Lake Wobegon Reaganism
A somewhat odd column from Elizabeth Scalia about the 2012 election contains this fascinating bit:
Earlier in the week, I had an exchange with an overwrought woman who declared herself “done with God” because she had prayed for a GOP victory and felt abandoned. It became clear that the “shining city on the hill” meant everything to her; “America is not supposed to end,” she said. When I suggested that such pride might have played a part in this defeat—that Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land because of pride, and the GOP is no Moses—she railed again. When I asked her what she could worship in the nation’s stead, she replied, “nothing.”
That sort of immature faith will not sustain us through the difficult times ahead.
Wow. I prayed to God that my sister wouldn’t die a horrible death from lung cancer, and she did. I don’t feel “abandoned” by God over that, much less because a liberal Democrat beat a moderate Republican for the presidency. What the hell is wrong with people? Scalia is right: this woman worshiped the nation, or a particular version of it. It’s good that her idolatry was shattered.
Though I can’t share Scalia’s profoundly elegiac sentiment for the passing of a political and cultural era — she writes as if last week’s result amounted to the Elves leaving Middle Earth — nor can I share many of the particulars of her analysis, I do agree with her that the election result is helpful in that it will relieve (or should relieve) many conservatives of their illusions about the kind of country we live in. Scalia:
At National Review Online, Charles C. W. Cooke writes eloquently of this truth, but where he feels despair, I feel set free. This election has shattered, finally the illusion that if “good conservatives just keep fighting,” somehow “another Reagan” was going to come along and restore the “shining city on a hill”. For too long I have watched friends remain enthralled to the notion that a single man or woman equipped with rhetorical skills, a bit of spine, and right-thinking would be able to resurrect what is remembered by some modern conservatives as a golden age.
She goes on to say that conservatives have lost something irreplaceable because
we cultivated immense pride—a pride that overfocused us on the material rather than the spiritual aspects of prosperity (to do for others) and freedom (to live for others) and military might (to defend ourselves and others). When we overtipped the scales and became weighed down with McMansions we neither needed (with our 2.5 children) nor could really afford, when we began to manipulate the stock market, when we began to make war with drones and shrug off human life as “collateral damage” we justified it by saying we were the greatest nation the world had ever seen; exceptional and indispensible.
Like Moses, we let pride overcome our mission. The conservatives—obsessing on greatness—refused to acknowledge any weakness. But there is always weakness; not admitting mistakes is the greatest of them. By refusing to cede error or suggest moderation, the right allowed the left to grab on to moral arguments so few were making—about greed, and selfishness, and triumphalism—and to pervert them through the filter of secular statism, until limited taxation, individual accomplishment, and strategic military defense became caricatured as great moral evils, and most other matters became relative.
I’m not sure the extent to which I disagree with her here. If conservatives would have admitted that the Iraq War was a mistake, and spoken bluntly and intelligently about how Republican foreign policy would change in light of the lessons from Iraq, folks might have at least trusted that the party was returning to prudence. If the GOP had recognized that their uncritical worship of finance and the markets was incompatible with human frailty and the common good, they might have come up with more reasonable policies in light of changing circumstances (e.g., they could have decided that their belief in market capitalism required them to break up the big banks, because the banks are a threat to market capitalism). But they didn’t, not so much because of pride, I think, but because they believed that the ideology of Reaganism was like revealed religion: something that was self-evidently true, and not to be questioned or re-interpreted in light of experience.
When Scalia says that America has rejected “the backbone of conservative theory— rugged individualism, privacy, minimal government,” she forgets that this is not the backbone of conservatism, but the backbone of Reaganism, which is the dominant, indeed exclusive, form that American conservatism took in contemporary times. But Reagan didn’t invent conservatism. There is a school of conservative thought that is more communitarian than libertarian. Liberals, after all, believe in individualism and privacy too, but apply it in different ways — and see the state as a guarantor of individual rights and privacy. These things didn’t break down according to neat ideological lines. For example, liberals argued that sodomy laws were an unconstitutional incursion of the state into the private lives of individual citizens; conservatives (social conservatives, not libertarians) argued that the state had the right to pass laws governing “vice” for the protection of the common good. I have no doubt on which side Scalia stood in the Lawrence vs. Kansas decision — the same side as the great Supreme Court justice who shares her last name — but if “privacy” and “minimal government” are backbones of conservatism, then by that measure, she did not take the conservative side.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink what it means, or may mean, to be conservative. As I said the other day, just because a world has come to an end doesn’t mean the world has. I agree with Scalia that whatever bad policies may come out of this election, we should be pleased if it shakes conservatives out of their Lake Wobegon Reaganism. Scalia and I probably agree on many things that have gone wrong with the country, and I hope we agree that going forward, it’s better for conservatives to deal with the country in which we actually live, as opposed to the country that appeals to our own idolatries.
UPDATE: Roberto, from the comments thread below:
A lot of what calls itself “conservatism” is really a kind of nostalgia and, as with most nostalgia, it is recalling something that never really existed, at least not in the gauzy sentimental form they recall.
To paraphrase MacIntyre, all American politics pre-supposes a kind of individualism that seeks to cast off have any sense of obligation to a concept of the good bigger than their needs and desires. For others, the casting off is about sex and other “lifestyle” matters. For others, it’s about money and power. In the end, it’s nothing worth feeling Godforsaken about.