The Conservative Crackup

As late as 1950, investigators who set out to discover an American conservative movement would have failed abysmally. They would have found a large and fractious right wing ranging from isolationist followers of Senator Robert Taft (who insisted on calling himself a "liberal") to the anti-Semites and racists who joined Gerald L.K. Smith's Christian Nationalist Party. They might also have come across a group of Ivy League intellectuals such as McGeorge Bundy and August Heckscher who called themselves the "new conservatives" but would later be described as establishment liberals.

The conservative movement that began emerging in the mid-1950s, particularly with the founding of William F. Buckley's National Review, was a novel creation that bore at best a family resemblance to the older American right and to British and European conservatism. It produced a new synthesis in American politics, blending militant anticommunism and opposition to the welfare state with nostalgia about America's rural and small-town past. It incorporated some parts of the older right, including its opposition to the New Deal and Soviet communism and rejected or suppressed others, including the older right's isolationism, nativism, and anti-Semitism.

Since this movement's emergence, it has appeared to be on the verge of collapse at least twice -- in November 1964 after Senator Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat and in August 1974 after President Richard Nixon's resignation. Each time it has regrouped, readjusted its political focus, and reemerged even stronger than before. In 1980 and 1984, it achieved its greatest triumph, helping to carry Ronald Reagan to landslide victories. In the early 1980s, as conservatives scaled Washington's bureaucratic heights and corporate contributions poured into conservative think tanks, the conservative movement seemed to attain the same dominance over American politics that liberalism had achieved during the 1930s and the 1960s.

But scarcely two years after Reagan's retirement, his new morning has become the conservatives' long day's journey into night. Conservatives now find themselves more embattled than they have ever been. To be sure, the country continues to be receptive to many ideas that might be described as "conservative," and self-described conservatives continue to hold office. But the conservative intellectuals and activists who sustained the movement are in complete disarray. The prospect now looms that over the next decade the conservative movement will join the know-nothings, populists, and other bygone movements on the bottom of the historical seas.

Signs of Disarray
The most obvious evidence of the conservative crackup is at the very top. From the early 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy led a national anticommunist crusade, through the Reagan '80s, conservatives have always had a national standard bearer who could unite the different factions. But today's pretenders, from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp to televangelist Pat Robertson to Vice President Dan Quayle, represent only factions within the conservative movement. More important, conservatives not only lack common leaders but also a common enemy In the past, conservatives fought over everything from fluoridated water to the Panama Canal, but they were able to rise above these disputes because of a shared fear of what Reagan called the "evil empire." With the collapse of communism, conservatives no longer have a central rallying point.

And the spats themselves have become more bitter and protracted. As the threat of communism has receded, and as the world has reverted to the kind of polycentric economic rivalries that plagued it before World War 1, many of the conflicts that divided conservatives in earlier periods have begun to resurface. Instead of going forward into the 1990s, conservatives appear to be going backward into the 1920s, '30s, and '40s -- quarreling over internationalism and isolationism, free trade and protectionism, and hurling charges of disloyalty and anti-Semitism at each other.

The noisiest conflict pits a group calling itself the "paleoconservatives" against the New York-Washington based "neoconservatives." This factionalism reveals the reemergence of issues that bedeviled the American right earlier in the century but were suppressed during the Cold War. The paleoconservatives, who include Russell Kirk, the author of the 1954 movement classic, The Conservative Mind, and columnist Pat Buchanan, claim to personify older conservative traditions. They charge that the neoconservatives are not really conservatives, but welfare state liberals and Wilsonian internationalists. The neoconservatives, who include Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, and Irving Kristol, editor of The Public Interest, see themselves as having made conservatism into a respectable governing philosophy. They accuse the paleocons of wanting to revive what the neocon author Richard John Neuhaus calls the "forbidden bigotries once confused with conservatism."

The two groups recently have come to blows over how the United States should respond to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. While the neoconservatives almost uniformly backed President Bush, urging him, if anything, to go farther and topple Saddam Hussein, the paleoconservatives raised doubts about the administration's action and accused the neoconservatives of ignoring the national interest. Describing neoconservatives as "ex-liberal Democrats who got their baptismal certificates at the Reagan transition office," Buchanan warned that "the war for which the neocons pant has quagmire written all over it."

