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The end of an era

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By Rick Howell

    “The conservative era is over.”

    As much pleasure as it gives me to see, read, and hear those words, I can’t claim them for myself.

    They came from none other than Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon aide who spoke them on television on the night of the election.

    He is, of course, right. Conservatism, and its longtime home, the Republican Party, is out of power at all the top levels of our national government, and seems likely to be so for quite some time.

    I would argue that George W. Bush unwittingly did more than any single individual to destroy it. It’s true, too, that Republicans were never able to find another commanding figure such as Ronald Reagan to effectively replace him when he left the scene in 1988.

    Buchanan himself tried to be that leader when he challenged the first President Bush in 1992. But the Democrats won that year.

    The growth of the religious right pushed the Republicans into an ideological straightjacket. It was always a mistake to let people such as the late Jerry Falwell have quite as much influence as they did.

    Consider this quote from conservative columnist David Brooks. Originally written for The New York Times, it was re-printed in the Nov. 17, “The Nation:”

    “Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals … conservatives tried to build an intellectual counter-establishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind. But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.”

    Leading the way in this contempt for an educated mind was surely the religious activists that essentially took over the party in the 1990s in Virginia and other states. Religious passions led too many Republicans to concentrate on the so-called social issues to the exclusion of almost anything else.

    Matters that Barry Goldwater and his generation of conservatives considered to be private were suddenly the obsessions of party activists. Goldwater became a strident critic of the religious right and tried to warn his party that it would eventually suffer losses at the polls if it got too chummy with people such as Falwell.

    But another part of the right’s decline has to be that people simply don’t believe much of conservative rhetoric anymore. Barack Obama won in every region of the country. His support came from young and old, black and white, and yes, immigrants of Hispanic and Asian descent.

    The educated voters of Brooks’ column simply don’t believe that government is inherently bad, or that the free market is the only engine that can achieve anything. In foreign policy, they want something other than militarism and swaggering with a big stick.

    I think the country has always been more liberal than conservatives thought. This year’s election has demonstrated that. It really is the end of an era for the Republican Party.

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    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.