Conservatism Is Dead; Long Live Liberalism? (Part I)

07/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In one of the most penetrating, scathing, and witty articles I have ever read, George Packer details the falling apart of conservatism (New Yorker May 26). But does it follow that liberalism is getting its act together and that Obama will ride its resurgence to the White House? Are we about to enter a new liberal era?

Packer reviews several recent books on the rise of conservatism in the late 20th century, such as Rick Perlstein's Nixonland and Sean Wilentz's The Age of Reagan: a History 1974-2008. He also interviews several contemporary leading conservative authors and public figures -- from Pat Buchanan to Rich Lowry, David Frum to David Brooks; he examines recent reports issued by leading conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation; and he visits conservative magazines such as the National Review and Commentary. He finds all of these to be boring, empty, and uninspiring; the products of a movement that has run out of steam. About the kindest thing he has to say about any of them is that they are like "the spasms of nerve endings in an organism that's brain-dead." He calls the writings of the newly appointed editor of Commentary, John Podhoretz, "crude"; those of Newt Gingrich a "wonkish parody" of some of his earlier work; and quotes Pat Buchanan as suggesting that conservatism has "degenerated into a racket." All in all, a grand bankruptcy.

I should note in passing that Packer, in an article than runs almost 9,000 words, fails to explore what is widely considered the strongest suit of conservatives: their claim that they are the best guardians of national security, of homeland protection. (He does mention their stubborn commitment to the defense of the invasion of Iraq).

Some may well jump to the conclusion that with the conservative tide at least ebbing, the tide is rising for liberalism. The highly regarded late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. long claimed to have found that American politics swing back and forth between conservative and liberal periods. By this account, after eight years of Bush, a liberal comeback is due (if not overdue). Senator Gary Hart, basing himself on this historical narrative, called on Obama to campaign as an unabashed liberal. Critics of this theory, however, point out that American history is marked by long periods of conservative domination interrupted by short liberal interludes.

Since Nixon, out of 7 presidents, 5 were Republicans and only 2 were Democrats -- and not particularly liberal ones at that. Whatever one calls the Carter presidency, it was anything but liberal. (His dedication to human rights and peace emerged mostly after he'd left the White House). Based on my experience serving in the Carter White House, I can attest that the only thing he considered holy other than his Christian faith and family values was a balanced budget, a core conservative value. Clinton's record is more complicated; he certainly did reveal some liberal proclivities, but his welfare reform was clearly in a conservative mode, and he capped most social programs in order to balance the budget. (He ended up generating a surplus which the Bush administration inherited and squandered). At other times, when looking for common ground, promoting volunteerism (AmeriCorps), and trying to defuse tensions between the races and between the religious right and the liberal secularists, Clinton was much more a communitarian than a liberal.

Communitarianism, a social philosophy centered around the concept of community, is hardly a household word and is very unlikely to become one. However, one should consider it -- because Barack Obama is easily the most communitarian presidential candidate of all those we have seen for decades. He, as I will show in my next post, is much more likely to usher in a communitarian era than a liberal one.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see The New Golden Rule. To contact him, email See also