On the Future of Conservatism
The November 1996 election and a number of other recent events have offered an opportunity for reassessment among conservatives. At issue is not only the meaning of the election results themselves but the present and future character of a movement which only two years ago seemed to some to be bringing about a “revolution” in American political life.
Writing in COMMENTARY last March, Irwin M. Stelzer pointed to a possibly fatal divergence between “economic” conservatives, for whom the primary considerations were the growth of government and the degree of its intrusiveness into the business of the country, and “social” conservatives “intensely concerned with their vision of a re-moralized America” and not necessarily indisposed to the use of government to promote it. Since that time, not only has the rift Stelzer pointed to evidently gone unbridged, but the “social,” or “values,” conservatives have themselves shown signs of splitting apart.
Thus, in a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” (November 1996), the editors of the religious journal First Things, citing the “judicial usurpation of politics,” put into question the very “legitimacy” of the American democratic system and invited a number of writers to consider the steps, not excluding force, which a citizen might be morally entitled to take against “the existing regime.” The symposium, with its explicit invocation of the analogy of Nazi Germany, and its echoes of 1960’s-style radicalism, prompted the outraged resignation of a number of prominent conservatives from the magazine’s board. Articles on this episode followed in newspapers and weekly periodicals; the January issue of First Things carried a response to the original symposium and a further statement by the editors.
Other signs of disarray include the apparent division between most conservatives and the leadership of the Republican party over the California Civil Rights Initiative outlawing racial preferences, as well as ongoing and perhaps irreconcilable differences within conservative ranks on issues ranging from foreign policy to immigration to relations between church and state.
We asked a number of distinguished intellectuals to weigh these matters and respond to the following questions:
- What is the significance of the November election’s mixed results, and what do they reveal about the current standing of conservatism in American political life? Does it still make sense to speak of a conservative “revolution”?
- How deeply are you troubled by the splits within conservatism? Are some more consequential than others? In particular, what to your mind are the longer-term implications of the radicalizing mood revealed in the First Things symposium?
- What is your own view of conservatism’s mandate in the period ahead?
The responses, fifteen in all, are printed below in alphabetical order.
Robert L. Bartley
For nearly two decades now a conservative tide has been running through our life and times. I see no reason to believe that either one equivocal election or a bit of clerical hyperbole represents a basic change of direction. While not every wave washes beyond the last, we are still at flood rather than ebb.
History is likely to regard 1996 as the year Republicans confirmed their control of the Congress, despite the mistakes of their short tenure and the frantic efforts of their political and cultural opponents. If the historical pattern of second-term presidencies repeats itself, the Republicans will add to their majority in the next election, and they are learning how to wield the enormous power of the institution they won in 1994. While they are a bit chastened by the attack they had to withstand, the weight of their caucus is not less conservative but more so.
President Clinton won reelection not by opposing conservative themes but by “triangulating” them. It is not easy to defeat an incumbent President with a reasonable economy and no foreign-policy trauma. The economic expansion was a gift from the Republican Congress; the bond market bottomed out precisely on the day the GOP took the Congress in 1994. And the Reagan-Bush victories in foreign policy left ample room for both their own mistakes and those of their successor. Meanwhile, Clinton ran this past November as the most conservative Democratic presidential nominee since Grover Cleveland.
The electorate, finally, gave the President a presumption of innocence in the sprawling scandals of his administration. The standard of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” typically applies in criminal trials, when the stake is sending someone to prison. It may strike some of us as strange to apply it when the stake is whether to give someone the nation’s highest office. Yet the recent history of scandal and the recent headiness of fads do carry dangers, and there is something to be said for the electorate’s view. Indeed, it could be called a conservative view. Yet President Clinton seems certain to be crippled by ongoing scandal, and, reelected with no mandate, he is no more likely than King Canute to stop the tide.
The most powerful exception concerns the judiciary. While newly solid Republican majorities in the Senate will block strongly ideological liberal appointees, the President still holds the initiative in naming judges. And even Republican jurists, we have seen, are susceptible to the liberal drift in the bar and law schools. The schism between judges and the people is likely to grow over the next four years. It is totally unsurprising and entirely appropriate for conservatives to worry the issue of judges abusing their powers in order to substitute their personal views for those of elected representatives and even voters’ decisions in referendums.
There is, indeed, no issue on which conservatives are more solidly united. Nothing could be more fanciful than the notion that the issue of judicial usurpation was discovered in the recent First Things symposium; conservative consensus on this issue has been complete since at least the time we started to learn what Justice David Souter really thinks. With great talent for agitating an issue, Father Richard John Neuhaus wrapped the underlying consensus in inflammatory rhetoric. It is conceivable that when the dust settles, his stridency may even have done some good, in both heightening the issue and showing that conservatives do draw limits. If memory serves, in the 1960’s liberals did not resign from publication boards over “Off the Pigs” or frontpage recipes for Molotov cocktails.
But where is the great split in conservative ranks? It seems to be Neuhaus against everyone else. Even Robert Bork, the most important contributor to the First Things symposium, has written a letter to the editors (in the January issue of that magazine) suing for divorce. Despite liberal propaganda to the contrary, the leaders who have mobilized the Christian Right by no means buy into the Neuhausian rhetoric; to the contrary, they saw the symposium as an invitation for Christians to drop out of politics in favor of the next world.
As the conservative cause prospers, its proliferating publications inevitably have to practice what the business world calls brand differentiation. National Review stakes its ground on outlawing immigration and legalizing drugs. The Weekly Standard becomes the inside-the-Beltway bible. The American Spectator presses Whitewater harder than even I would. My own taste runs to the weekly edition of the Washington Times, a newspaper where you find the news the mainstream media missed or buried. If First Things finds its thing with the illegitimacy of the “regime,” so what? May they all in their own ways prosper.
