“Conservatives cannot govern well . . .”

“Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”

—Alan Wolfe, “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern
Washington Monthly, July/August 2006

LNW_IWantFDR2-1We have long believed that if either party takes governing seriously, it is the Democrats. Conservative Republicans do not seek office in order to govern but rather to hold power—power to cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, to privatize the functions of government that can’t be abolished outright, to weaken labor unions, and to give the oil industry and the military/security complex anything they want.

The article below by political scientist Alan Wolfe explains in convincing detail the deadly consequences of the conservatives’ unbelief in governing and reveals why a deliberately weakened FEMA was unable to respond to the destruction and suffering wrought by Hurricane Katrina:

“Long before Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Allbaugh and Brown were busy destroying FEMA: privatizing many of the agency’s programs, shifting attention away from disaster management, and shedding no tears as scores of agency staff left in dismay. Human beings cannot prevent natural disasters, but they can prevent man-made ones. Not the Bush administration. Its ideological hostility toward government all but guaranteed that the physical damage inflicted by a hurricane would be exacerbated by the human damage caused by incompetence.”

Why Conservatives Can’t Govern

By Alan Wolfe
The Washington Monthly
July/August 2006


Search hard enough and you might find a pundit who believes what George W. Bush believes, which is that history will redeem his administration. But from just about everyone else, on the right as vehemently as on the left, the verdict has been rolling in: This administration, if not the worst in American history, will soon find itself in the final four. Even those who appeal to history’s ultimate judgment halfheartedly acknowledge as much. One seeks tomorrow’s vindication only in the context of today’s dismal performance.

About the only failure more pronounced than the president’s has been the graft-filled plunder of GOP lawmakers—at least according to opinion polls, which in May gave the GOP-controlled Congress favorability ratings in the low 20s, about 10 points lower than the president’s. This does not necessarily translate into electoral Armageddon; redistricting and other incumbency-protection devices help protect against that. But even if many commentators think that Republicans may retain control over Congress, very few think they should.

Eager to salvage conservatism from the wreckage of conservative rule, right-wing pundits are furiously blaming right-wing politicians for failing to adhere to right-wing convictions. Libertarians such as Bruce Bartlett fret that under Republican control, government has not shrunk, as conservatives prescribe, but has grown. Insiders like Peggy Noonan complain that Republicans have become—well, insiders; they are too focused on retaining power and too disconnected from the base whose anger pushed them into power. Idealistic younger conservatives bewail the care and feeding of the K Street beast. Paleocons Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak blame neocons William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer for the debacle that is Iraq. Through all these laments there pulsates a sense of desperation: A conservative president and an even more conservative Congress must be repudiated to enable genuine conservatism to survive. Sure, the Bush administration has failed, all these voices proclaim. But that is because Bush and his Republican allies in Congress borrowed big government and foreign-policy idealism from the left. The ideas of Woodrow Wilson and John Maynard Keynes, from their point of view, have always been flawed. George W. Bush and Tom DeLay just prove it one more time.

Conservative dissidents seem to have done an admirable job of persuading each other of the truth of their claims. Of course, many of these dissidents extolled the president’s conservative leadership when he was riding high in the polls. But the real flaw in their argument is akin to that of Trotskyites who, when confronted with the failures of communism in Cuba, China and the Soviet Union, would claim that real communism had never been tried. If leaders consistently depart in disastrous ways from their underlying political ideology, there comes a point where one has to stop just blaming the leaders and start questioning the ideology.

The collapse of the Bush presidency, in other words, is not just due to Bush’s incompetence (although his administration has been incompetent beyond belief). Nor is it a response to the president’s principled lack of intellectual curiosity and pitbull refusal to admit mistakes (although those character flaws are certainly real enough). And the orgy of bribery and special-interest dispensation in Congress is not the result of Tom DeLay’s ruthlessness, as impressive a bully as he was. This conservative presidency and Congress imploded, not despite their conservatism, but because of it.

Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut—especially in ways benefiting the rich—the better.

But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions—indeed, whose very existence—they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

“Ideas,” a distinguished conservative named Richard Weaver once wrote, “have consequences.” Americans have learned something about the consequences of conservative ideas during the Bush years that they never had to confront in the more amiable Reagan period. As a way of governing, conservatism is another name for disaster. And the disasters will continue, year after year, as long as conservatives, whose political tactics are frequently as brilliant as their policy-making is inept, find ways to perpetuate their power.


