Back to real conservatism

Somewhere between Barry Goldwater and Sarah Palin, conservatism changed from a philosophical anchor — what Goldwater called a “conscience” — into a pure partisanship, defined at least as much by what and who it’s against (Liberals, Democrats, Hillary, Obama) as by what it’s for. The latter now includes a list of causes (opposition to abortion and gay marriage, religiously-defined “family values”) that bear no resemblance to Goldwater’s essentially Libertarian philosophy.

I was raised by Republicans who voted enthusiastically for Goldwater (who lost resoundingly to Lyndon Johnson) in 1964. I read The Conscience of a Conservative (which was published in 1960) as a teenager and felt its influence even as I became an active opponent of the Vietnam War in college (I was in the Class of ’69) and became a hard-core Democrat through my 20s and 30s.

In the first chapter, of Conscience, Goldwater writes, “for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom. As he surveys the various attitudes and institutions and laws that currently prevail in America, many questions will occur to him, but the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?

Is that what conservatism is about today? Hard to tell. It’s certainly not from what I hear and see from Rush, Fox News, Dobson, Hewitt and most of Republican broadcasting’s amen corner.

For those who care to separate the partisan wheat from the philosophical chaff, David Frum’s latest is required reading. In it he points to this Stanley Greenberg poll, which shows how isolated Republican partisanship has become, and how far it has drifted from the mainstream of the American electorate’s sensibilities — the same electorate that gave us Reagan, both Bushes and Bill Clinton (who offended the Right’s moral sensibilities even while he governed as a centrist making plenty of rightward decisions — especially in respect to social welfare and the economy).

Right after the 1994 “Republican Revolution”, I found myself at a party in San Diego, talking to Milton Friedman. This wasn’t the famous economist, but rather a former speechwriter for Gerald Ford and other notables. He told me that this revolution was doomed to fail in the long run, because it brought together two value systems — one economic and the other religious — that were in conflict.

What held them together so long was pure partisanship.

That’s coming to an end. The split has opened. Rush, Hannity and Dobson are proving to be a branch, not a trunk. The roots in Goldwater and William F. Buckley still hold, and the branch is breaking away. For more about that, read Christopher Buckley’s How Limbaugh tried (and failed) to replace my dad. Pretty much nails it.

I have no idea if I’ll ever vote for a Republican again. Haven’t for a long time. Haven’t voted for all that many Democrats, either. Many of my votes have been for None of the Above, which has often been the Libertarian. (For what it’s worth, I voted for Gore and Kerry, because I thought we needed not to elect George W. Bush. I don’t believe I voted for Clinton either time, but I don’t remember. And I’ll vote for Obama this time, not just for the candidate but to oppose McCain, and especially .) But I’ll be watching to see if the Grand Old Party rediscovers its roots — in personal freedom, minimal government, responsible economic policies and other solid sensibilities.

Hope it does. After Obama gets elected, we’ll need those people to hold him in check. Not the nyah-sayers on Fox News and AM radio.


  1. steve’s avatar

    Well said. I was a registered Republican until this year when I switched to independent. The far right has hijacked the party and I find myself disagreeing with much of what they stand for and are against. The partisanship-at-all-costs, on the part of both sides, thinking really needs to go away if anything is ever really going to get accomplished in Washington.

  2. tom’s avatar

    Could part of the problem have been that “to preserve and extend freedom” is so bland and general as to lend itself promiscuously to every form of co-optation and exploitation? Has it perhaps been hijacked to serve as the ideological blessing for Enron to extend its freedom to corner markets and rip off states? For religious wingnuts to purvey each his own brand of free-wheeling interpretation of what God wants for the Republican rapture-ready?

    Perhaps it’s time for USians to make some effort to understand the complex, fraught burden of terms like “freedom,” rather than just to make them into mantras of debatable utility.

  3. lurkerfan’s avatar

    Doc, your comments are well said, indeed, as they echo my own thoughts almost entirely.

    However, I find your acceptance of the Libertarian creed of absolute faith in a free market economy to be at odds with the logic and clarity your thinking and writing usually exhibit. I agree with tom’s question “Has it perhaps been hijacked to serve as the ideological blessing for Enron to extend its freedom to corner markets and rip off states?” I would also apply that question to the government’s failure to regulate credit default swaps, which I understand to have largely contributed to the current economic disruption of markets. Interestingly, Sen. Phil Gramm had a role in both debacles.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lurker, I have problems with Libertarian orthodoxy as well. I’m a registered Independent for a reason. I don’t agree with any party entirely. Or even more than partially.

    My main point here is that the Republican party has lost its way.

    I happen to think that started with Reagan, actually. Goldwater loved the guy, but disagreed with lots of Reagan’s decisions and policies.

    As for Tom’s question about hijacking, sure.

    What we need more than ever now is sober and informed judgement by fresh leaders that are not captive to any ideology. And plain old competence. That more than anything else was the core failure of the Bush administration. But even that came in large measure from ideology and cronyism gone wild.

    Here’s hoping Obama and the democrats don’t succumb as well.

  5. PXLated’s avatar

    Good post Doc, couldn’t agree more. I went independent a number of years ago.

  6. Emil Sotirov’s avatar

    I find a problem with the reluctance of educated Americans to accept the purely ideological (I prefer “rhetorical”) nature of politics and everything social and cultural.

