I began writing these columns 36 years ago and have come to the conclusion that it's time to bring them to a close. It's certainly not a problem of lacking subject matter. It's simply that I am 85 now, and the energy and creative juices are just not what they used to be. Anyone in that age bracket will know what I mean.
Happily, I am not ending the column with a gloomy conviction that America is heading to hell in a handbasket. On the contrary -- barring all the usual problems with which I have had to deal in these paragraphs -- I think the country, on the whole, is in reasonably good shape. Certainly, 36 years ago there was nothing like the panoply of conservative activities that confronts the eye today. In the 1950s, there were plenty of resolute individual conservatives but very little that could seriously be described as a conservative "movement." In the late 1950s and 1960s, however -- owing in large part to Bill Buckley and a handful of other early spokesmen -- conservatives began organizing themselves institutionally. Magazines sprang up, and conservative organizations of various sorts were founded.
Beginning in the 1960s, conservatism has certainly earned the right to call itself a "movement" -- indeed, along with its great rival liberalism, one of the two major contenders for political leadership of the American society. Even many Democratic politicians insist today on describing themselves as "conservative," and the movement's influence is both vast and manifest.
Undoubtedly, the most important single factor in the growth of conservatism has been the realization, on the part of individual conservatives, that their views were shared by others, and constituted collectively a formidable national influence. There's a lot to be said for intellectual respectability, and conservatism today indisputably has it. Conservatives in the future will do well to remember this and deploy it in their support.
For the moment at least, the Republican Party is unquestionably the premier vehicle of the conservative movement. This is hugely important, for a political viewpoint needs an institutional vehicle just as much as a political party needs a viewpoint. Conservatism today is broadly comfortable in the Republican Party and would be extremely uneasy trying to adjust to life among the Democrats.
Thoughtful conservatives will realize that this fact makes it dangerous for them to engage in maneuvers that try to narrow the GOP's appeal to militant conservatives only. Conservatism should be the beating heart of the Republican Party, but the party must also reach out to incorporate people who are not necessarily ideologues but are sympathetic to conservative views in a general way.
For the future, conservatives can, I think, be confident that their viewpoint will be represented in the national debate. For conservatism is essentially an analysis of social problems from the standpoint of a particular understanding of human nature. As long as that understanding continues essentially unchanged, the ways of dealing with those problems will remain basically unchanged.
What is that understanding? Conservatives believe that people are designed to pursue their own best interests, and that the job of society is to make sure that, as far as possible, the pursuit of those interests conduces to the benefit of society as a whole. Happily, it tends to do so, and this is what makes possible "the good society."
So, I am basically an optimist for the future of the United States. Historically, its deepest roots are moral, grounded in the Anglo-American religious tradition. When we act as a nation, we tend to act in that tradition, respecting what we recognize as its obligations. The result is that our actions have generally been just and courageous. We have not always lived up to our highest ideals, but we have seldom slipped far below them. It is impossible to know what challenges will confront the United States in the years ahead, but there is reason to believe that we have within us the resources to meet and overcome them.