The United States, as the political scientist Louis Hartz argued in the 1950s, was born liberal. We fought for our independence against Great Britain and the conservatism that flourished there. In Europe, a conservative was someone who defended the traditions of the monarchy, justified the privileges of the nobility, and welcomed the intervention of a state-affiliated clergy in politics. But all those things would be tossed out by the revolutionaries who led the war for independence and then wrote the Constitution. We chose to have an elected president, not an anointed monarch. Our Constitution prohibited the granting of titles of nobility. We separated church and state.

Of course, we had more than our share of thinkers who distrusted national authority; conservative political philosophy may not come naturally to Americans, but a fear of centralized power and an unwillingness to pay heavy taxes does. Beneath the broad political liberalism embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a frequently unexamined conservatism that questioned the very idea of the vibrant, expansive society that America promised to be.

Odd men out in America’s liberal political culture, America’s conservatives were never very unified. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall wanted to see a strong national government created to improve America’s economic prospects, even if they retained an aristocratic sense that only social superiors should control that government. (John Adams outdid them on behalf of a strong executive; he thought our first president should be addressed as a monarch). But this kind of New England Federalism would go into abeyance once America’s democratizing forces were unleashed. Others insisted that this country should embody timeless Christian principles; they, however, soon ran up against the skepticism of the Founding Fathers and conceptions of religious liberty associated with dissenting Protestantism. With the decline of both, the only significant conservatism left would come from defenders of slavery such as John C. Calhoun. Once the advocate of a strong national government, Calhoun, putting the rights of slaveholders first, viewed this country as a compact among states, not as a unified society. His ideas would live on in the voices of those thinkers, primarily Southern, who objected to relying on national power to promote equal rights for all.

As this litany of lost causes suggests, our conservatives, while representing different regions and economic interests, were united by their irrelevance in the face of history. If the term reactionary is too pejorative, let’s call them reactive. In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things—deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three—that most Americans were anxious to shed. Deprived of both a church and state to defend, American conservatives became advocates for privileges determined by birth, suffrage restricted to an elite, and rural virtues over urban realities.

And so conservatives faced a dilemma from the moment the first shots were heard around the world. They could be true to their ideals and stand on the sidelines of political power. Or they could adjust their principles in the interests of political realism and thus negate the essential conservative teaching that principles are meant to be timeless. All the conservatives that played any role in America’s history since the age of Jackson chose political relevance over ideological purity. The Whigs abandoned aristocracy to nominate a popular military leader in the 1840s, hoping thereby to out-democratize the Jacksonians. An emerging business elite defended the free market—an 18th-century liberal innovation detested by agrarian-oriented conservatives—to protect the very kind of privileges that Adam Smith hoped the free market would curtail. Isolationists abandoned the cosmopolitanism of Hamilton, perhaps America’s greatest conservative, for a populistic nativism suspicious of worldly grandeur. Clergy from evangelical churches played down such depressing doctrines as original sin and predestination in favor of the wonders of salvation for all. European conservatism had defended authority against liberty and social standing against equality. American conservatives used the language of liberty to justify inequality and promoted democracy to stand against change.

A conservative in America, in short, is someone who advocates ends that cannot be realized through means that can never be justified, at least not on the terrain of conservatism itself. In the past, the ends sought were the preservation of hierarchy, even if the means included appeals to democratic sentiment. In more recent times, conservatives promised order and stability through means dependent upon the uncertainties and insecurities of the market. Unwilling to accept the fact that government was here to stay, conservatives stood on the sidelines as conditions kept arising that demanded bigger and more effective national authority. Westward expansion required Washington to settle the issue of slavery, and the recalcitrant South ultimately lost. Industrialization forced the country to deal with trusts and workplace oppression, and the Gilded Age leaders ultimately lost to the Progressives. The Depression demanded stronger government action even more urgently, even as the advocates of laissez faire opposed the New Deal. Similarly, the rise of fascism necessitated a vast expansion of federal power; and again, the conservative impulse, in the form of isolationism, lost.

By the 1950s, anti-federal-government conservatism was somewhat in retreat. Conservatives in the Republican Party still pushed for spending restraint while Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party resisted a greater role for the federal government in entrenching civil rights for blacks. But in general, leaders of both political parties, reflecting public sentiment, basically accepted big government as legitimate. The liberal propensities within both parties led to a federal government that continued to take on new challenges as they arose, from providing healthcare to seniors and the poor to regulating product safety and pollution.