But the feud between the two groups is now almost a decade old. It first broke out in 1982, when the paleocons promoted University of Dallas scholar M. E. Bradford to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the neoconservatives backed William Bennett. Besides patronage, the differences boiled down to civil rights: Bradford, the more accomplished scholar, was also an anti-Lincoln, pro-Confederate former George Wallace supporter, while Bennett was a former Democrat and civil rights activist who had become a protégé of Kristol and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The paleocons proved no match for the neocons, who were able to marshal Washington and New York pundits on Bennett's behalf.

But in conservative meetings the paleocons used their older movement pedigree to advantage. At a 1986 meeting of the Philadelphia Society a conservative group that sponsors annual philosophical discussions, the paleocon speakers characterized the neocons as "interlopers" opportunistically trying to dominate the conservative movement and the Reagan administration. Stephen Tonsor, a historian at University of Michigan, declared in a speech, "It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far."


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The two factions differ on government's domestic role (the paleocons would have disbanded Bennett's Department of Education), social policy (the paleocons fear America's European stock is being corrupted by Third World immigration), and on the definition of America's role in the world. The paleocons are neo-isolationists, opposed to foreign aid and intervention except where U.S. interests are directly threatened, while the neoconservatives tend to believe that America should spread free-market capitalism and parliamentary democracy around the world, by force if necessary.

As long as both factions saw the Soviet Union directly threatening the U.S., these foreign policy differences had little practical effect. But as the Cold War wound down, the debate became very heated. In March, 1989, neocon Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), wrote a column proposing that the quest for global democracy replace anticommunism at the center of conservatives' foreign policy agenda. "Americans have a missionary streak, and democracy is our mission," Wattenberg wrote. He proposed an eighteen-fold increase in the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the government agency headed by former Social Democrats U.S.A. apparatchik Carl Gershman, and increases in the budgets of the U.S. Information Agency and State Department. Wattenberg called on the United States to intervene in Third World countries to promote political democracy and free market economics.

In a September 1989 column in The Washington Times, Buchanan, borrowing a phrase from Dean Acheson, took Wattenberg to task for "messianic globaloney." "We are not the world's policeman, nor its political tutor," Buchanan wrote. "Whence comes this arrogant claim to determine how other nations should govern themselves, or face subversion by the NED, the Comintern of the neocons?" Buchanan argued that with its economic problems, the U.S. did not have the money to fund a global democratic crusade. "Democracy über alles is a formula for permanent conflict and national bankruptcy," he wrote.

The quarrel over foreign policy has threatened to degenerate into a clash over Zionism. Some paleoconservatives charge that in pressing for an interventionist foreign policy, the neoconservatives, most of whom are Jewish, are really trying to justify continued American aid to Israel. In an October 1988 speech at the Heritage Foundation, Kirk threw down the gauntlet. "Not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent neo-conservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States -- a position they will have difficulty in maintaining as matters drift," Kirk said. Midge Decter, the director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's remark "a bloody piece of anti-Semitism."

The issue surfaced again during the debate over U.S. intervention against Iraq. In columns and television appearances, Buchanan accused neoconservatives of stirring up war fever at the instigation of the "Israeli foreign ministry." Writing in The Washington Times, Mona Charen, a former Reagan administration official, accused Buchanan of using "neoconservative" as a synonym for "Jew."

The neoconservatives see the paleoconservatives reviving the anti-Semitic charge of "dual loyalty" -- a smear going back over five decades, when right-wing anti-Semites attacked the Roosevelt and Truman administrations for being instruments of an international Jewish conspiracy. For the anti-Semitic right, the Truman administration's recognition of Israel confirmed that American foreign policy was being run by the Rothschilds and other Zionist elders. The paleocons don't hold this conspiratorial view of international Jewry, but there is a disquieting echo in their charges of dual loyalty, which appears to be an expression of prejudice rather than historical analysis. The fact is that most neoconservatives were Wilsonian liberals well before the Six Day War in 1967, when the defense of Israel came to the fore. Their foreign policy is not an expression of Zionism as much as it reflects a continued commitment to the Cold War liberalism of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson well into the post-Vietnam '70s and '80s.

