Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., stands in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 4, 2010. DeMint is becoming something of a tea party hero, even a potential conservative kingmaker, a status that is not making the freshman senator many friends among fellow Republicans in Congress.(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Coin Operated Conservatism: The Collapse of the Conservative Movement

“Remember, the very men and women who just voted to fund Planned Parenthood again will soon be heralded as pro-life heroes.”

I was in Washington last week with my fifth-grade daughter on a class trip. I did my best to avoid dealing with the situation at the Heritage Foundation. Needless to say, I have friends on both sides of the matter, but reading Tom Saunders’ statement it struck me as entirely graceless and classless. That various parties spent days building a narrative in the media against Jim DeMint only to then lament unsubstantiated leaks in the media is silly and dishonest.

I hate it for both sides. The Heritage Foundation is a solid, good organization. The work Mike Needham has done at Heritage Action has been indispensable at moving the GOP to the right. And Jim DeMint has made the Heritage Foundation relevant again in ways it was not and could not be during the Obama years. That the parties involved could not deal with this matter privately and graciously is unfortunate, and I wish the best to all of them. I just grasp at and cling tightly to the belief that Jim DeMint did not deserve that treatment.

In fact, DeMint should be a model for many on the right these days as the GOP clings to every bit of power. DeMint, new to Congress, sided with George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind after receiving ample promises of things to come. Those things never came, and DeMint realized the people who claimed conservatism for themselves were not really what they seemed. He set about correcting things, which eventually led to the Senate Conservatives Fund and the election of men like Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and others. Along the way, he was not afraid to make enemies and take the arrows and insults of establishment pundits and the Twitterati.

Fred Barnes, writing in the Wall Street Journal, back during the Bush Administration, did his best to cheerlead the administration. To justify Bush’s policies, Barnes coined the phrase “big government conservative,” and did so approvingly. Thereafter, things went down hill. The problem came chiefly because conservative and Republican became synonyms. The one should be about ideas and the other a vehicle for those ideas being implemented. Instead, both became about the acquisition of power; ideas be damned.

We’ve seen that sort of power acquisition at the expense of ideas across the conservative movement. Various groups exist as vehicles to take corporate cash and claim various proposals are conservative. See e.g. the internet sales tax.

The truth is there are fewer conservative organizations out there that really are about the cause and not the money anymore. It makes it very easy for the Republican establishment to accuse them all of being coin operated when so many of them are. Unfortunately, groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, and the Club for Growth get tarred and feathered when they’re in the handful of solid, dependable groups who put the cause ahead of the coin.

Compounding the problem, there are too many conservative groups that would rather moderate their conservatism to get scraps from the Republican establishment’s table than advance their agenda and issues. Too many conservative groups exist solely to defend a group of sell-outs and louts in Congress as conservative heros. Remember, the very men and women who just voted to fund Planned Parenthood again will soon be heralded as pro-life heroes.

Ossification has set in within the conservative movement. Trumpism has both made it worse and more readily exposed opportunists. Just as conservatives rallied to George W. Bush’s big government agenda, giving it the veneer of conservatism, so too are many conservatives trying to put the square peg of Trumpism into the round hole of conservatism. It is a venture doomed to fail and will taint the conservative movement even more.

Frankly, things are not well within the movement. Last year, I had a conversation with a friend and notable, prominent leader of the conservative movement. He too lamented how it was all for money these days. There were too few willing to stand up to Trumpism and, honestly, Romneyism before it when candidates and lobbyists spread cash before the horde.

The result is a movement increasingly devoid of ideas and intellectual arguments to halt the leftward drift in the nation. Many of the voices who could are now tainted by their cheerleading of Donald Trump during the election season, making excuses for the inexcusable.

Fox News, once long1 seen as the bedrock news outlet for the right, is in a difficult stretch. The Heritage Foundation is in turmoil. And too many others are looking to cash in. Too many conservatives have built up wealthy groups, but those men are in their final years with no heirs apparent and, like Ozymandias, will see their legacies crumble.

The cocktail circuit in Washington has given conservatives every incentive to keep their mouths shut and not hold each other accountable as friendly rivals in advance of sound ideas. At this point, with so many hitting retirement age, they’re resting on their laurels and friendships. Those younger than them, who do not remember the blighted age of Johnson into which Goldwater and Reagan ascended, are looking to cash in as coin operated conservatives.

Meanwhile, there are good ideas and sound policy left adrift. It is sad to see. But I am encouraged that the rot and ossification will lead to a new boldness and brashness of younger conservatives who are willing to advance ideas because the ideas are right, despite the lack of a price tag. I think, ultimately, Trumpism will be a good thing for the conservative movement because it will separate the conservatives from the opportunists.

There is, however, a ways to go. I hope it is a journey that finds both the Heritage Foundation and Jim DeMint still playing vital roles holding Republicans accountable and advancing sound ideas in the name of liberty and small government.

1. Geez. I go out to run errands and come home to news reports about me declaring Fox News over. I should have said “long” and not “once.” I used “once” because I’m mindful of many conservatives currently having conversations on the future of Fox, given the recent turnover there. I don’t think they have anything to worry about, but know they are worrying. Some people make more of it than they should because they’re dependent upon clicks.

About the author

Erick Erickson

View all posts