53 leading American writers and thinkers answer the question.
It always seemed to me that during the Cold War, what divided the people who thought we’d all end up incinerated by Soviet bombs from the people who thought it would all come out fine was not their political analyses. It was their temperament. Some people are more optimistic than others.
So it is with the future of conservatism. Some conservatives seem almost to frolic in their pessimism, describing the inevitable national glide down the path to perdition in gruesome detail. The antidote to such thinking is Reaganism, the sunny and optimistic view about America that not only characterized the man himself but captivated the nation.
So the first thing to say about the future of conservatism is that good cheer is a key ingredient for success. Voters are unlikely to be attracted by the argument that the country is mostly ruined–and deserves to be ruined by its profligacy, immorality, and stupid voting patterns. (I admit I often do feel this way about California, but even there it is probably not a winning argument.) Conservatives can indeed win, with a few better candidates and better arguments. Last year, in the middle of a great economic crisis, we nominated the richest man ever to run for president; we ran a man who was 65 (after running a man who was 72); and we allowed the networks to dominate the not coincidentally ruinous primary debates. As to winning the fastest-growing voter groups, Asians and Hispanics, Marco Rubio summed up the problem this way: “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother.”
There are of course huge problems facing conservatism. One is the growing percentage of citizens who are dependent on increasing government spending, whether as public employees or as recipients of some form of transfer payment to which they have not contributed. They are unlikely recruits for us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once sourly noted that if you offer a voter a dollar and a quarter in services for a dollar in taxes, he’ll take the deal every time. Perhaps this is too pessimistic, and the voter paying the dollar in taxes may come to understand that he is on the hook for borrowing to cover that 25 percent deficit. So we must continue to argue for sound public finance. Another great problem is that on some issues, such as gay marriage, the tide seems to have turned against us. Yet on abortion, polls suggest we are gaining. The problem is often our spokesmen and spokeswomen, and the tone of the message rather than its content. It is one thing to lose an argument; it is another to come across as ignorant or mean-spirited. Of course the media are hopelessly biased and that makes it harder but, as the abortion struggle demonstrates, not impossible.
Reality will keep on asserting itself to voters and citizens, helped along if we explain it well and field attractive candidates in election years. Unless you believe that American character has profoundly changed in the last four years, what prevents a conservative revival? Surely not the growing numbers of immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants striving for upward mobility. Surely not the ideas of contemporary liberalism, meaning that welfare-state economics can yet work, that the world is benign and we hardly need an army, and that words like character and self-restraint are overly judgmental and must be banned. Surrender in the face of such challenges seems far too pessimistic to me–though I admit, perhaps it’s just a matter of temperament.
Right now, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, conservatives are being admonished that their only viable future lies in being…a little less embarrassingly conservative. They’re told to tone down the social issues (gay marriage and abortion) in order to appeal to young people, who are said to be secular in mores but worried about their economic future. Illegal immigration? Ditch the opposition, and there will suddenly be millions more conservative–or at least Republican-voting–Hispanics.
Such stances face two problems. The first is that they represent wishful thinking. Romney ran a campaign that focused strictly (and admirably) on job creation and lower taxes, touching on social issues only minimally. That gained him little among 18- to 29-year-olds, who might have fretted over their dismal post-college job prospects, but fretted more over a barrage of Obama ads asserting that the GOP wanted to take away their contraceptives and, hence, their sexual fun. Sixty percent of them voted to reelect President Obama. The lesson: Downplaying social issues wins no respect among the young, whose time horizons are distressingly short-term.
Same goes for Hispanics. As National Review editor Rich Lowry has pointed out, the Reagan-era amnesty for 3 million illegals in 1986 resulted in a Latino electorate that voted even less Republican in the presidential election of 1988 than it had in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was reelected by a landslide but got only 37 percent of the Latino vote. As for Hispanics’ supposed “natural”–that is, family-oriented and religious–conservatism, more than half of Latino births these days are to unwed mothers. Although most Hispanics are nominally Catholic, with an additional smattering of evangelicals, about 80 percent of them practice no religion whatsoever. I write this with sorrow, because I’m half-Hispanic myself. Sadly, Hispanics, like blacks and even the relatively prosperous Asians, vote as an ethnic bloc steered by anti-white resentment and desire for big-government patronage.
My second point is that conservatism isn’t only a matter of appealing to economic self-interest or expressing irritation with heavy-handed and heavily taxing government. It is a mind-set, typically embodied in a way of life, that values tradition and traditional beliefs alongside self-reliance and personal responsibility. It is not surprising, then, that many political conservatives are also religious conservatives: evangelicals, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Catholics. Social issues are important to those groups because of the high value they place on traditional marriage and traditional family structures. It is naive to think, then, that diluting conservatism will somehow make it more appealing to those who don’t share the conservative mind-set. Many conservatives don’t share the religious and moral beliefs of other conservatives, but they respect them because they are, well, conservative.
Mind-sets can change, however, and conservatism welcomes converts and conversions. Remember the sayings “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged” and “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Members of ethnic groups that have been mugged, for example, by the reality of Communism–Eastern Europeans, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Cubans–tend to vote Republican. So do many other ethnic groups, even non-Cuban Hispanics, who have hoisted themselves into the middle class and found that big-spending government is inimical to their values and interests (Romney did manage to secure 30 percent of the Latino vote). There is no reason to think that young people, increasingly hard-hit by unemployment and diminished hopes of ever, say, forming families and owning their homes, might not finally get serious about their economic prospects and join them.
In short, conservatives need to maintain their conservative identity, sticking to their principles and inviting their critics to examine the social bounty–low crime, high employment, good schools, and wealth creation–that conservative states from North Dakota to Texas have produced. Besides, conservatives, with their penchant for marrying (heterosexually) and having large families, are probably winning the long-term demographic war over their less fertile liberal rivals. The New York Times reported in June that 74 percent of the Jewish children in New York City are Orthodox. That’s a sign that conservatives don’t need to compromise in order to prevail.
LARRY P. ARNN
The future of conservatism is contained in its name. Conservatism regards certain things as abiding. There are laws of nature, and freedom, justice, and civilization depend upon the recognition of those laws. Today they face a challenge that is debilitating to society. Sustained by a transformative president, this challenge claims to have history on its side, and it claims to sit at the moment of final triumph.
In the arithmetic of nature, there must be opportunities to match this danger, and there are. The politics of the left lead to friction along racial and class lines. They raise up a new political class that governs through privileged influence. This political class, for all its pretensions of science and progress, does and will continue to do what unaccountable rulers do: Govern in its own interest. These things have bred and will continue to breed widespread and intractable resentment.
In this resentment there is opportunity, already present and growing. So far the conservative movement has not been able to capitalize on it. This is partly because it does not make its argument, especially in active politics, consistently well or in unity. Such a problem is not easy to fix, because statesmen of the first order are, as Winston Churchill put it, “much rarer than the rarest and purest of diamonds.” This is the age-old problem of politics.
The best we can do is take our guidance where Aristotle said we would find it: in the examples of great statesmen. What, for example, did Churchill do? He lived for long years in the wilderness. He faced the overwhelming opposition of academic and elite opinion, shot through with ideology that made them blind to Hitler and his ilk and devalued the freedoms of their country. He, like us, faced a hostile press, and he was denied access to the major organs of public communication. He was driven, partly by his own party, to the point of bankruptcy and obscurity. As things worsened, his argument rose to a high pitch of reason and eloquence, driven upwards by his own native talent and by terrible events.
Then came the sufficient opportunity: Events proved him right. He had paid a heavy price, and the people saw it and trusted him. First a few, then many, then legions rallied to his cause. He and his people saved their country and, by the time he was done, left it stable and free for more than a generation.
If conservatism is to live, it must repudiate absolutely this system of limitless government, of class and racial privilege and discrimination, of the overturning of human nature, of the vaunting of the ruling class. It must proclaim without ceasing the good of freedom and the danger to it. It must examine itself before it blames the American people, who have a right to govern themselves and who have not been the cause of these troubles. If conservatism speaks with force and persistence in the name of the good that it loves, its day will come.
Barack Obama’s reduced-margin reelection victory, which would not have been won absent heavy negative advertising and a superior turnout organization, does not spell the end of conservatism. Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives–and not because of partisan redistricting, it appears, but because heavily Democratic constituencies (blacks, Hispanics, gentry liberals) are concentrated in certain cities and inner suburbs. This helps Democrats carry several large states and gives them an advantage in the Electoral College. But this concentration works against them in equal-population congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans in this decade have elected a majority of state legislators for the first time since the 1920s.
House Republicans will have some leverage to advance conservative policies. They will not be able to pass bills over the veto of a Democratic president, as the Republican majorities elected in 1946 did with the help of conservative Southern Democrats. But, in negotiations with the executive branch, they can advance some conservative causes, as Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans did in 1996 and 1997 until the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and partisan war erupted.
In these circumstances, conservatives will have to accept some reverses on policy. But the dire fiscal plight of the federal government and the unsustainable trajectory of entitlement programs give them more leverage than they would have from their House majority alone.
Also shaping the future will be events that have not yet occurred. The voters’ verdict on Barack Obama was less positive in 2012, after they had seen his policies and leadership. But they have not yet seen the full effect of his policies. An analogy with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s terms may be in order. Roosevelt’s redistributive policies–very high tax rates, encouragement of labor unions, aggressive government regulation–seemed very popular in 1936 after four years of declining unemployment. They proved less popular when Americans saw how their effects in the next several years–a sharp recession, violent strikes, continuing high unemployment, businesses unwilling to hire new workers–took their toll on the country.
Roosevelt did win a third term in 1940. But that was because of World War II. Hitler and Stalin were allied, and with Italy and Japan they seemed to be taking over most of the landmass of Eurasia. Polls suggest that Roosevelt or any other Democrat would have lost if the election had been decided on domestic issues. Big-government policies were not as popular as New Deal historians would have us think.
We don’t know what lies ahead. We may have a vibrant economic recovery. ObamaCare may prove to work smoothly and helpfully. The world may seem safer and less threatening to America. In that case, conservative policies will probably be a hard sell. But if things turn out differently, conservatism may have greater appeal.
JOHN R. BOLTON
What was true before the election about America’s proper place in the world remains true after the election, despite the lamentable outcome. A strong U.S. presence is a prerequisite for whatever international stability may exist and the benefits that flow from it, particularly the globalized trade and financial system. If America abdicates its role, either international disorder will increase or, what may amount to the same thing, other powers will enter the vacuum to pursue their own hegemonic aspirations. Neither situation is conducive to our interests. The Reaganite policy of “peace through strength,” by contrast, is designed precisely to avoid these outcomes, achieve our international objectives, and reduce the threat of armed conflict.
Today, however, we again face the grave and rising risk that our hard-won heritage will be ignored or forgotten. We have a neo-isolationist president who thinks world events are not as pressing as his domestic agenda, and a not inconsiderable paleo-isolationist element among conservatives. Neither apparently comprehends the inextricable linkages between foreign policy and domestic prosperity; neither seems terribly concerned by the continuing threat of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation; and neither wants to spend adequately on defense.
We have repeatedly encountered the delusion that turning inward saves money and reduces risk: after the Vietnam War; after the end of the Cold War in pursuing the illusory “peace dividend”; and today, “after” the global war on terror. To make matters worse, even following a century in which three world wars (two hot, one cold) were required to save freedom, and just over a decade after the first 9/11 terrorist attack, we are constantly told by political experts that Americans don’t care about foreign policy. This confluence of leftist and libertarian isolationists and political operatives confidently insists that the American people are too feckless to keep more than one idea (e.g., concern for the economy) in their heads at any given time.