But as we know now, the conservative anti-federal government impulse did not go away. Barry Goldwater, the last conservative purist in America, paid a huge political price for his frank disdain of government; abolishing mandatory Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority was not the way to win votes among the elderly in the South. In the 1970s, the conservative impulse went underground, incubating in a string of new think tanks funded by conservative philanthropists and sympathetic corporations. Although some of those who followed in Goldwater’s footsteps—Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and then Bush—professed to share his distaste for government, none stood in the way of its growth. When given the opportunity, they shied away from enacting the think-tank talk of washing government down the bathroom drain. Although Ronald Reagan, a convert to anti-federal-government conservatism, won the White House in 1980 by feeding on public disgust with the excesses of liberalism, whatever plans he may have had to roll back the federal government were blocked by a Democratic Congress and public opinion. (Remember, for instance, the drubbing the GOP took in 1982 when it tried to axe Social Security benefits). Newt Gingrich and his revolutionaries rode a similar wave in 1994, but their plans were at least partially stymied by Bill Clinton’s control of the White House and, again, by public opinion (the GOP lost seats in 1998).

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, anti-government conservatism won control of both elected branches. This was something new.

Conservatives hadn’t held both Congress and the White House for a full term since 1932, before the creation of big government as we know it. For the first time in U.S history, conservatives had total control of the agencies of superpower government.


If government is necessary, bad government, at least for conservatives, is inevitable, and conservatives have been exceptionally good at showing just how bad it can be. Hence the truth revealed by the Bush years: Bad government—indeed, bloated, inefficient, corrupt, and unfair government—is the only kind of conservative government there is. Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.

Three examples—FEMA, Medicare, and Iraq—should be sufficient to make this point. Because liberals have historically welcomed government while conservatives have resisted it, it should come as no surprise that the Federal Emergency Management Agency worked so well under Bill Clinton and so poorly under Bush I and II. True to a long tradition of disinterested public management, Clinton, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, appointed James Lee Witt to head FEMA. Witt refocused FEMA away from civil-defense efforts to increasingly predictable national disasters, fought for greater federal funding, achieved cabinet status for his agency, and worked closely with state and local officials. For all the efforts by Republicans to attack their enemies, no one has ever put a dent in Witt’s reputation. Government under him was as good as government gets.

Upon assuming office, George W. Bush turned to former Texas campaign aide Joe Allbaugh to run FEMA and then shifted it into the new Department of Homeland Security (whose creation he had opposed). Allbaugh, and his hand-picked successor Michael Brown, like so many Bush appointees, were afflicted with what we might call “learned incompetence.” They did not fail merely out of ignorance and inexperience. Their ineptness, rather, was active rather than passive, the end result of a deliberate determination to prove that the federal government simply should not be in the business of disaster management. “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management,” Allbaugh had testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee in May, 2001. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” There was the conservative dilemma in a nutshell: a man put in charge of a mission in which he did not believe.

Long before Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Allbaugh and Brown were busy destroying FEMA: privatizing many of the agency’s programs, shifting attention away from disaster management, and shedding no tears as scores of agency staff left in dismay. Human beings cannot prevent natural disasters, but they can prevent man-made ones. Not the Bush administration. Its ideological hostility toward government all but guaranteed that the physical damage inflicted by a hurricane would be exacerbated by the human damage caused by incompetence.

The question of whether Medicare reform will prove politically fruitful for Republicans is still open. But the question of whether it has proven to be an administrative nightmare is not. There were two paths open to Republicans if they had been interested in creating an administratively coherent system of paying for the prescription drugs of the elderly. One was to give the elderly nothing and insist that every person assume the full cost of his or her medication. The other was to have government assume responsibility for the costs of those drugs.

It is significant that in America’s recent debates over prescription drugs, no one, not even the Cato Institute, argued that government should simply not be in the business at all. As a society, we accept—indeed, we celebrate—the fact that older people can live longer and better lives thanks to radically improved medical technology as well as awe-inspiring advances in pharmacology. A political party which consigned to death anyone who could not afford to participate in this medical revolution would die an early death itself.

But Republicans were just as unwilling to design a sensible program as they were unable to eliminate the existing one. To prove their faith in the market, they gave people choices, when what they wanted was predictability. To pay off the pharmaceutical industry, they refused to allow government to negotiate drug prices downward, thereby vastly inflating the program’s costs. To make sure government agencies didn’t administer the benefit, they lured in insurance companies with massive subsidies and imposed almost no rules on what benefits they could and could not offer. The lack of rules led to a frustrating chaos of choices. And the extra costs had to be made up by carving out a so-called “doughnut hole” in which the elderly, after having their drug purchases subsidized up to a certain point, would suddenly find themselves without federal assistance at all, only to have their drugs subsidized once again at a later point. Caught between the market and the state, Republicans picked the worst features of each. No single human being could have designed a program as unwieldy as this one. It took the combined efforts of every faction in today’s conservative movement to produce a public policy so removed from common sense.