The split that does concern me is between the conservative mainstream and the libertarians, who have been a splinter but are riding a great wave of demographics. Among both Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Internet youths, a rather doctrinaire libertarianism already prevails. Precisely because these groups are in most ways so admirable, their influence is bound to grow. They will be a wholesome force toward smaller and more open government, lower taxes, faster economic growth, school vouchers, term limits, and a good many things I and most conservatives wholeheartedly endorse.
Yet it is also true that the most worrisome problems of society today revolve around the erosion of social controls that have traditionally enforced morality: I mean the weakening of families, the still-high rates of crime, the scourge of drugs, the coarseness of civil discourse. We seem to live in a society where drugs rule the slums while middle-class kids from the New Jersey suburbs fail to understand you do not throw a newborn out with the garbage.
A high-achieving Silicon Valley libertarian may in fact be able to keep his life integrated and deal responsibly with others while, say, supporting serial wives and live-in girlfriends, occasionally snorting coke, and voting a single-issue pro-choice ticket. But I very much doubt that any large society can be run without some level of social control, some means, one hopes, short of but including the force of law, to reinforce the better side of human nature.
In our times the effort of communities and neighborhoods to hold some control has been under systematic assault by a libertarianism of the Left, embodied in what the American Civil Liberties Union has become, and acting through the imperial judiciary. Court decisions have restricted the power of school principals as too arbitrary, and destroyed the possibility of exiling disruptive students to disciplinary schools. Against the sentiments of the population, school prayer and even a moment of silence have been made anathema. In pursuit of “civil rights,” we now have a juvenile-justice system that teaches, until its clients have reached an incorrigible age, that there are no serious sanctions. Mainstream conservatives want to reverse this trend, changing the law to redress what the judiciary has done.
As free-market libertarians grow in influence, I hope they give some serious thought to finding a way to help. Mainstream conservatives, meanwhile, should not fall back on symbolic and ultimately silly palliatives. Understandably, libertarians see the V-chip on the Right as very much like gun control on the Left—both annoy their victims without having any practical effect.
Yet there is a larger and more compelling case to be made. We are at a point in history, indeed, where the moral dimension is appearing from many directions. Even free-market economists, for example, are concluding from studies of third-world and post-Communist development that the most important factor is the rule of law, with its underlying moral foundation. As science works its way through more and more arcane causality, answers to the ultimate riddle recede farther and farther. Science is ever useful, but its religious pretenses fade before questions like, what came before the Big Bang? We may not be undergoing a full-scale Great Awakening, but we are experiencing an era of moral concern that reaches far beyond the fundamentalist Right.
The great frontier for the conservative tide is of course the culture. The media, the creative arts, and the universities are still dominated by the adversary culture cum establishment. Perhaps there is no answer except a flanking attack, as mainly conservative think tanks have supplanted the universities as centers of public policy, and right-wing radio hosts raised an audience in the midst of declining newspaper readership and network news ratings. But against liberal opponents who lacked the courage to stand against the radical Left in the 1960’s, I would not rule out a more frontal attack; I suspect that the route to their heart runs through the pocketbook. We should also recognize, of course, that in all of these institutions there are some people sensitive to the merits of an argument.
The big temptation to conservatives, and especially conservative intellectuals, is self-realizing pessimism. As many rising movements have discovered, it is easier to tear down than build. Conservatism in particular, in its view of human nature and in its recent historical experience, has a strong pessimistic strain. Sometimes conservatives seem unhappy unless they are losing. They need to guard against seizing on a few receding waves as evidence that the tide has turned against them.
Peter L. Berger
The 1996 election did not reverse the conservative revolution of the 1994 election for the simple reason that there was no such revolution in the first place. I claim no great expertise in American politics, but it seems to me that both elections were primarily determined by fear. In 1994 many voters were scared that Hillary Clinton would push them, sooner or later, into some sort of Bolshevik health-care system; in 1996, they feared that Newt Gingrich would take away the health-care system they had. And, of course, there were other criss-crossing anxieties, none of which Bob Dole managed to allay.
Be that as it may, conservatives, of all people, should cringe at the word “revolution,” no matter what adjective precedes it; and a “conservative revolution” is an oxymoron indeed. Rather, what can be observed over several elections and from other measures of American political life is a shift to the Right on a number of issues, notably on economic and welfare policies. This shift provides a chance for conservative politics. It is a sad commentary on the leadership of the Republican party that this chance has been consistently missed, at least since the end of the Reagan administration.
As for the alliance between “economic” and “social” or “values” conservatives, there were obvious tensions at work even in the heyday of that alliance, caused not least by class differences. On one side there were people who thought that being born-again was some sort of Hindu superstition, while people on the other side thought that Groton was a throat disease. As many observers have noted, the end of the cold war put further strain on the alliance. Nevertheless, given the continuing challenges from the Left, the alliance is still plausible.
The question is whether the “values” issues can be defined in such a way as to permit conservatives to expand into the middle ground of American politics. It seems to me that the answer to this will determine the future of conservatism.
The “radicalizing mood” referred to in the editors’ statement is understandable in view of various disappointments, among which must certainly be included the role of the federal courts. If one is located in academia, as I am, the continuing domination of elite culture and some of its not-so-elite dependencies by various demented ideologies still sprouting from the decaying carcass of the late 60’s is enough to make one think of moving to another country (an impulse quickly enough checked as one goes over the list of possible destinations). But any radicalizing mood should be held at bay, especially by those who think of themselves as conservatives. Otherwise, the real opportunities for conservative politics will be lost for a long time, and conservatism will be relegated to a sectarian subculture.