But these prejudices all radically underestimate our fellow citizens. Of course, American strength is a necessary but not sufficient condition for protecting U.S. interests around the world, and of course military programs and expenditures must survive exacting scrutiny in difficult economic times. Nonetheless, Americans understand that national-defense budgets are not fungible with Medicaid or other entitlement spending, but undergird the basic survival and self-governance of the country itself.
Conservatives must win two related arguments: the philosophical case that a globally strong America is the best way to avoid conflict, and the political case that effective advocacy of U.S. strength is a surrogate for the essential quality of leadership so lacking in many contemporary politicians. We need to reaffirm that conservatism prospers politically when it implements the three-legged stool analogy, encompassing traditionalist, free-market, and national-security conservatives.
Conservatives largely ignored these truths during the 2012 campaign and also in the preceding four years. While much else remains to be done, we must first correct our own mistakes.
The challenge is obvious. Republicans will cease to be a national party unless they find a way to attract Hispanic voters. This is a demographic truth because Hispanic voters are the largest and fastest-growing minority in America. This is a political truth as well because Republicans will be judged by other groups based on their attitudes toward these new Americans.
The solution is less obvious. There is talk of moderating our message and compromising our conservatism. But if we want to be worthy of the title “conservative,” we need to start solving problems like conservatives do. Rather than base policy on the swinging pendulum of public opinion, we must find the way forward by looking to the wisdom of those who came before.
In the late 19th century, the British conservative Benjamin Disraeli confronted a strikingly similar situation. He and his conservative Tory Party were backed by Britain’s wealthy landowners. As Parliament embarked upon the inevitable course of expanding the electorate to include the middle and working classes, the Tories found themselves representing a constituency that was fast becoming a minority.
Then Disraeli changed conservative history. He proposed a new ideology–One Nation Conservatism–that enabled the Tories and future conservative parties to survive in an era of mass democracy.
One Nation Conservatism has two key components. First, the conservative party must be the party of all classes, not only that of the wealthy. Disraeli convinced his fellow conservatives to stop fighting the electorate’s expansion and instead become its champion. In 1867, Disraeli and the Tories passed a radical extension of voting rights to the head of every household in Britain.
Second, the conservative party must promulgate a message that can appeal to these new voters. Disraeli stressed British exceptionalism abroad and fidelity to tradition at home. This included a reminder to Britain’s upper class that they bore a special responsibility to their fellow citizens. When preached–not legislated–such compassion is not socialism. It’s noblesse oblige. This conservative message convinced the “47 percent” (or the 87 percent of Disraeli’s day) to become guardians of tradition rather than agents of revolution.
Unlike the British working class, our unenfranchised masses first entered this country illegally. This is a distinction of deep moral significance. Yet when it comes to the children of these immigrants, this moral distinction begins to fade. And when it comes to the battles that will truly determine the future of our nation, the distinction fades further still.
With every passing year, the population of the United States is coming to resemble the population of our hemisphere. This is a shift without constitutional significance. With the shameful exception of slavery, our forefathers didn’t inject race into our founding documents. All that matters are the ideals to which our diverse citizenry is dedicated. Through a renewed One Nation Conservatism, we can ensure that these new Americans become zealous guardians of all that our ancestors built.
ARTHUR C. BROOKS
Like America itself, American conservatism is at a crossroads. With the right strategy it can reestablish itself as the dominant intellectual tradition of the United States, conserving the classic liberal order established by the Founders. But pursue the wrong strategy, and American conservatism will go the way of the European conservatism of Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot: a boutique taste maintained by a few intellectuals without substantive representation in the political square.
It would be a mistake to conflate the fortunes of a political philosophy with temporal partisan voting patterns. The long-term success of political philosophies is not a function of demographics or candidates’ personalities. Rather, political philosophies advance or decline depending on their consistency with the conventional wisdom–Burke’s “prejudices.”
Today, American conservatism stands at odds with two pillars of conventional public wisdom. Both have been established over successive presidential administrations, were purposively strengthened in President Obama’s first term, and seem to have been ratified by his reelection.
The first is the belief that free enterprise is fundamentally unfair. Post-election exit polls showed that nearly 60 percent of voters believe the American economy favors the wealthy and is not fair to all, a claim conservatives have for years left largely un-rebutted. For its part, the left abets this conventional wisdom with the complaints about the regrettable “millionaires and billionaires” who refuse to pay their “fair share” in taxes.
The second pillar of conventional wisdom is the idea that an entitlement state is morally acceptable and economically sustainable. Americans like the idea of cutting spending in the abstract, but when presented with a list of entitlements, they overwhelmingly oppose making any actual cuts. This is no doubt related to the facts that almost half of American households receive government transfer benefits today and nearly 70 percent of Americans take more out of the tax system than they pay into it.
Conservatives argue that free enterprise is meritocratic and thus fundamentally fair; they also believe that a transfer state is ruinous, both morally and economically. They lose politically because these arguments contravene today’s conventional wisdom.
So what is the strategy for conservative success? Change our values and get with the times? That is, acknowledge the unfairness of capitalism and propose our own spending programs? That is effectively the solution of many commentators in the wake of the election. But it is wrong.
The solution is to change the conventional wisdom. This is more difficult than electioneering and takes longer than a political cycle. But it is possible, and has been achieved in the past. Welfare reform was a 10-year fight to change the public perception that traditional welfare was helping the poor. Before that, the civil rights struggle was a multi-decade effort to change what every ordinary person simply knew to be correct about race and equal rights. There are many other examples.
The central animating force of American conservatism today should be on replacing the covetous, all-against-all social-democratic wisdom with an optimistic, conservative vision. Tomorrow’s conventional wisdom is one in which we celebrate the success of others because fairness is defined in terms of merit and hard work, and the economic center of gravity is self-reliance, growth, and upward mobility. If conservatives set themselves to this task, the future of conservatism can be bright.
American conservatism has three-part roots. Morally, it is rooted in the biblical metaphysic. Conservatives have an appreciation for the sinful nature of men and women and hence a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, and there are people involved, you should be ready for the possibility that it will.
Philosophically, conservatism goes back to the epistemological modesty of Edmund Burke. The world is a complex place. The power of reason is bounded. Be skeptical of those who think they can grasp the complexities of reality and reorganize it through rational planning.
Economically, American conservatism differs from European conservatism because it goes back to the governing philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, to the belief in social mobility, immigrant possibility, and the idea that, in limited but energetic ways, government can help give people the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.
Today’s conservatism is estranged from these roots. Today’s conservatism is more properly called Freedomism. It is the elevation of freedom as the ultimate political good. If anybody doubts this, listen to any speech at the Republican convention or during the primary season. The theme was overwhelming: We need to get government out of the way to maximize individual freedom.
Freedomism tramples on the biblical metaphysic. Imperfect people can’t simply be let free. Virtuous lives are only possible when organized within the contours laid down by public and private institutions. Freedomism tramples epistemological modesty. It has become an all-explaining and unbending ideology: Whatever the problem, the answer is less government. Freedomism tramples the Hamiltonian agenda. It has trouble embracing affirmative government programs, even ones such as Pell Grants, EITC, and community colleges, which reward and encourage work.
The Republican Party is not going to give up its individualistic, anti-government Freedom Wing. There are too many Republican Party activists, especially in the South and West, who believe in this ideology. But it has to make room for another wing, which we might as well call, after the noble beast, the Rhino Wing.
The Rhino Wing would flow directly from the three springs of American conservatism and draw political inspiration from its early-American embodiments, the Whig Party and the early Republican Party.
The Rhino Wing would reject the Freedomist equation that more government necessarily equals more dependency. It would reject the entire Big Government vs. Small Government frame. What matters is not the size of government but the nature of the citizenry. It would embrace any government program that stokes ambition, energy, and industriousness–the Hamiltonian virtues. It would reject any policy that stifles these things. It would pick an argument with liberals on these grounds. Rhinos would stand for social mobility and dynamism, and liberals would stand for equality and economic security.
The Rhino Wing would be tolerant on social issues. Sinful people need a thick web of permanent commitments to thrive. Rhinos wouldn’t care if those commitments are straight or gay, or if they were conformed to somebody’s idea of natural law or not.
The Rhino Wing would also be incremental and managerial. It would cherish the boring task of governance and the slow but steady virtues–prudence, moderation, and balance. It would see government as a fulcrum, ever shifting to achieve equilibrium between the competing forces in society.
Politically, the Rhino Wing would thrive along the coasts and in the suburbs of the Midwest. Would it agree with the Freedom Wing on every issue? No. But political coalitions don’t have to be uniform. They don’t even have to make sense. It would be nice to have a more traditional brand of conservatism thriving within a broad center-right movement.
Movements cannot sustain themselves without appealing leaders and coherent, compelling ideas–and at the moment American conservatism is deficient in both. As a former Democrat who watched her party wreck itself in the 1960s and 70s, I have felt a sense of deja vu as the Republican Party has followed a similar path in recent years. The 2012 Republican primaries were a contest among candidates to appease distinct interest groups within the GOP: Tea Party populists, pro-life activists, anti-immigration zealots, and anti-tax die-hards. The wildly erratic swings in popularity of the primary candidates demonstrated a Republican electorate with no clear sense of what they were looking for beyond someone whom they believed could defeat President Obama. The result was a flawed presidential nominee and a failed election.
Mitt Romney never articulated a clear vision for America. Voters could not be confident that he believed in much of anything beyond his own business skills, which he somehow thought were enough to convince voters to elect him. But the problem goes beyond Romney. The conservative movement has not been able to produce a leader who can inspire Americans to believe in fundamental conservative principles since Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan gave Americans faith in themselves at a time when the country’s economy was suffering, national defense had been weakened, and its standing in the world was in decline. The conservatism Ronald Reagan offered was optimistic but not pandering. He favored individual over group rights; he supported equal opportunity, not equal results, as the best path to justice. His view of government was based on the principles of federalism. He believed in a limited role for the federal government, but chief among its responsibilities was to maintain a strong national defense. He promoted a larger role for state and local governments as the branches of government closest to the people, a simpler federal tax policy with lower tax rates for all Americans, and a smaller federal bureaucracy with less expansive powers. He did not achieve all his goals, largely because he lacked support in a divided Congress in which the Democrats controlled the House for his entire tenure and the Senate for two years. Nonetheless, his vision changed the way Americans thought of government so that even successful Democratic candidates for national office had to mimic his rhetoric if not endorse his actual policies.
Ironically, Barack Obama seems to have learned more from Ronald Reagan’s success than conservatives have. Obama had big ideas and articulated them well. Not since FDR has a Democrat offered a comparably comprehensive view of the role of government. Obama promoted the progressive understanding of “social justice,” the idea that society, acting through government, is responsible for providing for man’s needs. Unfortunately, conservatives–or at least candidates who purport to speak for conservatism–offer up no alternative based on a different conception of justice. Neither Presidents George H.W. Bush nor George W. Bush hewed to Reagan’s principled conservatism. Nor has any candidate since. Until conservatives begin to focus once again on fundamental principles and put aside the temptation to appeal to the factional and sometimes conflicting agendas of special-interest groups, conservatism will struggle to compete successfully with liberalism. And without leadership, ideas–even good ones–dissipate.
