Noted conservatives Al Regnery, Mickey Edwards and David Boaz last week discussed the future of the conservative movement at a Goldwater Institute forum.
The three talked with Viewpoints Editor Joe Garcia before the event.
The authors and speakers generally agreed on three basic principles: Conservatives stand for lower taxes, limited government and free markets; the Religious Right plays an integral role in electing conservatives, and only therefore holds a place at the table; and President Bush has set the conservative movement back by at least the number of years he's been in office because of the war, deficit, sagging economy and usurping of the Constitution
Here are excerpts from that interview:
Q. There are various types of conservatives, among them neo-conservatives, traditionalists, Religious Right, ultra, moderate and libertarian. Why the added definition and factions? Is it a sign of the foundation of conservatism cracking?
Al Regnery: There have always been factions. When the movement was young in the '50s. there were basically three factions. There were the anti-Communists, there were the traditional conservatives and there were the libertarian or economic conservatives. In fact, they didn't even really think of themselves as a movement, and little by little as the '60s wore on, they basically were . . . "fused" into a movement. The one thing they all agreed on was they didn't like liberals. They didn't like the left, if you will, liberals and communists. We don't have the Soviet Union anymore, and there really isn't any anti-communists, but you still very much have the different factions.
Mickey Edwards: When we look at the idea of opposition to liberalism, a lot of it was the sense that there seemed to be almost no limit to what the left was willing to have the government do. Government regulation of people's lives was very extensive during the days of the Lyndon Johnson administration and maybe before that. . . . It wasn't just the Soviet Union, it was the kind of top-down government regulation of business and of your personal life and all this other stuff coming out of Washington. A writer who had a big influence was Thomas Wolfe with his book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, looking at the kind of nonsense that had begun to take over the political left. So to some extent, conservatism was not just promoting a particular point of view, but it was reaction against what was emerging in the country.
David Boaz: Nobody thinks a neo-conservative is a real conservative, right? We all know they don't belong there. A successful political movement is not an army. . . . Any effective movement is going to have people who have lots of different views, and sometimes those people understand that they have some disagreements, but they are allied because they have more agreements than disagreements or that they share a strong disagreement of somebody else. And for conservatives and libertarians, for a long time, that was the alliance against Soviet Communism and also against New Deal, Great Society liberalism in the United States. With the demise of communism, and the moderation, in lots of ways, of social democracy in the United States, it's not clear that conservatives and libertarians belong in the same political group anymore. And given eights years of dominance of conservatism by George Bush and by talking heads from Fox News, I think there's a real question as to what real conservatism is these days. I heard a conservative say at a conference last week, 'You know, when I was young, we read (William F.) Buckley and (Edmund) Burke, and now people watch Fox News and the best-selling conservative books are books by talk show hosts.' So I think there has been a shift away from the intellectual basis of conservatism and a shift away from the limited government basis of conservatism. And that's very troubling to me.
Q. If conservatives believe in limited government and keeping government out of people's personal lives, how do you explain the power and presence of evangelicals in conservative politics and all the legislation of morality that goes with it?
Edwards: One of the things I've said in my books is that Americans are a religious people. But we have a secular kind of government, a government in which we don't allow people to use their own particular religious beliefs to shape public policy and to shape laws. So I think that when people who come out of religious tradition try to use government in order to dictate a kind of morality or kind of lifestyle, in my view they're entitled to try that, but that's not conservative in my point of view. Our whole basic framework was about the rights of the individual and that means rights of the individual against the state, rights of the individual against majorities that use the power of the state to impose their will. I see the Religious Right as a group of people, many of whom came out of George Wallace populist Democratic movement, who have moved into the conservative movement and have tried to affect where it goes. I consider them sort of taking a free ride on the movement.
Regnery: The Religious Right don't particularly have an interest, for the most part, in limited government. Actually, in many cases, they are very good on spending and things like that. In fact, interestingly, when I was interviewing people for my book, one very prominent members of the House of Representatives who is very much a part of the Religious Right said that the Republicans who are elected as parts of the Religious Right tend to be more consistent on taxes, spending and things than traditional conservatives who get elected on lower spending, lower taxes platforms. And he said that's because they're used to doing what they say they're going to do. They get elected not because they want be politicians but because they want to further whatever the cause is, and as such adhere to principals. I don't know if that's true or not. . . . Politically they are a part of the Republican majority and the conservative side of that. If I had to make an analogy to a Democrat-allied group it would the labor unions. Many Democrats don't like the labor unions but they damn well better keep them happy because they're going to get them elected. And in fact, many Republicans could not get elected today running as conservatives if they didn't have the Religious Right vote.
