Don’t Count Out Conservatism

“Don't Count Out Conservatism,” New York Times Magazine, June 14, 1987.


WHAT THE REAGAN Administration has not been able to do is articulate any kind of comprehensive conservative viewpoint. This is an Administration that from the beginning has been a transitional affair, but has lacked the self-consciousness to know it. That was bound to be the case because it is a Republican administration. The Republican Party even today is primarily wedded to the fiscal conservatism of the business community and shares its aversion to any kind of governmental activism – or, indeed, to any kind of ideological conservative enthusiasm. It is predominantly a party that is happy to benefit opportunistically from the rising tide of evangelical Christianity, but is a lot more comfortable in the board room than in church. It is a party that approves, for commercial as well as nationalist reasons, of a large military establishment, but cannot be bothered to engage in any hard thinking about how to use it. And it is a party that, when in office, always finds itself floundering in one squalid financial scandal after another – it does, after all, take money (as distinct from sex) seriously.

But the times-they-are-a-changing, and Ronald Reagan has been the political catalyst for that change. There is now in Congress, and infiltrating the party on the local level in state after state, a new breed of conservative activists who will claim to be heirs to the Reagan legacy but in truth are much more than that. They have set their sights on a reformation of the Republican Party and of American conservatism -which is why they are regarded by traditional Republicans with such suspicion and apprehension. They are still an amorphous, if powerful, tendency rather than a clearly defined faction with a coherent program. But no one who observes closely what is happening to the Republican Party and American conservatism today can doubt that the Force is with them. And while that Force is the authentic Reagan legacy, it will have to be defined and implemented by a future conservative administration.

New York Times