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Look homeward.

The identification of the Republican Party with conservative institutions has become so complete that establishment leaders react to candidates in the GOP primaries as if the eventual Republican nominee were the de facto head of the movement as well.

As the repudiation of John McCain in the Kansas and Washington caucuses shows, conservative activists are angry that McCain, who is unacceptable to them on many counts (and even more so to antiwar conservatives), has become the presumptive nominee. This frustration stems in part from many conservatives' continued embrace of the sitting president and their strange impulse to anoint his successor as the leading representative of conservatism. Both before and after Mitt Romney's sudden withdrawal, many prominent movement figures were trying to declare him their leader in the same way that conservatives adopted another wealthy, moderate Republican as their standard-bearer in 2000. They fail to see that this is exactly how they enabled Mr. Bush to do so much damage to the reputation of conservatism and to the country.

Currently, the GOP coalition is much less "conservative" than it was ten years ago, yet today far more Republicans use the word to describe themselves. This does not represent the triumph of conservative principles so much as the dilution of the term. The name has become a marker and proof of some right to belong, but has consequently become much less significant. We are experiencing the confusion that inevitably follows the overuse of a term that empties it of all meaning.

McCain's critics fear a redefinition of conservatism once he is nominated, but this anxiety would be baseless if so many of them had not for the last seven years contorted arguments of the traditional Right to defend Bush administration policies. For this reason, conservatives feel a certain relief that talk-radio hosts and pundits failed to rally support for Romney, as McCain's nomination shows the stark reality that party interests and constituencies are not necessarily theirs. It is doubtful that the concerns of conservatives and the GOP have ever coincided entirely, but because they have so diverged in recent years, conservatives need a different relationship with the party if they are to preserve the goods and institutions they want to defend.

If the movement is not going to be an appendage of the GOP in the future, its leaders will need to recognize that the outcome of the Republican nomination contest does not have to define the future of the movement. Its support for a given Republican administration should never be foreordained. That may yield some better results on policy, since it makes it harder for the party to take movement support or acquiescence for granted.

If conservatives allow their priorities to be dictated by transient political needs of the GOP, they will find themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of their movement. They will also be unable to speak out credibly against Republican follies and failures. Without that independence, they will find themselves, as many do today, complicit in the errors of the party.

This political autonomy should not simply be a rhetorical or a scapegoating tactic when things go wrong. It must rather be a consistent strategy of keeping a healthy distance from a party organization that may have certain common goals but also interests that do not always align. If such a path were taken, there would be much less anxiety every four years about the dangers of "redefining conservatism" for political ends. There would also be much less danger of allying conservatism with revolutionary and destructive policies out of some misguided sense of partisan solidarity.

An important step in the direction of independence would be moving conservative institutions away from Washington. As with every kind of decentralist approach, this would make conservative institutions more aware of different conditions around the country and reintroduce them to local and regional perspectives, as well as removing them to some degree from the influence of the party leadership. This reorganization would then also give greater incentives to pursue and defend actual political and economic decentralization. When movement institutions have no concrete interest in localism, they will acquiesce to centralist policies that are ostensibly pursued for "conservative ends" but actually subvert the natural affinities that are fundamental to realizing those goals.

If we remember that conservatism is a temperament, a disposition and a series of mental and cultural habits rather than a programmatic agenda, we will find that more lasting accomplishments are possible in our homes and neighborhoods than in conventional political activism. This does not mean abandoning political affairs or ignoring the distorting and corrupting effects of the concentration of power, which must still be combated. It does, however, require a significant reorientation--homeward.
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Author:Larison, Daniel
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 25, 2008
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