Culture Con: How times have changed for conservatives in America

10 years ago, shaken Republicans thought the future pointed to Hayek and Reagan, not to Bannon and Le Pen

By RICHARD ESENBERG | Oct. 18, 2017

Ten years ago, this magazine published a series of essays responding to the question: Is conservatism out of gas? The occasion for the collection was the 2006 midterm election debacle in which, both in Wisconsin and nationally, Republicans suffered catastrophic losses. We know now what we did not know then.

First, things would get worse for the GOP. The financial crisis that was just around the corner would lead to the election of Barack Obama and mid-century level Democratic majorities in 2008. But the Obama administration’s overreach would lead to the rise of the tea party, GOP majorities in Congress and, eventually, the unlikely election of Donald Trump. The Republican Party, it turns out, had plenty of gas left.

But what of conservatism itself? Has it reasserted itself and, if so, who among the 2007 magazine contributors — which included Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Leah Vukmir and Charlie Sykes — was most prescient? The answer is humbling.

There is almost an aching innocence and earnestness about these essays. Most thought that we simply needed to reassert first principles. Sykes observed confidently that “the reality is that we are all capitalists now.” Ryan and former WPRI President George Lightbourn urged a recommitment to Hayekian principles and solutions grounded in individual liberty and opportunity. Walker warned that too many Republicans had forgotten that “we are the party of Reagan” committed to “limited government, lower taxes and a strong national defense.”

Other essayists — Mark Green, Jim Sensenbrenner, Mark Neumann — echoed Vukmir’s call for a return to “Reagan’s vision of limited government and individual responsibility. One writer, in a touching elevation of hope over experience, urged that the “shouting matches featured on the Bill O’Reilly and Hannity & Colmes programs on Fox News should serve as models of what serious and responsible discussion should not be.”

In other words, dear reader, we never saw it coming.

Ten years ago, we thought that the future would be some version of the American right’s traditional three-legged stool — a commitment to limited government and free markets, a recognition of the social conservatism that creates the culture of responsibility necessary for individual liberty and an acknowledgement of America’s role in the world as a beacon of security and a force for peace. 

There was no hint that the American right would ever borrow from the quite different rightist parties of Europe. The writers did not emphasize immigration or “globalism.” While Glenn Grothman criticized affirmative action, there was no notion that conservatives might adopt their own brand of identity politics or that a nationalist solidarity should, no pun intended, trump free-market principles.

From the evidence of these essays, we thought the future pointed back to Hayek, Reagan, Friedman and Goldwater. The writers did not invoke Wallace, Thurmond or dream of Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen. We knew where the arc of history bent, and it was in the direction of classical liberalism.

In this moment of electoral triumph, it seems as though the question of 10 years should be rephrased. Conservatism is clearly not out of gas. But where is it going?

One gets the sense, in reviewing the 2007 essays, that there was once broad agreement on just what conservatism should be. We now have power that we only dreamed of regaining in 2007. But it’s less clear that we are able to agree on what to do with it.

In 2017, officials in a Republican White House float raising tax rates on high-income taxpayers. A new journal of conservative thought, American Affairs, announces its support for single-payer health care. A scholar at the peerless Ethics & Public Policy Center writes a book about how the genius of Ronald Reagan was to interpret — but leave fundamentally unaltered — the New Deal’s promise of a vigorous federal government and “Life of Julia” welfare state. It turns out, according to Henry Olsen, that we’ve been getting the Gipper wrong all these years.

Writing in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks suggests that the Republican Party is now divided between what he calls traditional conservatives and conservative “white identitarians.” For the latter group, conservative principles are secondary to a sense of white identity and solidarity. Although Brooks, unlike most of his Times colleagues, is nuanced enough to distinguish between white identity politics and racism, he misses the nature of the divide.

While I would never suggest that race is completely irrelevant, I suspect that the split is not between two groups with a commonly held set of conservative principles divided by racial attitudes or a willingness to identify as white. Instead, it reflects a difference of opinion about what conservatism entails. Is it about a society in which government is limited, individual rights are paramount and the culture that brings us together is organic and fostered outside the state? Or is it an ideology that seeks a more vigorous state that itself promotes a common culture and ensures security and some measure of equality among those who share it?

To be sure, the tension between these views was always present in the conservative movement, and, at its best, the rise of a conservatism more concerned with solidarity and equality of outcome, not merely opportunity, can serve as a foil to the more classically liberal American version of conservatism. It can interrogate the values and assumptions of 2007. It can insist that it produce results, not just theory.

But something — political correctness, the Democrats’ focus on the “ascendant” coalition of minorities and cognitive elites, economic stagnation — has brought about a force in American conservatism that we did not see in 2007 and that differs with the Reaganite settlement on more than just style and emphasis. We have come back in the last 10 years. But it is unclear where we are headed.

Richard Esenberg is president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. He blogs at

Read the entire issue of Diggings here.