The conservative writer David Frum said Mr. [Glenn] Beck’s success “is a product of the collapse of conservatism as an organized political force, and the rise of conservatism as an alienated cultural sensibility.”
I'm really not interested in the Beck connection, but that observation about the de-evolution of conservatism intrigues me.
What happened to fiscal conservatives and limited-government conservatives over the past eight years is that Dubya made them the fall guys of not just social conservatives, but social/evangelical conservatives.
In the process, I think Frum got it right: at least for the near future the people who today call themselves conservatives have no effective political agenda--my friends at Delawareliberal have this part right: they are against a lot, but for relatively little. Ironically, I can think of more things these days that Libertarians are for than conservatives are.
This is not a recipe for political effectiveness.
The most relevant historical parallels would either be (a) the dissolution of the Whigs in the early 1850s or (b) the re-invention of the Democrats in the 1960s from being the party of segregation to become the party of civil rights. In the first case, the Whigs disintegrated, to be replaced a few years later by a Republican Party that seized a regional issue (anti-slavery) and rode it to national prominence. In the second example, the existing shell of a party managed to maintain sufficient organizational integrity to maintain nominal if not ideological integrity--there's not much about the Democratic Party of the 1950s (at least in social terms) that the Democratic Party today would recognize.
What's going to happen this time?
Two important dynamics exist.
First, the GOP and the Dems have spent the last fifty years imposing a two-party dyarchy on American politics, restricting campaign finance and ballot access to themselves and nobody else. No matter how badly on the ropes the GOP appears to be right now, there are structural and legal barriers to junking the brand that are almost prohibitive. This argues for a rebuilding around the name, if nothing else.
But there is a second demographic dynamic acting: the increasing segmentation of American social, cultural, and intellectual life. We now pick our news outlets by whether or not they fit our existing ideological biases, rather than whether they get the news right. Newt Gingrich (and, frankly, Bob Barr) would like to create an actual Conservative Party. A lot of my liberal/progressive friends would like to see something splinter off to the left of the Democratic Party. Less and less are people willing to compromise their individual vision: we have designer jeans; we want designer political parties.
I'd also suggest that the current, self-conscious Democratic majority will be far more ephemeral than our current crop of Senators and Representatives would like to believe. Total control of the Presidency and the Congress by a single party hardly ever leads where they think it's going to go. Hubris and internal factionalism take their toll.
And while all my liberal/progressive friends are wondering where the next major non-Democrat leader is going to come from (and why he/she isn't speaking out now). The two reasons are simple: speaking out during the crash/burn phase would be ... idiotic; and the next leader is going to come from some place almost completely unknown.
Who'd ever heard of Bill Clinton in 1988? Or Dubya in 1996?
Meanwhile, what happens to all those alienated millions who are listening to Glenn Beck?
Here's what they are not going to do: they're not going to start shooting. They aren't going to start a civil war. Once they get over the frustration and trauma of coming to grips with the fact that their own party betrayed most of its supposedly cherished principles, they are going to what good American citizens almost always do: buckle down, get back to work, and organize around things they are for, rather than things they are against. I don't think they will become Democrats, but I'm not sure they will end up as GOPers, either.
It's going to be interesting times: but it's time for all of us to stop fearing other American citizens.