The failure of the Bush administration to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion was just one more, albeit the most serious, consequence of the conservative ambivalence toward government. Neoconservatives were all for ambitious adventures abroad, and, in the aftermath of September 11, they won the president’s support. But they never captured his pocketbook, which was tenaciously guarded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Neocons wanted the Republican Party to live in the shadow of Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Rumsfeld insisted that military adventures be funded in the spirit of Robert A. Taft.

So long as conservatives denigrate government while relying on government to achieve their objectives, Rumsfeld’s vision of how to fight wars is the only kind of conservative foreign policy one can have. His low-balling of troop estimates in Iraq was the foreign policy equivalent of libertarian economics: relying on government while refusing to pay for it. His hostility toward Iraqi reconstruction resonated with those skeptical of rebuilding New Orleans. His disdain for Colin Powell’s State Department mirrored Joe McCarthy’s for Dean Acheson’s. Only a tried-and-true conservative could ever have come up with the idea of turning the management of Iraqi police forces over to private firms to the extent that Rumsfeld did, with catastrophic results for the Iraqis themselves. While it is difficult to label someone who plans a war an isolationist, Rumsfeld’s hostility toward America’s historic allies represented a contemporary version of unilateralism, which has always been isolationism’s first cousin. The neoconservatives wanted to draft hugely expensive undertakings onto a party with an isolationist past. The Secretary of Defense wanted to draft on to the same political party a distant war, but with the promise of being cheap and avoiding the loss of American lives. It is not difficult to conclude which one would win in today’s conservative environment.

For Pat Buchanan to blame the neocons for the failure in Iraq ignores the fact that the man most responsible for the failure, Donald Rumsfeld, has more in common with Buchanan than he does with Bill Kristol. (One prominent neoconservative, however, Paul Wolfowitz, did sign on enthusiastically to Rumsfeld’s agenda.) Iraq failed for the same reasons that all conservative public policy efforts fail. Refusing to acknowledge the importance of government while relying on it to achieve your objectives causes the same kind of chaos in foreign policy that it does in matters closer to home.


One of the favorite myths of contemporary conservative dissidents is that the K Street machine, instead of being the irreplaceable lynchpin of conservative power, was somehow a betrayal of its ideals. This fable is captured by Matthew Continetti, a Weekly Standard reporter, in The K Street Gang, a conservative “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

In Continetti’s telling, once upon a time—let’s make it 1994—conservatives were idealistic revolutionaries. Gingrich and his cohorts were “optimistic, progressive, and overwhelmingly confident in the idea that you could run the federal government like a large corporation.” Alas, however, Gingrich was unable to persuade his Republican colleagues to vote for Robert Walker of Pennsylvania as majority whip. Texas’s Tom DeLay won the post instead, and DeLay was a man “who viewed government as a business—one that would maximize the advantages of business so that business would then donate to their political war chests.” In this account, Gingrich and DeLay are not part of the same Republican revolution; indeed, one of them, DeLay, is a counterrevolutionary, Stalin to Gingrich’s Trotsky. (Yes, Continetti makes that comparison.) The 1994 whip election, Continetti argues, became a struggle “between those who viewed power as a means to the end of limiting government and those who viewed power as an end in itself.” DeLay’s victory was therefore the beginning of Gingrich’s downfall.

Continetti’s tale is utterly implausible. To accept it, you have to believe that Gingrich was unaware of the extent to which DeLay was working behind his back to undermine him. You also have to explain away why many of those Republicans in Congress who voted for Gingrich for one position were also quite happy to vote for DeLay for another; surely they believed that both men had roughly similar views on how their party should conduct itself in office. Finally, you have to view Gingrich’s attacks on K Street in the wake of DeLay’s downfall as a continuation of his idealism, rather than positioning for a possible presidential race a view that only the most naïve could hold.

