>Every movement must face moments of truth, great tests that reveal the character, or lack thereof, upon which it is established. At the dawn of the 2008 presidential election, the American conservative movement finds itself staring like a deer in headlights at such a moment. Regardless of the outcome of today’s election, conservatism will be put to the test in the next era of American politics. How we respond to losing, or maintaining, power holds the key to the future of American conservatism.
Conservatives have already faced a significant test over the past decade and this election is the equivalent of us anxiously waiting for the grade to be posted, bracing ourselves for the realization of our worst fears. The truth is, all of us know that the we have pretty much failed the test of the last ten years. We’re just hoping that we’re graded on a curve. For that, I am not hopeful. But I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because the failure of conservatives over the last ten years is not the same thing as the failure of conservatism. Conservative people may, and often do, fail to adequately represent conservative principles. In fact, I would argue that conservatives have failed the test of the past ten years precisely because we have abandoned conservatism.
Consider just one example of what has long been considered a hallmark of conservative thought. While “conservatives” have had control of either the White House or Congress, or both, the size of the federal government and government spending has grown more than at any time in history. About the only thing resembling fiscal conservative principles to come out of the past ten years is the Bush tax cut. The problem is that tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts is about as conservative as a Clinton during a general election.
Since 1994, conservatives have enjoyed unprecedented political success. And that’s part of the problem. We’ve enjoyed it a little too much. It has been said many times that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We have witnessed the truth of this adage as a resurgence that began in 1994 based solidly on conservative principles has become little more than a machine dedicated to maintaining power and position. Being in control of government may have been the worst thing that has happened to modern conservatism. While I am voting for McCain/Palin today, and I truly hope that they win the election, part of me greatly fears that a Republican win tomorrow will have the same effect that the Bush win in 2004 had: allowing conservatives to sink further into complacently thinking that everything is alright.
Which brings me to the idea that I’ve been tossing around in my head the past day or so. Perhaps an Obama win today will be the best thing that could happen to conservatism. Not because Obama is anything resembling a conservative, or because I think he will lead the country in a good direction. At the same time, I don’t fear that he will lead the country down a road that we will not survive. If we survived FDR and Kennedy/Johnson, we’ll survive Obama if it comes to that.
My thesis, rather, is that conservatives seem to be most true to conservative principles and actually have a greater influence on society when we don’t have a corner on the market of political power. In fact, I would suggest that conservatism is supposed to work that way. It is the power of conservative ideas, not the power we wield in government, that our country is in dire need of. I fear that we have forgotten that fact as we have become intoxicated with power and attempted to use it to convince everyone else of the rightness of our principles. Perhaps being in the seat of opposition, rather than in the seat of power, will enable the conservative movement to reconnect with those conservative ideas that lead to a stable and virtuous society.
Make no mistake, even a colossal defeat in this election would not be the indictment on conservatism that many on the Left have suggested it would be. At most, it could be a sound rejection of a generation of conservative politicians who failed because of their distance from, not nearness to, conservative ideas. Those who triumphantly proclaim that the well of conservatism has run dry simply have not bothered to lower their bucket deep enough. It is my hope and sincere prayer that whatever the outcome of the election today, we conservatives will once again lower our buckets deep and draw from the principles that have helped to make this nation strong.
(This post is cross-posted from Dwight Watson’s blog.)