Conservatism Marches On

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Is Conservatism Finished?" by Wilfred M. McClay, in Commentary, Jan. 2007.

THE REPUBLICAN LOSSES IN the 2006 midterm elections are just the latest news to have set many conservative pundits to sounding the death knell for their movement. The title of one of the many recent books in this vein labels the lead culprit: Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause, by Richard Viguerie. According to Viguerie, Bush may have "talked like a conservative to win our votes, but [he] never governed like a conservative." Bnsh's foreign- and domestic-policy stumbles, most notably the war in Iraq, have sabotaged "the idyllic spirit of unity at home and cooperation abroad that allegedly prevailed during the Cold War years under [Ronald] Reagan," writes Wilfred M. McClay, historian and professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. But does all this mean that the conservative movement is really finished?

McClay believes that the "modest" election victory for the Democrats, which yielded only a narrow majority in both houses of Congress, does not "justify the claim that conservatism lost." He points to the easy triumph of independent senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut "over his more liberal antiwar challenger" and the victories of "such relatively conservative Democrats as James Webb in Virginia and Robert Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania" as signs that no major ideological shift is under way. Indeed, McClay says, "the American electorate has ... moved slowly but steadily in a conservative direction since 1968."

McClay also questions the validity of the conservatives' charges against Bush, each of which "rests on some a priori definition of what conservatism is and what it is not." Jeffrey Hart, for instance, author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind (2006), speaks of conservatism "as a realistic and non-ideological approach to governance," and chides Bush for overstepping his authority. But McClay cites many instances when leaders took actions "that involved the transgression of a 'conservative' principle for the sake of broadly conservative ends," such as Abraham Lincoln's suspension of basic civil liberties during the Civil War. …


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