Kathleen Geier does not hold with all this hand wringing about modern conservatives, or so she claimed in What’s Different About Today’s Conservatives? As she wrote, “When people, usually liberals, compare today’s conservatives unfavorably to conservatives of previous generations, I often get annoyed.” And she went on to explain that when looking back at old conservatives, we liberals have a tendency to cherry pick. Some of this is overstated, but in general, she’s right.
In fact, I’ve made the exact same argument. It’s true that when it came to domestic policy, Richard Nixon was pretty good. But that was because of the liberal environment in which he had power. If he were in politics today, he’d be one of the extremists calling for a government shutdown. The same goes for Reagan. There is no doubt about that. But I don’t think when people look back fondly on Nixon, they are so much looking to the man as they are the time.
Geier thinks that the modern conservative movement is different, however: it no longer has a power elite that guides it ideologically. In other words: it’s mob rule. She noted that in the 1950s and early 1960s, the National Review purged certain undesirables like the John Birch Society out of the ranks of the movement. But I don’t think she’s right to say that this isn’t happening now. She’s just taking too short a view of it. For one thing, it isn’t like the National Review scowled at the Birchers and so they went away. To a large extent, the group just lost its appeal with many people because of its paranoid conspiracy theories like the Communist’s water fluoridation attack on us. Similarly today, there are lots of conservative intellectuals who have successfully pushed back against cranks like Michele Bachmann.
To me, there is a major difference between the conservative movement of old and today: the party has become Nihilistic. This isn’t a new idea to me. As far as I know, Johnathan Chait was the person who first put forward the idea. But I don’t think it happened as suddenly as he does. I think it started in the Reagan administration. But it really gained steam thanks to Bill Clinton and the New Democrats who co-opted the only good ideas that the conservative movement had. As a result, from Bush Jr onward, the movement has turned into a kind of anti-party: anything the Democrats are for, they are against.
The first very clear indication that nihilism had overwhelmed the Republican party came with the election of Obama. I understand the opposition being against many of Obama’s initiatives. But Obamacare was long touted as the kind of healthcare reform that the country needed. For a time, Romney was a conservative hero for roughly the same program. But the entire conservative movement turned 180 degrees on a dime regarding the law. It not only said that law was bad; it claimed that the law was socialism. Politics is a nasty business, but when the opposition gives you exactly what you want, you don’t continue to play politics. You take the offer and declare victory. But they didn’t do that, because it wasn’t a policy they wanted; there is no policy that they want except those few goodies they can give to their two remaining constituencies.
So Kathleen Geier is right that in most ways conservatives are the same as they’ve ever been. But she’s wrong about how they are different. And the one way in which they are different is even more disturbing. It means that as they are now, there will be no compromising—no getting along. The only way forward is total defeat. And that is a very bad thing.
More and more I worry that the Republican Party is at the same point that the Federalist Party was in 1800: on the verge of becoming irrelevant and then nonexistent. In the long run, that would be fine, because the Democratic Party already has the diversity to create fine liberal and conservative parties. But it would be highly disruptive. And it would be—until the eventual split—bad for the Democratic Party. In general, this sort of thing does not happen, but I’m not sure the Republican Party still has the intellectual firepower to reform. So much of their time and money has been put into self-delusion that there may be no going forward.