In the pursuit of the power to effect change, ideologies often go astray. Thomas Jefferson, a proponent of a weak federal government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution, used executive powers that theretofore did not exist in order to purchase the Louisiana Territory, rendering the Constitution (in Jefferson’s own words) a piece of “blank paper.” Early Soviet communism sought to dissolve the state permanently, as per Marxist doctrine. In pursuit of this goal, a totalitarian state was paradoxically established in the meantime.
Modern conservatism, though not completely far gone in the Jeffersonian or Soviet fashion, is drifting, according to the New York Post’s Ryan Sager. His new book, “The Elephant in the Room,” explores the foundations and roots of modern conservatism, from its successes and triumphs to its current identity crisis.
Modern conservatism, Sager writes, began in “the wilderness.” A fringe ideology in a time when to not be a liberal was to be considered outlandish, the early conservatism that followed World War II was unappreciated by many and ignored by even more. Sager cites one liberal critic who announced that liberalism was the “sole intellectual tradition” in America. However, through the hard work of libertarian economists and writers, traditionalists reacting to decaying moral values and godlessness and politicians upset at the growing New Deal welfare state, conservatism found a voice and a platform. Libertarians and traditionalists, united by virulent opposition to the spreading danger of Soviet communism—which stood counter to both of their ideals of the free market and God—found the glue that would keep the alliance together for decades.
Throughout the first two chapters, Sager tracks the evolution and emergence of conservatism as a potent political force. One of the primary appeals of conservatism in the past has been the notion of a political destiny. This destiny (immortalized by Ronald Reagan in a 1964 speech) is on display as Sager observes conservatism’s trajectory through the years. His chronicle of the no-name becoming the underdog who becomes the winner is inspiring and exuberant, purposefully creating a sense of satisfaction that will soon be shattered.
After the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” conservatism was riding a high that would soon be replaced with dejection. Nearly every major accomplishment born of the Contract with America was seized by Bill Clinton, who took the lion’s share of the credit. Sager writes that the GOP in the 1990s simply got outplayed by a political dynamo. Depressed about the public’s interest in conservatism and down in the polls after the public relations disaster of the impeachment proceedings, Republicans were quick to nominate the fresh-feeling George W. Bush for the presidency in 2000. Proclaimed by many to be a conservative in the fashion of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Bush was, in fact, highly critical of his party’s anti-government past. In one instance, he is cited by Sager as declaring that, “too often, [the Republican Party] has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.” The writing was on the wall, but not a whole lot of people read it: Bush was a “big government conservative.”
Consequently, Sager’s outlook for conservatism is not a rosy one, particularly in the interior West. Bush’s “big government conservatism” has hurt the alliance (which no longer has the glue of the Cold War to hold it together) in a place where voters highly value their privacy and, thus, small government. Furthermore, a variety of issues, from the GOP’s identification with Big Business and thereby corruption, to possible resurgence in Western environment awareness, many former GOP strongholds show signs of a possible shift to blue states. In addition, says Sager, voters in the interior West care less about the religiosity of their elected officials; another bad indicator if the Republican Party is to continue to focus on social and religious issues such as gay marriage.
In light of all of these forthcoming difficulties, the immediate question to be asked is, “Can this be fixed?” Sager says yes. By returning to the Goldwater-conservative principles of limited government, spending cuts, and a much smaller welfare state, the Republican Party can reenergize its supporters and return to the better days of the Reagan years and re-establish the idealism of the mid 1990s. In spite of setbacks at the hands of Democrats in those eras, Sager writes, the American public just needs to be sold conservatism in the correct manner.
But in an age where the public charges the government with their protection from terrorism, and natural disasters strike with an alarming degree, is the public genuinely interested in less? Even during the conservative boom, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was advised to not use words like “cut” in describing shrinking budget growth. If one is forced to use euphemisms amounting to trickery to sell conservatism, does the American public want to buy it in the first place? Sager says little on the subject. He hopes, though, (as do many of the most loyal Republicans) that the GOP will rediscover how to sell—and actually believe in—truly conservative ideals. He hopes they will shoot, or at least shrink, the elephant in the room.