Even before Obama won a resounding victory over McCain and Democratic majorities expanded significantly in Congress, declarations that conservatism was finished had been pouring in from the left as they had in 1976 and 1992. The decimation of the Republican Party over the last two election cycles has left the vehicle for conventional conservative political action horribly damaged, broken and smoldering in the ditch into which the Bush administration and its supporters have driven it. Without some significant and fairly dramatic adaptation to new political realities, however, the early obituaries of conservatism as a cohesive political force in the United States may finally prove to be correct. There will continue to be some reduced center-right voting coalition, but soon enough it will lose the ability to renew and reproduce itself in anything like its present form. If nothing is done to counteract it, the generational shift to the political and cultural left among the next generation will reduce conservatives of all kinds to a marginal fraction.
Just as Republican leaders learned nothing from the aftermath of 2006 and ignored the public’s rejection of the Iraq war, there seems to be no evidence that they understand where they went wrong in backing the war all along or how they contributed to the unfolding financial crisis and recession. For their part, most of the Republican Party base seems certain that it was an inferior, moderate Republican candidate who refused to attack Obama fiercely enough that led to defeat, as if their continued support for the administration and the war had not already helped ensure the last two electoral routs. At the same time, the tremendous grassroots enthusiasm for Sarah Palin suggests that we are seeing the same process of identification with a prominent Republican politician that cemented mainstream conservative loyalty to Mr. Bush. The flip side of this enthusiasm is that there is clearly deep dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment, and it is not necessarily the case that Palin should or will be the beneficiary of the coming backlash.
Seeing the political disaster unfolding around them, many of the most prominent apologists and cheerleaders for the administration, along with a few of its former members, have begun to wash their hands of what they helped to create with their belated, public complaints about the direction of the party and the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. This has led some to issue harsh criticism of Palin, but also more broadly to use Palin as the representative of the populist, culture war politics that have long offended them. This has created an odd situation where rank-and-file Republicans, Jacksonian nationalists, cultural populists, immigration restrictionists, and opponents of the bailout have by and large flocked to Palin as their champion, despite her inevitable embrace of all of the conventional establishment views of the presidential nominee on amnesty and the bailout. Meanwhile, predominantly establishment pundits who find most of Palin’s enthusiasts distasteful or embarrassing have taken advantage of Palin’s genuinely weak performance as VP nominee once again to declare the politics of her supporters to be radioactive and disastrous.
Populist dissident conservatives who have opposed the administration from the outset are better-positioned in terms of credibility and ideas than anyone else to take advantage of the new political landscape, but they are notably lacking in the kind of institutional support and political influence needed to challenge the discredited mainstream and the new technocratic proposals of neoconservative “reformists.” As mainstream, movement conservatism has tied itself to the fortunes of this administration, the movement as a whole is largely at a loss for answers for the future, and for most mainstream activists the answers being put forward by the “reformists” resemble an undesirable effort to resuscitate Bush’s brand of welfarism. As the Bush years draw to a close, the mainstream seems to be reverting to its Clinton-era self, obsessed with personal associates and conspiracies connected to the future President but lacking anything on par with the ideas that led to welfare reform in the ‘90s.
The purely oppositional, anti-Obama path is tempting, because it is by far the easiest and safest kind of opposition, and it offers certain superficial rewards as the next administration loses public support as administrations tend to do in their first two years. In the long term, however, this is politically futile and intellectually bankrupt. This presents an opportunity for the two disorganized camps of what we can call heterodox conservatives, the populists and the neoconservative “reformists.” Both espouse, in diametrically opposed ways, arguments for adopting policies that serve the interests of Republican working- and middle-class constituencies, and both are viewed with varying degrees of suspicion by mainstream activists, but it is the populists who identify both culturally and politically with these constituents far more. It is therefore the populists who have the advantage in winning over these constituents directly through grassroots organizing that would build and improve on the example of the limited successes of the Ron Paul campaign.
The McCain campaign’s touting of the virtues of Middle Americans, small towns and the middle-class stood in stark contrast to the policies on immigration and trade that McCain has embraced his entire career that ignore and indeed undermine the interests of Middle America. Thanks to the combative and substance-free “populism” of Palin, the campaign has both failed to represent Middle American interests while simultaneously associating the defense of those interests with lack of knowledge and aimless demagoguery. The populists find the symbolic politics of McCain/Palin vapid and harmful to genuine populist causes, as symbolic, lifestyle populism eschews sharp critiques of the policies that neglect the interests of the many. This pseudo-populism settles instead for viscerally satisfying vilification of elites while doing nothing to challenge their power or the institutions they control. Opposing consolidated power and concentrated wealth without substantive proposals to distribute and disperse both more widely is at best ineffective and at worst a cruel co-optation of populist language to shore up the political establishment.
The “reformists” have likewise been mortified by the campaign’s incoherence and lack of governing vision, but most have been particularly horrified by the return of this same symbolic, lifestyle populism. Two of the more prominent “reformists,” David Brooks and David Frum, share the same disdain for culture war politics and an aversion to those whom Brooks dubbed “nihilists” for their opposition to the $700 billion bailout, which reflects fairly well their antipathy for social conservatives and the attitudes of Middle American conservatives. To the extent that those Middle Americans identify with Palin, these particular “reformists” have been indifferent or openly hostile to her as a symbol of the elements on the right they dislike. This highlights the fundamental political weakness of most of the “reformists,” which is their alienation from the broad mass of conservatives.
On certain matters of policy, particularly concerning foreign policy and civil liberties, populist dissident conservatives are today at odds with most conservatives’ views, but they have far more in common with them than “reformists” in their shared opposition to mass immigration, legal abortion, expansion of government and, most recently, the massive government intervention in the financial sector. The populists have also long anticipated popular dissatisfaction with the current “free trade” regime, and have advanced arguments against corporate power and collusion between corporations and government that are not only consistent with free market principles but which also resonate with the electorate far beyond the right.
A decentralist and decentralized populism stands the best chance of going around the gatekeepers of institutional conservatism centered in the Northeast by organizing a parallel movement based in cities and towns throughout the country. Creating institutions of this parallel movement would take time, but they would be at once more focused on state and local government, more responsive to local and regional issues and would be more representative of Middle American conservatives. This decentralized movement would not only be more responsive, but would necessarily also be more accommodating to intellectual and regional diversity. It would avoid the ideological ossification that afflicts the mainstream movement and would make possible a far greater degree of participation from the people in whose name populist conservatives claim to speak.
Regardless of how one views Sarah Palin herself, the phenomenon of enthusiasm for Palin, like the grassroots mobilization for Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul we saw in the primaries, shows the powerful hunger in Middle America for someone to speak for them and defend their interests. Except perhaps on immigration, institutional conservatism and elected representatives in the Republican Party have largely failed to do this. During the primaries, institutional conservatism was content to foist two rebranded Northeastern liberal Republicans on conservatives as their champions while denigrating the two candidates with the strongest grassroots support. As the enthusiasm for candidates as different as Huckabee and Paul shows, Christian conservatives and libertarians are looking for representation. These voters are not going to find it in a mainstream movement that loathes Huckabee and Paul, nor will they find what they seek among the “reformists,” so their support is up for grabs. What populist conservatives need to do in the coming years is to make sure that Middle Americans are presented with a credible, substantive populism from the right that provides a genuine alternative to the left’s agenda and does not settle for the false comfort of empty anti-elitist rhetoric.
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