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What Conservatism Should Look Like

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

"There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism," writes Sam Tanenhaus, "a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve." Which begs the question: Given our current predicament, what exactly should principled conservatives view as worth conserving?

Let's take a quick inventory.

The Left has won the culture war, and, at least in the near-term, its victory is irreversible. In social relations, the right to choose trumps all other considerations: to fornicate, marry, breed, abort, divorce, and abandon. That a single mother with six kids should opt for another eight because she feels like it captures the distilled essence of the cultural moment that we have entered. Somehow ritual expressions of support for "family values" don't quite provide an adequate response.

When it comes to economics, faux conservatives--Ronald Reagan in the vanguard--collaborated with liberals in abandoning even the pretense of prudent fiscal management. The blindingly obvious result: debt and dependency. "Today," writes Niall Ferguson in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, "America is Argentina." Just so. We can't pay our bills so we pretend we'll never have to. Those in power pay lip service to our collective obligation to future generations and then cynically ignore that obligation, appropriating trillions in the hope that somehow or other we can spend our way out of the hole that we've dug for ourselves. The only obligation with which the present generation is likely to keep faith is a self-assigned one: to binge, vainly trying to satisfy its own appetite for consumption. What exactly in this Ponzi scheme should conservatives be exerting themselves to preserve?

In foreign policy, thanks in no small part to neocon rabble-rousing, the United States committed itself after 9/11 to an open-ended war aimed at asserting some form of benevolent hegemony across the Greater Middle East. This stupid idea has cost the country dearly, yet, to be fair, it represented a logical extension of the assertions of "global leadership" by the "sole superpower" relying on "global power projection" that had long since become commonplace across the political spectrum (the far Left and Old Right excepted). Should true-blue conservatives be working to perpetuate the celebrated American Century? Or should they wish to ring down the curtain on all that the American Century in our own day has come to represent?

Granted, there are issues where the mandate to conserve applies: The environment provides one obvious example. Yet by and large, the proper place for genuine conservatives today is in opposition, advancing a principled critique of the status quo with the hope--however quixotic--of persuading Americans to mend their ways.

When it comes to the culture, conservatives should promote an awareness of the costs of unchecked individual autonomy, while challenging conceptions of freedom that deny the need for self-restraint and self-denial. When it comes to economics, they should emphasize the virtue and necessity of Americans, collectively as well as individually, learning to live within their means. When it comes to foreign policy, they should advocate a restoration of realism, which will necessarily entail abandoning expectations of remaking the world in America's own image.

That such a program will provide a path to power is doubtful. Yet a genuinely conservative critique is much needed today. Advancing that critique qualifies as an honorable calling.

--Andrew J. Bacevich

Click here to read Alan Wolfe's response to Tanenhaus's piece about the death of conservatism, and here to read David A. Bell's response to Wolfe.