Can American Conservatism Be Salvaged?

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tags: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican Party, conservatism, Richard Nixon, Richard Striner


Richard Striner is professor of history at Washington College. He is the author of "Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power."

Credit: DonkeyHotey.

The greatest threat to the United States today is the Republican Party. The once-magnificent organization of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower has degenerated into a coalition of religious fanatics, gun lunatics, shills for the rich, and libertarian simpletons who hover at the brink of anarchism and would probably like nothing better than to see the United States unable to play the role of a superpower any longer.

Can anything be done to force today’s Republican Party back into sanity?  More fundamentally, can anything be done to make conservatism sane enough to support the kind of national security policies that many -- though by no means all -- Republicans say they still support?

The rise of America to superpower status was a grueling affair. It began with the vision of Alexander Hamilton and culminated in the age of Eisenhower. From the mid-twentieth century onward, America’s supremacy has endured.  It is now at risk across the board -- all the way across the ideological spectrum, but especially among the Republicans due to the current conservative proclivity to cripple federal action as much as possible by endless budget-cutting.

Republicans with vision confronted a neo-isolationist threat when they recruited Eisenhower in 1952 to challenge Senator Robert A. Taft -- who would have withdrawn the United States from NATO -- for the Republican presidential nomination. Ike proceeded to give the American people a fine demonstration of national security policies that were sane, well-grounded, and effective. And though the American far right -- the John Birch Society element -- regarded Ike as a dupe of the communists, Republicans in general were satisfied and proud of his achievements.  There was still enough wisdom among some conservatives for a critical mass of them to see the ingredient of Toryism that Ike included in his centrist “middle-way” governance.  Republicans today -- and conservatives generally -- would do well to take a look at what Eisenhower did for America.

Through Ike gave America eight years of peace, he positioned the United States to outlast the Soviets through nuclear deterrence, space-based surveillance, and other forms of pressure and protection. He did it sensibly, too, without either over-spending or under-spending on defense.

Ike also knew that the military basis for long-term power has a strong civilian-side counterpart.  He had taught at what was once called the Army Industrial College -- today’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces -- and he was a master of logistics well before his command of Operation Overlord in World War II. He knew that mobilization requires a long-term bond between government and capitalism to create the economic and infrastructure foundation for military power. The Interstate Highway System was merely the most prominent manifestation of this knowledge during Eisenhower’s presidency.

Not the least of Ike’s intentions for the highway system was its function as a job-creating stimulus that would even out the economic cycle and build consumer purchasing power.  According to journalist Robert J. Donovan, Ike told his cabinet that public works projects like the interstate system should be set up “to insure that men would be put to work quickly. ... Projects actually under way, he noted, gave the government flexibility in speeding them up or stretching them out, as conditions required.”  The result, he hoped, would be more than just a build-up of national power; he wished to augment American decency.  In a 1952 campaign speech delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia, he said it was the obligation of government to put a “floor over the pit of personal disaster in our complex modern society.” In 1954 he said that “so long as any citizen wants work and cannot find it, we have a pressing problem to solve. This administration is working vigorously to bring about a lasting solution.”

The politics and policies of Ike, along with those of his running mate and eventual successor Richard Nixon -- a vastly underrated figure among conservatives today -- constitute a legacy that should be taken very seriously by Republicans who place America’s super-power status where it ought to be: first among our national priorities.

At the heart of the matter is the attitude of Ike and Nixon toward a central issue of modern conservative politics: the role of government. Both of them believed that federal spending should be monitored: waste, inefficiency, superfluous effort should be pruned. But both of them were wary of the open-ended government-bashing -- and the ultra-libertarian excess that feeds it -- that drives some conservatives to seek never-ending reductions in federal spending as a litmus test of virtue regardless of national needs. The leaders of a superpower should know that certain necessary work is beyond the scope of private-sector action. To think otherwise -- to base a political creed on a generalized hatred of government -- is inimical to national power.  No superpower can survive as such for long if its necessary public-sector actions are crippled, thwarted, and stultified.

It was liberalism -- not conservatism -- that took up the creed of minimal government on both sides of the Atlantic during the early nineteenth century. It was the Democratic Party that insisted that “the government that governs best, governs least.”  The Republican Party under Lincoln and its other founders championed strong federal action -- action in the clear-cut tradition of early American conservatives such as Alexander Hamilton. In England, conservatives like Thomas Carlyle and Benjamin Disraeli espoused Tory activism.

Carlyle, in particular, makes interesting reading today. Carlyle was a Tory -- beyond question. “Any law,” he once wrote, “which has become a bounty on unthrift, idleness, bastardy and beer-drinking must be put an end to.” But he went quickly on to examine the other side of the question:

He that can work is a born king of something. A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that Fortune’s inequality exhibits under the sun. ... Ah, it is not a joyful mirth, it is sadder than tears the laugh humanity is forced to, at Laissez-Faire applied to poor peasants. ... Is it not a singular thing this of Laissez-Faire, from the first origin of it?  As good as an abdication on the part of governors; an admission that they are henceforth incompetent to govern, that they are not there to govern at all, but to do -- one knows not what. ... Not mis-government, nor yet no-government; only government will now serve.

