Issues analysis
Is conservatism in crisis?
February 4, 2008
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

When the Republican primaries were a free-for-all with no front-runners, some called it a signal of conservatism in crisis. After the Florida primary, the field narrowed down to two leading candidates, with John McCain in the lead. Some are saying that McCain is not very conservative and his preference by the party is a crisis for conservatives.

After the South Carolina primary, Peggy Noonan said that the Republican Party is searching for its soul. However, a two-party system produces broad coalitions under the party umbrella. Coalitions are not organic entities that have souls. They are a loose collection of persons and groups with widely differing agendas.

Peggy said the Republican primary voters are looking for the candidate who embodies what they want the party to be. Whatever individual Republicans are looking for, thoughtful conservatives should not be seeking a man who seems to embody a political coalition. Leaders of coalitions like Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) or Ronald Reagan are popularly identified with their coalitions, but it is muddled thinking to propose they are embodiments of the motley collection that they manipulated. That idea makes as much sense as saying that P.T. Barnum was the embodiment of his collection of side-show freaks.

This kind of category error has fooled some commentators into translating a crisis in the Republican coalition into a crisis of conservatism. Conservatives must ride the irrational bucking bronco of the Republican party coalition to have political traction in the election rodeo. However, a loco horse in no way implies the rider has gone loco. One might indeed say that the bucking bronco is a momentary crisis for the rider. However, this kind of crisis can be a catharsis for the rider, a momentary trauma that focuses and clears the mind.

The best and the worst of times

The opening words of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities was: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." In terms of assembling a Republican coalition for winning elections, it is the worst of times since 1976, which was the general election year following the Watergate scandal. However, as a time for clarifying conservative philosophy, we may be entering one of the best of times — or at least a time of unusual opportunity. It is a bad time for Republicans as a party, but might prove to be a very good time for philosophical conservatives in the clarity of their thought, if not in their political traction.

The illusion of coalitions

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as enduring political coalitions. Coalitions change from election to election. If you doubt it, you might take a look at the Italian parliament sometime. Their coalitions are lucky to last six months.

Coalitions are evanescent, but philosophical concepts last virtually forever. Therefore, the breakdown of the Reagan election coalition is to be expected, and the survival of the philosophical ideas of the Reagan era is natural.

The remarkable endurance of the New Deal coalition was an anomaly. The Great Depression and World War II enabled Franklin Roosevelt to use his pragmatic political genius to create a coalition that yielded several electoral landslides. The ineffectual "me-too" Republican candidates and the isolationist "America-first" Republicans drove multitudes away from the shrinking Republican tent and into the bulging Democratic tent. In like manner, the McGovern-Carter-Mondale wing of the Democratic party drove many refugees from the Democratic tent into the Republican tent, causing Reagan's majorities to swell.

However, some of the Reagan Democrats returned to the Democratic party after Reagan retired. We should have expected this to happen. The Reagan Democrats who became Republicans and stuck with the party were converted by conservative political philosophy, not by the subtle joy of tagging along with the Republicans.

Expansion of conservative philosophy

Goldwater conservatives were Traditionalists and Libertarians. I was in a conservative political club in college after the Goldwater era, but prior to the Reagan era. As the Traditionalist philosopher of the club, I was forever debating our Libertarian philosopher. The leader of the club was a fusionist Traditionalist-Libertarian like William F. Buckley Jr.

Reagan conservatives were Traditionalist, Libertarian, and Christian conservatives. This three-way discussion was more intellectually and spiritually satisfying that the cramped bipolar Goldwater philosophy I remember in college.

George W. Bush appointed Neoconservatives (Neocons) to his administration. Four kinds of philosophical conservatives now have political and philosophical influence. Even though the Neocons have been greatly vilified by the left, they brought intellectual rigor and a treasury of knowledge to the conservative intellectual movement. I don't know what we would do without them.

It may be almost the worst of times for the Republican coalition, but in terms of rational conservative ideas, it is a better time than the Reagan era and is vastly more illuminated than the half-light of the Goldwater days.

There is one more brand of conservative that is intellectually muscular. Natural Law conservatives, many of whom have advanced degrees from Catholic universities, have an unrivaled knack of seeing through the surface of things and recognizing things in their true nature. In this day of widespread deceptions and illusions, Natural Law conservatives are desperately needed.

Perhaps a future Republican president will bring a Natural Law conservative to the table. Or perhaps a Natural Law conservative will run for president and gain political traction and a public diffusion of his ideas. That day may be coming soon, because Natural Law conservatives are very active in pro-life, pro-family, anti-gay agenda initiatives; in defending national boundaries and national sovereignty; and in upholding America's founding principles.

The five kinds of conservatives need one another just as the five races of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring needed one another. (The five races in the fellowship were hobbits, elves, men, a dwarf, and a wizard.) The fellowship of the five kinds of conservatives might be have to fight together to save the Republic in crisis, just as the five races in The Fellowship of the Ring fought together to save Middle Earth.

