The death of William F. Buckley depleted both the ranks of American conservatives and American thinkers. This event has lead many, including Newsweek to claim that conservatism is crumbling and adrift. While this seems correct, the crumbling of American conservatism is nothing new.
To discuss the alleged fall of conservatism requires defining conservatism. This is a somewhat tricky manner. Often, in the United States, there are but three political options: liberal, conservative, and the fringe (left or right). Hence, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are forced to cover a broad range of views-some of which are not exactly consistent with each other.
The stock definition of conservatism includes four main aspects: limited government, fiscal responsibility, strong defense both foreign and domestic, that is-military and police), and traditional moral values. Naturally there is vast disagreement about the particulars. But, for the sake of simplicity, I will take that to provide a general picture of conservatism.
Conservatism does seem to have taken a beating in recent years. Republicans claim, in general, to be conservatives and their political fortunes have taken a downturn in recent years (losing Congress to the Democrats being the main example). They have also been rocked by scandals too numerous to mention.
Some might blame the weakened state of conservatism in America on their dire enemies-the liberals. While a case could be made that Al Gore, MTV, Myspace, texting and Tila Tequila helped deal serious blows to the conservative values of America, much of the blame can be laid to rest on the self-proclaimed conservatives.
While Buckley presented a well thought out and consistent form of conservatism while living in accord with his ideals, many self-styled conservatives (most of which were labeled as “neo-conservatives”) acted in ways directly contrary to their professed values.
In terms of fiscal conservatism, Bush and the Republican congress presided over a massive growth in the deficit. Ironically, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who handed them a surplus. Obviously, people began to notice this and this helped put cracks in the conservative movement,
In terms of defense, the conservatives were more consistent-they pushed for a stronger military and took action to defend America. While their strategy can be questioned (specifically the invasion of Iraq) their commitment to pouring money into defense cannot be doubted. Of course, the unpopularity of the Iraq war has helped to damage the conservative movement.
In terms of limited government, the opposite has occurred. With alleged conservatives at the helm, the government has suffered from severe bloat. While people do love programs that benefit them, they tend to resent those that merely benefit others or provide no apparent benefit. This has also helped to damage conservatism.
In terms of traditional values, moral scandals have been all too common among those professing to be keepers of such values. Further, basic rights have been shunted aside and the most basic America value of all, rule of law, has been ignored on numerous occasions. The alleged defenders of morality have failed time after time to live up to even the most basic moral values, let alone the values they profess. These often hypocritical moral failings have done perhaps the most serious damage to the movement. When someone claims to be a champion of what is right, people expect them to (at the very least) be morally decent. The numerous moral failures by so many self proclaimed conservatives has tarnished the movement.
As many have claimed, the death of Buckley has left America without a great and true conservative intellectual. There are, of course, competent and true conservative thinkers out there-but Buckley was such a giant that he has left a massive gap in the ranks. It remains to be seen if someone will emerge who is strong enough, wise enough, and good enough to restore American conservatism. I certainly hope someone is up to the task. Meanwhile, we’ll have to just endure the usual shallow and contentious banter from the speakers of the right and the left.
Some might be surprised about my hope-I have often been accused of being a liberal. This is not the case, but merely the result of the rather unfortunate three label system that has plagued the political discourse. I suppose that my views would push me more into the liberal camp, but many of my views would also place me in the conservative camp. I try to believe what reason best supports-so it is no surprise that I, like many people, don’t neatly fit a stock political label.