A signal moment of the 2012 campaign occurred in May, when the president’s reelection team launched an online slide show called “The Life of Julia,” detailing the story of an anonymous–quite literally faceless–white woman from the age of three to her retirement at age 67 as she benefits from the programs championed by Barack Obama.
Julia’s is a biography only a congressional appropriator could love. As a child she “enrolled in a Head Start program to help get her ready for school.” As a 27-year-old Web designer, she has health insurance, “thanks to ObamaCare,” that “is required to cover birth control and preventive care.” As a 65-year-old senior, Julia receives Medicare. Though the slide show cannot be said to describe a fully cradle-to-grave welfare state (Julia does not die), it does come rather close. Some might say too close.
Julia won the election for Obama. More than two-thirds of single women voted for the incumbent. This victory was not simply a matter of Julia’s exchanging her vote for one of Obama’s gifts. As disturbing as conservatives may have found the society and polity depicted in “The Life of Julia,” they could not deny that it was a clear, specific, and honest vision of the relation between the citizen and her state in a liberal future. In this vision, government would be championed, benefits would be protected. The young and aspirant would count on liberal Democrats to provide assistance at critical junctures. Such concerns as cost, debt, efficiency, growth, and national security would be unimportant.
Even the most ardent Obama supporter, however, would have to admit that the description of community in the life of Julia is thin. Julia has no siblings, husband, or even wife. Her parents are unseen and only briefly mentioned. Her son, Zachary, pops into view and quickly disappears. There is no other family. Friends and co-workers and neighbors are absent. She does not go to church or temple or madrassa.
Julia’s relationship to government is tenuous. She attends school and enjoys federal subsidies and regulations for education, health, child-rearing, small business, and retirement, but never does she participate in the civic life of her county, state, or country. The flag appears just once in her life: on the dais at her college graduation. She is largely free of attachment. She does not encounter the “mediating institutions” of civil society described in Richard J. Neuhaus and Peter L. Berger’s 1976 classic, To Empower People. It is just herself, Zachary, and Obama.
The beginning of a conservative revival lies in addressing the gaps in Julia’s story and making them whole. How to strengthen the moral and material basis of families and communities, of associations and churches, of police and soldiers is one of the most important questions facing the United States. Unless conservatives offer an alternative that answers such questions–the life of Juanita, perhaps–the future will be left to Julia and her progeny. And that cannot be allowed to happen. Julia must be stopped.
Why, despite its periodic low points, does conservatism always rebound? Because conservatives understand the weaknesses of our modern bureaucratic, balkanized society far better than liberals do. The strings of bureaucracy tie the hands of genuine innovators in the public space, and the costs include a substandard education system and income-support structures that actually perpetuate poverty. Government has grown at a relentless rate, weakening constitutional principles, from the separation of powers to the Commerce Clause. Entrepreneurship is weakened by regulatory overreach. And the subdivision of Americans into factions based on identity and grievances has diminished the concept of a national interest.
But while conservatism has endured, it’s worth pointing out that in my lifetime, voters have tended to turn right primarily in reaction to liberal failure or disarray–the freefall of the 1960s, the ineptitude of Jimmy Carter, the excesses of Democratic Congresses in 1994 and 2010.
Today the political right faces the challenge of earning the confidence of Americans at a time when the country is middling along and neither left nor right seems to bear exclusive responsibility for the train wrecks around us. Of late, conservatism has failed to offer its own account of how the middle class became poorer and less upwardly mobile, much less how to turn their fortunes around. It has mimicked the left by seeming incapable of defending its cultural values without resorting to derision or wishful thinking. It has seemed tongue-tied about the immorality of financial markets that squander investors’ capital without an inch of the restraint that orders the lives of smaller, less entitled businesses, much less the standards that prevail around kitchen tables.
Most disconcerting, conservatism has fallen into the trap of resembling just another lobby that defends its clients against the policy ambitions of the opposition. Too often, our side projects the narrow, bottom-line sensibility of a well-funded trade association, albeit one with a shrinking client base.
The way back will require not only a sharper, more articulate critique of the myriad weaknesses of Barack Obama’s leadership, but also a deeper argument about why we deserve to chart this country’s path as it turns an uncertain corner. Conservatism needs to rekindle the aspirations of Americans who aren’t winning, who aren’t building, and whose anxieties are less about the loss of liberty and more about the depletion of their savings. We need to shake enough of our reflexive aversion to government to get serious about reforming government, from the archaic way it structures public schools to the inevitably unsustainable way it manages entitlements. We shouldn’t shrink from our aspirations of a civic culture that privileges life and responsibility and faith, but we should respect that Americans can share our decency without sharing every vestige of our worldview.
This country shares much of our critique of liberalism but, by a slim majority, distrusts our capacity to lead. We conservatives need to restore confidence that we see a future greater than the agenda of our donors and our loyalists.
As a religious and social conservative, I have been alienated from the Republican Party for the past few years. It’s not that I’ve become a liberal (I haven’t), or that I disagree with some of the things done by the GOP advocates (though I do). Mostly it’s that I’m sick and tired of the GOP’s ideological ossification. In 1950, Lionel Trilling famously derided conservatism as little more than “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” As we all know, the post-60s rise of conservative intellectuals–many of them associated with this magazine–refuted Trilling decisively, and consequentially. Yet now, three decades after the arrival of the Reagan Revolution, American conservatism is approaching another Trilling moment.
One might criticize this or that policy, but our problem is more fundamental than that. It’s not so much what we think as how we think. We used to be the people who had the most interesting, dynamic, and realistic ideas. Political liberalism still has no coherent and compelling program or philosophy, but it nevertheless feels more in touch with contemporary concerns and currents of thought than the rigid, tapped-out Reaganism of the GOP.
Reaganism arose as a political response to specific conditions: overweening statism (including excessive taxation), Soviet expansionism, and the decay of civil society. And it pretty much worked. Today, though, America faces another set of primary challenges, to which Reaganism cannot be the answer, because the questions posed by the times are different.
The problem is that too many conservatives take conservatism in its Reaganite iteration as revealed truth. To deviate is to dabble in heresy, to risk being run off the reservation as a “RINO.” This is good in the short run for political cohesion and effectiveness, but a disaster for a party that needs–as every party does–to have its intellectual base replenished by fresh, creative discussion and argument. The outcome of the war in Iraq and the Wall Street crash dramatically challenged the reigning conservative ideas about foreign policy, democracy, free markets, and regulation. That they occasioned no serious rethinking of conservative doctrine among the mainstream right’s intellectuals indicates not strength, but weakness.
We would do well to return to older sources of conservative thought, and to think and debate how to apply our principles in a changing world. For example, though I strongly believe in privileging traditional marriage, we social conservatives have lost the same-sex marriage argument. Prudence indicates that rather than pretend we can still win, social conservatives ought to focus on the achievable victory of firewalling religious liberty from the coming gay civil rights legislation and court decisions.
I could be wrong, but that’s beside the point. What I want to see is a conservatism that is flexible and open and confident enough to permit, indeed to welcome and to learn from dissent within the broad conservative tradition–especially from the Kirkean traditionalists. Edmund Burke, who knew a few things about conservatism, wrote: “A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” It’s also true for political parties.
Though I dearly hope to be wrong about this, I fear that dark times lie ahead for our nation and for the conservative tendency in American thought and politics that should rightly offer our country its best hope for the future.
The United States is on a perilous trajectory–one all the more disturbing because it looks to have been scarcely affected by any of the great political competitions and big electoral decisions since the end of the Reagan era.
The “clear and present danger” for the United States today is domestic, not foreign. It is seen in the confluence of three major trends that are subverting what was once un-mockingly known as the American way of life.
The first of these trends is the collapse of the nation’s family structure. According to preliminary figures, almost 41 percent of American babies were born out of wedlock in 2011–twice the figure of just 30 years earlier. (For those whom the Census Bureau terms “non-Hispanic whites,” the 2011 ratio was 29 percent–higher than for African Americans back when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on the crisis of the black family in the 1960s.) By 2010, a child was more likely to grow up in a broken home in America than in practically any other Western society, including the Scandinavian ones.
Second is America’s gradual, but increasingly rapid, retirement from religion. Between 1972 and 2008, according to a Pew Research Center study, the share of American adults with no religious affiliation whatsoever rose from 7 percent in 1972 to 18 percent in 2010–but jumped between 2007 and 2012 from just over 15 percent to almost 20 percent. Of America’s Millennials, our youngest adults, born between 1981 and 1994, nearly one-third say they have no religion. So it is that America, long the conspicuous holdout against the great tide of Western secularization, now appears to be following Europe into a faithless wilderness.
Third is our citizenry’s steady slide into financial dependence on the government–a development intensified by the Great Recession, but in fact predating it by many decades. By spring 2011, according to the Census Bureau, just over 35 percent of Americans lived in homes receiving one or more “means tested” public benefit. Never before have so many healthy, able-bodied, and relatively well-to-do Americans plead “poverty” for the purpose of handouts from Uncle Sam.
These powerful, deeply entwined trends are progressively degrading both our people and our polity. They promise our descendants a country that is weak, beneath a government that is strong: one where the independence, civic vibrancy, and economic freedom we take for granted today are only memories. It is not too much to suggest that, on our current course, an ignominious end to American exceptionalism could even be within sight.
As one reflects upon this prospect, it will be immediately apparent that America’s fate is inseparable from the fate of the country’s conservative political and intellectual tendency. Almost as immediately apparent, unfortunately, is how very poorly equipped that selfsame conservative tendency happens to be today for addressing, much less mitigating, these and other threats to national well-being.
For a generation, soi-disant conservatives have been failing conspicuously in politics–ironically, never more so than when they actually gained political power. If one doubts that proposition, just consider the George W. Bush administration’s toxic popular reputation these days–an odor unlikely to change much at this point through sheer passage of time. (The public’s low regard for Bush speaks to more than his controversial intervention in Iraq, by the way.)
Of the many factors accountable for the political failure of the conservative tendency since Reagan, one of the most striking is a curious incuriosity about matters empirical: a peculiar inattentiveness to the way the world really works.
Over the past four years, for example, most self-styled conservative thinkers have betrayed no obvious interest in analyzing or understanding what went so very wrong under Bush ’43–or even in acknowledging the plain fact that things had gone wrong. Similarly, in the presidential contest just concluded, the general expectation on the right was that its nominee would win–and win big. In the event, of course, he was decisively defeated.
That may not sound too different from the story of more or less all disappointed candidacies from more or less all elections past. And yet there is a difference: This time, false hopes were bolstered by millions upon millions of dollars of seemingly solid polling data purchased from partisan allies. These expensive, beguiling, and systematically flawed numbers provided the foundation for an alternative reality–a fantasy land that adherents inhabited until it was put to a real-world test.
There seems to be a tremendous temptation nowadays for conservatives to retreat into their own alternative reality, their own preferred universe where their own preferred opinions are supported by their own preferred facts.
That temptation may have consolations–but it spells the death of honest thinking. Our country confronts fearsome problems. It desperately needs a conservative tendency that can, for a start, call the animals by their proper names.
The reelection of President Obama has uncorked a jeroboam of conservative pessimism.
Have we arrived at the much-feared tipping point beyond which Americans will depend so heavily on government that there can be no turning back, only an onrushing collapse? Will the Obama coalition now forever out-vote and pillage the makers of American wealth?
Many conservative commentators say yes. I say: In this defeat is the path to a more successful future, if Republicans keep their heads and their perspective.
