, the conservative commentariat groped around for a new unifying theory, whether it was “national greatness conservatism,” Buchanan’s marriage of social conservatism and economic populism, or (shudder) big government conservatism.”  The GOP’s Contract With America, extensively poll-tested, unsurprisingly had its own populist cast; issues like supply-side economics and abortion were indirect considerations at best.

Republican opposition to Bill Clinton was based on his history as a draft-avoider and serial adulterer as much as it was his political agenda; it was, in some important ways, revisiting the same basic fight begun in 1968-72, but ending with an old McGovern hand winning.  The 90s were also the period during which Grover Norquist began describing the GOP as representing the “leave me alone coalition,” a formulation that again may be read as an assemblage of the anti-left more than a libertarian movement.

George W. Bush campaigned on a theme of “compassionate conservatism” that may have helped keep soccer moms in the party coalition, but his Electoral College squeaker was as much due to the deflating dot-com bubble and scandal fatigue at the close of the Clinton era.  He was re-elected in part due to a restrengthening of the stool.  Islamic terrorism replaced Communism as a common enemy around which to orient foreign policy.  Referenda regarding same-sex marriage may have boosted turnout from social conservatives.  And Bush did cut taxes, as republicans are supposed to do.  To the extent one buys Karl Rove’s theory that No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D were also necessary, it must be noted that these fell far more on the side of compassionate than conservative, if we are talking about the existence of a mass movement.

Bush also took a couple of runs at remaking the GOP coalition with immigration reform and his push for an “ownership society.”  The problem with this is that the time for assembling a coalition is before an election, let alone a re-election.  Parties tend to resist being remade on the fly.

Ultimately, the failures of the Bush administration — both real and perceived — left the GOP casting around for a new coalition, which is a significant part of How We Got Trump.  During to Obama era, like the Clinton era, the core of the party thrived on opposition to the Democratic agenda.

So viewed, the history of the past few decades is one of conservatism being far more a movement of an elite — writers, scholars, activists and officials — than one of the masses.  Voters have gravitated to the GOP as much by an opposition to the steady leftward march of the Democratic Party as any intellectual or ideological commitment.

Some may look at this as a failure of conservative elites (e.g., Tucker Carlson‘s dismissal of the conservative nonprofit establishment).   In fact, conservative elites are responsible for hundreds of policy innovations people like Carlson apparently take for granted now.

But it is fair to say that conservatives lost the battle to remain integrated in larger, formerly more transpartisan institutions in (for example) academia and journalism — and the approach of building counter-institutions (an application of O’Sullivan’s Law) has had its failures, even if it succeeded in making Carlson a populist one-percenter.  Now the debate has shifted toward whether ostensibly conservative institutions — like politicians — are primarily in the business of offering considered judgments or merely representing a political constituency.

Given that we still live in a relatively open society, I don’t think there’s any single answer to that question.  The fact that the question is being debated tends to point again in the direction of concluding that conservatism was always more an elite movement than a mass movement.  That doesn’t diminish its importance.  The leftward drift of the country over the past century occurs without people being conversant with Marx, Dewey, Adorno, or Derrida.  Nevertheless, an examination of the weaknesses of the conservative movement — such as it is — will be necessary if the elites want to do more than serve as handmaidens to a coalition that is more anti-left than it is right.

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