Patrick Deneen points out, in his latest post, David Brooks’ remarks about how Ronald Reagan transformed conservatism from a pessimistic creed about decline and loss into an Emersonian vision of unlimited optimism. In fact, one can pinpoint exactly when the transition finally took place, July 15, 1979 during Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence'” speech. It was a speech that gave Reagan the chance to frame the “new conservatism” in optimistic terms because the other side have given up on optimism and talked about the long, grim struggle ahead.
It was Deneen who saw that the text of Carter’s address, contrary to the rhetoric against it, was actually a conservative document if you believed that conservatism meant self-sufficiency, prudence and saving for the future. That was not the conservatism that Ronald Reagan stood for, not by 1980. Even Reagan himself was a changed man. The Reagan of 1964, reflecting the dark Goldwaterian view that the U.S. was just a sliver away from totalitarianism, became the Reagan who believed the U.S could be John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” if under new management. Perhaps it was inevitable this would happened since Reagan (an ex-Democrat) styled himself more after Franklin Roosevelt (whom he voted for four times) than Robert Taft and because of his battles with the anti-American New Left at Berkeley. And for the “conservative movement” to take power it had to capture a broad coalition of voters, some of them libertarians who didn’t like Jimmy Carter telling them to drive speed limit; most of them New Deal Democrats who weren’t conservative intellectuals but who did want a President who would fix the economy, restore American defenses and combat permissiveness. And he in turn promised to do all these things and fashioned a new ideological synthesis around it.
Of course, as we eventually discovered, optimism as an ideology is really nothing more than nationalist posturing, a justification for American exceptionalism. This is much of what passes for conservative discourse is shallow and superficial as I wrote in this Etherzone.com article “The Politics of Rush Limbaugh: The Happy People vs. Gloomy People.” Who knows? If Left patriotism continues to flourish in the face of Right pessimism, Limbaugh may very well change his mind and hope President Obama succeeds.
Speaking of the New Left, is it any wonder why Carl Ogelsby, former SDS National Chairman, sought out old Right thinkers according to Bill Kauffman, because they had largely the same critique of American society as the SDS did? Unfortunately the Vietnam War and Civil Rights struggle changed the SDS from this, the Port Huron Statement in 1962:
“We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege or circumstance by power and uniquness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity…to encourage the independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.”
To this, the screaming announcement by Jeff Jones of the Chicago collective of the Revolutionary Youth Movement or RYM, better known as the Weathermen, the radical, terrorist faction of the SDS to an SDS chapter meeting at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 1969 after the Weathermen had taken over the meeting (excerpt taken from the book Rads )
“You don’t see any m—- f—- college students going to the m—- f—- university up here do you? No, what you see are stone communist revolutionaries.”
Thus did the SDS went from advocating “participatory democracy” to espousing a revolution that would establish a communist dictatorship in the space of seven years. The end result of the New Left ideology was either prison, death, complete repudiation (as it was for people like David Stockman, Dr. Thomas Fleming and P.J. O’Rourke) or slowly slip back into the mainstream to become conventional yuppie Democrats. (Ouch!) Although one can argue the Bill Ayers of the world have succeeded in their attempt to deconstruct America through becoming tenured radicals at colleges and universities instead of trying to blow them up. But writer Julius Lester in 1970 summed up the New Left truly when he said: “American radicals are perhaps the first radicals anywhere who have sought to make a revolution in a country which they hate.”
Luckily the traditional Right does not have to worry about losing the people over some perceived anti-Americanism because there is none. The traditional right has battled the New Left to preserve the legacy of men like Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson and prevent the interpretation of U.S. history from becoming a Marxist passion play. However there is the issue of anger at America, one that is not easily dealt with. Barry Goldwater found this out in 1964 and so did George McGovern in 1972 as detailed in the book The Liberals’ Moment::
“George McGovern was in a phone booth in the (Senate) cloakroom and he overheard several Democratic colleagues, unaware of his presence, talking about him. “Somebody,” McGovern recalls, said that “if we just had these tapes, McGovern would have won that election. Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia disagreed and the reason he gave shook McGovern. “You know,” said Talmadge, “what was wrong with George in that campaign was that he gave the impression that he was mad at the country. He was condemning her policy in Vietnam and just seemed like everything he said indicated that he was as mad as hell about this country. People aren’t going to support a candidate like that. This is a great country. It makes mistakes, but by God if you get up there and preach day and night against America, you’re not going to be elected.”
Indeed, and Ron Paul may very well have had the same problem in 2008. Voters perceiving his critique of U.S. foreign policy as one of anger and indignation against the U.S. may have turned off some voters that might have been interested in him. This will be the challenge the traditional Right of the future, to prevent such critiques from becoming jeremiads. As right as the prophets of were about Israel’s impending doom, it’s only human nature to avoid listening to unpleasant truths. Appealing to people’s love of place and their folkways, picking up the currently unclaimed mantle of economic populism, and appealing towards decentralism and freedom as the central-state and globalist institutions grasp for more power, finding things to be for rather than being always against something will keep the traditional Right free from becoming another New Left.