Reaganism vs. an improved conservatism

Many conservatives are lamenting the breakdown of the Reagan coalition. However, we might have better things to hope for than a return to Reaganism. According to columnist David Brooks, the Reagan administration was not as conservative as it is cracked up to be. Pragmatists James Baker and Ed Meese had an important influence in that administration. Reagan appointed the mindless, impulsive, feelings-driven Sandra Day O'Connor to the high court in order to have a token woman. She had no political or judicial philosophy and instinctively drifted towards the center of any group she was part of. I thought conservatives were opposed to token appointments for the sake of identity politics and multicultural photo ops.

Bush's doomed nomination of his mediocre crony Harriet Miers was embarrassing, but one cannot imagine Harriet voting to overthrow a state sodomy law because she had sympathetic feeling that gays should have their "privacy."

We must not forget that Reagan's policy on illegal aliens was identical to Senator Edward Kennedy's policy. Reagan is more to blame for the present immigration crisis than any other man. Once a liberal policy is endorsed by a conservative Republican president, it is exceedingly difficult to discredit the policy and to undo the damage.

If Reagan had appointed a Natural Law conservative or a classical liberal to his staff to teach him about the sovereignty, laws, and boundaries of a Republic, he might not have given amnesty to illegal aliens. If swing-voting judges Anthony Kennedy and O'Connor had taken a class in Natural Law 101, they might not have tried to smuggle European jurisprudence into American constitutional law.

Conservatives are finding their voices in areas where they once were mute. All the major Republican presidential candidates have pledged to enforce the immigration laws. Even our pro-immigration president has caved in to party pressure concerning illegal aliens. This a sharp turn to the right from where the party was under Reagan.

Republican leaders and candidates are noticeably more conservative than they were in the Reagan years. Candidates who used to favor a liberal policy for abortion and illegal aliens are now embarrassed about it and continually assure their constituents that they have seen the light and can now be trusted to be real conservatives.

David Brooks, a moderate Republican, is alarmed that Republicans are more conservative now than they were in the Reagan years. He thinks that the GOP is now too conservative to a build broad electoral coalition, like the more moderate Reagan Republicans did. After all, moderates like Brooks care more about building successful political coalitions than they do about philosophical ideas.

However, coalitions shift from election to election, but philosophical ideas last virtually forever. Those who carry the field in the realm of ideas will have the greatest long-term influence upon the future of the Republic.

Farewell to Wilsonian idealism

The process of getting all five kinds of conservatives to the table involves a sorting process to determine what are legitimate conservative ideas and what are not.

President Bush was seduced by the siren song of Wilsonian idealism. The notion that democracy will transform tribal Arabs into Jeffersonian democrats is delusional. The idea that peace can come to the Middle East through mere diplomacy is contrary to sixty years of experience. Utopian idealism has regularly produced what Samuel Johnson called the triumph of hope over experience.

The humiliating collapse of Bush's Wilsonian idealism vindicates the Christian conservatives who teach us than man is a fallen being. There are no utopias and no panaceas in this broken world.

The humiliation of the Wilsonians also vindicates the traditionalist conservatives who think that man is a contradiction and that all utopian schemes are doomed to failure. Not only do utopian agendas always fail in the end, they invariably do damage to traditional culture. Republican presidents fall into powerful delusions when they fail to acquaint themselves with all five conservative philosophies.

We cannot expect the liberals to give up their utopian hopes, but we can now hope that Wilsonian idealism will be purged from Republican Party and its passing will be for the duration. The Republican candidates are criticizing any sign of utopianism that they detect in their rivals. For example, Mike Huckabee's campaign was deeply wounded when he began to sound like Jimmy Carter on foreign policy and was criticized by his rivals. He turned on a dime and spoke of ushering the Iranians to the gates of hell.

Intelligent conservative philosophy can save us both from Jimmy Carter's utopian naivete and from rhetorical belligerence, like Huckabee's bombastic tactics to prove he is tough. When the confederate flag became a issue in South Carolina, instead of discussing state's rights and regional traditions versus identity politics, Huckabee spoke of thrusting the flagpole into the excretory tract of the liberals.

Let our celebration of the banishment of mindless utopianism be accompanied by a banishment of mindless jingoistic rhetoric. Conservative philosophy is supremely rational and has no need of melodrama, histrionics, or bombast.

Ron Paul and Ayn Rand

Ron Paul has demonstrated to us the grassroots and internet potential of the Libertarian movement. He has also shown us how intellectually and morally muddled Libertarianism can be when it strays too far from its Classical Liberal roots. Libertarians of the Classical Liberal kind are entitled to a seat at the table of philosophical conservatism. Ron Paul is not.

Ron Paul indulges in conspiracy theories in which Neoconservatism is the bogeyman. This is intolerable nonsense. Neoconservatism is an intellectually indispensable strand of conservative philosophy. According to the Neocons, we must resist the domestic barbarians by returning to the great Western classics of literature. We must resist the barbarians abroad, namely the Muslim jihadists, who are a threat to Western civilization. Without the victory of civilization, no Libertarian Republic is possible or conceivable.

