The Revolution that Almost Was: The Death of the Conservative

Yesterday while flipping through the dozen or so dailies that occupy my mornings and late afternoons, I came across a rather surprising piece from D Magazine, a headline that read “A Conservative for Obama.” Now, this is nothing new. While it isn’t exactly the norm, in any election you’re going to see people break party ranks and jump on board with the other side… however, this one was different. This wasn’t just a Regular Joe spouting off at the mouth; this was Wick Allison, one of the founders of National Review and a hand-picked pupil of William F. Buckley Jr. As far as high-profile conservatives go, you can’t really get much bigger names than Buckley and Goldwater.

Now those men have passed on, and the Republican Party has been turned over to a new generation of conservatives… a group that may still use the name, but adhere to the political ideology of Conservatism in the same way that the Utah Jazz adhere to their franchise name. Sure, the name is still there, but the Jazz is long gone. In my conversations with conservative friends, I’ve noticed that several are beginning to take issue with the state of the modern Republican Party. While they still remain members of the GOP, even party loyalists, the movement away from old-school conservatism is being noticed at all levels of the party, not just the party elite.

These developments made me question a few things about what it truly means to be a Conservative. The real, true definition of the movement stood for one major principle: less government intrusion in the lives of the people of the United States. Taxes should be kept to a minimum, basic services should be provided, and that’s the end of the story. However, near the end of Goldwater’s life, and well into the final days of Buckley, the true conservatives seemed to fade into obscurity, allowing the name and the movement to be hijacked by a wealth of special interest groups. How did this happen?

The roots of the new conservative republican movement are planted in the Southern Strategy employed by Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips. In a 1970 interview with the NY Times, Phillips explained the new GOP agenda for building the party south of the Mason-Dixon Line: From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

This strategy was simple, if the Democratic Party had become the party of desegregation and civil rights, the Republican Party needed to capitalize on the bitter feelings of disaffected rural white voters in the south. The strategy worked, moving thousands of southern Democrats into the Republican ranks and ensuring that many remaining in the party (due to tradition or any other reason) would be more apt to support the Republican Party in crucial elections.

The targeting of these southern voters brought with it an entire voting bloc not necessarily completely anticipated by Republican strategists… deeply rooted and deeply fundamentalist religious beliefs. Holding tight to this demographic meant playing to their requests, many of which were far more extreme than the beliefs currently held by the Goldwater Republicans. The ideas that founded the movement never spoke of any religious or social doctrine, if anything they represented the exact opposite of what the modern conservative has become. The basis of conservatism is the removal of government, not the encroachment of policy into the personal lives of private citizens. A disturbing trend that once cause Barry Goldwater (the arch conservative to end them all) to remark, “When you say “radical right” today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”

I’m Christian, and I’m Republican, but I don’t think the two are connected. Too many people think “Christian = Republican” and vice versa, but that’s just not the case. I worship in the house of Christ and vote in the party of Reagan, not the other way around. – Kevin Hall, Republican

The tide was turning in the Republican Party, with the shape-shifting becoming more and more apparent with each passing day of the Reagan administration. Religious leaders like the aforementioned Robertson and the controversial Jerry Falwell began to creep into public policy, organizing the recently acquired southern Republicans into agenda-pushing machines that demanded something in return for their loyalty to the new Republican Party. Upon President Reagan’s appointment of justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Falwell remarked, “Every good Christian should be concerned.” To which Goldwater replied, “Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.”

It was during the early years of the Clinton presidency that the movement from the platform of conservatism to the platform of evangelicalism began to really take strong command in the Republican Party. Clinton, a remarkably popular moderate Democrat from the south, threatened to challenge the strong relationships between the right-wing and the southern voter, luring some long time “Dixiecrats” back into the fold. However, for all of President Clinton’s acclaim with the religious southern Democrat came a backlash from the moral majority in relation to his frequent and often haphazard instances of sexual misconduct. Seeing an opportunity to solidify positions with the “base,” house Republicans pushed further into an evangelical ideology by taking President Clinton to task over issues like “family values” and “gay rights,” issues that had not been particularly large parts of past political discourse.

