George Packer has written a long essay in the New Yorker called, "The Fall of Conservatism." Dan Flynn has written a post on Packer's essay. AmSpecBlog has some interesting posts on the essay here, here, here, here and here.
To sum up the essay up briefly, Packer concludes correctly that conservatism has failed, then talks to big government conservatives like David Brooks and David Frum, who suggest that the solution is for conservatives to embrace big government.
Although it is predictable that Packer, a liberal, thinks the right should become more liberal, the essay is interesting for being packed with information about the last 40 years of politics.
One thing I must object to is the idea that Nixon won over Democrat voters because he...
...adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican majority, working to create the impression that there were two Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many, and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few.
I have read elsewhere the notion that the Republicans appealed to racism and other dark passions to steal voters from the Democrats.
Nixon certainly worked hard to get Democrat votes, but even if the Republicans had not noticed that there were Democrats out there for them to steal, the Democrat Party would have lost those voters anyway. The Republicans did not so much win those voters as the Democrats lost them when they became a party of New Leftists. No way culturally conservative, pro-American voters would stay in a party that moved away from them. The real "dark side" that pieces such as Packer's never mention is the darkness of collectivism and statism adopted by the Democrat Party.
I must also object to the ever-appalling David Brooks, who calls small government conservatives "un-American." As Philip Klein responds,
But conservatives believe in limiting the size and scope of government not because of some random whim, but because it is a necessary way of preserving liberty. Unlike anarchists, we believe that government is necessary to protect individual rights -- through a police force that catches criminals, a court system that prosecutes them and settles disputes among individuals, and a military that protects us from foreign threats. Far from being "fundamentally un-American," these are precisely the principles on which the nation was founded. The Declaration of Independence reads that "governments are instituted among men" to "secure" our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit --not attainment -- of happiness. The U.S. Constitution also envisioned a federal government of limited scope.
The welfare state that Brooks supports came from Bismarck's Germany. Bizarre, isn't it, that he sees this foreign import as the essence of Americanism?
Of course, neither Packer nor his conservative critics get close to the fundamental reason for the failure of conservatism: the political movement has been undercut from the beginning by the ethics of altruism. Capitalism cannot be defended by an ethics of sacrifice, only by an ethics of rational self-interest. Conservatism was doomed when Buckley made religion an integral aspect of the movement.
One of the key moments of the last 40 years, the government shutdown of 1995, is a perfect example of how conservative politics are undermined by altruist ethics. The Democrats stood firm with moral righteousness -- because they knew the morality of altruism that they shared with the Republicans was on their side. Once the TV networks started showing sob stories of government workers not getting their paychecks, the Republicans collapsed like a cheap lawn chair.
After '95 came the defeat of Bob Dole in 1996. In 1997 Brooks wrote his first piece on "National Greatness Conservatism." The fight was over. The idea of limited government had lost.
Where does the fall of conservatism leave America?
It leaves us waiting for next crisis. How we respond will determine our course into the 21st century. As Mises has written, crises caused by government intervention in the economy tend to lead to further intervention and eventually dictatorship. Hayek called it the road to serfdom. I don't want things to get worse, but I expect they will.