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« Democratic fecklessness | Main | A drunken David Brooks »

September 16, 2011


Bob Vogel

That last graf is tongue-in-cheek, right? ;) The only question is: How long does it take before a newly-established institution can be regarded as "traditional"? Or, from what era of traditions do you draw your conservatism? Most of today's traditional institutions were liberal when they were introduced in the 20th century.


Modern American conservatives are "radical" because of the amount of social progress they wish to undo. They don't want to just go back to the ideals of the founding fathers or the enlightenment. They're aiming to go back to the Dark Ages or even biblical times.

Scott de B.

"Why, then, do modern commentators persist in referring to modern conservatism as "conservatism"?"

Because for behaviorists like myself, "conservatism" is what self-proclaimed conservatives do and say. It's merely a label.

Paul Fallavollita

Why should conservatives support all the post-New Deal framework that's in place since it's now been in effect for seven decades? Just because an error has been perpetuated for many years doesn't entitle that error to be enshrined as truth.


The true conservatives in America are the ones working to improve and preserve the useful institutions our democracy has built up over 235 years, many of which were developed during and after the New Deal, a period most would agree was the best period in American history. I think newspapers should be printing letters of correction every time they describe a Republican radical as "conservative". They are not. They are vandals.

Anthony L

To answer Paul's question: because that's what conservative means. The Wiki definition of conservatism: "the maintenance of tradition institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society". If something has been in place for decades, then by definition a conservative should be in favour of keeping it around.

He's not asking people who want the New Deal gone to change their mind, only admit that doing so would only be considered "conservative" if we were still in the forties. ;)


Of course they're not people who live up to the ideals of Burke, but how many of them ever did? Eisenhower Republicans believed in the Social Contract, and if you look very hard, you can find some of those people, or other decent people who identify as conservatives. However, few, if any, of those people are in office or any position of power – and some, like Bruce Bartlett, have been drummed out of conservative institutions.

This is a feature, not a bug. Conservatism as a whole has *always* had a regressive or revanchist strain, and in America, that strain has been dominant for a long time now. They've never truly bought into key classical liberal concepts such as equality, and that rejection is one of the things that defines them as conservatives. Conservatism can be defined in different ways, and has different strains, but generally centers on protecting the status quo, which is considered preferable or even the natural order. Sometimes doing nothing, as on segregation, is a major moral failing. Let's recall that while socially liberal Republicans supported the Civil Rights Act, movement conservative Barry Goldwater opposed it, and "reasonable" conservative William F. Buckley and his National Review opposed de-segregation (these days, the NR crew tries to claim that MLK, the man they consistently denounced virulently, was really a conservative). Movement conservatives, feeling they represent the natural order, have always sought further power and privilege. The worst of them – and certainly the plutocrats – are essentially neo-feudalists, championing conservative ideas from past eras (or their modern iterations). Call them right-wing reactionaries if you prefer, but their "radicalism" has always been backwards-looking (sometimes counterfactually so) along *conservative* lines. The "fiction" is that it has ever been otherwise.

Andrew Sullivan (who quoted your piece) likes to pretend that conservatism is some pure thing that was only recently corrupted, but it's always had some element of rot in it, and Sullivan himself cheered much of it on. Similarly, David Brooks will always defend the aristocracy, pretend that "both sides do it" and try to minimize the awful sins of his chosen team. Reaganomics have been regressive and plutocratic - as intended - and have increased wealth inequity in America back to Gilded Age levels. The middle class has been increasingly squeezed and assaulted by American conservatives. If decent, self-described conservatives want to reclaim the Republican Party, I'll cheer them on. (America really needs two functioning political parties, and the Dems have a fair amount of corruption as well.) But our current state of affairs is hardly some accident. It's the conservative id (or right-wing id, if you prefer) unleashed. Don't believe the hype.

I'll pass on former conservative John Cole's "Conservatism as Urine":

...And Hilzoy's related thoughts:

Also see driftglass' running series on Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks. (A recent one quotes Sullivan quoting your post here.)

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