Has the American conservative movement reached a dead end? That is the impression you might have gotten if you attended the panel discussions sponsored by the James Madison program at Princeton University earlier this month.
Speakers hailed past beginnings and triumphs -- the founding of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr. 50 years ago, the Goldwater candidacy of 1964, the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the rise of religious conservatives and the vindication of market economics over the last 25 years.
But speakers were much gloomier about the present. Voters have installed Republican majorities in Congress and a Republican president widely regarded as a conservative. Yet federal spending has risen sharply, and a new federal entitlement, for prescription drugs, has been added.
Our borders are not secure, and the venturesome, allegedly neoconservative foreign policy of the administration is under harsh attack at home and abroad. Mainstream media are more shamelessly liberal than ever in their orientation and bias. Moreover, the Bush administration seems to have run out of new ideas. It has been successful on some of the issues Bush raised in 2000 and 2004 -- tax cuts and education -- and seems to have been checkmated on others, notably Social Security.
Part of the problem, speakers suggested, is that conservatives have allowed their movement to converge too much with Bush and his Republican Party. Bush, after all, did not promise to govern as a small government conservative. He recognized that Ronald Reagan, who called government the problem, not the solution, was not able to cut back government much, and he promised instead to promote policies that increase choice, competition and accountability -- which he has mostly done. But it's not immediately obvious what other federal policies can advance those goals further. Hence, the feeling of a dead end.
But government, as conservatives should know better than others, exists only as part of a larger society. And the trend in the larger society, contrary to what Buckley expected in 1955 and in line with his wishes, has been to more choice, competition and accountability. Big monopolistic firms have been overtaken by what were small start-ups. General Motors has been replaced as our biggest employer by Wal-Mart. Big labor unions, except in the public sector, have grown vastly smaller. The draft military, which performed poorly in Vietnam, has been replaced by a voluntary military, which has performed superbly wherever it goes.
American culture, so conformist-minded 50 years ago, has become more variegated, with individuals free to choose the cultural niche in which they live and raise their families. American society, which seemed headed toward collectivism a half-century ago, now seems headed back toward the democratic individualism Alexis de Tocqueville identified in the 1830s.
In such a society, conservatives need not look solely to the federal government to accomplish their political ends. The great conservative policy successes of the 1990s -- the reduction by more than half of crime and welfare dependency -- were the product of state and local politicians, inspired by conservative thinkers, far more than they were of any federal law.
Ditto the move toward more accountability and choice in education, which proceeds despite the powerful institutional opposition of the teacher unions and education schools. Ditto, it can be argued, the health care system. Federal standardization was successfully resisted in the 1990s -- now our various health care systems are constantly changing, responding not only to government regulation but also to the economic marketplace.
Uncomfortable questions for conservatives remain. Do citizens in this society, whose economy offers so many choices, want choices in their public services? Polls suggest that young citizens would welcome choices in individual investment accounts in Social Security, but that change was blocked by united opposition from Democrats, while seniors -- the Americans least adept at going online and clicking to get what they want -- grumble about the array of choices in the Medicare prescription drug plan.
And what about the long-term danger of ever-larger entitlement programs? Social Security and Medicare are scheduled to gobble up a larger share of the economy as the population ages and the ratio of workers to beneficiaries falls. Someday, those trend-lines will have to be altered. But that day seems to have been delayed, which means the alteration will be more painful when it comes.
Even so, the character of the society still seems more in sync with conservatism than liberalism, and conservatives, of all people, should know that their goals cannot be achieved by the federal government alone.