Since there is no credible vehicle for conservative politics in America other than the Republican party, the failure of its leadership to articulate “values” positions that will appeal to larger numbers of voters is deplorable. (They have done much better, of course, on economic and welfare policies, with the bizarre result that President Clinton ran in 1996 by employing a rhetoric that, on those issues, could be well described as moderate Republican.) The reasons for this failure are not very mysterious. Most leading Republicans are economic conservatives, equally ill at ease with the Left-leaning culture (with which they are often afflicted in their own homes by their wives and children) and with their discomfiting allies on the “values” Right. As a result, they alternate between an avoidance of positions that might give ammunition to the Left and a patently awkward endorsement of positions of the “values” Right.
A particularly shameful example of appeasement of the Left was the failure of the Dole campaign to support the California Civil Rights Initiative, a failure that was as distasteful morally as it was politically dumb.1 On the other hand, the mouthing of evangelical religious sentiments and of vociferous anti-abortion rhetoric by upper-middle-class Republican politicians to whom both the sentiments and the rhetoric are clearly alien is unlikely to convince the groups thus being wooed. It takes the rare political skills of a Bill Clinton to be successfully insincere.
It is in this context that the episode involving First Things, referred to in the editors’ statement, is more than a tempest in a teacup. I was one of those who resigned from the magazine’s board over this matter and I address it here with reluctance, because I have great respect and affection for Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose sincerity is unquestionable and whose contributions to the conservative cause have been very great. But the questioning of the legitimacy of the American political system in the First Things symposium is a prime case of the counterproductive radicalizing mood mentioned earlier. If one decides that the system has become illegitimate, where does one go from there? Does one hole up with guns in the foothills of the Rockies? Engage in civil disobedience? Move abroad? Elect what Europeans call “inner emigration”?
Any of these options involves a withdrawal from meaningful politics. To consider such an option in the United States today strikes me as profoundly implausible as well as strangely parochial. If the American polity is illegitimate, where is legitimacy to be found? The allusions to Nazi Germany in this exercise are particularly offensive: are we back now to the “Amerika” language of the 60’s, this time in a Right translation?
A key concern of First Things is a usurpation of power by the courts, described most forcefully (and, to me, persuasively) by Robert Bork’s contribution to that magazine’s November symposium. But is this enough reason to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the system? The American separation of powers has always been a creaky affair. Time and again, the other two branches of government have usurped power in constitutionally dubious ways. Congress has tried to run foreign policy. Agencies of the executive branch have legislated by way of regulations.
It seems to me, however, that for most of the First Things contributors, and for the magazine’s editors, the driving concern has been not so much the power the courts have improperly assumed but rather what they have done with this power. And at the center of this concern is the issue of abortion.
A simple thought-experiment will serve to illuminate the problem here. Imagine that abortion in the United States had achieved its present legal status through an act of Congress rather than a Supreme Court decision. Imagine further that the Supreme Court had then ruled this act to be unconstitutional. I doubt very much that most of the First Things contributors would have viewed the latter action as a serious usurpation of power, let alone a reason to question the legitimacy of the American polity.
In the same November issue of First Things a reader, Fred Ainslie, responded in a letter to an earlier review by Neuhaus of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. “Richard John Neuhaus suggests,” this reader wrote, “that the Holocaust is ‘our only culturally available icon of absolute evil.’ What about the monstrosity of abortion?” He then went on to describe abortion as “the number-one problem in America today.” Neuhaus replied to this letter as follows:
Abortion is certainly the moral enormity that Mr. Ainslie suggests. Because, unfortunately, so many are blind to its reality, it is not the “culturally available” icon of absolute evil that the Holocaust is. We must work and hope that this will change.
It is only with great difficulty that I can entertain the idea that abortion is an “icon of absolute evil” to be placed alongside the Holocaust. Indeed, that idea, even if taken as a theoretical exercise, strikes me as, precisely, a “moral enormity.” Nevertheless, I must concede that to someone who sincerely believes that every abortion, no matter at what point it occurs in the development of a pregnancy, is an act of homicide, it must logically appear as absolutely evil and, given its frequency today, as America’s number-one problem. It is also logical that, this being the case, one’s position on abortion will become the most important litmus test of moral and political acceptability.
I myself do not hold this position on abortion (though, for good reasons, I am closer to a pro-life than to a pro-choice position, at least as these views are defined in America today). But, what is more germane to this discussion, most Americans do not hold such a position, either. Like me, they are somewhere in the middle. That being so, abortion as an “icon of absolute evil” is thoroughly implausible, as is the aforementioned litmus test. (Incidentally, if abortion is taken as the key test of political legitimacy, the only democracy that, to my knowledge, would pass this test is the Republic of Ireland—though I understand that too is about to change. In any case, Ireland, undoubtedly a pleasant country, is hardly the last best hope of political legitimacy.)
The conservative mandate on the “values” issues is to spell out an authentically conservative position without falling into a radicalizing mood that proposes nonnegotiable absolutes. Such a position, I believe, could persuade a broad spectrum within the electorate. Most, but not all, of these issues belong in the political arena, and most can be dealt with by reversing the “long march through the institutions” which the Left began in the 1960’s. Put differently, the conservative mandate is to build a politically viable social and cultural platform.
I think I hear a reader’s response to the preceding paragraph: put up or shut up! Fair enough. I hope to put up in the near future.
