Modern conservatism’s rejection of its communal roots is a relatively recent development. It can be traced to a simultaneous reaction against Bush’s failures and Barack Obama’s rise.
Bush’s unpopularity at the end of his term encouraged conservatives, including the fledgling tea party movement, to distance themselves from his legacy. They declared that Bush’s shortcomings stemmed from his embrace of “big government” and “big spending” — even if much of the spending was in Iraq and Afghanistan. They recoiled from his “compassionate conservatism,” deciding, as right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin put it, that “ ‘compassionate conservatism’ and fiscal conservatism were never compatible.”
That would be true, of course, only if “fiscal conservatism” were confined to reductions in government and not viewed instead as an effort to keep revenue and spending in line with each other, which was how older conservatives had defined the term.
Obama, in the meantime, pitched communal themes from the moment he took office, declaring in his inaugural address that America is “bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions.” The more he emphasized a better balance between the individual and the community, the less interested conservatives became in anything that smacked of such equilibrium.
That’s why today’s conservatives can’t do business with liberals or even moderates who are still working within the American tradition defined by balance. It’s why they can’t agree even to budget deals that tilt heavily, but not entirely, toward spending cuts; only sharp reductions in taxes and government will do. It’s why they cannot accept (as Romney and the Heritage Foundation once did) energetic efforts by the government to expand access to health insurance. It’s why, even after a catastrophic financial crisis, they continue to resist new rules aimed not at overturning capitalism but at making it more stable.
For much of our history, Americans — even in our most quarrelsome moments — have avoided the kind of polarized politics we have now. We did so because we understood that it is when we balance our individualism with a sense of communal obligation that we are most ourselves as Americans. The 20th century was built on this balance, and we will once again prove the prophets of U.S. decline wrong if we can refresh and build upon that tradition. But doing so will require conservatives to abandon untempered individualism, which betrays what conservatism has been and should be.
E.J. Dionne Jr., the author of “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,” is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post.
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