The future of the Republican party depends on when and how Trump leaves office. The same is not necessarily true of the future of American conservatism. Is conservatism dead—and, if so, can it be resurrected?
Before discussing what might come next, we need to understand what American conservatism was, why it succeeded, and why it failed. Painting with very broad brush strokes, modern American conservatism began as a coalition of three forces who didn’t much care for one another and even had contradictory values. There were the libertarians, mostly associated with Hayek and Friedman and the Mont Pelerin Society; the traditionalists, often associated with the likes of Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind; and the anti-Communist hawks, some of whom, like Whittaker Chambers, the author of Witness, were themselves former Communists and radicals. These separate groups never reconciled their contradictory principles over the importance of traditional values vs. minimalistic government involvement in the economy vs. military spending and foreign policy activism. But they teamed up, joined together by one single cause they all shared: fighting Soviet communism. The libertarians didn’t like the Soviet Union because it didn’t respect market economy and individual liberty. The traditionalists hated its godlessness. The hawks feared the existential threat it posed to the United States.
Each of the three groups evolved over time as old generations faded and new generations came on the scene. There were some institutions, publications, and politicians who managed to speak to all three. As Bill Kristol recently wrote, the 1980s were the heyday of American conservatism, with President Reagan in the White House and circumstances in domestic politics and world affairs suited to the ideas of each of the three strands.
Then, though, the movement began to decline. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 dissolved the only glue that had held the factions together. In the three decades that followed, conservatives were sometimes able briefly to regain some unity in opposition—standing athwart Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama in the 2010s. And the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the global war on terror also had the effect of holding conservatives together, but again only briefly, and ultimately the war on Iraq exacerbated divides on the right.
So yes, conservatism is dead. The Tea Party in 2010s tried to resurrect it. But all that the angry and bitter zombie Reaganites of the Tea Party ultimately accomplished was making conservatism look obstructionist—and, with the ascension of Donald Trump, they have turned into zombie Buchananites. To the extent that the mindless mush that is called “conservatism” today is in obedient lockstep with Donald Trump, it is nationalist, hateful, intolerant, and unpatriotic.
Before turning to the future, it’s worth making two other observations about conservatism’s past—and specifically about its anti-elitism and about race.
Since the 1960s, the electoral coalition that allowed the Republican party to win at the ballot box became more populist, more anti-elite, and more anti-cosmopolitan. To some extent, this was just baked into American conservatism from the beginning: Although William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review could be highbrow, there was a clear populist, anti-elite, anti-expert streak in their conservatism. (Recall Buckley’s famous quip about how he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston phonebook than by the 2,000 people on the Harvard faculty.) One of the great ironies of movement conservatism was the Ivy-educated public intellectuals who would go on cruises to complain about the elite.
In reality, the relationship between the conservative leadership and much of the Republican voter base was something like that of guards and inmates in an asylum. For decades, those leaders managed to keep the inmates contained, but, with the rise of the Tea Party and then Trump, the inmates took over the asylum.
Whole books could be written—indeed, whole books have been written—about the GOP, conservatism, and race. Here, though, it’s just worth mentioning that the conservative objection to the Civil Rights Act (and, conversely, the embrace of the act by liberals and Democrats) had lasting effects on makeup of the Republican party. It pushed minorities to the left. It made conservatism much more white. And it meant that white supremacists felt they had a political home, at least at the edges of the party.
Recreating the conservatism of 1955-1991 in the post-Trump era is not just tenable. Its good parts are useless and its bad parts should have never been there. The old model of conservatism served its purpose. It is gone, and that’s just a fact that must be accepted.
But while that conservatism is gone, some of the truths for which it stood remain. The U.S. Constitution is the greatest governing document that man has created, and it is worth protecting. Individual liberty must be protected. The institutions of civil society, especially the family and organized religion, are necessary for a nation to function, as are traditions. Market economies are still the best way to prosper. America still occupies a unique place in the world as a guarantor of order and an inspiration for people everywhere who long for liberty.
A new coalition, whatever one might call it—the new right, the future right, the new Whigs, the liberals, the centrists—should still adhere to these five broad principles and apply them to the problems of today. And its litmus test for who should count as a conservative ought not to extend far beyond adherence to these five principles, creating a big tent for difference and compromise within the coalition, both of which are necessary for governing.
This new conservatism should also actively engage the issues of race and poverty—not only because it’s electorally sensible to do so, but because it is just and proper. When some American schools are underfunded and overpopulated and look more like correction centers than schools; when many police departments routinely cover for racist cops; when racial disparities in health outcomes are only worsened by a global pandemic—well, it’s all well and good to appreciate the enormous progress that America has made on race while acknowledging the great task remaining before us. The old conservative inclination to emphasize personal responsibility is fine, but only when childhood circumstances are taken into account and when those who have failed in the past are provided with opportunities to correct their mistakes.
Also, this new conservatism ought to engage with the concerns of young Americans to a greater extent than the defunct conservatism did. Younger Americans tend to be more favorable toward immigration and to be friendlier with non-white immigrants, including those without legal status, because they went to school and college with first- or second-generation non-white immigrants and are friends with them. Younger Americans care deeply about climate change. They are worried about the crushing burden of student-loan debt, especially when the value of college degrees seems to be decreasing. Again, both electorally and as a matter of good policy, a new conservatism should try to speak to these concerns.
This doesn’t mean that a new conservatism should disregard working-class Americans. To the contrary, it should be more flexible in its market-orientation than before to address such concerns. The growing wealth and income disparities are real problems and, as arguably threats to democracy.
And, last, a new conservatism must emphasize statesmanship and liberal democratic values. That is to say, it cannot be a conservatism worthy of the name if it embraces the kinds of wicked and buffoonish characters the GOP has elevated in recent years or the kinds of reckless anti-democratic and illiberal politics they have practiced. And back up these convictions by boosting support for civic education in our schools.
Is it reasonable to try to create such a new conservatism? Probably not. The reasonable thing to do would probably be to try to salvage whatever little good is left in it in today’s Republican party. But as George Bernard Shaw said, “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”