The election of Barack Obama may mark the end of political conservatism in America. This is not to say that the Republican Party will not return to power. Nor is it to say that the era of free-markets is over, that the people will stop voting for tax-cuts, that politicians will cease lambasting government. Though conservatives have pragmatically suggested “economic conservatism” when appropriate, ideological laissez-faire capitalists have no more relation to conservatism than one-time political allies. Conservatism has a far different focus.
The essence of conservative philosophy is a critique of individual autonomy as a universal ideal. Conservatives are therefore skeptical of the modern political order, which has been constituted for the sake of this ideal. Though conservatives may justify the American Revolution on alternative grounds, they must reject the Declaration of Independence’s notion of man as a rights-bearing individual.
The conservative critique of the Declaration has meant that, at least since the Civil War, conservatism has been on precarious ground in American politics. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that conservatism did not exist as a mainstream political possibility until the second half of the twentieth century. If, after the Civil War, anyone was standing athwart the progress of individual autonomy yelling “STOP,” no one heard him.
For a full century, liberalism was the only philosophical tradition in American politics, and debates between the two Parties were largely debates within liberalism. Any explicit conservatism could be dubbed anti-American.
But the association of the American left with anti-Americanism in the wake of Vietnam allowed space for conservatism to return to American politics. The right exploited the circumstance at every turn, successfully tarnishing the Democratic Party as the “anti-American” Party. “Liberal,” once the designation of a proud political and intellectual tradition, became an epithet. With public sensitivity cranked up to anti-Americanism on the left, the anti-Americanism of conservatism went unnoticed as it entered the Republican Party.
The Republican Party continued to have its share of liberals, and debates within liberalism continued between the two Parties, most obviously between the proponents and the critics of Johnson’s Great Society. But a conservative movement also entered the Republican Party and launched the culture wars. Largely a reaction to the protection of individual autonomy in issues such as gay marriage, school prayer, and abortion, this conservative movement consisted largely of southern evangelicals and blue-collar Catholics, and posed a fundamental challenge to the liberal political tradition in American politics.
The challenge was of a fundamentally different sort than that posed by anti-Americanism on the left. While the left accepted the principles of the Declaration but accused America of hypocrisy for not living up to its ideal, the conservatives criticized the ideal itself. When conservatives defined America, they were more likely to talk about her people, her history, and her culture, than they were to talk about the ideals of the Declaration.
The challenge of Barack Obama to political conservatism, then, is that he may end the association of the Democratic Party with anti-Americanism. With liberalism restored to a position of American patriotism, it is entirely conceivable that public attention will turn to the conservatives, who will be dubbed anti-American for their critique of individual autonomy.
The forces inside the Republican Party may take the lead in the new witch-hunt. On November fifth, if John McCain has lost the election, the Republican Party will become a circular firing squad, each faction blaming others for the Party’s woes. The problem for the conservatives in this power struggle is that they have neither money nor arms.
The libertarian coastal financial elites, who have already embarked on a campaign to claim the name of “conservatism,” will be able to threaten the withholding of funds from the Party, and thus will get a pass. The neoconservatives, their anti-American accusations of the left no longer credible, will train the guns on their former allies, the conservatives.
The result: conservatives will soon begin their time in the wilderness. It is impossible to know how long their wandering will last.
Peter johnston is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.