While Clinton remained immensely popular, eventually leaving office with a more than sixty percent approval rating despite scandal and an impeachment hearing, the Republican Party had found a new platform on which to run, the platform of religious persecution. The philosophy was incredibly simple: convince the Christian majority that they are the minority, while simultaneously suggesting that the opposition party is the institution of their oppression. The plan, executed with exacting and unprecedented skill by master strategist Karl Rove, worked to perfection. The McCain campaign (the heavy favorite) was smeared in whisper campaigns throughout the south, allowing George W. Bush to gain the party’s nomination. Despite a thriving economy and a record of prosperity, the Democratic Party underestimated the evangelical movement and their champion, allowing Governor George W. Bush to become the next President of the United States.

The Bush/Rove strategy had worked flawlessly. While many southern voters had enjoyed prosperity during the Clinton administration, they flocked to the polls to cast Republican votes in an effort to promote morality and family values nationwide. In a memoir, former top administration aide David Kuo recalled meetings with staffers in which these voters were ridiculed as being “nuts,” suggesting that no effort was made among the top brass of the administration to hide the fact that they were being courted to win elections, not to further any sort of policy initiative. Once in office, the new conservative movement began to change shape again, shifting into a party that represented free-market economy above all else, while promoting ideas that stretched far into the personal lives of private citizens.

“When you ask me where I stand on abortion, I say that it’s your business as long as I’m not paying for it. If it’s the choice between an abortion or paying for a child until it turns 18, I’ll go with the cheaper option. As far as gay marriage goes, the government shouldn’t be involved in marriage anyway. It’s between the church and the couple. If a church wants to marry two men, ta-daa! You’re married!” – Nathan Johnson, Republican

The Bush administration gave public rise to a new brand of conservative… the “neo-conservative.” Following the tenets of what has come to be known as “The Bush Doctrine,” the neo-conservative movement became one of fiery evangelical rhetoric, preemptive warfare and corporatist ideology. Big business found a home closer to the table than in any past presidency, and for the first time in our nation’s history we waged war on a sovereign nation without provocation. The old ideas of conservatism, the ideas in which the very philosophy were based, were tossed aside or completely thrown out. Responsible spending was a thing of the past, as the new neo-conservatives racked up incomprehensible debt, the kind of which we had never before seen in this country. Government intrusion had become commonplace, as measures were authorized to ban everything from same-sex marriage to medicinal marijuana despite the willingness of individual states to accept these issues as part of their local government. Entire branches of government were created for the explicit purpose of domestic surveillance and bureaucracy reached a level not seen since the days of World War II. In short, the movement that once stood for budget surplus and a “mind your own business” attitude toward social issues had become a movement that represented irresponsible spending and control over the lives of private citizens. To quote Barry Goldwater in a conversation with Bob Dole, “We’re the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?”

I cannot with certainty sit here and suggest that I wouldn’t have followed Barry Goldwater in his day. I don’t necessarily agree with such sharp curtailing of government programs, as I believe that a responsible government has an obligation to help those of its citizens in need. I do, however, believe in responsible spending for those programs. Welfare programs should have limitations, drug testing and incentives for education. I believe that programs like the TVA and WPA were integral in rebuilding our economy in a post-depression world. I believe that public health clinics offer a necessary service to low-income families in need of otherwise unattainable medical care. I believe that our nation is only as good as our weakest citizen.

I also believe that the government has no right to intrude into the living room, bedroom or lifestyle of any citizen. I believe that religion is a personal and private matter, not a wedge issue to be propped up as a scare-tactic every four years and then forgotten. I believe that science has its place and worship has its place, but very rarely do they have the same place. I could have supported Barry Goldwater, I could have supported Bill Buckley and I could have supported the conservative movement. I believe that our military should be strong, fueled by cutting edge technologies and used only as a defensive agency. I believe in lower taxes in times of prosperity and encouraging every citizen to make a life of their own. I believe that homosexuals should have the exact same rights that I have and I believe that the federal government has no right to define what a woman can or should do with her body.

Unfortunately for Senator Goldwater, that makes me a Democrat. However, I can’t say that he’d be too upset with my decision… after all, in the years preceding his death he had these words for the modern day Republican Party: Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than the Democrats have.


10 Responses to “The Revolution that Almost Was: The Death of the Conservative”

  1. shane Says:

    The most profound change in American politics in the last one hundred years has been the shift of southern voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, a shift than began around the mid sixties. Though I totally agree that “conservatism” means something much different today than it did fifty years ago, I feel you left out another factor that led to so many people switching their party affiliation: the Far Left’s takeover of the Democratic Party.

