The question is not so much about the future of conservatism in America as it is about the future of America. The country cannot thrive in the absence of a conservative counterweight to the progressive strain in American politics.
The progressive strain is more or less baked into the American cake, and it is a good thing that it is. Our liberalism (in the classical sense) has done wonders for the expansion of freedom at home and abroad. This expansion requires a group of people more zealous than most Americans in its pursuit. At home, these are the progressives–liberals in the distinctly American sense.
Against the ambitions of today’s progressives, the counter that conservatives generally offer, without irony, is a robust defense of the fruits of the progressivism of previous generations. When Republicans say they are the ones who really want to save Medicare, because an unreformed Medicare program is fiscally unsustainable, they are conceding that there is no going back to an era when universal entitlement to health care for older Americans was no more than a progressive’s dream.
Progressives will not give conservatives credit for this concession, because they regard such concessions as the acceptance of the inevitable. Accepting the inevitable is not virtuous, even if it entails overcoming what progressives see as conservatives’ ignorance, stupidity, and base motives (which, as far as I can tell, exhaust the range of progressive explanations for conservative opposition to their programs). The progressive nature is to pocket concessions and move on to the next set of demands.
The conservative counterweight to progressivism is a more complicated phenomenon. In the first place, it is largely liberal, not only in the classical sense but also in that it stands foursquare in support of what the American-style liberals of a generation or two ago themselves stood for. Conservatism is a sort of outdated progressivism. (When Republicans quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dangers of public-sector unions, they miss the point that every progressive in America knows in his bones–that if FDR were alive today, he would support public-sector unions.)
The outdatedness of conservatives’ progressivism is precisely its point. It indicates a reluctance to accept at face value the claims progressives make about the good they can do for the country–but at the same time an openness to, well, progress. Yesterday’s overly ambitious and expensive progressive policy enactment may turn out today to embody goals worth preserving, as in the case of Medicare and Social Security. To be sure, yesterday’s progressive policy enactment may turn out to do more harm than good and need to be overturned, as in the case of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program. But the progressive view of the conservative project as turning back the hand of policy time is a caricature. Even the young William F. Buckley’s iconic epigram called for conservatives to stand athwart history shouting only “stop”–not “turn around.” Buckley was a practical man. And as a practical matter, conservatives mainly tell history just to “please, slow down.”
This is an important thing to tell history in a classically liberal age, because wise people understand that progressivism untrammeled would be just as dangerous as untrammeled anything else. Or more dangerous, perhaps, because progressivism brooks no legitimate disagreement (conservatives being ill- informed, dull, and/or wicked, tout court) and therefore runs the risk of becoming illiberally coercive.
But the history of the influence of conservative policy is not only that of eventual acquiescence in progressive policies. It’s also that of resistance to their adoption, which in turn helps shape their character–no ObamaCare “public option,” for example. And it’s also that of conservative reform initiatives, typically market-based, to address progressive policy dysfunctionality.
I see a permanent need for someone to tell progressives to slow down–and what’s more, actually to slow them down. The 2010 election results would seem to suggest that most Americans likewise see this need at least from time to time. In the modern, classically liberal world, there is a permanent need for someone to clean up after progressive excess. Tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform in 1996 are examples.
A wise progressive would recognize that most of the opposition to progressive ambition in America takes place within a classically liberal horizon, and that real progress depends on an opposition that saves progressivism from its own worst tendencies–from itself. That may be asking too much. But meanwhile, there is plenty of room for an American conservatism that continues to adapt. Conservatives have the roles of critic and reformist to play, and of advocate for the principles that progressives find awkward or embarrassing to discuss but Americans still hold dear: for starters, the exceptional character of their country among nations, patriotism, the blessings of a market economy, and freedom.