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
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
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
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.
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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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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