Conservative Rigor Mortis
by Ryan McMaken
I would not be misunderstood. I know that the Negro people have suffered profound wrongs — not least in their original enslavement by Northern merchants and Southern plantation owners. But those wrongs cannot be righted by destroying the foundations of a free constitutional society, which is indeed the only basis upon which a joint and lasting solution of their problems is possible.
~ Frank Meyer, 1963
The recent histrionics over Trent Lott’s apparently unforgivable support of American federalism has revealed just how intellectually impoverished American conservatism has become. The heralding of Lott’s replacement, the Nelson Rockefeller clone, Bill Frist, simply serves to add insult to injury and illustrates how giddily content the conservative establishment has become with being nothing more than the right-wing of a political mainstream committed to the final abolition of American republican and constitutional government. It seems that as long as Republicans hold the reins of power, no degree of selling out is too much to swallow.
No political movement is immune to the temptation to trade principle for power, but the alarming vigor with which power has become the driving force behind the hijacked conservative movement in the last decade illustrates just how moribund the conservative movement now is. This conflict is nothing new to the conservative movement, of course, but while there may have at one time been a tension between the proponents of compromise and the defenders of orthodoxy, no such tension appears to exist today. The ease with which Lott was thrown to the dogs by a Republican monolith illustrates not just a total impotence on the part of a truly conservative wing of the Republican party, but a virtual absence. Yet, the neo-conservative establishment insists that American conservatives reign supreme. The outpouring of support from all corners of the Republican party, for the anti-gun, pro-abortion, neo-puritan health Nazi (and Bush crony) William Frist would be enough to raise great protest among the Republican conservatives in Washington — if there were any. The party that the neo-cons tells us safeguards the principles of American conservatism is too busy spending unprecedented amounts of government money and spying on the populace to be bothered by the fact that its leadership is so un-conservative as to make Gerald Ford look like a raving Right-wing loon.
Rather than admit that the conservatism of Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, and anyone else who dared question the New Deal and the Great Society is long dead and rotting, the neo-conservatives have adopted the practice of simply redefining what conservatism is every time they are called upon to defend something that someone on the Left might have a problem with. In much the way that Bill Clinton out-Righted the Right, the neo-cons seem bound and determined to out-Left the Left by engaging in some of the most repugnant "me too-ism" seen in years. (Given the state of the Democratic Party and the Left in the wake of Clinton, it might be wise to reconsider such a strategy.) Lott’s maladroit comments could have provided an excellent opportunity for those claiming to be conservatives to defend that most conservative of doctrines: the importance of constitutional federalism, the separation of powers and the autonomy of local governments. This, of course, did not happen. This should not be surprising since none of the intellectual leadership on the mainstream American Right believe in anything resembling local autonomy or constitutional government, but instead believe in aggressive statecraft where the central government unilaterally protects the people from themselves. Witness the line of argument now being forwarded to define the civil rights bureaucracy as a tool of small government: 1. Forced segregation laws are big government. 2. Thus, laws abolishing such laws produce small government. 3. Conservatives like small government. 4. Conservatives like the civil rights movement.
This argument is woefully incomplete. Of course forced segregation laws were idiotic, actively detrimental to human liberty, and should have been condemned roundly by every principled defender of free association. The destruction of these laws would have indeed been an unmitigated victory for liberty had they not been replaced with a massive and coercive federal bureaucracy that extended not just to a few states as in the case of forced segregation, but across the entire land, and would eventually become a bureaucracy used not just to destroy forced segregation laws, but to dictate to every inn-keeper, employer, and school board in every state how to conduct even the minutiae of daily business. According to the revisionists, the triumph of a unitary state over federalism is now a conservative virtue, and the ultimate in American constitutional government since a massive federal government, by violating our freedoms, can keep states and localities from violating our freedoms. The illogic of this proposition does nothing to dissuade the neo-con prophets of universalism who seem to think that even foreign nations are best governed from Washington.
Drunk on power, the Republican politicians of today, thinking themselves the inheritors of a great conservative tradition, have not bothered to notice the change, and if they ever do come across the condemnations of the civil rights movement penned by their conservative heroes like Russell Kirk or Frank Meyer, they are sure to pass over such comments with amused condescension in the way one might forgive his doddering uncle for his continued use of the word "Chinaman" or "colored." Trent Lott is no martyr and no great defender of American freedom, but his lightning-quick demise at the hands of a "conservative" leadership scared stiff over the prospect of having to actually defend what was once a universally accepted tenet of American conservatism says a lot about the advanced state of decomposition in the conservative movement. Maybe now that Lott is out, Washington conservatives can look forward to the new face of the Republican Party, and extend the benevolent arm of federally enforced freedom not only to our own land, but to Pyongyang, Baghdad, and every corner of the globe. The peoples of the word wait with bated breath.