This enlightened praise for government was coupled with an admonition to the wealthy -- an admonition to lead with generosity of spirit:

What is Aristocracy? A corporation of the Best, of the Bravest. To this joyfully, with heart-loyalty, do men pay the half of their substance, to equip and decorate the Best, to lodge them in palaces, set them high over all ... Whatsoever Aristocracy is still a corporation of the Best, is safe from all peril, and the land it rules is a safe and blessed land. Whatsoever Aristocracy does not even attempt to do, but only to wear the clothes of that, is not safe; neither is the land it rules safe!

One thinks right away of the super-wealthy in America today. With some notable exceptions, our super-rich pursue a shameless agenda of self-aggrandizement, pouring speculative dollars all over the globe instead of giving decent work to the unemployed here in America. Even worse, through their PAC contributions, they do their megalomaniacal best to cripple the forces of government that might otherwise provide decent work when the private sector fails.

Over time, the conservative and liberal traditions swapped ideologies regarding the proper role of government -- a process that Jacques Barzun once called “the great switch.” It is no longer Carlyle, Disraeli, or Hamilton who capture the imaginations of conservatives: it is twentieth-century figures such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan.

But could the great switch prove to be impermanent? A number of conservatives like Chris Christie are beginning to talk in a manner that is strangely more reminiscent of Richard Nixon than Ronald Reagan. Could this be a portent of changes -- perhaps salutary changes -- in conservative culture?

If not Eisenhower, could Richard Nixon emerge as a conservative sage in the next decade or so? Not the Nixon of Watergate, of course -- not the aberrant Nixon, not Agnew’s Nixon -- but Kissinger’s Nixon, the protector of national might, the practitioner of global Realpolitik, and the guardian of middle class values who correctly emphasized ... LAW AND ORDER.

If America’s conservatives can gradually reformulate their doctrines and make their thinking more flexible, the theme of national security -- to which so many conservatives still give significant lip service --  might dovetail nicely with the theme of public safety.

In the recent past, according to a multitude of news stories, crime (at least the murder rate) has plummeted, for reasons that mystify many criminologists.  It might accordingly appear to be a far-fetched proposition to entice conservatives to cease their government-bashing and instead use the power of government to protect us from threats, both foreign and domestic.

We seem safe enough today in many parts of the United States.

But the current lull in violent crime may be transient. Some criminologists argue that the new situation may change for the worse if our policies begin to revert to the leniency that was typical a few decades ago -- before minimal sentences were lengthened and parole became less formulaic. The left-right dialectic may still be quite germane to the politics of safe streets.
On August 1, 2012, a homeless lunatic named Kyle Nolan Tanner went into a movie theatre in Annapolis, Maryland. He pointed his hands and fingers in a manner suggestive of guns being aimed at other members of the audience. This was not long after the Colorado rampage of the “Batman butcher,” James Holmes. Tanner was arrested and given a five-year sentence with all but 138 days suspended. His public defender persuaded the judge to be lenient with the following argument, as quoted in a press account:  “This is not a person who’s going to be out on the streets with weapons harming people.”

Really?  Would this public defender choose to be held culpable in one or two years -- or in six months -- if this attempt at prophecy is wrong?  While making due allowance for lawyers’ mendacity, who could make such statement in court with a perfectly straight face and what kind of a judge could take the argument at face value? Is there nothing to be done by conservatives to confront this state of affairs?

Conservatives might profit by revisiting some challenges that the orthodoxies of the recent past have neglected. No less a conservative than Edmund Burke once proclaimed that he would “reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principle.” Why? Because the ever-shifting morphologies of evil make flexibility essential. “Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief,” he wrote. “Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing the fashion, the fashion is gone by.” You may be “terrifying yourself with ghosts and apparitions whilst your house is the haunt of robbers.”

Perhaps sooner -- perhaps later -- the conservative fight to cut spending will reveal itself to be sterile as we drift into an age more perilous than any of us might imagine. Wise Tories might be needed more urgently than ever to protect us from more than just bureaucracy. They must protect us from physical destruction.

Since at least a few conservatives are saying that conservatism needs more flexible options, no sane programmatic option should be cast aside. A new Toryism consistent with a stern new emphasis on national security and public safety could win the Republicans millions of votes.
But what if American conservative culture is too far gone? If the Republican Party should prove itself useless except as a force of fragmentation, folly, and destruction -- then what?

Then perhaps the destructiveness of Republicans will turn upon itself.

A huge fault-line spans the Republican Party and conservatism generally: a line of schism between the religious right and the dogmatic free-marketeers. From the Reagan era through the present, these forces have made common cause against the common enemy:  the left. But the values of right-wing religion are at odds with the moral nihilism of right-wing government-bashing. The religious right needs the power to persecute: the militant church must command the power of the state. The anti-abortion crusade, for example, is not a libertarian crusade.

What would happen if a charismatic evangelical should start castigating the free marketeers for their moral abdication? How can godly conservatives believe that the free-market system, which is based upon anything that turns a quick buck, will do the work of the Lord?

What if a latter-day prophet should say that it’s no use taking on the liberals until the conservatives have put their own moral house back in order?

Properly launched, a campaign of this type could eventually shatter the Republican Party. Then its fragments could be chucked on the rubbish heap of history as Democrats govern.

Maybe that’s what it will take to make conservative wisdom revive. And since the liberals do not know it all -- not by a long shot -- perhaps it needs to happen sooner or later.

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