The Conservative Undead

“American political parties have disappeared before,” Keith Olbermann warned Republicans in a 2009 “special comment.” The suspended MSNBC host histrionically continued, “You’re rapidly moving from the party of no conscience towards the party of no relevancy. You are behind the wheel of a political Toyota, and before the midterms you will be reduced to obviously being this generation’s home for the nuts.”

Mr. Olbermann, meet Mr. Rubio, Florida’s Republican Senator-elect whose votes nearly equaled the number cast for his two opponents combined; meet Mr. Snyder, a Michigan businessman who painted his blue state red; meet Mr. Scott, an African-American Republican sent to Congress from the South Carolina district that witnessed the first shots of the Civil War. These are the conservative undead, candidates who ignored the numerous autopsies performed on their political species over the last few years to win office not by evolving into Democrats, but by returning to core principles.    

Next to the impressive collection of political scalps—the chairmen of the House budget and armed services committees, the President’s old Senate seat, the junior half of McCain-Feingold, that vile loudmouth from Florida—collected on November 2, the yellowing tear sheets of the numerous political obituaries written about conservatism provide conservatives with the greatest current satisfaction. Comeuppance for one’s antagonists tends to provoke that feeling.

Just last year, Time magazine pictured the Republican elephant on its cover beneath the caption: “Endangered Species.” The GOP, Time posited, is “starting to look like the Federalists of the early 19th century: an embittered, over-the-top, out-of-touch regional party en route to extinction, doubling down on dogma the electorate has already rejected.”

“Is conservatism finished?” asked E. J. Dionne in 2006. Fareed Zakaria, in the Newsweek piece “The End of Conservatism,” observed that “conservative slogans sound weirdly anachronistic, like watching an old TV show from … well, from the 1970s.” A Manchester Guardian online poll following 2008’s election asked, “Is the Republican Party Dead?” An overwhelming majority answered: “Yes, start planning the funeral.”

Would it be too hackneyed to quote Twain here?

George Packer’s lengthy 2008 “Fall of Conservatism” article in The New Yorker boldly declared that “America is entering a new era.” The opposition to Barack Obama in 2008 was just “spasms of nerve endings in an organism that’s brain dead. Among Republicans, there is no energy, no fresh thinking, no ability to capture the concerns and feelings of millions of people.”

That may have appeared true in the heady days of 2008, when the Democratic candidate spoke at Nuremberg-style rallies and gave Harold Hill promises of hope and change. But it was folly to rely on the euphoria of a single campaign and not even to await the results of governance, to forecast that “conservatives will have to spend some years or even decades wandering across a bleak political landscape of losing campaigns and rebranding efforts and earnest policy retreats, much as liberals did after 1968, before they can hope to establish dominance.”

It wasn’t just fleeting articles or broadcast utterances that imagined the disappearance of the largest part of the American political spectrum. Authors devoted entire books to indulging this fantasy. A cottage industry—Sam Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism, Sidney Blumenthal’s The Strange Death of Republican America, James Carville’s 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation—sprang up not only to wish away the existence of the conservative opposition, but to caution the opposition that their existence depended upon their becoming liberals.

In 2008, when books proclaiming the Right’s demise found eager publishers, I wrote a book called A Conservative History of the American Left. Its thesis, in large part, is that no matter how discredited one Left appears, another Left, wearing new labels—“socialist,” “progressive,” “New Left”—but holding similar principles, would soon take its place. The contrast with liberalism’s vision of conservatism—seeing its adversaries as forever teetering on the precipice of extinction—highlights the overall differences between conservatism, guided by experience, and liberalism, motivated by a dream of the society that could be. 

It is strange that conservatism, which seems more immune to the tides of political fashion and which is largely averse to repackaging gimmickry, would not be granted such respect from its periodic obituary writers. An obituary for the conservative obituary is itself premature. The next time conservatism runs a fever—as it undoubtedly did over the course of the last decade—the spin-doctor-witch-doctors will once again proclaim it dead. And once again their faces will be covered in egg. 

It is tempting, but wrong, to dismiss these end-of-conservatism analyses as uniformly the sandwich-board ravings of political droolers. Fareed Zakaria hosts the most thoughtful show on cable news. Sam Tanenhaus penned one of the best biographies of the last quarter century.

Their premature post mortems, wholly discredited by the events of Tuesday past, demonstrate the degree to which hope clouds reality even among seasoned political observers. Conservatism is dead like Dewey defeats Truman.