New Age Conservatism
Election Day was a big loss for classical liberalism.


Last Tuesday’s elections were, as widely expected, a solid thrashing for the Republican party. But the real loser was classical liberalism. And the winner was conservatism — but of a relatively new and perverse kind.

After all, what there is to conserve today in American politics are a high-taxing, high-spending welfare state; a political system in which incumbents have all the advantages; a flood of illegal immigration; increasing state-level socialism; a public education system that appears deliberately designed to keep people ignorant; the worst, most libertine aspects of the Sexual Revolution; a health-care system that is increasingly under government control; a new Cold War in which Islam and the West remain just short of open war; and so on.

Very tellingly, Republicans lost three House seats in Indiana, where blue-collar voters, who normally provide a good harvest for the GOP, were concerned about the state’s necessary economic transformation into a modern knowledge economy. Part of that change involved moving to Daylight Saving Time, which Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed for and which caused huge resentment among conservative voters. In addition, Libertarian candidates took away enough normally Republican votes to turn the tide to the Democrats in the three races where they took GOP seats. These were almost certainly votes against big spending, the Homeland Security Act, and the war in Iraq.

The point is, in Indiana as elsewhere, conservatism trended toward the Democrats, as voters sought economic security and did not believe the Republicans were really serving a classical liberal vision of a free economy and assertive foreign policy. Classical liberalism, for those not fully familiar with the term, is the philosophy behind Reaganism: limited government (with the superior competence in governing that it brings), economic freedom, strong defense of the national interest in international affairs, and local control over social issues.

The Right lost because the Republicans failed to govern as classical liberals. Instead, in the economic sphere they ran up huge, unnecessary budget deficits attributable solely to massive spending increases. Small government went out the window as the Republicans massively increased federal control over elementary and secondary schools and passed numerous constraints on political freedom in the Homeland Security Act and the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political speech.

In the foreign-policy sphere, Republicans failed to get it done in Iraq and stood idly by while Iran and North Korea worked to develop nuclear weapons and Osama bin Laden laughed at us from his bunker in Pakistan or wherever he is now. And in immigration policy, Republicans embarrassed themselves with an ineffectual, risibly symbolic bill to build a fence along the Mexican border.

In addition, the Republicans threw away their reputation for competence and the value of limited government with their inept response to the Katrina disaster. In this as in all other cases, the U.S. press were openly hostile toward the Republicans and sided with their critics, but the Republicans gave them plenty of ammunition.

The Democrats, for their part, ran as conservatives of the new kind — New Age conservatives. They presented themselves as against prolonging what they characterized as a failed Iraq adventure, against economic giveaways to the rich (meaning tax cuts), against Bush administration failures to reign in outlaws such as bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il, against immigration reform, against school reform, against Social Security reform, against anything that would challenge the current big-government system their Democrat forebears built (with all too much Republican cooperation).

Very much to the Democrats’ benefit, abortion was pretty much off the table as the public waited to see what, if anything, the new Supreme Court will have to say about it. And even there, the Democrats’ position was to prevent change — to hold off any challenge to the ability of women to get abortions. And finally, the Democrats managed to keep the party’s proponents of homosexual marriage fairly quiet.

The Democrats found some relatively conservative candidates to put forward, such as Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and former Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy James Webb, along with several Persian Gulf and Iraq War veterans. They played to their strengths and minimized their weaknesses.

Despite the good economy, the Republicans were hamstrung by an unpopular war and record federal spending, a situation greatly resembling the travails of Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. The Republicans had governed as Democrats, and the voters unsurprisingly decided to get themselves the real thing.

The Republicans have been strongest when they have adhered to classical liberal principles and articulated them boldly, as in the Reagan years and New Gingrich’s Republican revolution. They have been weakest when they have attempted to be New Age conservatives, as during the two Bush administrations when they have governed as Democrats Lite.

The political right is well aware that the solution to economic and social problems is nearly always to unleash the creativity and intelligence of the American people and encourage representative government abroad without forcing it on anyone — not to place ever-greater restraints on initiative and economic freedom at home and attempt nation-building abroad before defeating the enemies of democracy. Yet the Republicans simply have not had the courage to defy the mainstream media and follow their principles.

For the Republicans to have consistent electoral success and govern well, they must transform themselves from a Bush party of New Age conservatism to a Reagan party of true, classical liberalism.

If the Republicans’ failure in this election should inspire their leaders to remember those Reaganite values, it will serve as a salutary wake-up call. If it causes them to think that the voters want more New Age conservatism and an even more controlling government, we’re in for a very rough time ahead.

 – S. T. Karnick is director of publications for the Heartland Institute and an Associate Fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. His website is


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