Rather than use a cheerful blaze to burn the modern conservative movement to the ground, right-thinking Americans ought to gather around the fire and clasp hands. Conservatives need an act of unity, embracing what knits together one of the great political movements of modern times.
Building a Steady Stool
In “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,” George Nash rejects a “compact definition of conservatism.”
"American conservatives themselves have no such agreed-upon definition," he argues. "Instead, the very quest for self-definition has been one of the most notable motifs of their thought since World War II." In the post-Reagan era, conservatism has evolved into an alliance of like-minded Americans who share parts of a vision for a free, safe, and prosperous nation.
The modern American conservative movement is often described as a stool with three legs: national security conservatives, social conservatives, and free-market conservatives. One prioritizes defense and security. Another cherishes individual liberties and family values. The third embraces economic freedoms.
By bringing together national security hawks, religious evangelicals, and free-market zealots, the American conservative movement became the modern counterweight to the progressive political force that emerged over the course of the 20th century. The battle was on. Advocates of the all-powerful administrative state faced proponents of limited government that would leave individual freedoms unencumbered.
Modern American conservatism is an intellectual rope fashioned by intertwining animating ideas for liberty, the common defense, and free enterprise. That is both its great strength and glaring weakness in the fight against progressivism.
Pundits can argue whether conservative influence is waxing or waning. Nash ended his book on an ambivalent note, saying that, if conservatives were not winning, at the least “gone were the days when Lionel Trillin could assert that liberalism was the ‘sole intellectual tradition’ in the United States.”
In “ The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America ” (2005), John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argued more confidently that the right would dominate America far into the future. After Obama’s election that future seemed severely constricted. Even the rise of the Tea Party movement seemed like little more than a false dawn.
Yet conservatives remain a force to be reckoned with. Clearly, Trump could not have won the red states without them. It is not surprising to see Trump champion an issue like immigration and border security; it's a long-standing issue for the right. Broken borders and a flawed immigration system threaten American security, prosperity, culture, and the constitutional rule of law. A sticker emblazoned with the words "Build the Wall" covers a lot of bumpers.
Further, it is hard to see how Trump can govern and move his agenda without conservative support. Win or lose the midterms; the administration will find it much harder to push forward without help from a united conservative movement.
The Legs Loosen
Contemporary debates, however, have the potential to take the movement apart. A stool has three legs—take out one or two legs and, well, you know what happens. And today’s hot-button political debates are framed to pit conservative against conservative.
Prioritizing national security means recognizing that the mantra “peace through strength” doesn’t work if there is no strength. The gap between U.S. military strength as it is and what it should be to deal with current and emerging threats has been growing for a decade. And it continues to grow even though Trump pushed through a brief respite in the decline of defense spending. National security conservatives were will willing to make almost any compromise—even forgoing fully funding the Wall—to make that happen.
A signature issue for social conservatives is eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Federal support for an organization that does not respect the rights of the unborn undermines traditional cultural norms and clashes with the principle of religious toleration. There are few priorities they would not compromise on to address this grievance.
Among those focused on the economy, nothing is more worrisome than a metastasizing federal government that sucks money out of the economy and redistributes it to favored interest groups. Government spending is corporate cronyism, socialism, and corruption all rolled into one, and the growing national debt is its offspring. For fiscal conservatives, nothing is more important than breaking the chains federal spending is placing on future generations.
Conservatives could well stumble over the stool because one or more leg could fall away—each scrambling to salvage its own priority. Contemporary politics often puts those who should have common cause at each other’s throat.
For example, some conservatives embraced the Budget Control Act in the hope that it would restrain federal spending. They accepted that most of the restraint would fall on defense, but argued that any restraint was better than none, even if much of it was misplaced. National security conservatives didn't buy it, arguing that the budget compromise seriously undermined defense readiness and modernization.