I have to say I was underwhelmed with George Packer’s “The Fall of Conservatism” piece in the New Yorker. I wanted to like it more because I think Packer can be very good and it’s not like the New Yorker covers these things often. It’s possible, though, that much of my negative reaction may have to do with the fact I’m so close to, and invested in, the arguments and people in the story. I agree with most folks quoted as saying that the GOP is in deep trouble and that conservatism is something of a mess these days as well. But for Packer, these terms — conservative and Republican – sometimes seem like interchangeable terms, while for me they are not. I think this may be one of the reasons why I thought the piece was so structurally flawed. He begins by arguing, asserting really, that conservatism begins with Nixon in the late 1960s, when Tricky Dick crafted a strategy of exploiting resentments, which any student of intellectual conservatism knows is simply wrong. Nixon did not like or trust the Buckleyites and the Buckleyites were hardly wild about Dick either. This fact should help one keep in mind that treating conservatism and the modern GOP as interchangeable is an analytical error of the first order. Indeed, Packer pretty much concedes this point several times, without digesting its importance. He writes:
Nixon himself was more interested in global grand strategy and partisan politics than in any conservative policy agenda. By today’s standards, his achievements in office look like those of a moderate liberal: he eased the tensions of the Cold War, expanded the welfare state, and supported affirmative action (albeit in ways calculated to split the Democrats). “L.B.J. built the foundation and the first floor of the Great Society,” Buchanan said. “We built the skyscraper. Nixon was not a Reaganite conservative.”
Exactly so. So why begin an article about the fall of conservatism with the rise of a non-conservative president? I’m not saying that Nixon and his role in the GOP is irrelevant. Nor am I saying that the relationship between Nixonian strategy and conservative idea formation is uninteresting or irrelevant. But Packer doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp of the tension between the two.
Moreover, while I again concede the GOP and conservatism have their challenges when it comes to the idea business these days, some readers might get the impression that the Democrats and liberals are like Toyota in the 1980s while the rightwingers are the dumbfounded dinosaurs at GM. But, last I checked liberals are not exactly churning out a lot of policy brilliance either. Their rising fortune has almost entirely to do with the political failures of the GOP and the natural cyclical nature of politics generally. (In the same issue of the New Yorker James Surowiecki illustrates how Democrats Clinton and Obama are hidebound, ignorant, and dangerous on the issue of free trade.) When one party fails in a two party system, the other party rises. But that hardly means the other party deserves a whole lot of praise for it.