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Is the conservative movement dead? In November, when many of its leading intellectuals publicly abandoned the McCain-Palin ticket, deserting their comrades and going over to the other side, the movement suffered not only electoral defeat but ideological apostasy. During the transition, as the stock indexes of the world tumbled, crushing the blithe confidence in free-market ideas universally espoused just a few years earlier, many seasoned political observers wondered whether the long-awaited “conservative crack-up”–to quote the title of R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.’s book of 1992, which predicted the imminent decline of the conservative project–might have at long last arrived. The old Reagan coalition had split into warring elements, with the traditionalists turning on the libertarians and Wall Street executives backing away from a Republican regime that proved to be inept at managing economic chaos. A movement that claimed to have descended from both Milton Friedman and Edmund Burke, wedding the fast pace of capitalism and the slow, stately march of tradition, might always have seemed ideologically strained. By the spring of 2009, the fissures had turned into cracks, and the movement collapsed in on itself.
Or did it? After all, the death of conservatism has been prophesied many times before. In 1964 the New York Times opined that Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had “not only lost the Presidential election…but the conservative cause as well.” In 1977 Fortune magazine pronounced that the Republican Party was “exceptionally weak,” virtually “bereft of any ‘turf’ that is securely its own.” Three years later Gerald Ford made a play for the Republican nomination by insisting that the country would never elect a movement conservative. “A very conservative Republican can’t win in a national election,” he told the Times. Even during the 1980s, when a genuine movement conservative occupied the White House, liberal journalist Richard Reeves declared Ronald Reagan’s politics a mere “detour” from the country’s liberal history.
Perhaps this time things really are different, but the apparent rifts and tensions within the conservative movement–between elitism and populism, capitalism and custom, the piety and fanaticism of the far right and the moderation of the old guard at the helm–have not caused dissolution, historically speaking. On the contrary, they have generated a strangely durable, tenacious politics that has avoided being shunted to the margins of American life. Goldwater may have been trounced in 1964–he lost every state except his own and the five of the Deep South, where voters were drawn to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act–but movement conservatives remained undeterred and ended up using his campaign’s donor lists to fortify the ranks for future battles. Four years later the Republican Party, which had seemed a shambles during the Johnson presidency, retook the White House. When Richard Nixon left Washington in calumny in 1974, it seemed, again, that the GOP would be weakened for a generation. Instead, Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 and was re-elected in a landslide. For conservatives, it seems that their most crushing defeats herald their greatest victories.