The fact is that Gingrich and DeLay, although they detested each other, were both products of the same aggressive conservatism that swept the Republicans into power in the first place. Far from representing two radically different forms of conservatism, they are best viewed as the good cop/bad cop dynamic of what was until recently a remarkably unified movement—one man providing the policy vision, the other adept at getting particular policies enacted. The K Street Project was not the product of DeLay’s wily machinations, sure to fall from prominence along with DeLay’s fall from power. (Now that DeLay is no longer majority leader, Republicans are not engaged in any serious effort to demolish the project; their current leader, John Boehner, a former ally of Gingrich, understands full well its importance). The seeds of the K Street Project were planted even before Gingrich assumed his position of majority leader, and the result will flower so long as conservative Republicans practice the kinds of politics they do.

Political parties expend the time and grueling energy to control government for different reasons. Liberals, while enjoying the perquisites of office, also want to be in a position to use government to solve problems. But conservatives have different motives for wanting power. One is to prevent liberals from doing so; if government cannot be made to disappear, at least it can be prevented from doing any good. The other is to build a political machine in which business and the Republican Party can exchange mutual favors; business will lavish cash on politicians (called campaign contributions) while politicians will throw the money back at business (called public policy). Conservatism will always attract its share of young idealists. And young idealists will always be disillusioned by the sheer amount of corruption that people like Gingrich and DeLay generate. If yesterday’s conservative was a liberal mugged by reality, today’s is a free-marketer fattened by pork.

Transforming the Republican Party into a highly disciplined organization determined to get its way without cooperation from the Democrats was an another objective shared by Gingrich and DeLay. Indeed, the former, not the latter, deserves the credit for substituting British-style party discipline and ideological extremism for bipartisan cooperation and moderation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Name an innovation associated with DeLay, and one discovers that it was previously institutionalized by Gingrich: developing redistricting rules to favor Republicans; encouraging House Republicans to vote as a unified bloc; weakening seniority so as to strengthen party leaders; freezing the opposition party out of a role in governance. It would take a decade after the Republican revolution of 1994 for the U. S. House of Representatives to fully transform itself into a body that no longer made a pretense of valuing fairness and deliberation. But that is only because Tom DeLay possessed a political advantage denied Gingrich: a fellow Republican in the White House.

It is a characteristic trope of political journalism to blame both parties equally for any malfeasance. But the partisan zealotry of the current U. S. House of Representatives has shocked such fair-minded, long-term observers of Congress as Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann; their book, The Broken Branch, is a lament for a time when Congressmen put the needs of their institution before those of their party. If Republican conservatives are trying something new in the world—and changing one of the two branches of Congress into an institution more likely to be found in a one-party state strikes me as new indeed—it is worth asking where their approach came from. And the answer is the same place where bad governance comes from: Partisanship this vindictive is part and parcel of what it means to be a conservative today.

Historically and philosophically, liberals and conservatives have disagreed with each other, not only over the ends political systems should serve, but over the means chosen to serve those ends. Whether through the ideas of James Madison, Immanuel Kant, or John Stuart Mill, liberals have viewed violent conflict as regrettable and the use of political institutions as the best way to contain it. Conservatives, from the days of Machiavelli to such twentieth-century figures as Germany’s Carl Schmitt, have, by contrast, viewed politics as an extension of war, complete with no-holds-barred treatment of the enemy, iron-clad discipline in the ranks, cries of treason against those who do not support the effort with full-throated vigor, and total control over any spoils won. From a conservative point of view, separation of powers is divisive, tolerance a luxury, fairness another word for weakness, and cooperation unnecessary. If conservatives will not use government to tame Hobbes’ state of nature, they will use it to strengthen Hobbes’ state of nature. Victory is the only thing that matters, and any tactic more likely to produce victory is justified.

The K Street Project, then, did not arise spontaneously out of the ether. When Republicans in Congress began to inform lobbyists that in return for influence they would have to fire all the Democrats in their firms, they may have broken with long-standing traditions, but they were simply carrying forward politics-as-warfare the way conservative political philosophers have historically understood it. Liberals do not generally have objections to working with conservatives; indeed, having conservatives sign off on any expansion of government adds to the legitimacy of that expansion. But conservatives tend to see working with liberals as corrupting; in the immortal words of conservative activist Grover Norquist, “bipartisanship is another name for date rape.” K Street is to lobbying what Fox News is to journalistic objectivity. In the world that contemporary conservatives have brought into being, rules are not applicable to all parties to a conflict. Rules are part of the conflict, and whoever wins the conflict gets to change the rules.

