The end of conservatism met with a final crescendo in recent months, culminating in the election of Republican president Donald Trump. However, the movement has been crawling toward its inevitable demise for decades–the ongoing decline in institutionalized religion and the fall of communism have irreparably crippled the movement’s capacity for broader appeal and future expansion.
Notable conservative historian George Nash, perhaps second only to Russell Kirk in terms of historical knowledge and influence, supports this thesis. Nash notes that, in 1989, the American conservative right consisted of primarily three different, and somewhat overlapping, factions:
- Ex-communists like David Horowitz, who were personally aware of the dangers leftist thought.
- Traditionalists like Russell Kirk, who wanted society to place a greater emphasis on religious absolutes and Christian orthodoxy.
- Libertarians concerned with reducing the size of big government.
Today, this loose coalition barely survives. Communism has been defeated, albeit at the price of about 100 million bodies. Christian theology is no longer a major player on the modern political scene. The last of Nash’s three factions, libertarianism, is the only one that actually appears to have a future.
However, Nash is wrong to lump libertarians in with conservatives. The libertarian identity has become institutionalized in a way that separates it from both conservatism and liberalism. For instance, there are libertarian non-profits. There are libertarian magazines. There is the Libertarian Party. Distinct libertarian philosophies include the works of John Locke, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Stuart Mill, F.A. Hayek, and many others.
Going forward, conservatism will still play an important role in society, and the word “conservative” will still resonate with many. But the ideology itself may have lost its appeal. Unless conservatives can find a way to restore institutionalized religion and Christian orthodoxy, libertarianism will become its governing replacement.