Too Many Republicans Use Conservatism as a Tool

Source: The Dispatch | November 27, 2020 | Jonah Goldberg

For them, the movement is just a means to partisan ends.


Buckley’s mayoral run signaled that the conservative project was not dead. Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory was a win for the GOP nationally and a triumph for conservatives within the GOP. 

I bring all of this up to set the stage for something Buckley said in 1965. “For some people,” he declared, “politics is the ultimate concern. Of them, it can be said they are serious about politics, in the sense in which Mr. John Lindsay is serious about politics. He is as serious about politics as, for instance, a flagpole-sitter is serious about flagpoles. Politics sustains Mr. Lindsay, even as the flagpole sustains the flagpole-sitter. Others care less for politics than for the end of politics. We climb flagpoles, but only in order to look at the horizon.”

Conservatives climbed to the top of the GOP as a means to an end: to move American politics toward a more conservative horizon. They had their victories, from Reagan’s Cold War triumph to the rise of the conservative legal movement to the rejection of sclerotic economic policies that bedeviled many other democratic nations. 

The conservative takeover also had a number of failures. One not often discussed is that it helped fuel the ideological polarization of our politics. In 1965, if you asked someone if they were a Republican or a Democrat, you’d need to ask a follow-up question to find out if they were a conservative or a liberal. Not anymore. 

This is a failure, not because the right is solely to blame or because polarization is the worst thing in the world. It was a failure because the whole point of the takeover wasn’t to have the GOP as a plaything or a jobs program for right-wingers, but to actually move the country rightward. And that requires using the party to persuade people to join it, and by extension the conservative cause. 

Polarization, particularly driven by our primary system and the media climate, makes persuading those not already on the team not only harder but also harmful to your job security, for Republican politicians and conservative commentators alike. Better to keep riling up your own side and sit safely atop your pole. 

Whereas Buckley’s generation saw the party as a tool for conservative gains, today’s ambitious Republicans see conservatism as a malleable tool for personal and partisan gain. They proclaim that the conservatism of Buckley and Reagan has outlived its usefulness, as have such horrors as “market fundamentalism” — a fancy new term used by some GOP pols to condemn capitalism from the right.  And those are the more intellectual pole-sitters. For the more tribal and cynical, conservatism is merely the name of a partisan team whose uniform comes with a bright red hat.

Conservatism was never a static dogma, but if its definition is simply going to be whatever politicians want it to mean to get elected, why bother calling it conservatism at all?

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