Alas conservatives, we knew you well.
But now that the conservative movement has "failed,'' the political right
will be consigned to the dustbin of bad memories -- along with McCarthyism,
Reaganism and all its other isms.
Hold it! Has a mysterious strain of common sense infected the body politic?
How can anyone suggest that the conservative movement -- which grips such power
in state capitals and the nation's capital -- is a failure.
Actually, it's become quite easy.
And quite common.
The fall 1998 punishment by American voters of Republicans who promoted the
Clinton impeachment fiasco gave electoral ballast to the argument that
conservatives were out of touch. Ensuing polls added muscle to the argument that
the mainstream was moving left.
Then, a year ago, veteran right-wing activist Paul Weyrich released a letter
urging religious right activists to withdraw from politics because their
movement was so clearly at odds with the secular values of the American
That opened up an intense debate on the right. A growing minority of
conservatives began asking themselves honest questions about the legitimacy of
their long and bitter fight to protect the interests of corporations at the
expense of society, to prevent women from controlling their own bodies, to
enshrine discrimination against gays and lesbians, and to turn America's schools
into religious and ideological indoctrination camps.
Had they become rebels against the future, these conservatives asked.
Now it appears that John McCain's upset of the Republican apple cart has
heightened the crisis of confidence on the right. The day after the New
Hampshire primary -- in which McCain, who had been attacked for being "too
liberal,'' trounced "compassionate'' conservative George W. Bush -- the
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, argued
that McCain's victory proved that the conservative movement is "finished.''
Frankly, Kristol is being a little silly. McCain's "success'' is hardly
assured. And he is hardly a liberal; strip away the senator's "reform'' talk and
he's still a rather typical right-winger on issues of military spending,
abortion and social spending. Yet McCain's refusal to march in lockstep with the
conservative movement has made him more appealing to voters than the "don't-make-me-think''
candidacy of George W. Bush.
The rejection even by Republican primary voters of orthodox conservatism has
got professional apologists like Kristol feeling embattled. And so they should.
Polls tell us that American public opinion is trending left. A Gallup survey in
January found that 60 percent of those surveyed said Bill Clinton's policies
should continue or be replaced by more liberal policies. Only 33 percent wanted
a more conservative approach.
"There's a simple explanation for virtually all the political trends of 2000,
including the declining appeal of tax cuts, the rising support for government
programs, the popularity of the Democratic agenda, the less conservative than
usual cast of the Republican presidential front-runners and the more liberal
cast of the Democrats, indeed the success of John McCain and the failure of
conservative candidates Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes,'' writes
conservative Fred Barnes. "The explanation? The country has moved to the left.
No, it hasn't lurched drastically. But the political mood has grown perceptibly
more liberal over the past year or two.''
Is conservatism doomed? No.
Conservatism will never disappear completely. As long as there is fear and
greed in this world, there will be a political movement to exploit it.
But for Americans who just a few years ago had feared that their country's
promise would be cheated by a long era of conservatism, this turn of the
ideological screw is encouraging. Now that even conservatives admit their
movement is losing its appeal, perhaps America can get back to the business of
addressing real issues, solving real problems and building a real future in
which all of this nation's citizens are treated with respect and dignity.
John Nichols is the editorial page
editor of The Capital Times.
© 2000 The Capital Times