The intellectual deterioration of the conservative movement


By Joe Campbell
May 14th, 2009

Richard Posner has written one of those posts that gets talked about despite it’s lack of hyperventilation – it’s a thoughtful, reflective piece on what he calls the “intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States.” Posner summarizes the deteriotion:

[T]he policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings [such that]the face of the Republican Party [has] become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals [have] no party.

Posner sees this decline as a symptom of the movement’s success. I think he’s half right.

Philip Bobbitt posited some time ago his theory of the evolution of the state – from princely city-states to kingly states to imperial states to the modern nation-state. The next step – according to Bobbitt – the one to which we are already evolving – is the market-state. And while a nation-state was legitimized in the eyes of it’s people by ensuring people were provided for (thus setting up the economic battle of the Cold War, as capitalism and Communism competed on this front), the market-state is legitimized by offering the maximum amount of opportunity for it’s citizens. Bobbitt’s theory is interesting – and if not entirely perfect, it is certainly useful. 

Given this structure, you can easily understand how the nation-state liberalism of Lyndon Johnson gave way over time to the market-state liberalism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. By this reading, conservatism did not so much win any more than nation-state liberalism “won.” Both were appropriate responses to their times.

Unfortunately for it’s proponents, conservatism (like nation-state liberalism in the 1970s) did not evolve with the times, but remained staticly committed to the principles that worked so well three decades earlier. The innovative ideas of the 1980s have become the brittle orthodoxies of the present. As conservative historian Niall Ferguson explained – “only the left” has a credible response to the issues of our day. The Right is still fighting the battles they won decades ago.

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