The End of Coexistence
Until last year, the two sides conducted their debate in newspaper columns and rival journals, but they still saw themselves as feuding factions within the same movement. Their hostile coexistence was symbolized by the connection of Neuhaus, a neoconservative, with the paleoconservative Rockford Institute in Rockford, Illinois. Under the Rockford Institute's name and funding, Neuhaus published a regular newsletter out of his Center for Religion and Society in New York. But in March 1989, Neuhaus and Podhoretz took strong exception to two articles published in Rockford's glossy journal, Chronicles. In one of them, Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming called for stricter quotas to prevent the United States from "being dominated by Third World immigrants," and in the other, novelist Bill Kauffman defended Gore Vidal, who had earlier attacked Podhoretz for putting Israel's interests before America's. In a letter, Podhoretz wrote Neuhaus, "I know an enemy when I see one, and Chronicles has become just that so far as I am concerned."

In May the Rockford Institute made the next move by locking Neuhaus out of the center and confiscating his files. When Neuhaus left, three foundations linked to the neoconservatives, Olin, Smith Richardson, and Bradley, withdrew their funding for the Rockford Institute, costing an estimated $700,000 a year. In the aftermath, both sides began firing angry polemics at each other. In the September 1989 Chronicles, Fleming accused the neoconservatives of wanting to expand rather than reduce government and of trying to create a new "elite class that will share power with the left." In the first issue of his new journal First Things, Neuhaus accused Fleming and the paleocons of reviving "forbidden bigotries." "One notes renewed attempts to invite back into the conservative movement a list of uglies that had long been consigned to the fevered swamps," Neuhaus wrote. "The list includes nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, a penchant for authoritarian politics and related diseases of the ressentiment that flourishes on the marginalia of American life."


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Like leftists from the '30s, both sides also began organizing factional coalitions against each other. Last fall Fleming set up a meeting at the Rockford Institute with a group calling themselves "paleolibertarians." The paleolibertarians, led by economist Murray Rothbard and Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., president of the Von Mises Institute, reject what they describe as the "libertine" side of the libertarian movement. The paleocons and paleolibertarians decided to establish a select new scholarly society, the John Randolph Club, named after one of the paleocons' Southern agrarian heroes. Limited to 120 members, the club has its founding meeting in Dallas this fall. Fleming will be its president and Rothbard its vice president. Neoconservatives are not encouraged to apply.

It is doubtful, however, that the alliance between the two groups will create a new power on the right. The two groups share a distaste for the neocons' interventionist foreign policy and for neoconservative support of government welfare or arts funding. But the paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives have fundamentally different social ideals. Paleolibertarians like Rothbard are urban anarchists who favor eliminating the public sector entirely, including public police, while many of the paleocons are Southern agrarians who yearn for the ordered plantation life of the old South. Russell Kirk once declared that he felt closer politically to the socialist Norman Thomas than to Rothbard.

On the neoconservative side, Neuhaus tried to organize a united front against the paleocons. Last January he pulled together a special dinner meeting at New York's Union League Club and invited most of the East Coast conservative elite, including William E Buckley, Jr., Kristol, Podhoretz, Elliot Abrams, Edwin J. Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, and Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation.

For six hours, the participants debated the future of the conservative movement, disagreeing over the legalization of drugs, the significance of abortion, and the basis for a new post-Cold War foreign policy. At another meeting of the group last May in Washington, the participants discussed a paper on populism written by Weyrich. This time, by Neuhaus's own admission, "there was no attempt to reach a consensus." As Neuhaus unwittingly acknowledged, deep political differences now exist even among those who were close allies. The conservatives who met in New York and Washington were united against the paleoconservatives' nativism and their imputations of dual loyalty but not on much else. Most important, they have come to disagree about the basic issues of foreign policy that have defined modem American conservatism.

