EJ Dionne Chronicles the History of the Right

photo of E.J. Dionne
E.J. Dionne
February 5, 2016

The history of modern conservatism is a story of disappointment, partly because for the past half-century Republican politicians have been forced to make promises they could not possibly keep, celebrated columnist E.J. Dionne said during an IGS book talk Thursday.

Three core promises demanded of all Republican politicians include vows to reduce the size of government, reverse the cultural changes in American society, and reverse the demographic changes that have produced far greater ethnic diversity, said Dionne, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But those promises can’t be kept, Dionne said, because most Americans like the benefits provided by government and the rights revolutions of modern cultural change, and because demographic changes cannot be stopped. The result is a frustrated conservatism that often refuses to compromise, a brand of ideological purity inconsistent with the American system of separated powers, Dionne said.

Before a packed room at the Alumni House, Dionne spoke about his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism – From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, a New York Times best-seller. It was the first IGS book talk of the spring semester.

Although careful to note that the American political scene needs a conservative voice, Dionne described a modern Republican Party that has been purged of moderates and liberals and turned its back on the Main Street conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower.

Can a more balanced conservatism be revived? Dionne said that perhaps a third straight presidential defeat would spark a Republican reassessment, much as three straight Democratic losses in the 1980s produced the moderate liberalism of Bill Clinton.

Regardless of what happens in this year’s presidential race, Dionne made plain his preference for a less angry and pessimistic conservatism, a conservatism more in line with the buoyant optimism of Ronald Reagan.

“This new conservatism at times really doesn’t seem to like the United States of America as it exists in 2016,” Dionne said. “I don’t think this is good for conservatives. I want conservatives to hope again.”