The president’s reelection portends a more expensive federal government in the years ahead. More costs imply more taxes. More taxes generate more resistance. That resistance will be the basis of the conservative coalition of tomorrow. As sure as the New Deal yielded to the conservative Congresses after 1938, as sure as the Great Society called forth the conservative revival after 1970, so will the Obama years be followed by a more conservative period.
The next Republican coalition will be a multi- ethnic coalition to temper the excess and overreach of the Obama years. It will jettison the reactionary messages that alienated so many persuadable voters in 2012. It will instead avow a Republicanism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. It will be younger, better educated, and more secular than the coalition that lost in 2012.
That next coalition will not undo everything done in the Obama years. That never happens. What it will do is temper and reform the Obama legacy–just as prior generations of conservatives eliminated swathes of New Deal economic regulation, got government out of the business of building public housing, broke up telecommunications monopolies, and ended unconditional welfare for able-bodied adults. This idea that the state only advances and never retreats is contradicted by the record of the past half-century.
We’re a freer society in almost every way than we were in 1963, and we are in no danger of losing our freedom over the next four years. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper retorted to Marxist historians who imagined that the course of history must lead inevitably to socialism: “When radicals scream that victory is indubitably theirs, sensible conservatives knock them on the nose. It is only very feeble conservatives who take such words as true and run round crying for the last sacraments.”
The next Republican coalition will not repeal universal health coverage. That commitment is here to stay, and high time, too. But the next coalition will control and reduce health-care costs. It will finance health care in ways less burdensome to economic growth. It will fight the good fight for private enterprise and free markets in ways relevant to the politics and society of the decades ahead. It will win some and lose some, and when it fades from the scene, it will leave the country better than it found it–as every generation of Americans has left the country better than it found it.
Do I say “it”? No, not “it.” I mean–us.
In the recent presidential election, conservatism was not tried and found wanting. It was tried in a particularly cramped, narrow, and uncompelling form.
Mitt Romney was sometimes accused of lacking conservative conviction. But in advocating pro-growth, pro-business policies, he was firm, consistent, even dogged. The theme fit his venture-capitalist background and seemed to call attention to President Obama’s greatest weakness: his failed economic stewardship. In GOP convention oratory, no bootstrap was left unpulled, and Romney himself issued a ringing defense of “success.” In his leaked Boca Raton fundraiser video, Romney’s defense of success veered into parody.
It is fair to say that this message did not carry the nation by storm. Among other problems, Romney underperformed among working-class voters in key states. Their lack of enthusiasm was not irrational. Over the last few decades, increased effort by the middle class has been rewarded by stagnant incomes and job insecurity. Economic mobility is increasingly a function of education, skills, family structure, and community health. Economic growth still matters, but as one factor among many. A rising tide is viewed differently by those who lack a boat and must learn to swim.
People in, say, the small-town Midwest, worried about insecure health benefits tied to insecure jobs, or seeking government help to master skills demanded by technological change, are generally not mooches or dependents. They are citizens (and voters) in the midst of massive, disorienting economic and social change. And greater economic freedom is not the answer to all their concerns.
Fortunately, conservatism is richer than that. It falls to conservatives to recover and emphasize two additional elements of their ideology’s appeal.
First is the tradition of conservative reform. The movement that humanely transformed welfare and humanely reduced crime rates in troubled cities–improving the lives of millions in tangible ways–needs to take the lead in improving elementary and secondary public education, college attendance and completion, job training, and health-care access. Government has a proper role in preparing citizens for success in free markets, as well as in caring for the most vulnerable. It should be the conservative goal to make public structures efficient, modern, and truly compassionate–to make limited government more effective within its limits.
Second is the conservative tradition of promoting healthy mediating institutions. The collapse of community and family is creating a class barrier that fences off much of the working poor. Yet conservatives–who presumably know a thing or two about family, community, and morality–have had little to say in response. The goal here is to creatively strengthen value-shaping institutions–civic groups, religious charities, and families–without letting government dominate or corrupt them.
A movement encompassing these three priorities–economic freedom, government reform, and civic health–would hardly constitute a “new” conservatism. But it would require recognition that economic freedom is not always identical to the common good. And a commitment to the common good is the essential attribute of a governing conservatism.
JAMES K. GLASSMAN
In the September 2010 issue of Commentary, I wrote that the global economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 provided the left with “an irresistible opportunity to pronounce the failure of the form of capitalism that emerged at the end of the 20th century.” That did not happen, I wrote, for the simple reason that the Keynesian remedies for the crisis–“stimulus” spending–so clearly failed. That failure led to the rise of the Tea Party and the big Republican victory in the congressional elections a few months after the article appeared.
As it turned out, however, those 2010 elections were hardly the harbinger of a conservative resurgence. How can you not beat a president whose four-year legacy was highlighted by trillion-dollar deficits, 2 percent growth, and 8 percent unemployment? The answer lies in the neglect of four principles worth conserving–the foundation of conservatism–that have been broadly ignored: freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and compassion. It is no accident–and please don’t think it an advertisement–that these are the principles that motivate the George W. Bush Institute (and, I hope, many other institutions and people).
Freedom means giving Americans the power to make their own choices–and standing up for people around the world, in Iran and Syria, for example, who are denied that power. Opportunity is impossible without policies that encourage strong economic growth–in the range of 4 percent–through free markets, including not only low taxes and low spending but also free trade and low barriers to hard-working, creative immigrants. Responsibility requires pitching in and following the biblical injunction “to whom much is given, much is required.” And compassion, perhaps the most important conservative principle of all, is standing in someone else’s shoes.
None of these principles asks more of government. To the contrary, they ask that government remove constraints.
So where does the current state of conservatism fit in? I am afraid that many conservatives either see the answer to problems in government intervention or else reject a government solution but, at the same time, deny that a problem even exists. The message: Shape up and stop taking money from the government.
That’s not a winner–and it’s not conservative because it ignores the personal and nongovernmental group action that is the root of the four principles, and of conservatism itself. Certainly, we need policy changes–including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, lower tax rates, and lower federal spending. But those are changes in the service of less government and an enhancement of the four guiding principles.
Like the ancient parable of the blind men describing the same elephant from different perspectives, conservatism can mean many different things to many different people. Indeed, given the relatively straightforward and down-to-earth meaning of the word, conservatism actually lends itself to considerable linguistic legerdemain. One can use the word to refer to a temperament, an ideology (or ideologies), an objective tendency, or simply an unwillingness to heed the forces of progress as fashion dictates.
It seems to me that the future of each of these varieties of conservatism is assured. The conservative temper stems from the crooked timber of humanity and the accumulated scar tissue of experience. The objective tendency, whether imposed by external forces, threadbare budgets, impertinent facts-on-the-ground, or a general lack of popular enthusiasm, also seems baked into the human experience for as far as the eye can see. For related reasons, there will always be realists who counsel the hotheads to slow down, earning at minimum the label “conservative” if not “reactionary.” In this sense, while there may not always be an England, there will always be something called conservatism.
The one with the cloudiest future is ideological conservatism. Will enough Americans remain committed, or at least open, to the bundle of principles that define modern American conservatism to sustain the movement and the Republican Party, which imperfectly carries its banner?
My short answer is an equivocal yes. My hedge stems from the fact that it will be hard, for all the reasons we’ve all heard already: demographics, the changing nature of the economy, etc. But there’s one factor that hasn’t been adequately discussed: the fading of conservatism’s libertarian brand.
I say “brand” because I think the issue has less to do with substance than with marketing. For good and bad reasons, liberalism has managed to cover itself with a patina of libertarianism. Some of this stems from changing attitudes about sexuality. Conservative opposition to gay marriage sends a powerful cultural signal that makes the GOP seem Comstockish and scary, at least to the elites who shape the culture and to younger voters.
That argument is familiar enough. But what allows the Democrats to seem more libertarian isn’t just cultural marketing, but a widespread acceptance of the idea that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty. The former, an idea near to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s heart, is that you can’t be free unless the state gives you the material aid necessary to enjoy life to its fullest. This was the point of his “economic bill of rights.” Negative liberty, an idea dear to the Founders, defines freedom as independence from government intrusion and meddling.
Conservatives have been very successful at arguing separately against positive liberty and against cultural libertinism, but the merger of the two presents new challenges, particularly given the attitudes of young people who seem to believe that you should be free to use birth control (true), but that you’re not free unless someone else pays for it.
The vernacular of conservatism derives from a time when the country was churched and defined liberty as personal sovereignty. It needs to change to engage a country that is increasingly unchurched and incorrectly thinks liberty can and should be subsidized.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
First, some perspective is key. Romney’s “47 percent” remarks and Hurricane Sandy probably turned an Obama 1 percent win into the 3 percent margin that he attained–especially considering Republicans kept the House and are doing well with governorships.
The Romney loss was not comparable to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 blowout that nonetheless led, four years later, to a Republican victory in 1968. Nor was 2012 akin to the 1976 revulsion against Watergate and the Republicans that led to Jimmy Carter–and four years later to Ronald Reagan. Recall, too, that Bill Clinton’s new middle way, the supposedly permanent Democratic antidote to Paleolithic liberals such as Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, lasted just two terms.
So Republican epitaphs are premature, and the natural pushback will come once Americans grasp the nature of an unleashed Obama & Co. The administration is at war against the middle and upper-middle classes (who lack the liberal panache of the hyper-wealthy and the empathy of the poor). Redistributionism and lead-from-behind foreign policy lead to stagflation at home and weakness abroad. The ongoing implosion of the EU and the erosion of blue states such as California and Illinois will offer steady reminders of policy failure.
Nor will the Democrats in 2016 be running a young charismatic half-African-American candidate with an exotic-sounding name, whose emotional appeal to minorities and affluent white liberals trumped that of any prior candidate since John F. Kennedy. It was not so much that Obama is half-black, or that he is chameleon-like in his ability to adopt personas and patois that tickle white liberals and reassure minorities of his street credibility, or that he is young and cool, or that his foreign name hits all the right multicultural buttons, but that he is all that and more in a way a young, white, liberal second JFK, or a younger Jesse Jackson, or a top-schooled crossover candidate such as Cory Booker or Deval Patrick simply could not be.
It certainly would be unwise to try to out-pander the Democrats. Latinos–to use that inexact rubric–will eventually follow the Italian-American model, but only if the borders are closed, legality is restored to immigration, and the natural forces of assimilation and upward mobility are allowed to operate. Ironically, the Washington conservative elite’s sudden obsession with amnesty will not win Latinos over (consider Reagan and the disastrous 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act). Instead, conservative pandering will ensure the continued cycle of open borders leading to large pools of often poorly educated, non-English-speaking, unlawful immigrants, most without high-school diplomas who perennially look to amnesty and entitlements–and thereby probably ensure that the American Southwest will become permanently blue in the manner of California.
Lost in all the post-election analysis was a much larger and more cynically brilliant Obama us-and-them campaign that created the image of a shrinking, geriatric white male plutocratic establishment forced to give way to the new age of the diverse “other.” Affluent Asians, blacks, Latinos, gays, women, etc., supposedly had beef with Republicans and were brilliantly united by Obama in vague resentment against “them.”
In this regard, Republicans have to focus on a more populist approach that ensures their message of smaller government, lower taxes, a strong defense, and more freedom appeals to those on the receiving end of government largesse. Free-market conservatives do best when they appear naturally as part of the working or small-business class and can’t be caricatured as elevator-owning grandees–and when they mix it up and take their licks in trying to appeal to those who probably won’t vote for them.