A Rendezvous with Manifest Destiny?
The neoconservatives have become increasingly divided over what America's mission in the world should be. At least three distinct alternatives have emerged. Some neoconservatives, including former defense officials Richard Perle and Frank Gaffney, appear determined to maintain the old orthodoxy, even in the face of the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts at perestroika and glasnost. They reject any measures that they say might strengthen the Soviet Union and favor those that will weaken it. Gaffney, for instance, denounced the strategic arms agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union -- which The Wall Street Journal called "lopsided in most respects in favor of the U.S." -- as "the worst strategic miscalculation on the part of a president of the United States since the Yalta Conference of 1945." At the April meeting in Washington of the Committee for the Free World, Gaffney declared, "Never since 1945 has the Soviet Union been so close to military preeminence in Europe as it is today."

On the other hand, many neoconservatives, including Gershman, Decter, and Wattenberg, believe that the Cold War is in its last stages, if not over, and that the United States should begin redefining its global objectives. Some, like Decter and Eugene Rostow, former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director, define America's role as that of a great power with a responsibility for keeping order and, where possible, promoting democracy in the world. Wattenberg and Gershman argue strenuously that the United States should attempt to promote global democracy, whether in the Soviet Union or Latin America. As Gershman wrote in The National Interest, the United States should "insist upon adherence to political norms and provide support and encouragement to those seeking to establish democratic systems."

A third, small, but highly influential group of revisionists led by Kristol and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the United Nations, reject the ambitious program of these neoconservatives and call for a narrower definition of the American national interest. In a column in The Wall Street Journal, Kristol defended a post-Cold War strategy of "national interest realism" in contrast to both "liberal internationalism" and "conservative internationalism." Criticizing those "who believe there is an 'American mission' actively to promote democracy all over the world," Kristol wrote, "this is a superficially attractive idea, but it takes only a few moments of thought to realize how empty of substance (and how high of presumption) it is." At the Committee for the Free World meeting, Kristol mocked Gaffney's warming of Soviet power. "Listening to Frank Gaffney, I thought I was listening to someone in a time warp," Kristol said.


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These differences in perspective led to sharp disagreements among neoconservatives over how the Bush administration should respond to Lithuania's demand for independence from the Soviet Union. Most of the neocons, including Decter and Podhoretz, saw the battle over Lithuania's independence as the last round of the Cold War. They urged the Bush administration to recognize the separatist Lithuanian government and to pressure Moscow to accept Lithuania's independence.

In stark contrast, Kristol and Kirkpatrick praised Bush's cautious stance and called for conservatives to distinguish between events that directly threaten U.S. interests and those that do not. "Maybe the breakup [of the Soviet empire] is good, maybe it's bad, but it's not our responsibility," Kristol declared at the Committee for the Free World meeting. In a Wall Street Journal column, Kristol wrote, "The Bush administration, quite sensibly, has decided that it is not in the national interest for the U.S. to precipitate a crisis in our relations with the Soviet Union because of Lithuanian and the other Baltic nations."

On this issue, Kristol's foreign policy position is remarkably similar to that of the paleoconservatives. Indeed, Decter characterizes the differences between her and Kristol in terms that could also be used to describe the clash between the paleocons and the neocons. As Decter herself puts it: "The great struggle in the neoconservative movement is going to be between the people who used to be called unilateralists like Irving who are now isolationists and us old interventionists who still think the U.S. has to be a strong and great military power, to keep things steady in the world."

Changing Places on Free Trade
If the end of the Cold War has thrown conservatives into turmoil, so has the end of America's unchallenged economic supremacy Before World War II, the Republican right was not only isolationist; it also favored high tariffs to protect American manufacturers. But just as the new movement of the '50s repudiated isolationism, it also rejected protectionism. In opting for free trade internationalism, the new conservatives were moved both by ideological and practical concerns. Ideologically, they saw free trade as the extension of free market principles they favored at home. Practically speaking, they realized that most American firms no longer needed protection from imports.