    In “Treason,” Ann Coulter wrote that beginning in the fifties there was literally a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. Needless to say, the far left wing of the Party won out. Christians in the south began to realize that the Democratic Party no longer represented their interests. Christians, like most people, want to belong to a party that represents their interests, not one that tells them what their interests should be.

    I was a registered Democrat until I started paying attention to politics. When I finally did some research on the two parties in early 2004, I was shocked at the sheer hatred the Democratic Party had for Christians. When I walked out of the courthouse after switching my party affiliation to Republican, I felt like I had just taken a shower.

    The Democratic Party will have to change some of its radical positions on gay rights, abortion and Christianity if it ever wants to experience sustained political success again. Mocking Christians is not a good strategy for winning elections in a country that considers itself “one nation under God.”

  2. Aaron Says:

    let’s forget one key reason that many Southern Democrats bolted for the Republican party in the 1950’s and 1960’s: the Democratic party’s support for the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act (spearheaded by JohN F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) outlawed segregation, most pointedly affecting the heavily segregated southern U.S., despite knowing that the Act would likely lose the South for Democrats, with LBJ commenting at the time that, “I know the risks are great and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway.” When many Southern Democrats saw fellow Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson pushing through this civil rights legislation, they went Republican or overwhelming supported segregationst Democratslike George Wallace.

    Interestingly, at the time, Republican Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act, saying, “You can’t legislate morality.” Southern Democrats seem to have used that logic to jump under the Republican banner, and yet now we see Republicans trying legislate morality at every turn.

    The Republican Party is now the champion party of Big Government, as they try to impose their morality on the general populace, seeking constitutional amendments on topics lilke gay rights and abortion, while also seeking to curtail basic personal freedoms in the righteous name of security. And the Ann Coulters of the world actually want to claim that it’s Democrats who want to tell people what their interests should be? Ann Coulter and her zealot ilk would like nothing more than to tell every man, woman, and child in this country EXACTLY how they should live their lives.

  3. shane Says:

    On the issue of abortion, Republicans are not trying to tell people what their interests should be, but are instead trying to protect the interests of the unborn. It’s not exactly going out on a limb to suggest that unborn babies would probably prefer not to be killed. But Democrats don’t care what the fetuses think because an abortion is a “private matter between a woman and her doctor.” Actually, it’s only private until time to pay the bill, then Democrats think everyone should gleefully chip in to help pay for it.

    As for gay rights, you could make the argument that Republicans are trying to legislate morality. You could also make the argument that Republicans are simply listening to the wishes of over eighty percent of the country. Since the vast majority of Americans are steadfastly against gay marriage, it should come as no surprise that Democrats are working tirelessly to get gays hitched. For Democrats, the will of the people only matters when the people disagree with a Republican. The rest of the time, the people are just stupid.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Hardly. I would not make the argument that over eighty percent of the country is against gay marriage (if that’s the stat) when I believe that one hundred percent of the country is against the government coming into their lives and tell htem they can or can’t do anything with their own lives.

    And abortion is a privte matter between a woman and her doctor.

  5. Aaron Says:

    Adn I seem to be havng trouble with this typnig thing.

  6. Cory Says:

    Y’know what, I’m tired of hearing about what the “majority” of people in this country want. Sometimes doing what’s right means going against the majority. Now, you might use that argument to suggest that we should ban abortion because it’s “wrong” despite what the majority says… and if that’s your position then have at it. But the idea that the Republican party actually gives a damn either way about gay rights is laughable. If a poll was released tomorrow that read “80% of U.S. Citizens Favor Gay Marriage,” John McCain would be on television personally marrying gay folks on the senate floor.

    It isn’t about what’s right or wrong with these people, it’s about what gets out the vote, as the vote keeps them in power. Plain and simple. If George Bush or his Republican Congress (which, I remind you all held unchecked power for six years) actually gave a damn about these social issues that they shove down our throats every four years, they would have done something about it. There is simply no argument whatsoever to that point. If abortion or any other social issue was REALLY on the plate for these politicians, then I’m fairly sure that they would have taken action to put a halt to it in the SIX YEARS that they were running the show.

