After the passing of the latest omnibus spending bill, many members of the pro-Trump right were eager to excoriate the Republican political establishment for needlessly capitulating. They are correct that the bill was terrible --- increasing discretionary spending in almost every single category---but the blame ought to fall equally on the leadership that drafted it and the president that signed it.
Nonetheless, this controversy led many populist Trump backers to echo a long-used talking point: “What has conservatism conserved?” In other words, what has the political right done to preserve American values or achieve policy ends? But the phrasing of the question belies a poor understanding of American conservatism.
The American conservative movement is a relatively new movement, and William F. Buckley defined it as fusionist: an alliance of free-market libertarians like F.A. Hayek and Henry Hazlitt, religious traditionalists like Russell Kirk, and ardent anti-communists like Whittaker Chambers. But why “conservative”? What were these people looking to “conserve”?
Classical liberalism, a loose ideology of enlightenment values, natural individual rights, and free-market economics, was the ideological system these conservatives were looking to conserve from the progressive movement, who eventually appropriated the label of “liberal.” Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who thought the Constitution was a barrier to progress in the form of bigger government. While the conservative movement had traditionalists at its inception, the idea that the preservation of culture or identity was the primary goal of American conservatism is wrong.
But how effective has the American conservative movement been at preserving classical liberalism and limited government? Some commentators see American government and conclude that the conservative movement has failed at conserving limited government and that Trumpism, both in commitment to the man and the pseudo-ideology, is the only way for the right, because “he fights” even if not always for the right things. But the fact is that the conservative movement has been “fighting” since well before Donald Trump.
Writer Noah Rothman had a piece almost two years ago citing some examples of what the conservative movement has achieved over the past forty years.
The spread of originalist interpretation of the Constitution has been a major triumph of the conservative movement.
The spread of originalist interpretation of the Constitution has been a major triumph of the conservative movement. Once considered a solely conservative view of the law, that judicial philosophy has become mainstreamed: the US has come far since the defeat of Robert Bork. The Federalist Society is the best example of an “alternative institution,” developed as a competitor to mainstream liberal organizations, that has thrived, and indeed, the successes of the Trump administration regarding judicial appointments, from Gorsuch down, can be attributed to the work of the Federalist Society.
Similarly, the Republican Party has been effective in driving the lowering of tax rates over time. When Ronald Reagan took office, the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent: following the implementation of both of his major tax cuts (1981 and 1986), the top marginal tax rate was 28 percent. Since then, the top marginal tax rate has never gotten above 39.6 percent, despite 16 years of Democratic presidents since then. Even Senator Bernie Sanders is unwilling to propose shifting the top income tax bracket above 52 percent. This shifting of the Overton window on taxes ought not be forgotten.
The efficacy of Republicans in opposition in reducing spending is also overlooked. Bill Clinton did not enter the presidency a centrist, and instead sought to expand federal government spending (remember HillaryCare?). But it was the Republican congress, starting in 1994, that forced President Clinton to pass much needed reforms to welfare, and ultimately, while kicking and screaming, to balance the budget.
The stalwart opposition from the Republican Party under President Obama cannot be overlooked.
Under President Obama, too, both the Boehner establishment and the Tea Party were successful in stalling the growth of spending. After 2010, federal spending growth slowed to the point where spending actually declined over the years 2012 and 2013 for the first time since 1954. Not to mention Mitch McConnell’s blocking of Merrick Garland’s Supreme court nomination. The stalwart opposition from the Republican Party under President Obama cannot be overlooked.
Does the conservative movement have failings? Yes. The Republican Party only seems to make a stand against spending when in the opposition party, and spending often rises faster under Republican administrations. Similarly, they seem unwilling to take seriously the national debt and the coming entitlement crisis. However, the idea that the pre-Trump political right was a feckless organization incapable of fighting for conservative principles, and that the current president is someone to build a movement around rather than someone benefiting from the fixtures of a movement that well predates him is a fictitious creation of his most staunch backers.