The False Narrative of the Conservative Movement

J. S. ScifoUndesignated Leave a Comment


This week is a good time to reflect on what it means (at least what it means to me) to be a conservative in 2024.  As someone who came of age politically in the late-1980s, I idolized Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley and still have posters of both in my home.  Each issue of the National Review was a revelation to me, and I slowly made my way through the conservative canon (an effort that continues to this day).  I aspired to be a conservative pundit like George Will or a policy wonk.  However, over the past several years, I’ve slowly come to the realization that maybe I have been on the wrong track.

Don’t get me wrong, Reagan was great, but when he left office the New Deal/Great Society edifice stood completely intact.  And despite controlling the presidency for 25 of the past 44 years, and Congress for seven of those years (three of which the president was a Republican), conservatives have precious little to show for their efforts.  Yes, there have been victories, some of them momentous (the defeats of the Soviet Union and Roe v Wade), but the country’s institutions—cultural, educational, economic, military, political, and governmental—are all firmly in the leftist camp and conservatives are under assault on all fronts.  So what did I get wrong?

The narrative we’ve been told (or maybe sold)—the one that I’ve believed—goes something like this:

Beginning in the late-1950s, a new conservative movement began to emerge, personified by William F. Buckley and his magazine, National Review.  Following years of milquetoast Eisenhower Republicanism, by 1964 these “neo” conservatives had a candidate of their own in Barry Goldwater.  Although Goldwater was defeated, his campaign paved the way for future conservative victories.  In particular, Ronald Reagan, with his “Time for Choosing” speech (which was a Reagan for President speech wrapped in a Goldwater for President speech) emerged as the standard bearer for a new conservative ideology.

Following the Goldwater disaster, the conservative movement regrouped.  While Watergate and Vietnam appeared to give the momentum to the left, the reaction against the radicalism and social tumult of the 1960s quietly simmered.  At the same time, the country, indeed the western world, underwent a tax revolt that engendered a widespread skepticism of government.  This process was accelerated by inflation and concerns over America’s declining national defense capabilities and general standing in the world.  In 1980 Reagan won the White House and ushered in an era of conservative governance that continued through the presidency of George W. Bush, only to be undone by Donald Trump and the ugliness of populism.  As a result, the achievements of the conservative movement are at risk.

But I have come to think the following counter-narrative is closer to the truth:

The social tumult of the 1960s was marked not only by a radical counter-culture, a militant Civil Rights movement, and the aggressive expansion of the federal government but a growing unease with the direction of the country.  It cannot be denied that this unease was in part due to rising racial tensions, which increased following the passage of the Civil and Voting rights acts (the Watts riot occurred just days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and by the late –‘60s the tumult that had engulfed places like Selma, AL and Oxford, MS moved to northern cities, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King).  Into this atmosphere, stepped Alabama Governor George Wallace, who gave voice to these concerns.  His third-party campaign for president in 1968 robbed Hubert Humphrey of the presidency.

In the years that followed, hot-button social issues, such as busing, further inflamed the unsettled Middle Americans.  Many white-working class voters were also beginning to feel the first pangs of unease about their economic status.  By 1972, this time running as a Democrat, Wallace was well placed to become his party’s nominee for president when he—like the Kennedys and King and Malcolm X—was brought down by an assassin’s bullet.  Unlike them, Wallace lived, but the populist revolt he championed did not.  Whereas Neo-conservativism built an infrastructure (think tanks, university chairs, media outlets) to sustain itself in the out years, the populists just went back to their lives as mechanics, plumbers, factory workers, low-level managers, anonymous academics, and homemakers.  Reagan absorbed the populist momentum, and the “Right” populist movement was forgotten.

Right Populism as a semi-organized movement has resurfaced twice since then: both in the form of anti-free trade, America First billionaires.  In 1992, Ross Perot ran largely in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.  His was a largely quixotic campaign, and he failed to win even one Electoral College vote (contrast this to Wallace, who won 46 in 1968).  Twenty-four years later, Trump descended the elevator and initiated the most successful populist movement in American history.  Trump hit on many of the same themes as Perot and added to them: restoring the country’s manufacturing base (that had been devasted by NAFTA and later WTO), hardening the U.S.-Mexico border, and promising not to start any more endless wars.  To this, Trump included a particularly devasting attack on the country’s ruling elite, calling the Republican establishment “stupid losers” and threatening to lock up Hillary Clinton.

So what does all of this mean?  It’s pretty clear that Neo- or Movement Conservatism is dead.  However, that does not mean that Right Populism will replace it, although I do think Right Populism will linger as a potent political force for some time.  If Trump loses, I’m imagining a serious schism between the populists, who will continue to pursue an America First, anti-woke agenda, and the Conventionalists, who will attempt to build a pragmatic, unthreatening, inoffensive “right-of-center” party, something like the Tory Party in the UK.  As a result, American politics will become more regional (with populists dominating in the South), and coalitional (with Right Populists and Conventionalists often—but not always—working together in Congress). (We are, essentially, seeing this dynamic unfold in the House of Representatives today.)  There will cease to be a single, national “conservative” party, populist or conventional.

The mythmaking of the past 60 years lends itself to the narrative that Neo-Conservatism based on small government, strong defense, internationalism in military and economic affairs, alternative policy solutions, and supply-side economics was triumphant.  But in hindsight, it looks as if that wasn’t the story at all, or was just half the story.  Right Populism—embracing nationalism, anti-elitism, economic independence (over inter-dependence), a certain amount of social welfarism, law-and-order, fair-play (i.e., no special treatment based on race, ethnicity, or gender), and unity (over diversity and multiculturalism)—has been the driving force in American politics since the 1960s.  Politicians who have embraced it, or at least some elements of it (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush W.), have been successful.  Those who did not (Humphrey, McGovern, Ford, Dukakis, Dole, Gore, McCain) lost.  Obama, a political phenomenon unto himself, is the sole exception.

Neo-conservatives adopted a highly sophisticated, intellectual approach to politics because William F. Buckley was a highly sophisticated, intellectual and his goal was to prove that conservatives were not a bunch of cranks and yahoos (which was mostly what was left of the Old Right after the New Deal years).  That was appropriate for the time and place, when the fight was in the college faculty lounges, the salons of Manhattan, and between the Think Tanks in D.C.  But the battles now are elemental and foundational, not intellectual:  Has it been a good thing that the United States existed?; Is the Constitution the best model for organizing the nation or simply an outdated piece of parchment?; Is enforcing a border and immigration laws immoral?; Is there a difference between a citizen and resident (legal or illegal)?; Can a man be a biological woman (and vice versa)?  No doubt, Right Populists will have to articulate a vision that goes beyond memes and clickbait, but they have a clearer idea than their Neo-conservative brethren that the times call for a different approach, and—I have concluded—have for more than half-a-century.

J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics.  You can also follow him at J.S. Scifo on Substack | Substack.


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