Nominating someone who naturally appeals to working-class white voters, and who attracts minorities, is important, but far more critical is focusing on policies that appeal to the middle class and small-business employers. Why protect the financial interests of a George Soros, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Hollywood elite, when there are ways to focus on estate taxes, income taxes, foundations, tax incentives, and agricultural subsidies that instead better protect the upper-middle-class and small-business person who are now the target of such demonization?
The war against Islamist extremism dominated American politics from September 2001 to the summer of 2008–by which time President George W. Bush, his generals, and his soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had effectively won its opening rounds. Before they had done so, however, the Republican Party lost not only the political argument about the war during the election of 2006, but also the argument over the causes of economic panic that gripped the country in late 2008.
The sequence of political spasms that shuddered through the country in the first decade of the new century left behind an unfinished war that quickly began to turn against an exhausted America (and is turning still) and a new debate about the size and cost of government. The GOP, representing conservatism, won decisively the first round of the debate on taxing and spending in 2010 and lost the second round this past November. We are left with a divided government that fairly reflects a country deeply divided on this key question (and, less obviously, on strategy for the war). The balance of political power is very close to even: a narrow center-right majority on the Supreme Court, a solid conservative majority in the House of Representatives, and 30 of 50 governorships versus a small center-left Democratic majority in the Senate and the weakest reelected president in modern times–one who conducted a singularly divisive, idea-free campaign.
Because the presidency has the biggest microphone, it appears to the Manhattan-Beltway media elite that President Obama is in charge. It would not have appeared that way to the Framers and it ought not to appear that way to conservatives today. Ten thousand commentaries from legions of self-assured pundits will never repeal even a comma, much less a phrase, of the Constitution.
Conservatives are, first and chiefly, charged with protecting the Constitution, and in this era that means insisting on the rights of the House, and of the states and people they represent, while providing the appropriations necessary to fund the military. It means insisting that the president govern as any president was intended to govern: only with the funds given him by the Congress, for the purposes they are given, only with the authorities allocated to him by the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and only insofar as he does not injure the powers reserved to the states or trample on the rights of individuals.
This means urging the House to use the appropriations and oversight powers it possesses to assure that the military is kept strong and that the executive branch does not abuse its powers, especially through a vast regulatory apparatus.
These checks on the executive are enormous–if used. It is the job of conservatives to insist that they be used, and used even when the chattering class clucks away at the “obstructionists” who are impeding the will of the president.
This will require quite a lot of what passes for political courage in this era. For the full fury of MSNBC and the New York Times op-ed page is going to fall on those conservatives in the House, in the statehouses, and on the bench who say no and do so effectively, and especially on those who do so eloquently. Leaders such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and (most of the time) the majority of justices on the Supreme Court are going to be blasted and threatened by the president and his supporters. It will be the job of conservatives to defend them when they defend the Constitution.
The Constitution’s structures are inconvenient to politicians and interests that seek quick and decisive changes and vastly expanded government. The freedoms the Constitution protects, especially religious freedom, are often unpopular with transient majorities. Siding with those who stand for those structures and who defend those freedoms against all their enemies, foreign and domestic, is–as it has been since 1789–the future of conservatism.
I don’t fall in love with politicians–the last presidential candidate I voted for with ardor was Ronald Reagan in 1980–and my heart doesn’t break when those I support don’t win. Nor am I a party loyalist. As a conservative I vote for Republicans more often than not; for those of us committed to free enterprise, limited government, military strength, and a healthy civil society, there is usually no better option. But the Republican Party isn’t the conservative movement. And a GOP defeat doesn’t mean conservatism–or the GOP, for that matter–is in crisis.
Yet ever since Election Day, a chorus has proclaimed that that’s exactly what Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama means. Scornful foes and anguished friends warn that Republicans are going the way of the Whigs. That demographic change spells liberal landslides as far as the eye can see. That social conservatism, especially on marriage and abortion, is electoral poison. “Obama’s reelection marks a turning point in American politics,” declared the Los Angeles Times. “With the growing power of minorities, women, and gays, it’s the end of the world as straight white males know it.”
So what else is new? Whenever Republicans lose a national election, Americans are told that it’s curtains for the right. “Conservatism Is Dead,” wrote Sam Tanenhaus in a notable New Republic essay shortly after Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration; its “doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.” Soon after, Colin Powell was insisting that small-government conservatism had lost whatever appeal it once had. “Americans,” he explained, “are looking for more government in their life, not less.”
Then came the Tea Party, an extraordinary wave of civic engagement, and a conservative tide that replaced Democratic control of the House of Representatives with the largest Republican majority in 60 years. Was the reaction to the 2010 midterm elections a flood of commentary admonishing the Democratic Party that the progressive movement was finished? Were liberals advised that henceforth their only hope of relevance was to embrace the policies and moral values of cultural conservatives?
There are many lessons conservatives might draw from the disappointing results on November 6, but a need to radically overhaul the right isn’t one of them. So what if exit polls showed that a plurality of voting Americans, unlike most Republicans, now support same-sex marriage and higher tax rates on the wealthy? The same polls show that majorities of Americans believe that Washington should do less and that taxes should not be raised to cut the deficit. American conservatism didn’t arise from a yearning to conform to public opinion. Its raison d’etre was to defend constitutional liberty and economic opportunity–free men and free markets–and to make the case that human dignity and prosperity flourish not when government is all-powerful, but when it is limited. Sometimes that conservative message has been politically popular. Sometimes it has meant standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”
Meanwhile, fights on the right are nothing new. In the wake of Obama’s reelection, conservatives may be at loggerheads over immigration or gay marriage or defense cuts, but when haven’t we clashed over how to translate principle into policy? From RomneyCare to waterboarding, from racial preferences to drug legalization, from libertarians to the religious right, the conservative movement has always bubbled with debate and disagreement, while the left, for all its talk about “diversity,” rarely seems to show any.
Liberalism has done a lot of damage. It is poised, in Obama’s second term, to do even more. So the future of conservatism is going to be a busy one. Let’s face that future with optimism, patience, and cogent arguments.
The future of conservatism is bright. I know that may seem counterintuitive, not to say downright insane, in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s reelection. But I believe it to be the case. Why? There are several reasons. One follows from an observation of the economist Herbert Stein: “That which cannot go on forever, won’t.” The legal scholar and Internet commentator Glenn Reynolds is fond of quoting that line when he discusses the imminent shipwreck that is the institution of higher education in this country. But Stein’s law (if I may so denominate it) has far broader application. Just as the spiraling costs (and concomitant diminution of quality) of higher education cannot, and so will not, continue, so too the ostentatious fiscal incontinence that lies at the heart of Obamanomics cannot, and therefore will not, continue. The federal debt–we hit $16 trillion during the Democratic National Convention and are already up to $16.25 trillion two months later–cannot, and therefore will not, continue to pile up. Why? Because the money will not be there.
This truth has not, I know, penetrated into the lair of hectoring savants such as Paul Krugman and Timothy Geithner. Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged to be true. The question is: Granted it is true, why does that augur well for conservatism? In a word, reality. Reality is conservative. Just as that which cannot go on forever, won’t, so it is that reality sooner or later will disabuse us of those fantasies that fuel the liberal-socialist utopian dreams. “It hasn’t happened yet,” you might say, casting your eye back over the graveyard of utopian shipwrecks (and endless vistas of tyranny, immiseration, and murder) from the French and Bolshevik revolutions down to our own squalid totalitarianisms.
Yes and no. It is indeed depressing to see otherwise intelligent people once again line up to begin the trek down that seductive path that we know is the road to serfdom. Will we never learn that the fundamental economic fact is the creation, not the redistribution, of wealth? The consoling truth is, we have learned it. Not all of us. Not Barack Obama or Paul Krugman or those who speak for the (il)liberal consensus that rules over us. But the redoubts of resistance are much larger, better organized, and more articulate now than in the past. It’s not just that we lost the presidential election, but that we did so narrowly. There is also the fact that the spirit of conservatism–by which I mean the spirit of liberty and self-reliance–has been as much roused as it has been besieged by the assaults of the 1960s and beyond. We know now (not all of us, but more and more) that the Great Society worked not to abolish but to institutionalize poverty. We know now that the ambition to “spread the wealth around” does not equalize but destroys prosperity. Last week, one pundit mournfully predicted that the United States was about to undergo a four-year “stress test” in Obama’s second term. That’s probably right. But that can be a cheering as well as a doleful eventuality. Lord D’Abernon was right: “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” An American’s, too.
Conservatism may have suffered a major setback in November, but basic math dictates that it will make a comeback. Historically, political and economic philosophies have succeeded when they have offered relevant solutions to the nation’s problems during times of crisis. For decades following the Great Depression, U.S. domestic policy was rooted in the belief that government could revive a struggling economy by spending more money. Yet just by the time President Richard Nixon declared himself a Keynesian in 1971, this approach had been exhausted. When liberalism couldn’t provide answers to the new problem of stagflation in the 1970s, the nation soon turned to the conservative solutions of tax cuts and sound money. But by the time the 2008 financial crisis hit, the conservative message on taxes had become stale and Barack Obama’s argument for a more activist federal government seemed appealing.
During his first term in office, President Obama seized the opportunity to greatly expand the size and scope of government, and his upcoming term, at a minimum, will allow him to solidify his gains. The most prominent example of this is the implementation of his national health-care law. Obama’s reelection also virtually guarantees that nothing will be done to address the nation’s most pressing long-term problem: the looming fiscal crisis.
In the last several years, conservatives have put serious ideas on the table for reforming the nation’s entitlement programs, which are the primary drivers of the long-term debt. At the same time, Obama has dodged the problem, attempting to convince the public that a combination of tax hikes on wealthier Americans and small tweaks to government programs will be enough to avert a crisis. This political strategy has proved effective for the time being, because despite the warnings no crisis has yet shaken the public consciousness. Bond investors continue to purchase U.S. debt at low interest rates, because they assume Washington will get its act together eventually and because so many other countries are in even worse shape. In the long-term, however, the U.S. government cannot continue to rack up trillions in debt without severe consequences. If nothing is done, at some point, Americans will be facing some combination of inflation, high interest rates, and economic stagnation.
Liberalism is ill-equipped to respond to such a crisis, because the promotion of a generous welfare state is its central purpose. Sparing entitlement programs from serious changes–as liberals desire–would mean massive tax increases that would hit not only the rich, but also middle-class Americans. Conservatism, once more, will emerge to fill the vacuum of ideas.
In other words, even though the 2012 election was a significant loss for conservatism, this defeat also means that Americans will have to turn to limited-government philosophy for solutions down the road.
Twelve score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The historic task of American conservatism is to see to it that a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endures. Thus, the task of American conservatism today is to highly resolve that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom. For a new birth of freedom is needed for a nation so conceived and so dedicated to long endure.
This means that American conservatism today can’t be too conservative in spirit. Reforms–in some cases radical reforms–are needed to meet conservative ends. Conservatives will have to spend as much time shaping the future as they spend standing athwart history yelling “stop.” Because in the America of 2013, there is no resting place at which, no solid ground upon which, to stop. And so conservatives will, in the spirit of Lincoln, have to think anew, as our case is new.
But there’s also plenty of standing athwart history to do. American conservatism today has to embrace what’s always been impressive and inspiring about conservatism at its best: a disdain for the shallow tyranny of the present and the false temptations of the apparent future, a scorn for short-term utility and immediate expediency.
In his 1956 letter to National Review explaining why conservatives should be well disposed to the state of Israel, Leo Strauss wrote:
A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort is vulgar.
Finally, I wish to say that the founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation that in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition that has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable.
Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.
The challenge for American conservatism today is to fulfill both the conservative function of acting as a moral force in an era of dissolution and the reformist function of charting a path up from liberal dissolution.
JAY P. LEFKOWITZ
Conservatives are in danger of falling out of touch not only with America. They are falling out of touch with their own principles. In the mission statement of National Review in 1955, William Buckley articulated the magazine’s creed: “It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty, and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly.” It is high time for conservatives to return to these core principles.
After watching, and indeed facilitating, the skyrocketing deficits of the past decade, conservatives have lost the moral high ground when it comes to controlling the size of government. Reclaiming it won’t be easy, and it can’t be accomplished by saying that everything besides defense spending is on the table. Having credibility means there can’t be any sacred cows.
Conservatives should rethink their social agenda as well. James Madison explained in The Federalist Papers that our Constitution is designed to keep the federal government out of our personal lives: “The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people.” That is not to say that conservatives must abdicate their moral voice on issues of life, death, and personal responsibility. But they should wage those battles in the conservative way, using private institutions and the power of persuasion rather than the coercive powers of the state. And to the extent legislation is appropriate, it belongs in statehouses rather than the halls of Congress. Since when does being a conservative require Washington to dictate how people conduct their private lives in Sioux City and Miami, much less mandate the same standards in both venues?
Beyond making the case for smaller and less intrusive government, conservatives must demonstrate that they believe in an inclusive America. This year, 71 percent of Hispanics, 93 percent of blacks, and 73 percent of Asians voted for Obama. The year 2011 marked the first time more minority babies were born in America than were non-Hispanic white babies. Immigration reform is the ideal place to start, since welcoming more immigrants is consistent with conservative principles. The people lining up around the world to come to America are pursuing the same dream that the parents and grandparents of today’s white establishment had when they left Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. While a conservative immigration policy should certainly include measures to tighten our borders and perhaps require national identification cards (as in many other nations), it might also take steps to ensure that the millions of undocumented aliens who are an essential part of our economy can fully partake in the fruits of our nation.
Finally, conservatives and Republicans need to field better candidates. Mitt Romney has a great resume and admirable personal values. But he lost in large part because he had the same problems as John Kerry and Al Gore. As with Kerry, voters didn’t connect with Romney, because Democrats successfully defined him as an out-of-touch rich white guy. And as with Gore, Romney was perceived as a flip-flopper: pro-choice, then pro-life; for centralized health care, then against it; and all over the map on immigration. Once again, the message to conservatives is simple: Stick to core principles.
A key task of conservatism in the coming years will be to see America through a difficult period of transition, as the governing institutions of our postwar welfare state grow exhausted and untenable and something new must take their place.
Our entitlement state is proving thoroughly unaffordable. It has already burdened us with a level of debt not seen since the height of World War II and quickly getting worse. That mountain of unfunded liabilities will make the prosperity of the postwar era unattainable for the rising generation. And those least advantaged in that generation will find their path to the American dream further blocked by an inadequate educational system, intense global competition for low-wage jobs, and a nightmarish breakdown of the family (accelerated in important ways by the design of some anti-poverty programs) afflicting our poorest communities.
All this leaves us with a choice: Do we preserve the structure of the Great Society welfare state, or do we preserve the promise of American prosperity and freedom? It increasingly looks like we cannot do both.
The Democratic Party has made its choice. It believes the solution to the collapse of the postwar welfare state and the slowing of the American economy is more of the same. It would rather see American life dramatically altered (with a significantly larger government, a smaller and less active civil society, and a more consolidated but less dynamic economy) than see our governing institutions reformed. Conservatives will need to clarify the alternative by articulating an agenda to reform the structure of key government programs for the sake of preserving the structure of American society and the preconditions for our way of life.
The goal of these reforms is hardly radical: an economy growing at roughly its postwar pace, a federal government of roughly its postwar size and functions, and an energetic and flourishing civil society filled with countless civic, religious, fraternal, corporate, and charitable entities performing a vast array of social functions. That is the America we have known, but allowing it to persist will require bold reforms of government programs that capitalize on the efficiency of the market economy.
In the next four years, as a result of the public’s poor choice in this fall’s presidential election, this task will largely call for a stance of resistance, combined with efforts to make incremental gains through modest structural reforms of the tax and entitlement systems as opportunities for responsible political compromises present themselves. Not much will be accomplished. But conservatives must also use this time to fill in the policy agenda and the arsenal of arguments in favor of the brand of reforms that will prove essential in the long run.
Liberals won the last election, but they have not won the future. The politics of the coming decades will be shaped by conservative reforms, or else it will be dominated by American decline. So let us hope that conservatism’s future is bright, and let us do more than hope.
The question is not so much about the future of conservatism in America as it is about the future of America. The country cannot thrive in the absence of a conservative counterweight to the progressive strain in American politics.
The progressive strain is more or less baked into the American cake, and it is a good thing that it is. Our liberalism (in the classical sense) has done wonders for the expansion of freedom at home and abroad. This expansion requires a group of people more zealous than most Americans in its pursuit. At home, these are the progressives–liberals in the distinctly American sense.
Against the ambitions of today’s progressives, the counter that conservatives generally offer, without irony, is a robust defense of the fruits of the progressivism of previous generations. When Republicans say they are the ones who really want to save Medicare, because an unreformed Medicare program is fiscally unsustainable, they are conceding that there is no going back to an era when universal entitlement to health care for older Americans was no more than a progressive’s dream.
Progressives will not give conservatives credit for this concession, because they regard such concessions as the acceptance of the inevitable. Accepting the inevitable is not virtuous, even if it entails overcoming what progressives see as conservatives’ ignorance, stupidity, and base motives (which, as far as I can tell, exhaust the range of progressive explanations for conservative opposition to their programs). The progressive nature is to pocket concessions and move on to the next set of demands.
The conservative counterweight to progressivism is a more complicated phenomenon. In the first place, it is largely liberal, not only in the classical sense but also in that it stands foursquare in support of what the American-style liberals of a generation or two ago themselves stood for. Conservatism is a sort of outdated progressivism. (When Republicans quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dangers of public-sector unions, they miss the point that every progressive in America knows in his bones–that if FDR were alive today, he would support public-sector unions.)
The outdatedness of conservatives’ progressivism is precisely its point. It indicates a reluctance to accept at face value the claims progressives make about the good they can do for the country–but at the same time an openness to, well, progress. Yesterday’s overly ambitious and expensive progressive policy enactment may turn out today to embody goals worth preserving, as in the case of Medicare and Social Security. To be sure, yesterday’s progressive policy enactment may turn out to do more harm than good and need to be overturned, as in the case of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program. But the progressive view of the conservative project as turning back the hand of policy time is a caricature. Even the young William F. Buckley’s iconic epigram called for conservatives to stand athwart history shouting only “stop”–not “turn around.” Buckley was a practical man. And as a practical matter, conservatives mainly tell history just to “please, slow down.”
This is an important thing to tell history in a classically liberal age, because wise people understand that progressivism untrammeled would be just as dangerous as untrammeled anything else. Or more dangerous, perhaps, because progressivism brooks no legitimate disagreement (conservatives being ill- informed, dull, and/or wicked, tout court) and therefore runs the risk of becoming illiberally coercive.
But the history of the influence of conservative policy is not only that of eventual acquiescence in progressive policies. It’s also that of resistance to their adoption, which in turn helps shape their character–no ObamaCare “public option,” for example. And it’s also that of conservative reform initiatives, typically market-based, to address progressive policy dysfunctionality.
I see a permanent need for someone to tell progressives to slow down–and what’s more, actually to slow them down. The 2010 election results would seem to suggest that most Americans likewise see this need at least from time to time. In the modern, classically liberal world, there is a permanent need for someone to clean up after progressive excess. Tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform in 1996 are examples.
A wise progressive would recognize that most of the opposition to progressive ambition in America takes place within a classically liberal horizon, and that real progress depends on an opposition that saves progressivism from its own worst tendencies–from itself. That may be asking too much. But meanwhile, there is plenty of room for an American conservatism that continues to adapt. Conservatives have the roles of critic and reformist to play, and of advocate for the principles that progressives find awkward or embarrassing to discuss but Americans still hold dear: for starters, the exceptional character of their country among nations, patriotism, the blessings of a market economy, and freedom.
HEATHER MAC DONALD
There is a risk of over-interpreting the 2012 presidential election. Barack Obama did not win the popular vote by anywhere near a landslide. Many voters may simply (and conservatively) have opted for the status quo, absent an urgent reason to upend it.
And yet the long-term trends visible in the election are worrisome. First, there is the reflexive suspicion of the free market. Occupy Wall Street was too quickly dismissed as a passing fad. The filthy bed rolls and dreadlocked ladlers of vegan chili may be gone, but the condescension, if not hostility, toward market forces that gave rise to the movement endures. The hipster NPR reporter might concede that it’s nice to have an iPad and Whole Foods’ sustainable espresso roast, but he knows that greedy capitalists produce social and economic injustice that can only be mitigated by wiser heads in government.
As the country moves toward majority-minority status, it appears to be developing an ever larger constituency for big government. That Hispanics voted 71 percent to 27 percent for Obama is hardly a shock, given their overwhelming preference (75 percent) when polled for more government services and higher taxes, and their high rate of welfare consumption (twice that of non-Hispanic whites). The surprise was Obama’s Asian vote–72 percent–since the Democratic obsession with racial preferences, especially in education, runs contrary to Asian self-interest. Open-borders conservatives have assumed that immigrants will naturally favor smaller government and greater economic liberty, but the facts on the ground belied that assumption long before this last election.
The racial and ethnic voting tallies could also represent the triumph of academic identity politics, as William Bennett has noted. (Even the youth vote split along racial and ethnic grounds.) Conservatives have hopefully asserted that students tune out the racial and gender victimology spouted by their professors; that claim may have underestimated how easily bad ideas spread throughout the culture. And if the crusade for universal college attendance is successful, the reach of the academic worldview (including its anti-capitalism) will only expand.
For all his attempts at moderating his message during the general-election campaign, Mitt Romney still got bashed–even by some conservatives, no less!–for being too hard-hearted. But Romney’s much-excoriated comments about who receives and who pays for government “gifts” contained more truth than distortion. The country is about to pass the point where over 50 percent of households receives transfer benefits from the government, writes the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt. Where is majority support for smaller government going to come from? The growth in less familiar programs has been just as telling as the explosion of Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. It was not enough for the Obama administration that 12 million children were already being fed free breakfast by their public schools; the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will increase those numbers further. In truth, there is not a parent in this fabulously wealthy country who cannot afford the pennies a day required to cook his child a healthy breakfast. New York City is paying case workers to socialize six-week-old infants by holding them while looking them in the eyes. A local child advocate explained: Children need contact with “adults” in a “supporting strong relationship.”
Then there is the ongoing breakdown of the family. The unmarried parent is the greatest driver of the modern welfare state, consuming the highest share of means-tested benefits and social programs. Obama’s support among single mothers was even higher than his support among women in general. The country’s fastest-growing ethnic group–Hispanics–also has the most rapidly rising rate of illegitimacy, now 53 percent, and the highest rate of teen pregnancy. The chance of launching a campaign to revalorize the two-parent biological family is remote, thanks to the feminist “strong women can do it all” ethos and the imperative to celebrate the “diversity” of all families, above all, same-sex parents.