Years ago (how many, I do not remember) I was on a panel with the late Russell Kirk, the doyen of the paleoconservatives, and sitting behind him when, at the podium, he outlined his plan for a Christian commonwealth. Rather rudely, I must admit, I interrupted him by asking, in a voice audible throughout the room, “What are you going to do with us Jews?” The question obviously took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it had never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.
Having raised the question, I felt obliged to point out that the Constitution provides a better answer: by separating church and state, I said, the Founders intended to provide (in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) a haven “for all sorts and conditions of men,” and the foundation of this haven—safe for the Jews and safe for the rest of us—was not Christianity, and certainly not the church of that prayerbook, but liberty of conscience, a liberal principle whose provenance was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.
Russell Kirk had become famous among paleoconservatives, in part, by arguing that John Locke had nothing to do with the Constitution; in effect, Kirk denied its liberal foundation. As he saw it, the Constitution was the work of men inspired by the “conservative” Edmund Burke. This paleoconservative misunderstanding has now been carried one step further by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister and now a Catholic priest.
As Neuhaus sees it, the Constitution is essentially a religious document, embodying the moral law, and specifically—as some of his fellow essayists in the November 1996 First Things make explicit—the natural law as espoused by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and enunciated in various papal encyclicals even today. From this religious perspective, and with the help of his colleagues, Neuhaus examines recent decisions of the courts, especially the abortion, assisted-suicide, and Colorado “gay-rights” decisions, and concludes that the “regime” has become “morally illegitimate,” rather like Nazi Germany. From the same perspective, he then pronounces anathema on this regime, by which he means “the actual, existing system of [American] government.” Finally, appealing to what he says is one of “the most elementary principles of Western civilization,” he suggests that the time has come when “conscientious citizens” might properly engage in seditious activities “ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution.”
Of course, Neuhaus is right about the courts and the judges. Self-righteous zealots (not unlike Neuhaus in that respect), they have indeed usurped power that the Constitution assigns to other agencies of the government or to the states. Two years ago, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado constitutional amendment, denying special rights to homosexuals, violated the federal Constitution because, when adopting it, the voters had acted out of “animus.” Then, even since Neuhaus wrote, a federal district court judge suspended the implementation of the California Civil Rights Initiative (which had received the support of 54 percent of the people), arguing that the provision, by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or sex, could be held to deny blacks and women the equal protection of the laws.
Playing ducks and drakes with legislative language is not unprecedented. The California initiative was modeled on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, beginning with the Weber case in 1979, has been knowingly and willfully misread by the Supreme Court. For proof of this assertion, consider the comment made by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a 1987 case: “As Justice Scalia illuminates with excruciating clarity, [this section of the Act] has been interpreted by Weber and succeeding cases to permit what its language read literally would prohibit.” She then proceeded to join not Scalia in dissent but the majority in its deliberate misreading of the Act. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “What is law to her or she to law that she should weep for it?”
As I said, Neuhaus is right about the judges, but he is wrong about almost everything else. Our Founders—“the patriots of ’76,” as Lincoln called them—did not justify their taking up of arms by claiming that George III had violated the principles of morality, “especially traditional morality, and most especially morality associated with religion” (to use Neuhaus’s words). To have done so would have involved them (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest) in a dispute with a king who represented “traditional morality, and most especially morality associated with religion.” After all, George claimed to rule by the grace of God (Dei gratia rex), and, in support of this claim, he (or his schoolmen supporters) referred to the Bible, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis. To have disputed him on religious grounds would have required the Founders to engage in the kind of scriptural exegesis that Locke employed against Sir Robert Filmer, the defender of divine right; and this, quite obviously, they did not do.
Traditional morality? On the contrary, immediately after adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee—consisting again of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin—to “prepare a device for a Seal of the United States of North America,” and on that Great Seal appear these words (they are on every dollar bill), Novus Ordo Seclorum, meaning, a new order of the ages, new because it was the first to recognize the rights of man, and then to give them constitutional protection. In the words of James Madison, the Founders “accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society.” It is the Constitution, the product of that revolution, and not a recondite “moral law,” that the President swears to “protect and defend,” the members of Congress to “support,” and the judges to “support and defend.”
The Founders were proud of their work. The Constitution, they said, provided a remedy for the “diseases” most incident to democratic government, and The Federalist (written to persuade the people to give it their consent) leaves no doubt as to what they understood to be a disease: zealous opinions “concerning religion,” “tyrannical majorities,” “angry and malignant passions,” “a factious spirit,” the dangerous ambition that “often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people,” and those who begin their careers “by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”
To guard against these democratic diseases, or vices, the Constitution, in addition to consigning religion to the private sphere by separating church and state, withholds powers, separates powers, and excludes the people “in their collective capacity” from any share in the exercise of these powers. In a word, republican (or limited) government would be possible under a Constitution that excluded, or at least inhibited, the zealous, the angry, the morally indignant; and this, in turn, depended on confining the business of government to issues that did not give rise to zeal, anger, or moral indignation.
Throughout most of our history—if we ignore the slavery issue and the Civil War—the Constitution succeeded in doing this. Calvin Coolidge was not altogether wrong when he said the nation’s business was business. James Madison said much the same thing in Federalist #10. The government’s business, he said, or at least its “first object,” is the protection of men’s “different and unequal faculties,” especially those “from which the rights of property originate.” The result would be a variety of interests—landed, manufacturing, mercantile, moneyed—and regulating these various and interfering interests is “the principal task of modern legislation.” Although Madison acknowledged that republican government especially requires a “sufficient virtue” in the people, he said nothing about the power to inculcate it.
