Politics & Policy

What Has Conservatism Ever Done for Us? A Great Deal, Actually

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
From the February 29, 2016, issue of NR

We’re a funny bunch on the right, prone inexorably to depression and eschatology. Since the Democratic sweeps of 2006 and 2008 launched a thousand Leftnik cries of “At long last, conservatism is dead,” we have been engaged in one of the great political rebuilding projects in American history. In the space of just ten years, Republicans and their backers have managed to clamp an iron jaw upon the House of Representatives and retake a majority in the Senate; to win and keep the lion’s share of statehouses and governor’s mansions; and, most crucial, to move away from George W. Bush’s disastrous “compassionate conservatism” toward a more classical, philosophically coherent offering. If, as seems eminently possible, a man with a gleaming “R” next to his name is inaugurated next January 20, the Right will be given its first chance at meaningful reform in over a decade — and, this time, with an anti-cronyist Tea Party hooked up to the circuits. Yet in spite of all of these achievements — and with less than a year to go before our chance to complete the refurbishment is upon us — many of us are beginning to sound like Reg.

Reg, for those who are unfamiliar with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is a fictional Judean rabble-rouser who loathes the Roman Empire and seeks to undermine it at every turn. Unable to see the advances that have been made around him, Reg takes to asking rhetorical questions that, in the grand scheme of things, are both extraordinarily myopic and politically ill advised. “What,” he inquires indignantly at one of his insurrectionist meetings, “have the Romans ever done for us?” To which the truculent crowd responds predictably: An awful lot. “All right!” Reg eventually concedes with irritation, “but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health . . . what have the Romans ever done for us?”

The answer to this absurd question, delivered as the coup de grâce: “The aqueducts?”

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I am reminded of this scene a great deal at present. Consider, if you will, how often disenchanted conservatives propose in earnest that “conservatism hasn’t conserved anything” — and, by extension, that the Republican party has failed to represent anything more than “Democrat lite.” Consider, too, how readily right-leaning voters express a peculiarly Painean desire to “burn it all down and start again.” Prior to the Iowa caucuses, the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson joined a growing chorus of such voices, submitting that Donald Trump was doing so well in the polls because conservatism had “failed” and needed to be replaced. This assessment was broadly praised, especially by those who have become convinced that Republicans and their ideological allies are all but collaborating with the enemy. Unspoken, but everywhere implied, was a modest variation on Reg’s infamous query: “What has conservatism ever done for us?”

Since Ronald Reagan made his first serious presidential run, conservatism has produced a cornucopia of significant changes.

When confronted by this challenge, one is tempted to list the monumental ideological victories that the Right has won over the past 40 years. And rightly so. Since Ronald Reagan made his first serious presidential run, in 1976, conservatism has produced a cornucopia of significant changes — not only to government policy, but to the baseline presumptions of American life. Among these alterations are the tarring and feathering of the reflexively technocratic mindset that obtained from the outset of the New Deal to the end of the 1970s; the marginalization of wage and price controls, and of other centralizing tools; the lowering of destructive tax rates on income and other forms of wealth; the deregulation of a significant number of major industries; a renewed focus on national sovereignty; the successful reform of the welfare system; a consensus around free trade; a much lower minimum wage; a focus on both the text and the original meaning of the Constitution when discussing limits on government power; the restoration of the right to keep and bear arms; the stronger protection of freedom of expression; a national partial-birth-abortion ban; the death of speech-killing “campaign-finance reform”; and, lest we forget, the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union. For some much-needed context, understand that the GOP’s standard-bearer in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon, was the mind behind the Environmental Protection Agency, whereas today’s Republican candidates are opposed to so many departments that they can’t always remember all of their names.

#share#But I will not dwell on the past. Instead, I will argue that we need not look so far back to answer the charge. Rather, we can contemplate the past decade with some considerable pride. Because conservatives aim to repeal so much of the damage done by progressivism of late, we can at times feel hopeless — and even angry. In theory, we understand that the people backed Obama twice and that his veto stands proudly in the way of our getting to reverse his excesses; in practice, however, it can be tempting to assume that the lack of major progress has been the product of quiet acquiescence or tactical incompetence — or, worst of all, of deep-seated corruption.

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That, I’d venture, is a mistake. Not only have the vast majority of the stands that have been taken against Obama been futile from the outset (the president really isn’t going to sign a repeal of his major achievements, and the public really isn’t going to force him to do so at the point of a shutdown), but to focus on their failure is rather to miss the point, which is that the Right’s consistent willingness to block progressive change before it can be put into law has kept a parade of horribles from ever intruding upon the scene. Had the conservative movement not held the line since 2008, Americans would have seen the quick death of the Bush tax cuts; the introduction of a growth-stifling cap-and-trade regime on carbon dioxide emissions; sweeping gun control, including both an “assault weapons” ban and a federal firearms registry; the provision of a “public option” within Obamacare, if not a move toward full-blown single-payer; the false promise of “free” college; union “card check”; an unabashed de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants; wildly increased legal-immigration levels, with an emphasis on importing the unskilled; a host of religious-liberty violations, with no Religious Freedom Restoration Act to counteract them; and overall spending levels that would make today’s look modest.

Elsewhere — where no national veto is possible — things would have been dramatically different, too. At the state level, there would have been no marches toward right-to-work or liberalized concealed carry; no progress on school choice or eminent domain; no restrictions on late-term abortion or state-constitution amendments defining marriage; and none of the regulatory and fiscal reforms that are coaxing Americans out of the blue states and onto the red horizon. Despite voting unanimously against the bill, Republicans could not stop Obamacare. But they have managed to prevent Medicaid from being expanded universally, and they have mostly forced the federal government to own its messy system of insurance exchanges. That was no walk in the park.

And in the courts? Well, without the two judges that George W. Bush appointed to the Supreme Court, we would have had no Heller, no McDonald, no Citizens United, no Harris, no McCullen, and no Hobby Lobby. Moreover, we would have read only two disgusted dissents in both Windsor and Obergefell, and, backed by a 7–2 cushion, the ruling justices might have been able to establish a more sweeping set of precedents than they did.

What has conservatism ever done for us? A great deal, I’d venture, and it would be prudent to see what it can deliver the next time it has a chance.

In case I have been misunderstood, let me make it explicit: I am by no means submitting that the Right is “pure,” that it isn’t often feckless and weak, or that it does not need to improve a great deal. Indeed, from both my perspective as a libertarianish semi-apostate and the perspective of the more traditional conservative voter, there is a lot to dislike. For as long as I live, I will never get over John Roberts’s saving Obamacare in both National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and King v. Burwell, and neither will I fathom why a putatively conservative party elected to resuscitate the Export-Import Bank, to acquiesce to the nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Loretta Lynch, to go to the brink of supporting a Chuck Schumer–written immigration bill, or to sign off on the 2015 budget. But there is a significant difference between the proposition that many Republicans aren’t conservative enough and the proposition that conservatism per se has failed, and to suggest that we have no choice but to immolate the conservative movement strikes me as abject folly. There have been failures, and, yes, sometimes the Republican party is dangerously out of step with a large portion of its voters. But there is also a significant record of both long- and short-term achievements that should not be sniffed at. Unfashionable as it is to admit, the proximate cause of our present discomfort is not Mitch McConnell or Mitt Romney, but Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and the people who put them in the position to inflict substantial damage on the country in the first instance.

What has conservatism ever done for us? A great deal, I’d venture, and it would be prudent to see what it can deliver the next time it has a chance — which, if the cards fall in the right order, might be less than twelve months from now.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review. The article originally appeared in the February 29, 2016, issue of National Review.

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