In the 1970s, many small and medium-sized manufacturers who formed the financial backbone of the conservative movement began to be battered by imports. Then in the 1980s, chronic trade deficits appeared to signal the overall decline of American industry, and some conservative groups began to recast their position. The most important group to do so was the Business and Industrial Council. The council had been founded in 1933 to oppose the Roosevelt administration's fledgling attempt at an industrial policy It made a name for itself in the 1950s, pushing right to-work laws in states and fighting federal welfare and labor legislation. Its base was primarily among small manufacturers in the Midwest and South. In Washington, through its director Anthony Harrigan, it was known as part of the far right that had backed Goldwater in 1964.

But in the early 1980s, Harrigan began to worry about the trade deficit and the havoc he saw imports wreaking in many of his members' businesses. Over the decade, he shifted the council toward what he described as a policy of "economic nationalism" or "economic containment." In American Economic Preeminence, Harrigan and William R. Hawkins dismissed free trade as "sophistry' and called for the United States to adopt what amounted to an industrial strategy of protectionism.

Harrigan also steered the council toward coalitions with his former archenemies, the labor unions. The council was a prime mover in setting up LICIT, the Labor-Industry Coalition for International Trade, to fight attempts by American multinationals and foreign governments to weaken U.S. trade laws that prohibit imports from being "dumped" in U.S. markets below cost.


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Equally significant was the political journey undertaken by one of the council's most politically influential members, Roger Milliken. Milliken, the chairman of one of the country's most profitable textile firms, had been a key financial supporter of National Review in the 1950s and of Barry Goldwater's vice presidential bid in 1960 and his presidential race in 1964. Later, he and Joseph Coors helped fund the Heritage Foundation, the most important conservative think tank of the 1980s.

But as a textile manufacturer threatened by cheap imports, Milliken, like Harrigan, became convinced that the U.S. had to protect its own manufacturers. Not only did Milliken back Harrigan's change of course; he even joined labor unions in funding a new think tank, the Economic Strategy Institute. Founded by Clyde Prestowitz, a critic of America's economic relations with Japan, the institute is promoting an industrial strategy for the U.S. and a trade posture that classical liberals consider protectionist. At the same time, Milliken reduced his contribution to conservative organizations that remained wedded to free trade internationalism.

The main conservative organizations championing internationalism were the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

These think tanks continued to espouse free trade, attacking even modest attempts to protect domestic industries from foreign price cutting or to survey foreign investment. In defining the conservative movement's priorities for the 1990s, Heritage's President Edwin Feulner put "ensur[ing] free trade" and "resist[ing] efforts to 'protect' certain national industries" at the top of his list.

The conservative think tanks also sought funding from the same foreign companies and business associations that Harrigan's council and Milliken saw as the enemy CSIS, for instance, accepted a contribution from Toyota to found a Japan chair; Heritage received substantial contributions from Korean and Taiwanese companies to set up an Asian Studies Center.

As foreign contributions have poured in, the Business Council and its supporters have questioned the think tanks' patriotism and independence from foreign interests. Both Milliken and Coors have complained to Heritage, and Milliken has cut his contribution. On the other side, Heritage representatives have accused Harrigan of being a "socialist."

The controversy has spread to conservatives in Congress. In an interview in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, Representative Vin Weber, a charter member of Representative Newt Gingrich's Conservative Opportunity Society lamented that "some of my best friends in the conservative movement have been seduced by economic nationalism." On trade votes, Weber, Gingrich, and other Heritage conservatives are now likely to find themselves siding with liberal internationalists while Senators Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond joined labor-backed Democrats.

Relations between the proponents of free trade and those of protection have not yet approached the open warfare between the neocons and the paleocons, but the two controversies have begun to converge. While Heritage has sided with the neocons, the Business and Industrial Council has allied itself with Rockford and the paleocons. In the January issue of Chronicles devoted to "economic nationalism," Harrigan wrote a cover article attacking transnationals and called for "a strategic economic policy that serves America's needs." Harrigan has also lined up with Rockford and Fleming on the importance of restricting immigration.