On the other hand, the Constitution was adopted by a people whose character was formed by, and would continue to live under, the laws and institutions of an older order, an order that was, to some extent at least, preserved in and fostered by state constitutions and state law. Whether out of habit or as deliberate policy, the states continued to foster family life and moral education, and to prohibit practices (the publication of obscene material, for example) that threatened or jeopardized them. No longer; the Supreme Court put an end to that, and by doing so provoked Richard Neuhaus’s angry and morally indignant discourse.
But no good will come of it. On the contrary, he has already caused a breach in conservative ranks that is not likely to be closed, and, even worse, his call for direct (and unconstitutional) action will confirm the opinion, held by many Americans, some of them Republicans, that religious conservatives are extremists and are not to be trusted.
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Two years ago, after the Gingrich political upset, we heard from two sets of voices that what had happened should not be thought of as a revolution. One spoke for the ideologically threatened, who said that this was a freak election, that the upset was the result of clever machinations by Republican organizers who had succeeded in catalyzing a dramatic change in congressional personnel, but not one that registered true change in national political disposition. The other voices (I remember Charles Krauthammer’s among them) were saying: “This is not a revolution in any acceptable sense of the word. Revolutions overthrow regimes and basic ideological structures. What happened is much less than that. Whatever the Gingrich people do, it will be meliorist, not revolutionary.”
Somewhere in between is what November 1994 was: a genuine alteration in political direction and public attitudes. For some of us the single most propulsive catalyst in the collapse of Communism was Reagan’s calling the Soviet Union an evil empire. So (we believe), the most important event brought on by the Gingrich election was President Clinton’s declaration in January 1996 that the age of big government was over. That statement would not have been made if 1994 had gone differently.
How, then, should conservatives interpret the events of last November? They confirmed that what had happened two years before was not a revolution. Nor was the victory of Clinton a restoration. The rebuke of 1994 had been less than the king’s removal, let alone his beheading.
Conservatives could take comfort, notwithstanding the reelection of Bill Clinton, that Congress remained in friendly hands, even if its spirit was dampened. Clinton’s victory was less than a rejection of conservative advances. It was a validation of the relative strengths of an incumbent, in good times. What was greatly missed was that crisp satisfaction that losers sometimes walk away with when their spokesman clearly won the debate, never mind that the crowd, or the judges, went to the other man. Barry Goldwater gave us that in 1964. Dole did not. And not because he is witless or lacking in resources, but because the vision-thing never quite crystallized, and so his thoughts and prescriptions were never airborne.
Was Dole made mute by conflicts of interest among his constituents? That explanation is heard, and the editors of COMMENTARY direct our attention to the disparate concerns of social and economic reformists, following the lead of Irwin M. Stelzer.
The late Herman Kahn, speaking on Firing Line fifteen years ago about democratic discourse, illustrated his position, which was that political affinities cannot hope to crash through too many frontiers, progressively attenuated. You have here (he said, drawing a circle with his right hand) the rigid pacifists. Imagine them inhabiting a circle tangential to a second circle, in which the unilateral-disarmament people dwell. Next are the joint-disarmament people; after that, the liberationists; and, finally, the preemptive-war advocates. The people in the first circle, said Kahn, simply cannot talk to inhabitants of the fifth. It is a waste of time to reach out, in political discourse, any further than to the people next door, or perhaps two doors down.
Is this a problem among contemporary conservatives in America? Kahn’s law would seem to operate vividly in respect of abortion; yet something is left out. If the fetus is mere tissue (a “tomato,” in the nice metaphor of a National Review correspondent), then the protection of it is, so to speak, merely the concern of vegetarians. Certainly the hard abortion-rights people have a problem talking to those who say an abortion is wrong even if the mother’s life is threatened.
But the choice advocate has sentient membranes which, begging Herman Kahn’s leave, do reach way over, in acknowledging the primacy-of-life question (the mother’s; the child’s), right across the circle chart. And the apparent impasse over fetal rights does not, and should not, proscribe coalitions. There are abortion-rights people who are attracted to other compass points in the conservative universe. Why? Well, why not?
A creative political portraitist can discern latent affinities. The utilitarian imperative is a magnet. Some (privately) value the utilitarian uses of abortion. They are attracted to other policies with utilitarian emphasis. The free-market people are whole-hearted utilitarians. Parse that: utilitarian criteria encourage individualism, and the individual’s rights, and these bring to mind . . . Judeo-Christian postulates about human life. And lo, the sucking sound one hears is the whirl of thought and feeling that brings together those who value life even if they are not agreed on when life begins.
The interests of the community are not to be gainsaid, but the individual is at the core of things, and is not to be dealt with offhandedly, not at abortion clinics or euthanasia wards, not by disqualifications under affirmative action or by multiculturalist Procrusteanism of the kind that, twenty years ago, had some people saying there was no difference between George Washington and Ho Chi Minh.
The liaisons are there, I think, between the social and the economic reformers, and as for the matter of how to address the general public, one always learns. Election monitors tell us that the softly stated positions were found the most attractive in the general election. That should not surprise. In nonrevolutionary situations, most voters are not drawn to reductionist formulations, any more than, at first, Abraham Lincoln was. Most of those who believe in equal treatment under the law feel also a need to encourage measures aimed at accelerating upward mobility, provided they are not effected by racial or ethnic discrimination. Pro-lifers are substantially mollified by such meliorism as was attempted by Governor Casey of Pennsylvania, who asked not for repeal of Roe v. Wade, but for mitigation of the licenses it gave. Opponents of the welfare state do not call out for the abolition of Social Security.