    This reluctance throws all public discussions back into the search for “foundations” – “real” stuff, “facts”, and ultimately “truth.” Once there, there is no way out of pure partisanship, propaganda, lies, and ultimately – corruption.

    The need for “foundations” is architecturally implicit in our language… but we have to resist it.

    That’s why, Doc, I am suspicious of the usefulness of notions like “sober and informed judgment… not captive to any ideology… plain old competence.” Go back in 2000 and remember what we all thought of Allan Greenspan – and try applying to him “drunk and ill-informed judgment… captive to ideology… plain old incompetence.”

    My point is – we don’t have “foundations” really – to go back to.

  7. Don Marti’s avatar

    The Democratic Party needed Bill Clinton to reconcile goals with budget-balancing — Clinton did make progress toward cutting hte national debt as a percentage of GDP. Until then, the Democrats were pretty much aimless, just going for more and more entitlement spending. Today, the Republicans are in the same situation, only with corporate welfare instead of entitlement programs. The Republicans won’t come back until they can impose some budget discipline on their corporate welfare hogs, the way the Democrats were able to do to their entitlement hogs.

  8. jonathan peterson’s avatar

    From your own poll of Republicans:
    – Over three-quarters of Republicans say Palin was good choice
    – Two-thirds of Republicans say McCain has not been aggressive enough

    Living down here in Jesusistan, I can tell you the GOP’s “core” believes that speaking English correctly and basing policies on cost/benefit analysis and the opinions of experts is elitist.

    These people really believe that the reason they are losing is because of the “liberal media” supporting Obama, not because they’ve spent 8 years supporting an incompetent and calling those who dare question him terrorist sympathizers.

    I’m afraid that Limbaugh now represents the trunk of the party.

  9. Jeff’s avatar

    I’m a lifelong conservative and a Republican. My very first vote in a general election was for Ronald Reagan in 1980. A few days ago I cast my first vote for a Democratic presidential nominee: Barack Obama.

    It’s my opinion that the changes in the GOP that you have cited and that we have all witnessed, took place when the party melded with the “Moral Majority”, Christian Coalition, etc.

    It is these religious nutbags who have hijacked our political system and the GOP for their own agenda; and it has nothing to do with real conservative politics.

    Political parties do become extinct from time to time. Consider the fate of the Whigs. I’m hopeful that the same thing happens to the GOP so that real conservatism can begin fresh and anew.

  10. Dave Winer’s avatar

    These are the values of the Democratic Party these days. It was amazing to see at the DNC in Denver this year the biggest applause lines were those that talked about standing up for the Constitution after it’s been so poorly looked after by Republicans (and CLinton I might add didn’t do such a great job either).

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    As a side note, and a corollary to what Dave’s saying about the DNC, is this interesting observation: Democrats are embracing the flag again. Obama seems always to be standing in front of one, or wearing one. Here in Massachusetts, the blue-est state in the country, they take patriotism seriously. Some people have the flag out year-round, and hang bunting on their porches. Now the rest of the party is following.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jonathan, if Rush is the trunk of the party, woe is them. It’s way too narrow to support a majority, which was the point of that poll. The Republican core — the “base” to which McCain and Palin have been playing — isn’t the GOP of Lincoln, Coolidge, Goldwater, or even of Nixon, Reagan and Bush the Elder. And it’s getting smaller and smaller as moderates, old-fashioned conservatives and other marginals get rubbed off by abrasives in the AM radio echo chamber.

    Really, go read Rush’s site. Nothing but mockery and demonization of Liberals, Obama, Socialism, and other fixtures on his enemies list. If this is the heart of the GOP, it’s due for a coronary. Like, next Tuesday.

    Bonus link.

  13. RightinMissouri’s avatar

    How can one take your opinion seriously?
    This statement is a total oxymoron…
    You state “I’ll vote for Obama this time, not just for the candidate but to oppose McCain, and especially Palin.) But I’ll be watching to see if the Grand Old Party rediscovers its roots — in personal freedom, minimal government, responsible economic policies and other solid sensibilities.
    Any vote for an Obama presidency is a vote for additional clamping down on personal freedom with the fairness doctrine, expanded government trough socialized medicine, economic policies that expand socialism and sensibilities like weakening our military?
    At least if you said you were voting for Bob Barr you would be making some sense with your argument.
    I believe you cannot see the forest for the trees….

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    RightinMissouri, all votes made outside of doctrine are sets of compromises. Read Emil’s comment above. It’s an insightful one, and I think he’s right.

    I’ll yell as loud as anybody if Obama pushes the Fairness Doctrine.

    I doubt he’ll do much of anything to make personal freedom better or worse than it is now.

    And I don’t expect him to mess up the military. If anything I expect the reverse. Bush has mismanaged and misapplied our military from Day One, when he and Rumsfeld started elevating sycophants and flushing out competent leaders who might disagree with them.

    As for Bob Barr, I remember him too well as a crusading religious nut when he served as a Republican.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Emil. I just followed your link (while having a sub at the Three Aces on Mass Ave), and posted Conservarive rundown. Very interesting to see what’s happening on the thoughtful edge of The Right.

  16. Greg’s avatar

    Does the Heritage Foundation refllect true Conservatism?

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