Not Your Father’s Conservatism
Well, Paul Weyrich and William Lind have certainly offered a comprehensive program. Trade policy, military reform, urban esthetics, ballot initiatives. Our authors have boxed the compass. Much of what they offer is hard to disagree with. Term limits? Yes, please. Ideologies as “armed cant”? Too true. Tax and spending cuts? Control of our borders? The power of example? Bring them on.
For all that, and with real and proper respect to these two battle-scarred veterans of American conservatism, there is a musty odor rising from their pages: the odor of nostalgia. The general tenor of this piece is a sort of geezer conservatism. Now, I am trembling on the brink of geezerhood myself and not altogether out of sympathy with the authors in their affection for 1957, which I can just about remember, and when, as best I recall, things went along pretty well. I am sorry to tell them, though, that 1957 is past and gone and will not come back.
The business of conservatism is not to get us all riding streetcars again or working on family farms. (When were farmers conservatives? Were not small farmers key components of the Progressive movement? Is there anyone more tenaciously attached to his federal subsidy than a farmer?) The business of conservatism is not to chase Wal-Mart out of town or to bring back men’s hats. The business of conservatism is not to “recover the America we knew as recently as the 1950s,” even if that was “the last normal decade.” (What does that mean? Top personal income tax rates of 91 percent? Four-pack-a-day habits and four-martini lunches? European abortions for the rich, back-street abortions for the poor? Lobotomies and the psychoanalysis cult? The draft? Are those things normal?)
The business of conservatism is to conserve essential values and principles as future becomes present and present, past. The principles to be conserved are those our Republic was founded on: personal liberty, autonomy, and choice; self-sufficiency and self-support; limited government, loose federalism, and the rule of subsidiarity; freedom of speech, belief, assembly, and enterprise. There are now dire threats to all of these principles, and we ought to be busy fighting those threats, not yearning for a lost idyll—an idyll in which, in fact, though many present evils were absent, many different evils were present that have since been overcome.
In public, as in private life, a degree of fatalism and resignation is appropriate. The old must ever give way to the young; new technologies must be weighed and welcomed if they bring convenience without harm; present evils must be vanquished but always with the understanding that new—though, one may always hope, lesser—evils will rise up in their place.
The future is always open and unpredictable. The great blind currents of technology and economics will never deliver what we expect. Those Americans of 1950 who, buying their first TV, imagined a future in which citizens would come home from their work at the factory to watch symphony concerts and lectures on metaphysics in their living rooms, could not have foreseen “American Idol” or the flight of our factories to China.
On the other hand, they could not have foreseen Rush Limbaugh or “South Park” either—wonderful new growths of the fine Anglo-American tradition of ribald social satire and scorn for authoritarian pieties. Nor could they have foreseen a China where state terror is no longer the dominating fact of people’s lives and where a declared determination to overthrow American capitalism has given way to utter dependence on American consumer power.
Certainly our popular culture presents an unattractive sight. When did it not, though? Is Paris Hilton intrinsically more deplorable than Jayne Mansfield? Bette Midler than Mae West? Johnny Depp than Fatty Arbuckle?
I will certainly agree with what I think is Weyrich and Lind’s objection here: that the zone of decorum has shrunk, that the coarse and ribald has advanced inwards from the periphery of popular culture to nearer the everyday center. I deplore that development as much as the next conservative. Even there, though, compensations must be weighed. We knew far more about the 42nd president’s intimate life than we knew about the 35th’s, more than many of us would have wished to know. With which set of knowledge, were we—we, the people—better equipped to estimate the character of our chief executive?
The state of our Republic today is pretty dire. Calls to rectify the situation by means of Kulturkampf seem to me misguided, however. The central problem of the United States today is not that people’s brains are encrusted with filth but that they have been scrubbed so clean by puritan Left ideology that we have lost the ability to talk, even to think, about what ails us. This is as true over large parts of the conservative movement as it is in the popular culture at large. We cannot discuss what needs discussing, and we have stripped away defenses that will protect us when the coming tsunami of new understandings in the human sciences makes landfall.
The horrors and cruelties of our present political culture, from the million-page tax codes to our university speech codes, all have their origins in this turning away from reality. Rather than facing straightforward truths about our nature and condition and seeking to deal with them according to our customs and traditions, we have handed over our powers of judgment to that dark power Tocqueville spoke of so unforgettably, the power that: “…every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.”
We have lost the will even to expel lawless intruders from our territory or to smite our enemies with appropriate hatred and ruthlessness. We pretend to believe that one child’s abilities in any sphere of activity are just the same as another’s. We have persuaded ourselves that there is no deeper wickedness than to use our ordinary powers of discrimination in selecting those with whom we will associate or live amongst or trade with or employ. While we have surrendered our individual judgments to schoolmarms and scolds, we have surrendered our collective judgments to legions of avaricious lawyers and mediocrities in black robes.
Things are, in short, pretty bad for America, and for that native vigor, that creative liberty, that thrusting irreverence to old hierarchies and dogmas that so dazzled and charmed mankind when Uncle Sam first strode onto the world’s stage a century and a quarter ago, knocking over the props, hooting irreverently at the management, and offering the audience strange new visions of possibility.
Perhaps we can salvage some of that old vitality to fortify us in the coming storms. I certainly hope so. The salvaging won’t be accomplished, though, supposing it can be accomplished, by turning us into a flock of hat-wearing, church-going, streetcar-riding, home-schooling, natural-produce-eating, “Lawrence Welk Show”-watching brownstone-dwellers.
Indeed, the more I look at the Weyrich-Lind vision of a reconstituted American culture—and setting aside their many excellent political prescriptions already noted—the less I see to distinguish it from the drab enforced rectitude of lefty-völkisch “communitarianism.” The world is what it is and will become what it unguessably will become. It’s pleasant to think of what it once was but not relevant to this fight. Geezer conservatism? Not for this geezer.
John Derbyshire is a contributing editor of National Review and the author of Prime Obsession.