The exasperation of the essayists who wrote for First Things reveals an impatience with democratic counsels that enjoin measured advance but tolerate what appears to be total acquiescence in a deteriorating situation, with the Supreme Court as supreme moral arbiter. Among the contributors, Judge Bork’s exasperation with the reasoning of the Court leads him to radical proposals, including an end to the authority of the Court to invalidate laws. Hadley Arkes wonders what is left, in present circumstances, of that which binds the citizen, through loyalty, to a regime.
On the issue of a social safety net, compromise is easy to understand: this side of that far-off circle in which Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard moon with each other. Compromise on questions of racial discrimination is not easy and, for some, not possible. So with human life—some say tomato, some say it’s a human being.
The benumbing experience of the 1996 election, as noted, is the sense that the hard issues were not examined. That is why some wonder whether there are other means than conventional democratic politics to assert one’s vital position. The conservatives’ answer is, usually, No: we can only ask for more heat, and pray that it will bring illumination.
Yes, but we can also think out loud, as they did in First Things.
The sorry pundits of CNN to the contrary notwithstanding, Republicanism—capital R—has never been the name of conservative desire. It is just that for those who still pin at least some hopes on the outcomes of elections, the GOP is all there is. Of course, once in living memory there was a President, Ronald Reagan—a Republican, to be sure—who could at least comprehend what conservatives were talking about, and for that alone we were all grateful enough to come within a hair of deifying him. And again in 1994, some among us were sufficiently full of leftover longing to declare a new shift in the balance of congressional power our “revolution.”
But there can be no reliably, steadfastly conservative White House in the United States of America, just as there can be no sudden conservative congressional revolution. The country does not work that way. And in truth, we should all be on our knees in gratitude that it does not. For, let us never forget, whatever is sauce for the goose can on some propitious day become sauce for the gander. Thirty years ago, after all, there were leftists in our midst who also proclaimed a “revolution”—indeed, a variety of interlocking revolutions—and the country was saved from them not so much by the countervailing force of conservatism as by the stolidity and, yes, basic contentment of the general populace.
When this stolidity works against us, as in so many ways it does today, we find the condition of the country infuriating and even dangerous. We are wrong to find it so. We must remember that it has taken 50 (some would say 60) years of creeping liberalism to bring us to the place where a whole group of intelligent and educated people can no longer define a family, or say with certainty what differentiates men and women, or muster a simple argument against teen-age sexual promiscuity or drug use, or discern a difference between heterosexual and homosexual love-making, or straightforwardly clarify their views on such subjects as incest, child pornography, or even—God help us and the teachers’ unions—the abomination that currently travels under the name of “man-boy love.” Small wonder, then, that they cannot find a decent way through the rather more clouded issues of abortion and assisted suicide. How many years may it take us to climb back up these slippery slopes?
Those whom Irwin M. Stelzer calls “economic conservatives”—budget balancers, tax cutters, debt hawks, and, in general, opponents of the welfare state in the name of economic good sense—have sometimes been known to stake a successful claim to the ear of Republican officialdom, especially of late. Until a minute ago, however, most of these same people have had virtually no thought for the slow poison that has for so long now been seeping into the national psyche. That is precisely why they were unable to field a serious contender in the 1996 presidential race.
Be that as it may, the word “revolution” and all its careless kindred expressions ought to be stricken from the conservative vocabulary. Rhetoric counts, and conservatives are anyway far too quick to disappointment these days: perhaps because they have had too many disappointments, perhaps because, sub specie aeternitatis, they have had too few. Whatever the reason, they have lately seemed to find it all too dangerously easy to beguile themselves with promises that they are about to defund this and wipe away that and reinvent the other. And then, up against the sluggishness and obduracy of democratic society—that blessed sluggishness and obduracy which have enabled us to slog intact through crises and wars and unholy social novelties—many of them have become all too quick to cry foul.
This is a gesture, bespeaking a state of mind, that once was and ought to remain alien to the conservative temperament. But it is what happened to my dear friends at First Things, who thought about the difficulty of overcoming the oligarchic arrogance of the Supreme Court and flew off the handle.
Today’s Court, to be sure, is not what the Founders had in mind, and perhaps someone will find a decent and nondisruptive way to have it returned to its intended position above the fray. Perhaps, indeed, Robert Bork, who has written about these matters both in a book, The Tempting of America, and in the First Things symposium, knows how to bring this about. I tend to doubt it, because he seems to me too outraged by the Court’s misbehavior and too unhappy with what he sees as the public’s complaisance to be able to come up with a truly conservative prescription.
Something, nevertheless, is happening in that vast American community out there that lives beyond the reach of ideology and even to a great extent beyond politics. It is—slowly and largely incoherently, as is its wont—growing deeply unhappy with what liberalism hath wrought. One day, then, it will be our turn. And on that day even the Supreme Court, protected as it is from the popular intention, will change course. For it is important not to forget that the liberal (more properly called radical) “auras and penumbras” that the Court was pleased to find in the Constitution were placed there first by the attitudes of the culture, and the damage done thereby will in the end be redressed in the same way. Meanwhile, in the words of the poet, ours but to do and die.
Finally, COMMENTARY asks about the various stumbling blocks to conservative unity represented by the disagreements among us over foreign policy, immigration, trade, etc. But what is there to say on the subject? Such disagreements, pursued with varying degrees of heat and civility, have in one form or another been endemic throughout American history. What holds us under one tent—to use the current popular image—is our common loathing for what liberalism has done to the American ethos. What will drive us apart, and has to some extent in very limited quarters already done so, are not differences over matters of policy but differences in bedrock attitudes toward the United States of America. There are those of us who still have the good sense—the good conservative sense—to regard it, sins and shortcomings and all, as a blessed place in which to live.
