Johnston: The exodus of conservatism

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.


  • Recent Alum

    "The challenge of Barack Obama to political conservatism, then, is that he may end the association of the Democratic Party with anti-Americanism."

    Is this a joke? The presidential candidate who attended Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church for 20 years, who worked with the Weather Undergroun's Bill Ayers and had him host his political coming out party, who was called the "messiah" in a sermon by none other than Louis Farrankhan, and who has more connections to the extreme Left than any other presidential candidate in the history of the United States, is somehow the president who will show that the Democratic Party is no longer associated with anti-Americanism?

    If anything, I would venture to say that conservative has died if McCain wins the Presidency, since McCain would be by far the most liberal Republican president.

  • Anonymous

    The irony here is that Obama is far more communitarian in his outlook than John McCain, or indeed most prominent Republicans. His willingness to confront cultural issues (his Father's Day speech, his line about children "putting down the video games") has led some to label him a "social conservative," and some of his policies reflect the sort of patriotism-through-service that implicitly rejects autonomy-worship: I'm thinking in particular here about his education credit for students who engage in community service, etc.

  • Also Alum

    I agree with the recent Alum. Obama is the most anti-American candidate to ever run for President. His receipt of funds and support from dubious Middle Eastern characters and groups and his association with anti-American groups in the U.S. and abroad are starting to haunt his campaign and will likely defeat his candidacy. In fact, the U.S. is likely to see conservatism growing and the Democratic party adopting the ideology to a greater extent. Since the federal government has grown to historic levels, more people are concerned about higher taxes and larger deficits and both parties have called for a reduction in spending.

  • WFB

    To paraphrase the man so glibly quoted in this piece, the stupidity of this analysis can not be exaggerated for the same reason infinity can not be exaggerated. The reason for that is can be illustrating by paraphrasing another prominent conservative. A liberal is someone who reads Buckley, but a conservative is someone who understands Buckley.

  • Jack

    I think Conservatism is dead, but the multiracial country idea is also dead. More and more White Americans want White Nationalism and explicit racial identity politics now. David Duke is set to give a speech about the new White Nationalist movement and now heads an organization with afew hundren thousand members.

  • Anonymous

    I don't think any of the '60s conservatives' Johnson refers to (southern evangelicals and Catholics) would agree with his claim that they oppose the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Quite the contrary; they see liberals as violating those same ideals.

    Also, since you are a self-described conservative, Mr. Johnson, I have a question for you: why do you hate America?

  • Anonymous

    Wow, tough crowd. I thought this was a great piece. And I daresay Mr. Johnston loves America more than #6-- read his article on patriotism for an explanation.