The decline of conservatism?

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By Rick Howell

Few people would argue that Democrats hold most of the trump cards for this fall’s presidential and Congressional elections. The sustained and intense unpopularity of George W. Bush and his war in Iraq are the main, but not the only, reasons.

But might there be something else happening, too? Something even more profound than the electoral fortunes of either party?

What’s been called the “conservative movement” first found a home in the Republican Party with the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Breaking what had been the “liberal consensus” up to that time - the idea that both parties agreed that the federal government should play an important role in American life - Goldwater insisted that individual rights were being trampled upon by an increasingly aggressive government.

An embarrassing sideline of that philosophy was his opposition to the now-historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, something that laid the seeds for what is still a civil rights problem in the GOP. But Goldwater went down to a crushing defeat, anyway. Conservatism - at least as a “movement” - hadn’t arrived yet.

After Vietnam, Watergate, and the perceived failures of the Carter administration, one man appeared who would change all that. His name was Ronald Reagan. Suddenly, it was “hip” to be conservative. The movement’s cause was greatly assisted by Reagan’s immense personal and political skills.

As Reagan triumphed, Goldwater aged. The father of conservatism, as he was called, basically turned against much of it as he got older. He wound up as an advocate of women’s rights and gay rights, and had particular contempt for the “Christian conservatives,” people who acted as though God Himself not only endorsed but originated their views.

Even in the Reagan era, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that most Americans were never really as conservative as the conservatives believed them to be. While he was popular, polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans opposed his large defense budget increases, aid to human rights abusers in Nicaragua known as “contras,” and his policies that supported nuclear power and more nuclear weapons.

Once Reagan was gone, there was no spokesman like him to keep the myth of “everybody’s a conservative” going. Instead, we first heard the voices of hate and intolerance from the new heirs to the conservative throne: the right-wing talk radio kings, led by the pompous and bellowing Rush Limbaugh.

As bad as Limbaugh could be, we still hadn’t met something called “Fox News,” and had yet to encounter the likes of Ann Coulter. It’s no wonder that by 2000, George W. Bush couldn’t win the popular vote for president, and needed a conservative Supreme Court to put him in office.

Now, eight years later, most Americans can’t wait for the era of “Bush II” to end. Polls show a majority of voters lining up on the liberal end of issues, not the conservative view. Clear majorities want universal health care, an end to the war in Iraq, and something done about global warming.

They trust Democrats, not Republicans, to again make America a country where something counts besides war, profits, and access to oil. They know that tax cuts shouldn’t be handouts to the rich, and that America needs an expanded, not an ever-decreasing, social safety net.

What may indeed be happening in this country is the beginning of the end for the conservative movement. It may not be just the Democratic Party that is set to triumph in the fall, but the liberal agenda itself. If so, it would be a sea change that conservatives have brought upon themselves by their own arrogance, incompetence, and ideological extremism.

It would be the result they bought for themselves when they traded Reagan and Goldwater for Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Delay, Ann Coulter, James Dobson, and - last but not least - George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.