    However, six years later, corporations are richer and the lives of average citizens are worse. Abortion is still legal, gays are still marrying in certain states and absolutely NONE of the prophecies of the Moral Majority have come to fruition. The whole blasted thing is just one long ploy to sucker people into voting for a party that exists only to further the interests of heavily lobbied corporations while exploiting the very voting bloc that brought them into power.

    And as far as the opinion of the “majority,” I’d remind anyone reading that the “majority” of southern states were opposed to desegregation, voting rights and any other mandated provision that allowed all people to share the promise of our country regardless of skin color. Thank God the Democrats of the time had the wherewithal to realize that by and large, people are stupid.

  7. shane Says:

    Three quick things…

    1) Comparing the historic plight of blacks in this country to the plight of gays borders on racism.

    2) The fight against abortion starts with overturning Roe v. Wade which would turn the issue of abortion over to the states. George W. Bush has made great strides to that effect by appointing two conservative judges to the Supreme Court.

    3) The majority of people oppose gay marriage because it’s WRONG!

  8. Anthony Says:

    Please explain further your #1 statement please…. Racism toward the gays or blacks?

    Why do you say gay marriage is wrong? Explain please.

    Btw shane, sorry about the harshness of my other comments. I get hot when I talk politics lol

  9. shane Says:

    No offense taken Anthony. I love talking politics, but I make it a point never to get mad. Most of my friends are liberal and we’ve had some heated conversations in the past, but seriously, I never get mad. At least not anymore.

    First of all let me say that I did not in any way mean to imply that Cory was being racist. We all know better than that. However, I would caution supporters of gay marriage not compare their cause to the injustices blacks have suffered in this country. Not only have blacks been legally discriminated against in America, they have been legally bought, sold, beaten and torn away from their families forever. Gays might feel pain because they can’t marry, but it cannot come close to what blacks have experienced. To suggest otherwise could be seen as an insult to blacks. Again, I know that is not in any way what Cory meant, but I have heard some liberals try to make that comparison.

    The reason I think gay marriage is wrong is mainly because of my religion. But even taking religion out of the picture, I still oppose it on practical grounds.

    Sixty or seventy years ago the idea of two men or two women becoming legally married would have sounded outrageous. Now, it is a reality in Massachusetts and California (Cali will be voting on the matter again in November. ). Many celebrate these same-sex marriages in MA and CA as an end to discrimination, but changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples could have some unintended consequences. What happens if three people want to get married? Or four? What if some weird church or cult consisting of hundreds or thousands of people want to all get married? Today, supporters of gay marriage argue that not allowing gays to marry is discrimination. If supporters of traditional marriage capitulate, then what will stop someone in the future from arguing that not allowing three, four or more people from marrying is discrimination? And when you think about it, they’d sort of have a point. Who has the right to arbitrarily set the number at two?

    Some (you, Cory, Aaron, Kevin, Ramona, Nathan, Brinton, Tina and many others I’m sure) might think that I’m crazy. But again, not that many years ago, the idea of marriage consisting of anything but one man and one woman also sounded crazy.

  10. corygraham Says:

    Well, I certainly don’t think that you’re crazy, I can understand how from a religious standpoint that this isn’t exactly an idea that gains a big following. However, I tend to agree with the stance that Nathan takes on the issue… marriage is really none of the government’s business. I don’t agree with tax breaks for married couples in the least. Just because I have chosen not to get married doesn’t mean that I’m somehow obligated to pay more taxes than someone who has made that decision. I’ve been in many relationships with different gals who I loved very deeply, on the other hand I’ve seen many marriages that lost any semblance of actual “love and affection” years ago, simply staying together for convenience. To suggest that the government has a hand in approving or disapproving in a form of marriage suggests to me that we’re legislating love and affection, which is something I strongly disagree with.

    If you are a spiritual person, then marriage is a very big deal. If you believe that your marriage is sanctioned by God and that the partner you stand beside is truly the person that you love, then I feel that should be celebrated no matter what gender the person happens to be. If you want to be married and you find someone to marry you, then congratulations… you’re married. However, just signing on a piece of paper doesn’t entitle you to more government benefits than I receive. I could find someone to marry tomorrow, thus lightening my tax burden and opening up a whole new window of government handouts… but that’s just simply wrong. I just see marriage as a very personal issue, and one of many such issues where the government’s opinion shouldn’t play a role.

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