Optimists will argue that conservatives simply need to sell their small-government, personal-responsibility message more vigorously. Pessimists will respond that conservatives have been making the case for the dynamism of markets and the inefficiency of government bureaucracies, but the message is just not finding many new buyers. The United States may be following an ironic law of economic development: The richer a country becomes, thanks to commerce, the less its tolerance for the risk that commerce inevitably entails. Since the United States can afford to devote an increasing share of its GDP to the government and to redistribution, without (yet) noticeably decreasing its astounding wealth, it will do so. (The avalanche of donated goods that poured forth after Hurricane Sandy was a reminder of this country’s seemingly bottomless material bounty.) The problem is not only that we are trading away a vibrant economy for a larger public sector, however, but that we are piling up massive amounts of debt to do so and encouraging more and more people to jump onto the benefits bandwagon.
It’s possible to be too concerned with the future–or to be judged too concerned–as conservatives discovered in the election of 2012. In winning, liberals paid almost no attention to impending trouble in the economy, in society, abroad, in anything or anywhere. Under President Obama’s leadership, they confined themselves to pointing out that we, the liberals and Democrats,
the party of the people, are on your side. Whatever happens, we will do better for you than the conservatives will.
Who are “we” in the party of the people? The answer is, anybody who wants to be. The liberals belong to the party of inclusiveness, frowning on no one except those who frown. These are the conservatives. The conservatives are the party of the common good, and are therefore concerned with the future of the country. They are, speaking generally, the responsible party, and because they are responsible, they are obliged to be judgmental. They must uphold the virtues of the more responsible among us, i.e., the few versus the many. They hope to persuade the many, for example, by promoting the entrepreneurial talents of small businessmen rather than corporations. But however inoffensive they try to be, they can be made to appear exclusive.
Liberals want democracy at its fullest; conservatives want democracy to work. Since these goals are both necessary and conflicting, the future of each party is assured. Democracy, we are told by Tocqueville, is a revolution toward ever more democracy, not a static state. Democracy wants liberty, but not as much as it wants equality, and it will always interpret the exercise of liberty as requiring more equality. Democracy is naturally given to the visionary schemes of liberals, one unlovely example of which made its debut in the campaign of 2012 when the Democrats made themselves the party of free contraception. Why? Free to buy condoms means equally free to buy, hence free without charge. Carry this further: What good is a free condom if it is kept unused in a drawer? Doesn’t a free condom imply a right, and a government guarantee, that it will be put to use? Here is the very definition of a visionary scheme–a false promise if there ever was one–of sexual liberation.
It is the business of conservatives to restrain democracy to what is good, not abstractly, but to what is the common good of a democracy. Democracy on its own has a tendency to exaggerate itself and to go too far, thus to bring trouble on itself. In demanding equality it tries to level differences, claiming to raise the low but often actually lowering the high.
Conservatives are needed to stand for greatness against democratic mediocrity and, as we now see, for solvency against democratic profligacy. But in a democracy it is not enough to “stand for” greatness and solvency; that will work for liberals with their easy goals, but not for conservatives. Conservatives have the harder task of persuading the people with arguments showing why it is necessary to admire the best among us and to restrain the extension of equality. The party of judgment has to be the party of argument. It would take too long to explain why the party of argument is known as the stupid party, and why the party of intellectuals is so contemptuous of the intellect. But that is where we are and will be.
CLIFFORD D. MAY
Following the 2000 elections, those of us at the Republican National Committee, where I was then employed, were in a celebratory mood. The GOP had taken back the White House, there was a Republican majority in both the Senate and House, Republicans inhabited a majority of governors’ mansions, and most state legislatures were Republican-controlled as well. “We’ve won it all!” a colleague exulted. “Yes,” I replied, “now we just need to take back the news media, the entertainment media, the educational establishment, the unions, and the philanthropies.”
I meant that as a joke. But since then I have come to conclude that if a majority of voters does not agree with Republicans and conservatives (let’s argue about the differences between them another day) before the campaign begins, few are likely to have their minds changed by even the cleverest 30-second television ad.
I’m a neoconservative, at least in the literal sense of being relatively new to conservatism. In the 1970s, I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union. That knocked out of my thick skull whatever sympathy for the Communist project I had acquired in classrooms, from reading books such as Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China and watching movies like Warren Beatty’s Reds. In the 1980s, as a New York Times correspondent in Africa, it dawned on me that there is no “socialist path to development.” And back in the USA in the 1990s, I finally realized that American liberals also are sailing toward the reefs–albeit with more tacking back and forth.
This ideological journey landed me at the Republican National Committee in 1997. Among the lessons I learned: It is the rare politician who wins an election by convincing voters to agree with him. More common is the politician who wins by convincing voters he agrees with them–knowing, from polls and focus groups, what opinions they hold.
This leads to the conclusion that the time to engage and persuade voters is between elections–a tougher task for those on the right than those on the left given the fact that conservatives and conservative ideas are virtually locked out of Hollywood and academia. Union bosses work hand in glove with Democrats (while business executives, by contrast, are a diverse lot). The reflexively liberal mainstream media reach a much wider audience than do conservative news outlets.
Right-of-center think tanks and advocacy groups need to work harder and smarter. For more than a decade, I’ve focused on national security full time, and on as bipartisan a basis as possible. There are liberals who get it–who see that totalitarian movements based in the “Muslim world” represent a serious threat to the West; who understand that peace requires strength and that weakness invites aggression; who grasp that we need to defend ourselves and our freedoms without apology or equivocation. But the number of Jacksonian Democrats–in both the Andrew and Scoop senses–is growing, at best, slowly.
There are committed philanthropists on the right, but the resources available to the left, e.g. through the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Foundation to Promote Open Society, and the Democracy Alliance, are much greater.
George Soros and his associates, in particular, have spent a large fortune funding a network of organizations–including MoveOn.org, Human Rights Watch, the Center for American Progress, the New America Foundation, ThinkProgress, Media Matters, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, J Street, and the National Iranian American Council–that work strategically, between elections, to promote a broad range of liberal and leftist ideas and policies.
The future of conservatism would look considerably brighter if philanthropists on the right were to pick up the gauntlet Soros has thrown down, taking the fight for America beyond politics and the campaign season.
The lamentations we are hearing in the wake of the 2012 election are understandable but wildly overwrought. Yes, Barack Obama has been, at best, a poor and unimaginative president whose rhetoric and policies have had a divisive and demoralizing effect on the nation, and he seems incapable of providing decisive leadership at a time when the nation and the world badly need it. Yes, he ran a thoroughly unattractive reelection campaign that was so devoid of meaningful themes that it makes George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign seem a paragon of crusading idealism by comparison. With the thrill of 2008 gone, Obama seemed eminently beatable.
But facts must be faced, and the first of these is this: It was always going to be exceedingly difficult for any Republican candidate to unseat the first black president of the United States, however lackluster his record. (Just as it would be difficult for any Democrat to challenge Obama’s renomination, and in the event, none even tried.) The surprise is that the election was so close and that despite all the natural advantages the Obama campaign possessed, it was compelled to resort to such a petty, negative, and uninspiring strategy to win–a base strategy in every sense of the word, combining demonization of the opponent with the cultivation of targeted constituencies and the deployment of bogus wedge issues like the supposed banning of contraception. The campaign was nearly silent about Obama’s economic record and the late-breaking Benghazi story. Obama’s victory was far narrower than it was four years ago, thus defying the historical pattern of second-term presidencies and telling us a great deal about his diminishing appeal.
Badly demoralized by this result, Republicans almost immediately began sniping at one another, calling for the jettisoning of this and that element of the conservative portfolio, sighing about the presence of too many white male faces, and whining about how the Republic is “over.” This was both unseemly and unproductive, not to mention premature, particularly when there is reason to believe that the failure of the Romney campaign’s Project Orca and other aspects of an inadequate GOP ground game may have had more to do with his narrow defeat than did any of the other matters now under consideration.
In any event, Republicans should not be seeking to match the Democrats in pandering and identity politics. They should instead be articulating higher and better and more unifying principles. These include such conservative themes as growth, opportunity, sensible restraints on taxes and spending, a strong dollar, economic and religious freedom, military strength, patriotic sentiment, individual empowerment, individual responsibility, the dignity of work, and the need for drastic reform of our education system–the last being arguably the truest civil rights issue of our time, one on which Democrats are immensely vulnerable, and which is a key to the restoration of our fraying culture. There is no reason why skillful politicians cannot present these policies to the American public as both more caring and more conducive to human dignity than the alternatives.
Talk of a permanently changed electorate is also highly misleading, since the American electorate is a protean, ever-moving thing. The young people who turned out for Obama are going to grow up and join the real world; and ethnic minorities can and do alter their views and affiliations as they advance in American society and their interests and concerns change accordingly. The electorate is responsive to events in the economy and in foreign affairs, and in ways that no one can predict, and it notes the ways in which leaders or would-be leaders react to these events. Moreover, the electorate looks very different when our view of it is refracted through the federal system. Republicans retain formidable strengths not only in the House of Representatives but also in a plurality of state legislatures and a majority of governorships around the country. It will be telling to compare the deteriorating condition of deep blue California and Illinois with flourishing red states such as Texas. Our states can still be “laboratories of democracy,” and the governors can play a major role in the coming drama of ObamaCare’s implementation.
The Democratic Party has elected and reelected the first black president, an achievement greatly to its credit. But life goes on. By the midterm elections in 2014, that line of credit will have been largely exhausted. The onrush of events, and of crises held back by the 2012 election, will be fully upon us, and they will present us with a dramatically altered landscape, in which the unsustainability of our entitlement state and the folly of “leading from behind” will be even more apparent than they are now. Perhaps by the time 2016 rolls around, the Republicans can even consider doing something they arguably have not done since 1984: nominating a conservative for president. In any event, the whining and sniping need to stop, and first principles need to be reaffirmed instead. The maxim of the day should be Churchill’s adage: “Deserve victory!”
Buried under the avalanche of dismal election-night numbers are some encouraging indicators for conservatives.
Exit polls showed that 60 percent of all voters are currently married and chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by a margin of 58 to 42 percent. Fifty-nine percent of voters live in households earning more than $50,000 a year and went Republican by a margin of eight points. Among households with incomes above $100,000–28 percent of the electorate–Mitt Romney won 54 to 44 percent.
Religious involvement also correlated powerfully with support for the GOP. Fifty-five percent of Americans attend church or synagogue once a month or more, and such people preferred the Republican ticket to the Democratic by 56 to 43 percent. Among the 42 percent of voters who participated in religious services once a week or more, Romney won by 59 to 39 percent.
If Romney won by a landslide among the hefty majorities who are married, middle or upper class, and religiously affiliated, how did Obama manage to prevail? He won by piling up even bigger landslides among the 41 percent of voters who are unmarried, the 27 percent who earn less than $30,000 in family income per year, and the 12 percent who list their religious affiliation as “none.”
The good news for conservatives is that few of these Obama voters will remain single, economically insecure, or religiously disconnected for the rest of their lives. And if well-established patterns apply to today’s younger voters, they will shift right as they move through life, building careers and beginning families and connecting with organized faith.
Because of low birthrates and increased longevity, the population of eligible voters is aging. In the last election, voters older than 45 swamped voters younger than 30 by a margin of nearly three to one.
And because prosperous and religious couples are more likely to produce big families, a disproportionate number of future young people will have been raised as conservatives. Between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of Republican voters between the ages of 18 and 29 increased from 32 to 37 percent.
