The Conservative Crack-Up That Wasn’t

Over at balkinization, my buddy Ken Kersch has a post on the punditocracy’s talk, apparently rampant this election season, about the contradictions within American conservatism—e.g. Congressman Ryan’s fondness for Ayn Rand and Roman Catholicism (not to mention  headbanging music).  A political movement that contains such disparate intellectual traditions and forces—plus neocons, business folks, etc.—can’t possibly hold together, thumb suckers surmise.  As Ken notes, though, predictions of this sort have proven wrong for quite some time now. In 1995, political scientist Theodore J. Lowi predicted The End of the Republican Era and the disintegration of conservative politics.

All by itself, that may be part of the explanation. As a doctoral student of Professor Lowi’s (back when dinosaurs roamed) and an occasional follower of his work since, I can confidently aver that the dear man has never once been right about a prediction (and only rarely and fortuitously about a putative observation or fact).  What he predicts won’t happen: it’s cause and (non-)effect. However, Ken mentions three additional factors: “incompletely theorized agreements,” meaning that you can build coalitions by not pushing too hard; “bricolage,” meaning that politics isn’t a philosophy seminar and you can cobble together viable programs from disparate elements; and the fact that leading conservative intellectuals (such as Michael Novak) have worked energetically to harmonize or reconcile conservatism’s various strands.

While I’m too busy to read up on the sages who noodle over conservatism’s incoherence, it looks to me like they’re missing the obvious about the current political context. The atrocious Bush 43 years left conservatism spent, exhausted, and discredited. Under a focused, level-headed, first-things-first Democratic administration, conservatives would have been destined to spend many years in opposition, either to do what opposition forces are supposed to do (regenerate themselves) or else in mutual recrimination. But there was never any time for that: it was pedal-to-the-metal debt, Obamacare, and Elizabeth Warren from day one. Under those conditions you don’t need “bricolage” or jazzed-up fusionism. The agreement to fight back doesn’t need any theory, incomplete or other; and as for arguments, the troops fall back on time-tested tropes. There may never have been a time when conservatives cared less about what the guy in the next foxhole thinks about contraceptives or bankruptcy law.

We did not build this consensus. The President did.