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Alive and Kicking

Reports of conservatism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

11:00 PM, Feb 24, 2009 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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In the rare moments that public intellectuals have not been extolling President Obama's supposed new philosophy of pragmatism, they have turned their efforts to writing requiems for conservatism. These contributions offer variations on the same theme. The conservative movement is dead or dying, the victim of its own theoretical errors. Not mistakes of political leaders, nor the occurrence of unfortunate events, nor even the inevitable grievances that accumulate with holding office, are to blame. The root cause of the death of conservatism lies in the realm of ideas, and conservatives today have earned the just deserts of a defective philosophy.

The "end of conservatism" genre made its appearance just after the election, in the full flush of Obama's victory. Despite ritual claims of intellectuals to their independence of judgment, the general reaction of most of them showed how greatly they stood in awe of the voice of the majority, at least where that majority could be depicted--as it universally was in 2008--as representing the progressive wave of the future. With the moral weight of the public behind them, it was time to pronounce final judgment on what had been the dominant governing coalition of a whole era.

Among the first to rush into print with a summary judgment was the political theorist Mark Lilla ("The Perils of Populist Chic," The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2008). Lilla narrated the fall of conservatism in the context of his personal intellectual odyssey. Coming to age as a thinker in the 1970s when liberalism appeared to be "utterly exhausted," Lilla was repelled by the "radical posing of [his] professors and fellow students." Though apparently never drawn to the substance of conservatism, Lilla admired the "comportment" of conservative intellectuals, who displayed "maturity and seriousness," "historical perspective," and a "sense of proportion." In contrast to their liberal counterparts, they were "unapologetic elites, but elites who loved democracy and wanted to help it."

Alas, this high-minded "comportment" began to give way in the eighties, just as conservatives acquired real political influence. Conservative intellectuals started to display antipathy to intellectuals as a group, whom they may have suspected of clinging bitterly to their secularism and multiculturalism. Their contempt gradually turned into a full-blown demagogic populism that culminated in 2008 in their support of Sarah Palin. For Lilla, this was the final straw. More in sadness than anger, he concluded that "the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead. And all of us, even liberals like myself, are poorer for it." Conservatism had failed in one of its most important tasks, which is contributing to the development of liberal intellectuals.

Writing shortly thereafter in the same vein, E J. Dionne, a columnist at the Washington Post and a frequent invitee to university campuses, neatly divided conservatism into two camps, labeled the "ideological conservatives" and the "dispositional conservatives" ("Which GOP will Obama Face?" the Washington Post, November 18, 2008). Ideological conservatives were those stuck in the old way of thinking; they were believers in tax-cutting, small government, "extreme social conservatism" (what other kind is there?), and, presumably, a democracy agenda abroad. These conservatives continue to think of Ronald Reagan as great model. Dispositional conservatives are more moderate and pragmatic. "Dispositional conservatives have leanings and affections, but not an ideology." Their hero is David Cameron. The triumph of ideological conservatism appears to be what accounted for the GOP's downfall. This is, after all, the age of pragmatism.

Dionne can be credited with adding to the end of conservatism genre by introducing the Manichean theme of good conservatism (of a dispositional comportment) and bad conservatism (of an ideological comportment). This simple distinction, like Lilla's taxonomy of thoughtful and populist, has the curious quality of being at odds with conventional judgments that relied on political success. It was the "bad" conservatives--assuming that, in Dionne's estimation, Reagan was more ideological than dispositional--who actually rebuilt the Republican party and helped to win power, while the "good" ones were, at most, allies and helpers. From Dionne's perspective, the only good conservative is a docile one, someone who serves at the pleasure of liberals.