Waiting for the conservative base is the campaign-trail version of Waiting for Godot. Confusing plot, but audiences still find it gripping. For months we've heard that Mitt Romney, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts, could not win the Republican presidential nomination because the conservative base would rise up to oppose him. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania promised to deliver the CB after the Iowa caucuses. Instead he lost three primaries in a row. Newt Gingrich's thunderous win in South Carolina seemed to herald the CB's arrival. Nope. Now Romney has survived another existential crisis by sweeping the Florida primary on Jan. 31. And we're still waiting.
Like Samuel Beckett's audiences, we begin to wonder if we're waiting for something that doesn't exist.
According to polls, conservatism is the most popular political philosophy in the U.S.: 2 in every 5 Americans say they embrace it, according to Gallup. That's twice the number who say they are liberal. Yet the image of a party's "base" suggests a solid foundation, and the Republican race has revealed some deep cracks in the conservative movement--dividing antiabortion social conservatives and live-and-let-live libertarians, separating the isolationist heirs of Robert Taft from the nation-building heirs of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," culling the pragmatists at the Chamber of Commerce from the ideologues of talk radio and distinguishing country-club insiders from Tea Party outsiders.
Some of these cracks are almost as old as the movement itself. Modern conservatism was born in the early 1950s after the extraordinary 20-year reign of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his chosen successor, Harry Truman. Conservative economics had been blamed for causing the Great Depression, and conservative isolationism for inviting World War II. Amid the rubble of a discredited ideology, a young writer named Russell Kirk unearthed a rich philosophical tradition going back to British writer and politician Edmund Burke; Kirk's 1953 book The Conservative Mind was a sensation, influencing a generation that included William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Kirk's was never the only brand of conservatism, but his ideas were like a magnet pulling others toward them, and steadily, a coalition of the right was formed. Kirk emphasized the religious roots of society, which spoke to the rising Christian conservatism of the 1970s. He counseled slow and orderly change rather than radical or utopian schemes; this made his movement a welcoming home for Americans unnerved by the social revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. He held that individual property is the root of freedom, which rang a bell with the free-market economists of postwar London and Chicago, disciples of Austrian Ludwig von Mises. And he cherished traditional values and local institutions rather than shiny new ideas from central headquarters, which made his philosophy a comfortable place for the inevitable backlash against Washington and the New Deal.