This may sound flippant, but maybe the big mistake the editors of First Things made was publishing their symposium too late: so zealously was Bill Clinton mimicking cultural conservatism in 1996 that if the magazine had come out three months earlier, we might well have been treated to a few presidential musings on the legitimacy of the American regime.
Those of us, myself very much included, who cheered as the Republican Congress took on the Medicare problem in 1995 probably are not the best guides to what is and what is not politically responsible. It is almost something of a relief to hear some other faction of the conservative movement accused of irresponsibility. It turns out that there is, after all, something one can say that is more shocking than that senior citizens ought to pay an extra $6 a month toward their health-care bills.
There are large and continuing divisions among conservatives. In my view, the gravest and most intractable of them involve issues of nationality, such as immigration, trade, and America’s overseas commitments. Compared to those splits, the disagreements between religious or cultural conservatives and economic conservatives loom small.
In fact, before engaging in any more expressions of mutual exasperation, it might be worthwhile to reflect how very much religious or cultural conservatives and economic conservatives still have in common. Look at the 1996 election returns. You hear it said again and again that Bob Dole lost the presidency because of the women’s vote. But which women? Married women gave Clinton only a very modest preference: 48 percent of them voted for the President, 43 percent for Dole. Clinton owed his huge female landslide to the votes of unmarried women: he won 62 percent of their votes, a victory of FDR-like proportions.
Who are these women who—Paula Jones or no Paula Jones—seem so keen on the President? You probably know at least one of them yourself. She is the receptionist in your office, whose husband has just left home and who must now keep a car, dress for work, and raise two kids on $22,000 a year, plus what child support she can extract. She is the woman ahead of you at the grocery store who is paying for her purchases with food stamps. She is the unmarried thirty-eight-year-old account manager who sips her coffee at a desk surmounted by photographs of her four cats.
There are about 40 million of these women in America: 10 million widows, 10 million divorced women, 5 million unmarried mothers, 15 million single childless women. These 40 million women form a new American proletariat. They are more likely than most Americans to be poor. They are more likely to depend on government for help, either directly (welfare, Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid) or indirectly (government collection of child support, subsidized day-care). They are more hostile to or alienated from the institutions of American society than are their married sisters: while polls find that married women are very nearly as conservative in their politics as men, unmarried women veer sharply to the Left.
And American society seems to be producing more and more unmarried women all the time. In 1970, nearly 70 percent of adult American women were married. That proportion has since fallen dramatically: to 63 percent in 1980, 60 percent in 1990, and 59 percent today. And divorce is by far the most important cause of this social transformation.
Economic conservatives of a certain sort get all twitchy when social conservatives nag them about the break-up of the family. Sophisticated people want to talk about capital formation and the deficit; they imagine that it is only the Savonarolas who would fret about divorce, illegitimacy, and the dwindling vitality of marriage and family in America.
In fact, however, the cultural changes that worry social conservatives are likely to make it much more difficult for economic conservatives to win elections in the years ahead. What constituency can there be for Social Security reform and reductions in the welfare functions of government in a society where an ever-rising proportion of the female electorate—which is 52 percent of the total electorate—has come to depend on Social Security and welfare? It has been said that the Republicans are the “daddy” party and the Democrats are the “mommy” party. What are the chances for the “daddy” party in a country where more and more women are furious at the daddy they know best?
Historically, the Democrats have been the party of national particularism. A century and a half ago, Democratic particularism took the form of sectionalism: championing the interests of some states against the interest of the whole country. From the 1930’s until the 1970’s, the Democratic party flourished by using the power of government to favor some economic classes over others. Today, that same tradition of particularism takes the form of “diversity”: championing the particular interests of single women and favored ethnic groups. The more intensely ethnic groups resent one another, the worse the mistrust between women and men, the better the Democrats do.
Republicans, by contrast, have for 150 years vindicated the national interest. They stood for the Union against the states and for the common economic good against the New Deal. In today’s context, the party’s historic role as the champion of national unity requires it to defend the ideals of color-blindness before the law and the integrity of the family in public policy. You can call that social conservatism if you want to; the task remains essential under any name.
And if my fellow economic conservatives bristle in discomfort at the topics and problems that matter to social conservatives, well, a glance at the exit polls and a quick calculation of what the country’s demographics will soon look like if family trends do not change should help them to understand this truth: if the social conservatives fail to win their argument, the economic conservatives will not be winning any more elections.
I am constantly struck by the extent to which the cultural tone of the country has shifted in a conservative direction from a generation ago, when I was in college. While I understand the anger of many of the contributors to the First Things symposium over the direction taken by the Supreme Court in recent years, the underlying social reality is very different: markets and private competition have never in my memory had the kind of pervasive legitimacy they do today, while concern over moral decline and traditional social issues has risen substantially. The agenda of the Left has crumbled: whereas a generation ago it was intent on completing the welfare state along European lines, today it is fighting a rearguard action to preserve what elements it can of the postwar social safety net. I take it as an interesting sign of the times that Michael J. Sandel, a man of the Left, could publish a book in 1996 called Democracy’s Discontents, the first half of which contains a critique of the contemporary courts’ “procedural liberalism” that might have been written by Father Richard John Neuhaus. Moreover, while President Clinton was reelected last November, we should bear in mind that in the second half of his first term he positioned himself as the most conservative Democratic president of the postwar period. In terms of underlying attitudes, then, things have not been better in a long time.
