I agree with most folks quoted as saying that the GOP is in deep trouble and that conservatism is something of a mess these days as well. But for Packer, these terms — conservative and Republican — sometimes seem like interchangeable terms, while for me they are not. I think this may be one of the reasons why I thought the piece was so structurally flawed. He begins by arguing, asserting really, that conservatism begins with Nixon in the late 1960s, when Tricky Dick crafted a strategy of exploiting resentments, which any student of intellectual conservatism knows is simply wrong. Nixon did not like or trust the Buckleyites and the Buckleyites were hardly wild about Dick either. This fact should help one keep in mind that treating conservatism and the modern GOP as interchangeable is an analytical error of the first order.I hear this a lot, and I get the reasoning behind it. Obviously "conservatism" isn't identical to "Republicanism," and just as obviously it's a good PR move to emphasize this in an era when the Republican brand is increasingly toxic. Still, conservatives protest too much.
No political ideology lives in isolation. We judge communism by how Mao and Stalin implemented it, we judge 60s-era liberalism by how LBJ and the Democratic Party implemented it, and we judge social democracy by how Western Europe has implemented it. That's how you judge movements: by how their real-life adherents put them into practice, not by reference to a utopian vision of how they should be implemented if only we lived in the best of all possible worlds.
Nonetheless, now that the Republican Party has been brought low, an awful lot of conservatives are jumping ship, claiming that it really doesn't represent them at all. But look: when the GOP made common cause with evangelical extremists, conservatives cheered. When the GOP accepted Grover Norquist's tax jihad as sacred writ, conservatives cheered. When Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay all but declared the GOP the party of corporate welfare, conservatives cheered. When George Bush declared war on the Middle East, conservatives cheered. Somehow Burke never really entered the discussion. But now that it turns out these positions have been pretty much played out, Burke is back in and Karl Rove is out. That's just a little too convenient.
Of course, conservatives point elsewhere, to the rise of pork and the rise of corruption and the rise of government spending, as signs that the GOP is no longer a true conservative party. But pork has been part of politics since politics was invented, corruption has nothing to do with ideology, and discretionary domestic spending hasn't gone up that much. The real problem is that people have gotten tired of war, they've gotten tired of the relentless and cynical defense of economic privilege, they've gotten tired of a refusal to even attempt solutions of real-life problems, and they've gotten tired of preachers banging on endlessly about abortion and teh gay. But these are all things that, in real life, the conservative movement and the Republican Party agree on.
A Republican Party that was more competent, more honest, and more principled would obviously also be more popular. And certainly there's room on the margin to complain about the modern GOP's conservative bona fides (Medicare, spending, immigration, etc.). Still, on the big issues the Republican Party is pretty damn conservative, at least as actual existing modern conservatism is practiced — and after 30 years of putting it into practice it turns out that actual existing modern conservatism doesn't have much appeal left. That's the problem, not te fact that George Packer pays more attention to Nixon than Buckley.