Domestic Squabbles
During the Carter and Reagan years, conservatives rarely quarreled about domestic social policy. They were united against common enemies -- Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and the spate of regulatory agencies created by liberal Congresses. But after a decade of conservative deregulation, defunding, and privatization, the problems that the Great Society and the alphabet agencies were created to solve -- from affordable housing and health care to pollution and illiteracy -- still remain; and there is little agreement among conservatives about what, if anything, to do.

HUD Secretary Kemp, Stuart Butler (the Heritage Foundation's Director of Domestic Policy Studies), and Gingrich and his Conservative Opportunity Society have tried to develop new policies that directly address these issues that conservatives formerly left to Democrats. Most of their programs attempt to encourage what Kemp calls "entrepreneurial capitalism," through such devices as enterprise zones or tenant management of public housing. While pressing for capital gains tax cuts for the wealthy, Kemp and the Heritage conservatives have also backed increased state spending for housing and education and increased tax breaks for the poor, as a strategy of catapulting them into the productive mainstream.

As Kemp's dismal showing in the 1988 Republican presidential primary revealed, he faces a dicey political problem. Proposals for a conservative "war on poverty" have encountered a chilly reception from other conservatives. Both the paleoconservatives and their libertarian allies charge that Kemp and Heritage have become captive to neoconservative welfare state policies. But more important, conservative activists, particularly in the South, have taken umbrage at what they see as Kemp's coddling of the black poor. Whatever its appeal to conservative policy activists as a governing philosophy, Kemp's and Heritage's ideas run counter to the principles, prejudices, fears, and enthusiasms of the conservative base. Their efforts are another symptom of the movement's disunity and disintegration.

Under the Volcano
As the think tanks, journals, and other intellectual institutions of the movement have became hopelessly embattled, the movement's political groups have suffered decline and in some cases disappeared altogether. And without these groups, the movement's intellectuals have been deprived of a means of communicating their ideas to the greater public. As a result, they have become increasingly dependent upon their clout with individual politicians and the Bush administration.

The main political casualty of the 1980s was the new right. Once the scourge of liberal Democrats, and an important contributor to the conservatives' political resurgence in the late 1970s, the new right's main organizations atrophied during the Reagan years. Even before the death of its founder, Terry Dolan, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) had lost its ability to influence elections and had gone deeply into debt. After Dolan died of AIDS, it dissolved amid a bitter split between Dolan's family and his political lieutenants.

Howard Phillips' Conservative Caucus, which led the opposition to the 1978 Panama Canal Treaty, was a victim of the end of the Cold War. The Conservative Caucus still exists, but Phillips has the status within the movement of a soapbox crank -- a man whose harangues now embarrass fellow conservatives. Direct mail whiz Richard Viguerie teetered on the edge of bankruptcy after an unsuccessful race for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985 and a string of unsuccessful mailings. He was finally bailed out by businesses associated with Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, but like Phillips he has become a fringe figure in American politics.


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The evangelicals who furnished the shock troops for the new right's political assault against liberalism have either disappeared or drastically reduced their participation in politics. The Reverend Jerry Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority. Pat Robertson has retreated to Virginia Beach after the failure of his presidential campaign and has transformed the Christian Broadcasting Network into a commercial entertainment outlet. Like other parts of the new right, the evangelicals have suffered from the growing backlash against the right wing's cultural authoritarianism. In the wake of the Supreme Court's Webster decision, the new right's rigid opposition to abortion -- once a political plus -- has turned into a minus.

The only veteran of the new right who remains influential is Weyrich, but Weyrich's influence is largely a function of his skill as a movement operator and Washington coalition builder. Unlike Dolan or Viguerie, Weyrich never acted as a link between the average voter and Washington, but instead as a kind of general secretary of the conservative politburo. And while Weyrich was among the first to sense that the movement was in serious political and ideological trouble, he has been unable to provide a new perspective around which conservatives could unite.