The problem is to translate this conservative social mood into a political coalition that can win power and implement an agenda. The present-day conservative movement is, of course, divided along the lines suggested by the editors of COMMENTARY, the division between the economic and social conservatives being the most important. In broader perspective, however, these divisions are only to be expected in an American political movement, and would be inevitable in a governing party, given the underlying cleavages within the society itself. The current conservative coalition is no less diverse than the New Deal coalition of working-class Catholics, blacks, Southerners, and intellectuals that dominated American politics for two generations. In fact, the recent realignment of the South into the Republican camp, and the increasing concentration of Democratic support in the older industrial areas of the Northeast, has made both parties considerably more homogeneous than they once were. The task for conservatives is to unite the existing diverse elements within the Republican party around a coherent set of issues, and find a suitable leader who can articulate them.
Many mainstream Republicans, including Bob Dole during last year’s campaign, are uncomfortable with the conservative social agenda, or else feel that it is too divisive. The obvious way out seemed to be to concentrate on economic issues like tax cuts. This strategy proved disastrous, particularly in a year when the economy was extraordinarily strong in terms of inflation, employment, and general competitiveness. But the difficulty was not that Republican tax-cutting proposals were not radical enough, or that the Republicans should have pushed for a Forbes-like flat tax. This strategy works in Republican primaries but not in general elections, because most voters simply (and rightly) do not believe in the version of supply-side economics which says that tax cuts will be self-financing. Most people are closer to what used to be the old Republican orthodoxy that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
This is particularly true for two groups of voters who were critical in getting Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, and who will be essential to the creation of a governing Republican majority: working-class men, and women of all social classes. For many years now, the so-called “Reagan Democrats” have been out of sorts with the elites and interest groups running the Democratic party, largely because of what they perceive as the excesses of the cultural Left. They have no objective interest, however, in radical tax-cutting or other elements of the Right’s economic agenda: they will not benefit nearly as much from such moves as the wealthy, and they stand to see important benefits like Medicare and Social Security cut more deeply than they would otherwise be, to finance the resulting revenue shortfall. The same applies to women, who tend to be less wealthy as a group and more dependent on a host of government programs.
On the other hand, the conservative social agenda, if handled properly, could have been a much more powerful issue in the election campaign. Despite recent declines in violent crime, William J. Bennett’s index of leading cultural indicators is much more solidly negative, and speaks much more directly to what troubles many Americans, than are the nation’s economic indicators. Both the Reagan Democrats and women raising families understand that bad things have been happening to their children, that the public-education system has failed them, and that there is something morally troubling about the smug self-satisfaction of baby-boom generation leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton. Had the Dole campaign focused on the broad issue of moral decline, it could have framed the “character” issue properly and created a context in which to attack an otherwise vulnerable President in a way that would not have looked mean-spirited or desperate.
The problem, then, to repeat, is how to frame the conservative social agenda. This is where the First Things debate becomes relevant. It is very hard to address the issue of moral decline without addressing the issue of religion, and conservatives have to proceed carefully here if they are to build a governing coalition.
Over the past couple of generations there has been a monumental cultural disestablishment in the United States, the effect of which is that the country’s earlier Protestant-Christian foundations can no longer be taken for granted. One of the staples of the scholarly literature on American exceptionalism used to be that American conservatives were different from conservatives anywhere else in the world because they were actually Lockean liberals—that is, believers in limited government and laissez-faire, and reconciled to the creative-destructive energies of a capitalism that was constantly remaking the social order. This could be the case only because there was a substantial degree of cultural consensus among political elites, Right and Left, on matters like religion and values. There was no tension, in other words, between the country’s Lockean liberal political order and its sectarian Protestant cultural inheritance, because the latter could be taken for granted.
The cultural disestablishment of that earlier elite is now a fact of life. One consequence is that many religious conservatives see the Lockean liberal order, shorn of its cultural context, as a threat to their core interests. And indeed, there is relatively little in classical liberalism that can help one make principled arguments against gay marriage or abortion, or to defend traditional family values.
Can a conservative social agenda be formulated that will remain respectful of religious practice, while not seeming to be driven by primarily religious forces or concerns? The problem with the First Things symposium is that it simply confirms the view of many nonreligious people that Christian conservatives are a somewhat nutty and out-of-touch interest group. While I do not expect to see Richard John Neuhaus holed up in a farmhouse shooting it out with ATF officers anytime soon, it is hard to understand what other course of action is logically implied by his raising the question as to whether the American “regime” is fundamentally illegitimate and may even have to be opposed by force.
Framing issues properly means, among other things, making a broad-based case against an undemocratic and imperial judiciary—a case that does not reduce to a desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. The opportunity to make such a case may emerge if the lower courts succeed in legalizing gay marriage, since this is an issue where a large majority of Americans would clearly find their wishes being overturned. Moreover, as Joseph P. Viteritti recently noted in COMMENTARY (“The Last Freedom,” November 1996), the First Amendment prohibits laws constraining the “free exercise” of religion, and there are clear constitutional grounds for public authorities to take a more tolerant view of religion.
The American political system is clearly reformable. The social consensus for change exists, and the proper political tools are available to bring it about. As Dennis Teti remarked in a reply to the First Things symposium (in that magazine’s January 1997 issue), the country has faced and surm
1 On this issue, to which a number of contributors also refer, see Richard E. Morgan’s article, “Republicans for Quotas,” beginning on page 51.—Ed.
2 Magaziner, the guru of the Clinton health-care plan, is a man whose desire to redesign the world as we know it is inversely proportional to his charisma.