by Robert Peck
I recently discovered a pamphlet in a pile of materials on my desk that was waiting to be sorted. The pamphlet contained the text of a speech given by former Nixon administration official, Constitution Party founder, and champion of the conservative cause, Howard Phillips. The speech, titled, “Under What Authority?,” was given as the keynote address at the 1996 National Affairs Briefing, attended by over 50 conservative leaders and 3,000 activists in Memphis, Tennessee. The speech is the kind of thing that I cut my political teeth on, and it’s an example of the rhetoric that was fanning the flames of the Christian-Conservative-Right of just 21 years ago.
After reading Howard’s words in that pamphlet, and rehearsing the issues that were part of the conservative agenda back then, I find myself questioning whether the movement has been checking to see that it is still on course, or if it even remembers its original destination.
Whether flying an airplane across an ocean, or driving a car across the country, you have to keep checking the instruments, or the road signs, to see where you are, then consult a map to see where you’re supposed to be. A crosswind can blow an airplane hundreds of miles off course, and if you keep making wrong turns on a road trip, you can end up driving in circles. It might feel like you’re still going in the same direction, but if you don’t double check your progress against a fixed standard, like a map, you can end up somewhere you never intended.
I’m not just talking about America’s failure as a nation to arrive at the destination described in Howard’s speech. I’m asking whether the modern conservative movement is even addressing the same issues today, or contending for the same objectives? Is today’s conservatism headed to the destination its founders intended, or does it need a course correction?
Before you blame Democrats for our failure to arrive at the desired destination, remember that since Howard gave this speech, Republicans have held 57% of the control of our federal government – 68% if you count the Supreme Court – and they held complete control for six years during the Bush administration, as they now do again. In other words, the conservative movement has been winning at the polls and the current state of the nation is, for the most part, the work of, and apparently the will of, the people, and the party, that the Right has been electing!
While conservatives have high hopes of righting the ship of state under the incoming administration, the conservative movement itself would do well to first check its own course against the one originally charted by the movement’s founders. You might start with a review of Howard’s speech, Under What Authority?, then ask yourself if we are still looking to the same source of authority or whether the conservative movement has substituted populism, pragmatism and partisan politics in place of the rule of law and the revealed will of the sovereign.
NOTE: There is also a collection of audio recordings of similar speeches from the same time period that can be heard here.
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