Once upon a time, conservatism may have appealed to history’s losers, the agrarian interests displaced by industry or the small-business owners being bought out by multinational corporations. Not any longer. The most dynamic House Republicans, Gingrich and DeLay among them, did not arrive on Capitol Hill from rural byways and once-thriving but now depressed industrial towns; they came from booming sunbelt communities in the forefront of global transformation. They exploit Washington the way farmers once exploited land and industrial firms exploited workers. Their efforts are designed to help business and to build their party, and for those tasks, Congress, and the money at its disposal, is a weapon to use, not an institution to shrink. It took conservatives, who in the 18th and early 19th century supported quasi-feudal states and distrusted the instabilities of the market, a hundred years to become advocates of laissez faire. And under the imperatives of the K Street Project, it took them just five to abandon their belief in laissez faire to support a corrupt business-government partnership bearing striking resemblance to feudalism.

For a disillusioned idealist such as Matthew Continetti, Washington, D.C. is now filled with “people who mouth conservative principles while getting rich off conservative power.” But what good are conservatives principles without conservative power? And what chance was there that conservatives could gain and hold political power without their joined-at-the-hip connection to K Street? Nearly every electoral and legislative success conservatives have enjoyed over the past six years has been crucially aided by the organizational and financial contributions of corporate lobbyists. The conservative vision of the world, because it is so hostile to government when government is so essential to the way we live now, remains unattractive to most Americans, which is why Republicans must rely on money to substitute for the large popular majorities they are unable to build and sustain. The idea that it could have been, or can be, different is a fantasy. A New England-based, patrician-oriented conservatism which insists on the importance of impersonal standards of high public conduct is as irrelevant in today’s political economy as a Southern-style, gentlemanly conservatism that emphasizes chivalry and honor. The cavaliers and Mugwumps are long-gone from conservatism, and the Duke Cunninghams have replaced them.


Behind the surge in right-wing criticism of the Bush presidency is the hope that après le deluge, Americans will give conservatism another chance. But even if Americans were inclined to do so, what kind of conservatism could be offered to them? If it somehow defied all laws of political gravity and carried through on its promise to shrink government, conservatism would add considerably to the level of misery at home and abroad—and lose whatever majorities it may have had in the process. If it managed to return to its roots in a South that no longer exists or a New England losing population to the rest of the country, conservatism would return to the marginalization that characterized its history. If it retreated behind its borders, it would lack the means to protect itself against threats emanating from overseas. The conservative dilemma, omnipresent in the past, looms over conservatism’s future. It can reveal its true face and consign itself to oblivion or it can govern without conviction and produce unending incompetence.

There are ways out of the conservative dilemma. American conservatives could, for example, take away from the Bush years the lesson that they must change their ideology if they are ever again to make the Republican Party a serious party of governance. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. Conservatives in the American past—not only Hamilton and Marshall, but Daniel Webster and Henry Clay—were in favor of a strong government capable of meeting national objectives. There exists, moreover, a modernizing version of conservatism in contemporary Europe, where conservatives recognize the inevitability of government but try to tailor its objectives and improve its competence. Call this “big government conservatism” if you wish, but it would have little in common with that term as President Bush’s critics use it to attack him and his administration. This would not be a conservatism that used government to pay off friends and punish enemies but one that sought to use government to stabilize society and avoid periodic crises.

Admittedly, not much evidence exists in America today that conservatives are prepared to move in such a direction. If anything, they seem to have reinforced and strengthened their determination to govern as incompetently and unfairly as they can. The fact that they will leave behind a public sector in roughly the same condition that strip miners leave hillsides would cause nothing but pain to yesterday’s patricians, for whom ideals such as responsibility and soundness were watchwords. But today’s conservatives have no problem passing on the costs of their present madness to future generations. Governing well would require them to use the bully-pulpit of office to educate and uplift their base. But since contemporary conservatives get their political energy from angry voices of rage and revenge, they will always blame others for the failures built into their ideology. That is why conservatism so rarely makes for a good governance party. As far as conservatives are concerned, it is always someone else’s government, one reason they can be so indifferent to their own mismanagement.

Americans may have elected a Republican president and Congress, but they are unlikely to go back to a world in which one illness can devastate their last years or one storm can destroy their lives. Because government is the one institution that allows us some control over our future, conservatism, which distrusts government so much, is best viewed as a natural counter to liberalism, which, if left unchecked, tends towards wasteful bureaucracy. Indeed, as the Bush administration fully proves, conservatism remains a force of opposition even when it purports to be a governance party. And so the best that can be hoped for is that American voters will do for conservatives what they are unable to do themselves: to vote them out of office.

Alan Wolfe, author of Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press), is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College.





“Conservatives cannot govern well . . .”