By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: May 24
To secure his standing as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has disowned every sliver of moderation in his record. He’s moved to the right on tax cuts and twisted himself into a pretzel over the health-care plan he championed in Massachusetts — because conservatives are no longer allowed to acknowledge that government can improve citizens’ lives.
Romney is simply following the lead of Republicans in Congress who have abandoned American conservatism’s most attractive features: prudence, caution and a sense that change should be gradual. But most important of all, conservatism used to care passionately about fostering community, and it no longer does. This commitment now lies buried beneath slogans that lift up the heroic and disconnected individual — or the “job creator” — with little concern for the rest.
Today’s conservatism is about low taxes, fewer regulations, less government — and little else. Anyone who dares to define it differently faces political extinction. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana was considered a solid conservative, until conservatives decided that anyone who seeks bipartisan consensus on anything is a sellout. Even Orrin Hatch of Utah, one of the longest-serving Republican senators, is facing a primary challenge. His flaw? He occasionally collaborated with the late Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy on providing health insurance coverage for children and encouraging young Americans to join national service programs. In the eyes of Hatch’s onetime allies, these commitments make him an ultra-leftist.
I have long admired the conservative tradition and for years have written about it with great respect. But the new conservatism, for all its claims of representing the values that inspired our founders, breaks with the country’s deepest traditions. The United States rose to power and wealth on the basis of a balance between the public and the private spheres, between government and the marketplace, and between our love of individualism and our quest for community.
Conservatism today places individualism on a pedestal, but it originally arose in revolt against that idea. As the conservative thinker Robert A. Nisbet noted in 1968, conservatism represented a “reaction to the individualistic Enlightenment.” It “stressed the small social groups of society” and regarded such clusters of humanity — not individuals — as society’s “irreducible unit.”
True, conservatives continue to preach the importance of the family as a communal unit. But for Nisbet and many other conservatives of his era, the movement was about something larger. It “insisted upon the primacy of society to the individual — historically, logically and ethically.”
Because of the depth of our commitment to individual liberty, Americans never fully adopted this all-encompassing view of community. But we never fully rejected it, either. And therein lies the genius of the American tradition: We were born with a divided political heart. From the beginning, we have been torn by a deep but healthy tension between individualism and community. We are communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians, but we have rarely been comfortable with being all one or all the other.
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