Over the last decade, Weyrich has hoisted up and then lowered a succession of political banners, from new right to populist to cultural conservative. Now he appears to have returned to "populist." Each has been an attempt to replace the anticommunist center of conservatism with a pre-'60s ideal of American culture, based upon stable nuclear families and neighborhoods and enforced by authoritarian fiat. At the Neuhaus meetings, Weyrich responded to Buckley's support for legalizing drug use with demands for a congressional declaration of war on drugs, chemical contamination of the drug supply to make users "wretchedly ill, preferably with distinctive symptoms;' and widespread drug testing. To combat crime, Weyrich proposed that college scholarships be contingent upon service in police ROTC forces and that high school students be banded together "into platoons under military leadership to undertake direct, non-violent action in support of the civil police." These proposals were as controversial among conservatives as they would be among the general public.

In the absence of a significant political base, Washington conservatives have been unable to develop a politics independent of Bush and his administration. While Viguerie and Phillips have railed against Bush from the sidelines, Weyrich and the Heritage Foundation have tied their fate to a president who clearly regards the conservatives as merely another political interest group that he has to appease. Although criticizing the administration on minor issues, they have become loyal foot-soldiers on key veto fights.

For instance, Weyrich and Heritage both backed the Bush administration's refusal to sign a bill granting asylum to Chinese students -- an astounding repudiation of the traditional conservative attitude toward China, but in line with their cultivation of the Bush administration. In exchange for their loyalty, they are welcomed into administration and Republican National Committee political strategy meetings and allowed to veto minor appointments. But in the foreign policy decisions closest to the President's heart, even friendly conservative activists are kept at arm's length.

Shine On, Paper Moon
As conservative activists and political organizations in Washington have fallen on hard times, they have often been picked up by groups connected to Moon's Unification Church. In the 1980s church-connected businesses not only funded the movement's main newspaper, The Washington Times, but also several small activist and policy groups such as the International Security Council, the Conservative Action Foundation, and a still more ambitious project, the American Freedom Coalition, initially conceived as a third party alternative to both the Democratic and Republican parties.

These Moon-backed organizations have themselves begun to flounder, the victim of the same ideological malaise that has affected other parts of the conservative movement. The American Freedom Coalition's founders have repeatedly had to scale down the organization's goals and purposes until it now resembles a minor rightwing lobby And The Washington Times, once projected as an alternative to The Washington Post, has had to reduce its international coverage drastically, going from eleven foreign bureaus to one in five years.

In its choice of stories and editorial policy, the Times suffers from the movement's ideological malaise. Like other conservative organizations, the paper has been reduced to defining its politics through relatively peripheral issues, such as homosexuality allegedly obscene art, or desecration of the American flag. In the past, the movement could use these issues to win assent to its core convictions on the economy and foreign policy. But there are no more core convictions; the peripheral has become the core.

Regression to the Mean
Conservatism appears to be returning to what it was before 1956 -- not just to its forbidden bigotries, but to a welter of contradictory and inconsistent beliefs. From 1776 to 1956, from John Adams through the Tafts, some politicians and intellectuals identified as conservative embraced Alexander Hamilton's neomercantilist industrial policy, while others endorsed Jefferson and Jackson's laissez-faire agrarianism. Some accepted Calhoun's defense of slavery, others rallied to Lincoln's appeal to individual rights. Some defended the interests of the average American, others the interests of large landowners and capitalists. Some upheld the power of Congress, others the authority of the presidency Now the same situation prevails. There is no longer any set of fixed beliefs that characterizes conservatives.

In a 1964 essay, political scientist Philip Converse made a distinction between elite and mass beliefs that sheds some light on the decline of the conservative movement. In American politics, Converse observed, elite beliefs tend to be highly structured and coherent, while mass beliefs -- those held by the average voter -- tend to be contradictory and inconsistent. Even at the height of liberalism's ascendancy, there were relatively few people in America who subscribed to the general tenets of Keynesian deficit financing, just as at the zenith of the Reagan presidency, few Americans endorsed the mysteries of supply-side economics.

Modern conservatism was an elite doctrine, developed largely in the pages of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review and in books by Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, and James Burnham. But through the efforts of politicians and organizations, it was able to bridge the gap between elite and mass: It became a movement and not simply a sect. The elite was able to achieve a certain congruence with the fears, hopes, and beliefs of average voters through the mediation of politicians and organizations.