Libertarianism is an essential strand of conservatism in this dark era of statism. However, Ron Paul is leading a rogue faction of Libertarianism that, if left unchecked, might tear the conservative movement apart. In the interest of an intellectually and morally coherent conservative movement, let us offer the door to Ron Paul.

Ayn Rand's libertarian atheism is another kind of rogue Libertarianism. I find her brand of atheism strikingly similar to Nietzsche's atheism. Both Nietzsche and Rand emphasized that the inferior man has no claim upon the labors of the superior man of intellect, ability, and high culture. They both thought that Christianity introduced a concept of "social justice" that makes the superior man guilty of his success and the imparts a sense of bitterness and entitlement by the inferior man. This is a muddle, of course.

"Social justice" is a Marxist concept. Liberal "Christianity" absorbed the Marxist "social justice" ideas that offended Nietzsche and Rand. The idea of "social justice" is alien to orthodox Christianity. Compassion and generosity, yes. However, guilt over success is nonsense — if success comes from merit and from work that contributes something to the world. Success for the Christian must not be a personal idol or the fruit of avarice and ruthlessness. Bitterness over the lack of success and angry feelings of envy and entitlement is sin.

Chesterton, an orthodox Roman Catholic, wrote that the attribution of guilt or entitlement to an imaginary organic social entity is intellectually and morally incoherent. He ridiculed identity politics a century before identity politics took over the American Democratic party. Rousas John Rushdoony, who came from the postmillennial Reformed tradition, said essentially the same thing in his book The Politics of Guilt and Pity.

Doctrinally orthodox Christians compose the largest portion of the conservative movement. Let us show the atheistic Nietzscheans and Randians the way to the door out of the conservative movement.

Liberal "Evangelicals"

Mike Huckabee has demonstrated the political power of grassroots Evangelicalism. However, he is a living example of how Evangelicals can run amok when they stray from doctrinal orthodoxy. Four fatal political traits are invariably linked to Evangelicals like Mike Huckabee and Jimmy Carter, who have fallen from doctrinal orthodoxy:

  1. The adoption of "social justice" ideas.

  2. The denial of evil and the attempt to cure evil tendencies by negotiating with them. They trust to feel-good psychologists to negotiate with hardened criminals. They trust to marshmallow ambassadors to negotiate with genocidal dictators abroad.

  3. The trusting of powerful men in big government to use social engineering techniques to cure human problems. The young Ronald Reagan converted to conservatism when he realized the folly of this approach.

  4. Inordinate personal ambition, resulting in the willingness to do or say anything to get ahead. I noticed inordinate personal ambition in Jimmy Carter the minute he stepped on the public stage. I was fooled by the ingratiating Huckabee until his entertaining show-boating and demagoguing went over the top.

Mike, thank you for showing us how to go to the grassroots to mobilize Evangelicals. But please exit stage left from the conservative movement, before you become an embarrassment.


Over fifty years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. gathered the two main strands of conservatism, Traditionism and Libertarianism, and fused them together. Through this fusion, Buckley created the modern conservative movement. The conservative movement has intellectually matured and is nearing the time when all five kinds of conservatism can sit down at the table together. This is an amazing providential development. What might the providential purpose be?

Traditionalists told us that we should conserve the cultural and spiritual treasures of the past and protect the social fabric against destructive "reformers." Then the Libertarians came along and told us to protect the freedom of the individual from statist government. The Christian conservatives awakened from their long slumber and told us to keep God from being thrown out of the public square, to restore sexual morality, to resist an encroaching feminist and homosexual culture, to defend the family and fight for the lives of unborn children.

Before Reagan passed from the scene, the Neoconservatives appeared on the scene to fight intellectual decadence on campus and to tell everyone to read the great books of the Western tradition. Under Bush, the Neocons told us that we must fight the jihadist terrorists abroad to save Western civilization.

Natural law conservatives have been talking for decades about "strict constructionist" and "original intent" approaches to interpreting the Constitution. Now, a few of them are worried about the survival of the Republic. The Natural Law theories upon which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is based is the philosophical bedrock upon which the Republic is built. When these principles are discarded, the Republic might unravel.

Since the voices of the Natural Law conservatives have been the last to be heeded, perhaps their call to save the Republic is God's central purpose for bringing the five kinds of conservatives together. The five kinds of creatures of The Fellowship of the Ring had to unite to save Middle Earth — perhaps the five kinds of conservatives have to unite to save the Republic.

After all, if the Republic perishes, the traditionalist can wave goodbye to his hopes of social and cultural preservation and restoration. If the Republic fails, Libertarians can forget about the independence and freedom of the individual. Without the Republic, Christians will never see moral reform or a wholesome world in which to raise their children. Without a strong Republic, the Neocons will witness the victory of the barbarians at home and abroad, and Western Civilization shall perish.

As the crisis of the Republic developed in stages, God's provision to save the Republic has developed in stages from Buckley to Goldwater to Reagan to Bush. The time is at hand for the Natural Law conservatives to join the rest of us conservatives at the table. With the help of their knowledge of the nature of Republics and with the Lord's guidance, we can unite together and begin the work of rebuilding the Republic.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31