It’s a good time to be a conservative dissident reformer. Dissidents, long persecuted by the conservative power structure, have been vindicated by the 2012 elections. Their stinging critiques of modern conservatism’s flaws and their urgent calls for reform have been borne out by actual events.
Now, as the GOP regroups from its electoral debacle, public criticisms of conservative dogmas have expanded beyond a small circle of dissidents. Prominent conservatives are saying heretical things that would have gotten them tarred, feathered, and banished a few months ago.
The long night of strict doctrinal conformity — a period when dissidents were condemned for the slightest deviations in the equivalent of media show trials, purged, and then airbrushed out of old CPAC convention pictures- shows signs of ending.
The high priests of the conservative infotainment industry are both discredited and politically vulnerable. Their agenda has been exposed as a bankrupt fraud — a Potemkin village, a path to nowhere.
And with the conservative power structure reeling in disarray, thought crime — on issues as diverse as immigration, same-sex marriage, economic policy, and taxes- is no longer being punished.
A political and intellectual liberalization is occurring — a veritable Conservative Spring.
Ironically, Sean Hannity created the first breach in the ideological dike when he announced immediately after the election that his “evolving” views on immigration reform had led him to support a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. Hannity’s statement might have been a transparent attempt to pander to Hispanic voters but in the context of conservative public discourse it was revolutionary.
And it was followed by a crescendo of challenges to other deeply held articles of conservative faith.
For example, former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman has attempted to articulate a “conservative case” for same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Ross Douthat and David Brooks have penned post-election columns in “The New York Times” calling for policies that meet the needs of the middle class, and lionizing a new band of young conservative reformers bringing fresh policy ideas to the table, while Michael Gerson has observed that “[t]he GOP’s economic message is well past its 1980 expiration date.”
Some conservatives are also spouting heresies on tax increases. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, observed just days after the election that “[i]t won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires.” On Sunday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said that Grover Norquist’s famous anti-tax pledge was outdated, noting that “the world has changed” and Republicans “should not be taking iron-clad positions” against raising tax rates. Significantly, many of King’s Republican colleagues seem to agree, and Norquist’s iron grip on conservative tax policy is rapidly weakening.
Just as remarkably, Republicans are publicly challenging leading conservative entertainment figures, including Rush Limbaugh. For example, Mike Murphy, a Romney campaign consultant, has called on the GOP to abandon Limbaugh and his skewed worldview, observing that, “[i]f we don’t modernize conservatism, we can go extinct … we’ve got to get kind of a party view of America that’s not right out of Rush Limbaugh’s dream journal.”
Might conservatism cease simply being a lucrative infotainment revenue stream and become a reality-based, intellectually vibrant, and responsible political movement once again?
Time will tell.
The window of opportunity for reform could shut quickly. The Conservative Spring might be followed, swiftly, by dour Brezhnevian repression, and another round of purity purges. Authoritarian elites, after all, have a nasty habit of regrouping and reasserting control. And it is unclear whether reform ideas can be effectively communicated to a base that believes in movement conservative inerrancy, is cut off from other information sources, disdains intellectuals, is dangerously misinformed, and is accustomed to the confrontational, schoolyard bully-style of talk radio.
Through the years, dissidents have paid a heavy price for daring to question conservative dogma. Some, like Bruce Bartlett and David Frum, have lost jobs and suffered other career consequences for speaking out. Others, including me, have been driven into political exile of one form or another.
We’ve endured scorn, petty harassment, ostracization, and worse because, in the words of Andrei Sakharov, we told uncomfortable truths about the huge amount of “substitution, deceit, and lack of correspondence with reality” in modern conservatism and refused to subordinate our integrity to demands for ideological conformity.
The courage to speak the truth is needed now more than ever. For conservatism to have a political future in America, it is essential that the Conservative Spring continue, and succeed. Conservatism must reform, in order to survive.
Michael Stafford is a former Republican Party officer and the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.