- - Monday, July 27, 2020

Last week The Heritage Foundation, a think tank devoted to promoting “conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense,” tweeted, seemingly out of the blue, something interesting:

“Reminder: Paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, fiscal hawks, social conservatives, libertarians, and more are ALL principal members of the conservative movement — and TOGETHER we are a force that cannot be ignored or dismissed.”

So, what’s special — or objectionable — about a conservative policy shop sending out feel-good messages of togetherness? Nothing on its face. After all, this is precisely the time when conservatives, like their liberal counterparts, should rally shoulder to shoulder against a common political foe. And yet, if there is one thing the current administration brings to the fore, it’s that the fissures in the conservative movement are running much deeper now than during times past.

Why is that?

Well, one answer is simply that the stakes are higher. After decades of easy-living, spending, post-political sinecures and board memberships, the mistakes of conservative leadership are beginning to catch up. And there is plenty of finger pointing happening. There is so much acrimony out in the open, in fact, one wonders whether or not the young people in control of Heritage’s social media were not just having a good prank during a long summer day.

If you don’t think the infighting is real take a look, for instance, at the recent dust-ups between leading neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives whose foreign policy approach seems to dominate America’s present approach to international relations. Or the business-friendly free-marketers, who could care less if Huawei and company are agents of China so long as everyone makes a little bit of money versus the conservative nationalists putting America first. Or take libertarians and their support of drug use and sex-culture, immigration, and criminal justice versus, well, just about anyone else on the right.

In light of these not-so-minor differences, one wonders how, as Heritage claims, the factions just listed could qualify collectively as “ALL principal members of the conservative movement.” Would Sen. Josh Hawley, a fierce opponent of Chinese communist influence in America, consider the free-market/libertarian crowd a principal member? Probably not. What about the neoconservatives of old, many of whom actively campaign against President Trump in favor of Joe Biden? Would they consider the nationalists principal members of the conservative movement? Interlopers, surely. Principal members, surely not.

So how is this all hanging together? The short answer is, it’s not. Not in any deep, cohesive manner.

In times past, a figure like William F. Buckley could rise and make order out of the chaos. But Buckley arose in an environment where he could dominate the media, then limited to only a few television channels and a dozen or so political magazines. The landscape is radically different today, reflective in a way of the variegated political orientations on the right. It would take a unique, once-in-a-millennia Moses to bring the tribes together. Don’t hold your breath.

It’s unclear what happens next. The November election will help with the sorting process. The “principal members of the conservative movement” will, at least for a time, become clear. The deeper problem for conservatives is who takes hold of the intellectual mantle for the future. How and where is the movement orientated? What language should it use when describing its aims? What policy positions are tolerable and intolerable? Whose voice counts? Who should be cast off?

It may be, when the dust settles, that what is defined as conservatism looks awfully different from the current hodge-podge alliance. This will certainly be both jarring and painful. But it’s necessary. And no feel-good tweet can elide over that truth.

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