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Wanted: The Third Coming Of Modern Conservatism (Washington Examiner) December 16, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

If “conservatism” is a political noun, it is always in the company of varied adjectives. There are national security conservatives, fiscal conservatives, neoconservatives, social conservatives, reform conservatives, and on we could go. George W. Bush, apparently thinking it was not enough to be just a conservative, campaigned as a “compassionate conservative.” John McCain was a “maverick conservative.”

Yes, one of conservatism’s problems is that it is not a single ideology, able to stand on its own and collect supporters. Rather, it is more in the nature of a tent (sometimes a big tent, other times smaller) with a variety of conservatives jostling for primacy. Especially difficult to reconcile are the liberty conservatives, who believe individual freedom is the bedrock of the conservative philosophy, and the virtue conservatives, who are committed to getting people to do not what they want, but what they ought. Libertarians would be prime examples of the former, with the religious right standing for the latter.

Twice in its history, modern American conservatives have managed to come together and have a real impact. The first was in the 1950s and 1960s when a new publication, National Review, edited by William F. Buckley, managed to speak for most conservatives, fueling conservatism’s rise as a political movement. National Review editor Frank Meyer called it “fusion” conservatism, actively seeking to bring the several strands together. All this was greatly aided by the threat of communism, against which conservatives were eager to unite.

The second coming of modern American conservatism arose in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan, the great communicator and eternal optimist, managed not only to join the various branches of conservatism but also make it appealing to a majority of the country. For the first time, conservatism was not just a viable philosophy and political movement, but a tent big enough and with sufficient comforts to be a home for a majority of the country. Reagan’s optimism about America and its freedoms, and his attacks on big government, came to be accepted by working men and women and by the silent majority.

Since Reagan, it has been a bit of a drought for modern American conservatism. When George H.W. Bush spoke of a “kinder, gentler” conservatism, and George W. Bush of “compassionate conservatism,” those seemed to many conservatives to be hedging their principles, not unifying the movement. President Trump’s disruptive style has not only challenged norms of politics broadly, but also the principles of conservatism. National security conservatives and neoconservatives are nervous as troops leave important outposts in the war on terror. Fiscal conservatives are uncomfortable with abandoning free trade in favor of aggressive tariffs and the dramatic rise of the national debt.

It is time, then, for the third coming, a new rising, of modern American conservatism. But it won’t be easy. The monolithic communist threat that once brought conservatives together has been replaced by a myriad of international challenges. Moreover, there is no obvious Reagan on the horizon, ready to ride into the picture to galvanize his forces.

So, where might conservatives turn? They must again become a movement of ideas, not merely one of disruption. It was a conservative, Richard Weaver, who penned the book Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, and this must again become the conservative mantra. They need to return to notions of free trade and lowering the federal debt. Instead of anti-communism, conservatives should seek to sharpen America’s understanding of the dangers presented by China and articulate a strong response.

They actually have a few political advantages to work from. For one thing, President Joe Biden will seek to build out the welfare state and the federal role in people’s lives, and that gives conservatives a natural focal point to push back against. Conservative control of the Supreme Court will provide some leadership on key issues, especially freedom of religion and social matters.

Basically, conservatives and Republicans need to turn away from governing by disruption to governing by leadership and ideas. That would be a welcome change in our politics and might lead them back to the more unified and mainstream place they held in earlier times.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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