Boaz: I'm a libertarian, so I do oppose many of those kinds of things. How you explain their presence, a couple of things: I do think modern American conservatism is a sometimes confused amalgam of classical liberalism and classical conservatism. The classical conservatism was a defense of the nobility and aristocracy of the established church. Classical liberalism was in favor of the (free) market and individual rights and separation of church and state. And I think modern conservatism sometimes is a confusion of those two themes. I guess the more positive spin on that is it's a fusion of those two themes. Not too sure how well they can be fused. And then, from the Republican Party's point of view, obviously you've got to get 51 percent to win a majority, so you have to put together coalitions, and there are different ways to do that in American politics. One of things I want to say is, I think the Republicans have put too much emphasis on attracting the Religious Right and they are losing a lot more of the libertarian voters. It's ridiculous that upscale, educated voters are coming to be assumed to be Democrats, but that's what's happening, and I think a lot of the reasons are the perceived dominance of the Religious Right in the Republican Party.
Q. The majority of Americans don't vote. Do you think the majority of Americans are a more conservative lot than the electorate or are they a more liberal bunch?
Regnery: Generally speaking, I think America is a center-right country. If you ask people where they stand on issues, if the questions were fairly put, then you would get something, probably a 55 (to) 45 percent right vs. left. But of course there are a great many people who really don't care. Those people don't vote, and as far as I'm concerned, we're just as well off if they don't vote because if they were voting, they wouldn't be an intelligent vote. And there may be a good many of people who vote who shouldn't be (voting) anyway. In terms of, is the electorate more conservative than the people? No, I don't think so. I think that elections are won or lost for all kinds of reasons other than people's philosophies, and I think that's what's happening in this election. I don't think if (Barack) Obama wins it's because the country has taken a sharp turn to the left. And if the numbers of Democrats in Congress increase, I don't think it's because the country has turned to the left. It's because they're dissatisfied with what the Republicans have done because they've done a lousy job of it.
Edwards: I agree that we're a center-right country. I don't think the country is moving to the left and I don't think that the people out there that don't vote, in their cases, I don't think it's because they're farther to the left. There's a lot of reasons. It's because they think government is inefficient; there's nothing philosophical about deciding we made a mess of Katrina. Or some of them may think that government is corrupt; you can look at a lot of the cases coming out of Congress affecting both Republicans and Democrats. And some of them simply aren't interested. It doesn't mean they're liberal, it just means that they don't think that politics matters to their lives. Now, how anybody could rationally think that, when we're in two wars and have all kinds of economic problems . . . But there are people who are just divorced from any of the bigger picture that is outside their daily lives.
Boaz: I think the answer is, they're less engaged; they're less knowledgeable. Mostly your propensity to vote tracks your education and your knowledge of politics. So, I'm not sure it makes sense to say the people who don't know who their senators are and don't know what Medicaid is, are they more conservative or more liberal than other people. I think they're disengaged.
Q. Somewhere along the way, the term "liberal" took on a negative connotation. Many liberals today call themselves "progressives." Are we at the point, or are we headed in that direction, where the term "conservative" will have an equally negative connotation? Why or why not?
Edwards: The term conservative is having a very hard time right now. . . . We've been greatly harmed, I think, by people who are not true conservatives, and I'll use two names in particular, although there are more: George W. Bush has very little to do with the conservative (movement). There's nothing conservative about George Bush. And Newt Gingrich, who was primarily power centered rather than idea centered, despite his rhetoric. . . . I think conservatism is (a) great, honorable political perspective, political philosophy, but I think it's going to take us a lot of work to regain confidence in that label.
Regnery: I certainly agree with Mickey about George W. Bush. I think he has done enormous harm to the movement. It was said at some point after Richard Nixon had served as president that his administration probably set back the conservative movement by at least as many years as he was in office. I suspect people will say the same thing about George W. Bush. He used the conservative philosophy and term to get elected. He never really believed it and then what he proceeded to do was among the most unconservative things a president could do. . . . Coming back to your question, liberalism acquired a bad name probably starting in the '60s at the time of all the antiwar protests and all the other extremism that went on within that. We don't have that same sort of a problem. So if conservatism acquires a bad name, it's for really the opposite reason: There are too many people who masquerade as conservatives when they aren't conservatives at all.
Boaz: It's possible. (But) I actually think that conservatism is a word Americans tend to like, whatever they think it means. Liberal maybe used to be that way, but it did get messed up. Ronald Reagan used to tell a story about the baseball player/manager Frankie Frisch, who saw that his rookie left-fielder was doing such a bad job that he said, "Get out of here, rookie. I'll show you how to play left field." And he went out there and he bobbled the first two balls that came into left field. And he came storming back in, throwing his glove in the dugout, saying, "That rookie's got left field so screwed up that nobody can play it." Well, I'd like to have the word "liberal" back because I think liberal originally meant committed to freedom and limited government. But I'm afraid liberals have got it so messed up that nobody can play it. I don't see that happening to "conservative" at this point. It's just that people don't know what conservative means and it has come to mean, I think, a mean-spirited attitude, and it no longer clearly means self-reliance, independence and limited government.