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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
January 12, 2012

Defining Conservatism Downward 
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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In the late Sixties, the liberal cartoonist and wag Al Capp suddenly turned against the Left. People were startled by his apparent rightward swing. "I haven't changed," he insisted. "Liberalism has."

Today it's conservatism that has changed. The conservative movement of yesterday has moved like a migrating herd from most of its old principles. Staunch conservatives like Patrick Buchanan and Samuel Francis have been excommunicated, attacked, snubbed, blacklisted.

Once upon a time, conservatives stood for limited government, the rollback of the welfare state, strict construction of the Constitution, and traditional morality. Today they merely want their own people to run big government.

They used to oppose needless military intervention abroad; today they equate militarism with patriotism. They used to demand that the U.S. Department of Education be abolished; today they want to expand it. They used to denounce Franklin Roosevelt; today they venerate him.

Constitutional government? Conservatives have simply dropped the subject. They can live with the status quo, which is not conservatism's legacy but liberalism's. Yesterday's heresy has become today's orthodoxy.

Traditional morality? Again, conservatives have dropped the subject. Their new hero is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supported legal abortion and homosexual rights and brought his mistress to official functions. Giuliani is a winner. He knows how to get and use power. The media have adored him since the 9/11 attacks. So conservatives have adopted him as their poster boy.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, conservatives (including me) wanted to feel they had triumphed, that a victory for their movement meant the permanent vanquishing of liberalism. Even liberals thought Reagan had "turned the country around." But Reagan, while repeating conservative platitudes, challenged very little of the institutional structure of liberalism and in fact embraced most of it. During his eight years in office the Federal Government continued to grow, nearly doubling its spending. As Federal deficits mounted monstrously, conservatives dropped another subject: the evils of deficit spending and unbalanced budgets.

Still, conservatives pretended they had conquered. They equated Reagan's minor gains with the radical and lasting changes Roosevelt had effected. Reagan himself encouraged this feeling by inviting conservative leaders to White House dinners. That was all it took to sustain their delusions. After all, most of them had never been beckoned to the White House before. What better proof that they now reigned?

Meanwhile, a new breed was emerging: the "neoconservatives." These were former liberals, mostly pro-Israel and anti-Communist Jewish intellectuals. There weren't really very many of them, but they had disproportionate influence; conservatives welcomed them as allies with awe and gratitude.

In the conservative press, support for Israel suddenly became mandatory and criticism of Israel became taboo. Conservatives stopped complaining about "foreign entanglements" and foreign aid. Yet another inconvenient subject had been dropped, to be replaced by embarrassing fawning on Israel. Just as liberals had once turned a blind eye to Soviet spies and agents, conservatives ignored Israeli espionage.

The neoconservatives were still basically liberals, albeit Cold War liberals. They favored the New Deal legacy and looked back at Harry Truman as a great president. The old conservative agenda of a return to constitutional government left them cold; limited government would hamper military action abroad. But they have moved to the head of the conservative movement, and their chief followers are conservative "leaders."

In short, conservatism has been swallowed up by neoconservatism. THE WEEKLY STANDARD, a neoconservative magazine, has made William Buckley's NATIONAL REVIEW redundant. The founding generation of NATIONAL REVIEW included men of the stature of Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Henry Hazlitt, Frank Meyer, and Brent Bozell; none of them could write for the magazine today. It has no room for independent or original thinkers — or even for writers who espouse its own founding principles.

Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed that we have "defined deviancy downward" — that is, we have become so inured to behavior formerly recognized as deviant that we have tried to cope by lowering our standards. In the same way, conservatism has been "defined downward." The principles conservatives once upheld have been defeated politically, so conservatism has abandoned them, adopting instead the old liberal positions and calling them conservative.

How odd, and sad, that a movement professing to fight for tradition should drop its own past down the Memory Hole.

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Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 3, 2002.

Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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