The match was never perfect, but it was close enough for conservatives to win the presidential nomination in 1964, sweeping the deep South, and to win the presidency in 1980. Most conservatives of the early 1960s rejected the overt racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism of the older right, but when white Southerners resisted integration, conservative politicians were able to use their support for states rights to win more support from Southern voters. In the 1964 election, Goldwater, who was best known in conservative circles for his opposition to labor unions, Social Security, and the Soviet Union, received his greatest popular support because he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In the 1970s, the conservative elite took advantage of the nation's mood, as Americans turned right in response to the economic slowdown that began in 1971, American humiliation in Vietnam and Iran, and liberal experiments in affirmative action and busing. Again, the match was not perfect, but conservatives were able to adjust their laissez-faire, pro-business philosophy to public revulsion at taxes and inflation; they were able to adapt their anticommunism to concern about the country's declining prestige; they were able to forge their constitutional doctrines into a rejection of busing and quotas, and they were able to adapt their moralism to the revulsion against the counterculture.

After the 1980s, conservative ideas, broadly speaking, still have a significant hold on the public. Many Americans are still highly skeptical of government; many whites remain highly resentful of affirmative action; many voters continue to be concerned with national decline, and associate liberals and Democrats with high taxes, a flagging economy, an overweening bureaucracy, and military weakness and defeat. But at the same time, the crucial connection between mass and elite has been severed.

As communism collapsed and the economy continued to decline, the conservative elite began to fall apart; it became a collection of factions no longer united by a common enemy or a common political leader. At the same time, the public mood of reaction has subtly changed. Americans continue to be concerned about national decline, but they are now preoccupied with economic rather than perceived military decline. Circumscribed by Cold War imperatives, the conservative movement has been incapable of adapting to this new meaning of national decline.


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A new conservative movement might yet emerge in the '90s, but it would probably have the same distant resemblance to the Goldwater-Reagan movement that Goldwater-Reagan conservatism had to the Republican right of Coolidge and Taft. It would have to be a new synthesis based upon new historical circumstances. In the meantime, conservatism could degenerate along opposite paths. It could become a kind of American Toryism, most closely identified with Wall Street's internationalism and the power of foreign capital, and shaped by Thatcher émigrés like Butler and National Review's John O'Sullivan. It would combine free trade internationalism and tax cuts for the wealthy with Kemp's and Heritage's entrepreneurial schemes for the poor. It could play an advisory role within a Tory-style Republican Party dominated by Bush and Jim Baker, but it would lack a popular base of its own. It would be an elite without a movement.

Alternatively, conservatism could also submerge itself in an unsavory stew of racism, nativism, populism and economic nationalism -- modeled perhaps on David Duke's campaign in Louisiana. Its forebears would not be the Goldwater-Reagan movement, but the George Wallace movement. It would become, in effect, a movement without an elite.

Conservatism's ultimate fate depends upon factors outside the immediate purview of the conservative movement. For one thing, it depends upon how successfully the Bush administration recasts the Republican Party as a moderate suburban-based bloc, fiscally conservative, fearful of urban crime, but also socially cosmopolitan. For another, it depends upon how successful Democratic liberals are in reviving their own moribund movement. Even more than conservatives, liberals lack a common leader and are divided about free trade and protectionism and America's obligations in the world.

It is too early to tell, however, what direction American politics will take. What can be said now is that the decline of conservatism brings down the curtain on the period of political history that began in the late 1940s when America assumed leadership of world capitalism. For four decades, both liberal and conservative politics have been shaped by the increasingly outmoded priorities of free trade internationalism and Cold War militarism.

Conservatism's decline leaves the United States without a regnant political movement. This has happened before: America suffered political drift and disillusion in the 1820s, 1850s, 1890s, and late 1920s. But not even in those decades have the waters of political opinion seemed quite so muddied. Conservatism and liberalism have both lost their unity and clarity of direction. It remains to be seen whether, in the new circumstances of the 1990s, either can regain its sway.

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