A post on the left-leaning website Daily Kos boldly declares, “Conservatism is dead, and it’s not coming back.” An article by George Packer called “The Fall of Conservatism” chronicles what he considers the steady fracturing and consequent downfall of the conservative movement. But one eminent conservative cries, “Not so fast!”
Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank, is widely regarded as the chief historian of the American conservative movement. He became the first biographer of Ronald Reagan and recently spear-headed the establishment in Washington of an international memorial to the more than 100 million victims of communism.
Upon entering his office, one is struck by the shelves upon shelves of books that line the walls and occasionally end up in small piles on his desk. A half-dozen or more black and white pictures of him with conservative heroes such as Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr. are framed on the wall behind him and show that the roots of Dr. Edwards in the conservative movement are quite deep.
He boils conservatism down to five core precepts based upon the American Founding and Western Civilization: “The free market, limited constitutional government, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”
“People are confusing the Republican Party with conservatism. They are assuming that what the Republican Party does is conservatism,” says Dr. Edwards, “And that is not the case. Of course, the opposition, those who are of a more liberal persuasion, or progressive persuasion as they call themselves, are quite eager to link the two. They are trying to say just as Bush’s popularity is at an all time low, even that of Richard Nixon, so is conservatism headed for the ash heap of history.”
Many younger Americans especially neglect his insightful distinction. The abandonment of principle for partisanship and politics has hurt the Republican Party, but conservatism has existed long before the party adopted its principles and likely will survive long after the party is mere history.
Conservatism as a movement is alive and well, declares Dr. Edwards: “Any political movement needs a coherent relevant philosophy, a national infrastructure, adequate financial resources, media proficiency, and able, charismatic, principled leadership. You look at where the conservative movement is in each one of those and you will see we are quite strong, stronger than we’ve ever been in the last fifty years, with the possible exception of charismatic, principled leadership.”
Indeed, many of the great conservative pantheon have passed away: Russell Kirk, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Bill Buckley, and most recently Jesse Helms. Conservatives are naturally looking for the next standard-bearers of the movement and have been somewhat disappointed with the Republican leadership.
Declining to use the terms “wounds” or “divisions,” Dr. Edwards acknowledges that there is and always has been a diversity of opinions among conservatives. “The conservative movement has always had strains. It’s always had different elements. Go back fifty years and there were some really spirited debates, particularly between the libertarians and the traditional conservatives.”
Moreover, these internal disputes “are more apparent today because the movement is bigger than it was fifty years ago,” says Dr. Edwards. But these circumstances are “a sign not of decay but of vitality.” People within the movement would not be arguing over the future of conservatism if they thought it had no future.
But there is a fine line between philosophical dynamism and political in-fighting. Anti-communism held the conservative movement together and Reagan embodied this fusion of disparate elements. With the Cold War won, what and who will hold the movement together in the future?
Dr. Edwards answers, “What is needed to bridge these differences is agreement on a clear and present threat. And I think most conservatives would agree that it is Leviathan; it’s the welfare state. So there is a need to really drive that home. And secondly, you need that charismatic, principled leadership. The right leader will bring these elements together.”
Liberals might want to rethink their claim of “mission accomplished.” Conservatism is hardly dead and gone. As Dr. Edwards concludes, “The future is good so long as we stick to our principles. The conservative movement has many miles to go yet.”