Conservatives should easily grab more of those voters as they get older. When people make more money, start families, and head back to church, they naturally and inevitably depend less on government for their sustenance and salvation. Conservatives count on their own earning power more than on federal programs, trust their own spouses rather than bureaucracy for comfort and support, and turn to the big G, God, rather than the little g, government, to answer their prayers.
These attitudes reliably encourage greater happiness. Major surveys suggest that conservative political attitudes correlate strongly with more cheerfulness, optimism, and personal satisfaction, even adjusting for other major variables.
This should provide conservatives with a crucial tool in facing our greatest challenge in upcoming election cycles. There’s little question that most Americans will drift to the right as they age, but how can we encourage them to move in this direction at an earlier age, and thereby persuade voters in the most instinctively liberal segment of the population?
The secret is that even among those who are currently unmarried, financially struggling, and religiously unaffiliated, very few want to stay that way permanently. In other words, the Democratic base deeply desires what conservatives for the most part already have: steady and growing income, marriage and family, and some connection to faith. In the 2012 exit polls, 78 percent of all voters identified themselves as either Protestant or Catholic (tilting to Romney by 14 points combined), while only 12 percent claimed membership in Obama’s core group of irreligious “nones.”
The most important argument to make is that conservative values offer a better way to live our lives, not just a more effective plan for organizing society. The ideals we proffer to the new generation will work personally, as well as politically. In making this case to the young, we start with a crucial advantage. They may not realize it yet, but most of them instinctively yearn to become conservative when they grow up.
MICHAEL B. MUKASEY
The occasion for this symposium is the outcome of the 2012 election, but conservatism is only a part of that story. Other parts were also determinative: technique–such as getting people who support conservative ideas to the polls and keeping track of that effort; personification–picking people who embody and present those ideas attractively; and rhetoric–articulating those ideas in a way that appeals to people whose lives are not consumed by politics, and that avoids such easily caricatured locutions as the “47 percent.” Were it not for the technical, personal, and rhetorical failures of the Romney campaign, we might not be talking about doctrine.
But we must talk about doctrine nonetheless. The existence of this country–at least as we know it and maybe at all–depends on convincing our fellow citizens that there is something in conservatism for each of them, as we understand that there is something in it for each of us, and that it is not simply a finer abstraction than its competitor. That discussion will have to be had under battle conditions, which may offer us some advantages. For example, pointing out the perils of the misnamed Affordable Care Act should not be hard when we see its implementation raise rates, ration care, and increase the ranks of IRS agents but not of physicians.
The conservative argument on other topics–such as the need to control entitlements lest they bankrupt the country and foment civil unrest–may benefit from the instructive spectacle of events abroad.
Other arguments may be harder. Failure to adhere to a constitution that is an actual text with a meaning, and not simply a set of overarching principles, will have malign results, but those may have to be fought over issue by issue. Rule through a proliferation of executive orders may render this danger easier to illustrate, although a shift in the balance of the Supreme Court could limit the benefits that might result from control of even both elective branches of government.
But the toughest problem, and I think the most urgent, may be summoning the resolve to defend our culture, and our country, here and abroad, against militant Islamism. This current “ism,” unlike the “isms” of the last century, lays no claim to modernity. It is, rather, a primitive seventh-century code that is anathema to the very idea that human beings should govern themselves.
What is especially tough is that this particular struggle takes place at a time when multiculturalism–aided and abetted by an administration that explicitly shuns the notion of American exceptionalism–saps what would otherwise be the will to recognize the importance of the norms and ideas that hold us together. Conservatives have the responsibility to speak out against the centrifugal urge to liberate Americans from their common culture and to undermine their sovereignty. At the same time, they must speak out in favor of maintaining and exercising the benign power that has allowed this country to remain what Lincoln called, appropriately in his day but even more appropriately in ours, the last best hope of earth.
Conservatives are suffering from the aftereffects of the successes they achieved in the 1980s and 1990s when they ended the Cold War and restored American strength abroad, revived the U.S. economy, ended a decade of inflation, rationalized the tax system to promote growth, reversed the urban crime wave, and reformed welfare as we knew it. They even forced a Democratic president to proclaim (prematurely) that the era of big government was over. At the same time, they took off the table the issues that called their movement into existence. The electoral victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama owed much to the success of conservatives’ cleaning up the mess left behind by their liberal predecessors.
Was the conservative movement the product of a particular era in American life? Was it bound to retreat once its main objectives were achieved? That is the wishful thinking of those who assert that “conservatism is dead” or that liberalism is poised to dominate American politics for decades to come. Conservatism has evolved from an intellectual movement into a popular force in American life that controls one of the major political parties and claims the loyalty of nearly 40 percent of American voters. It is not likely to disappear anytime soon; in fact, it may be poised for a comeback sooner than anyone expects.
To be sure, conservatives have to grapple with substantial liabilities. Conservatism is strong in numbers and ideas but (compared with liberalism) lacking in institutional strength. Conservatives no longer exercise much influence within the major professions or the leading cultural and educational institutions in the country; nor, judging by electoral returns, do they command much support in the nation’s major metropolitan centers. Many have remarked on the irony of conservatism acting as a populist or antiestablishment force in contemporary politics. History teaches that a country party can oppose and even win elections but cannot function as a governing force until it translates popular support into establishment influence. This remains a fundamental challenge for conservatives.
But if conservatives are not yet a governing party, they are well prepared to step into the breach when liberals run the system aground. This is where Thatcher and Reagan came in a generation ago, aided by neoconservatives who supplied the ideas to translate popular discontent into an effective governing force.
The day is fast approaching when conservatives will be called upon to play that role again. The postwar order is unraveling. America’s economic engine has stalled, but the baby boomers are retiring and the world still needs U.S. leadership. Little needs to be said about debt and deficits, except that debtor nations rarely function for very long as world leaders. At this point, any number of events–a recession or a war in the Middle East–could turn a crisis into a catastrophe. Conservatives prefer order and stability, but it may be their lot to be called into action under the very opposite conditions.
Like so many other conservatives, I had come to assume that the Tea Party, the 2010 election results, Solyndra, an unemployment rate of 8 percent, Benghazi, and an aroused opposition (one Romney adviser said that on Election Day, “you just don’t want to get in the way of a Republican heading into the polls”) assured defeat for Barack Obama’s bid for a second term. His victory was therefore particularly bitter. Was I alone in sleeping badly and avoiding the news for days?
So many analyses have been proffered for what went wrong: Romney was too conservative or not conservative enough, he ran on his biography, he shied away from winning issues, he could not connect with the masses. So many conclusions have also been drawn: Conservatives need to modernize (hello, gay partnerships), they must reach out to non-whites (welcome, illegal immigrants), they should nominate true conservatives.
I subscribe to the “politics is downstream from culture” argument. While conservatives sometimes prevail in policy debates, they consistently lose in the classroom, on the bestseller list, on television, at the movies, and in the world of arts. These liberal bastions, which provide the feeders for Democratic Party politics, did not develop spontaneously but result from decades of hard work that can be traced back to the ideas of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.
Conservatives should emulate this achievement. With Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, I look forward to the day when it will be as cool “to believe in the principles of free enterprise, the need for strong national security, the merits of traditional families, and the value of religious faith as it is to sneer at capitalism, demean the military, denigrate parents, and deride religion.”
Happily, American conservatives have a counter-establishment already in place: the Wall Street Journal and Fox News Channel may be best known, but the Bradley Foundation, Pepperdine University, the Liberty Film Festival, and Commentary matter no less. Yes, conservative institutions rarely enjoy the history, resources, and prestige of their liberal counterparts, but they do exist, they are growing, and they possess a convincing and optimistic message.
It will be a long, hard road to traverse, and there is no short cut, but conservatism can succeed.
In the late 1970s, the United States was beset by Soviet adventurism abroad and stagflation at home. Neoconservatives advocated policies to meet each of these challenges: a military buildup to reverse the impression of American weakness that the debacle in Vietnam had produced; across-the-board reductions in marginal income tax rates to restore economic incentives; monetary restraint to end high inflation and prevent people from being pushed into higher tax brackets without making any real income gains.
These policies succeeded under Ronald Reagan, and as a result the world of 2012 looked very different. The top income tax rate, 70 percent when Reagan took office, had dropped to 35. For most people, payroll taxes were now a heavier burden than the income tax. The price level, which had grown by 47 percent in the four years before the 1980 election, rose only 7 percent in the four years prior to November 2012. Bracket creep had been abolished by law. The Soviet Union had of course long since disappeared, and our most active adversaries overseas were now non-state actors.
In place of our vanquished problems, new ones had arisen. Health care had gotten more expensive, in part because it had advanced. In the early 1980s, it could be taken for granted that increased economic growth would yield higher take-home pay. In the 2000s, rising health premiums had broken that link. In the decades before 1980, the proportion of the population with a college degree had risen rapidly. In the decades afterward, tuitions had continued rising rapidly, but educational attainment began to stall.
Confronting this new world, Mitt Romney ran for president advocating?.?.?.?across-the-board reductions in marginal income tax rates, tighter money, and a military buildup. He fared worse than Reagan did because while political principles may be eternal, political programs are not–and the Reagan program no longer speaks to the needs or concerns of most Americans.
An updated conservatism would still seek to reform the tax code, but in a way that might lighten the burden of payroll taxes on middle-class parents. It would resist federal micromanagement of health insurance, but do so while advancing better proposals to make insurance affordable. It would promote alternatives–including online learning and new credentialing systems–to make it possible for those who cannot complete four years at a traditional college to succeed. And it would make its case to Americans of every hue, not only to suburban and rural white voters.
The great conservative themes of family stability, cultural cohesion, national strength, and economic self-reliance still move Americans. Organized conservatism has, however, done a decreasingly effective job of connecting those themes to the realities of American life. Before conservatism can have a future, it has to grapple with the present.
Conservatism is in deep trouble–all over the world–because Leftism has been the world’s most dynamic religion over the last hundred years.
Leftism is the prism through which students in elementary school, high school, and university learn about life; and through which most of the world reads, hears, and views the news.
Even large segments of Christianity and Judaism have been deeply influenced, sometimes taken over, by Leftism. Mainstream Protestant church leadership and many of its clergy are Christian conduits for left-wing politics. Catholic bishops are liberal, differing from the left only with regard to abortion, same-sex marriage, and procreation. Conservative and Reform Jewish seminaries produce rabbis whose outlook on the world is identical to that of the New York Times editorial page and left-wing professors. After 40 years of deep involvement in Jewish life, including writing two books and hundreds of articles on Jewish topics, I have sadly concluded that for most non-Orthodox Jews (and I am not Orthodox), Leftism has become their religion, while Judaism has become an ethnic and cultural identity.
What can conservatives do?
The first thing we need to do is acquaint ourselves with Leftism and with its antitheses: conservatism and Americanism.
Over the past hundred years, Americans have forgotten the (conservative and American) values that render America different.
It took me half my life to realize what the distinctive American value system is. No one taught it to me–not my parents, who were passionately in love with America; not my elementary school, high school, or college; and certainly not my Ivy League graduate school (Columbia), where my professors were nearly all leftists, and none were conservative.
I had my epiphany one night as I removed coins from my pocket. They were embossed with what I have come to call the American Trinity: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum. No other country in the world has enshrined these three values.
Preserving the American Trinity–these values that made this country, not any leftist European country, the greatest in the world–is what conservatism is about.
Liberty first and foremost means having as small a government as possible. In God We Trust means that we can only preserve that liberty, as well as our rights, if we are a God-based society. Every Founder–including Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson–knew that if Americans did not regard themselves as morally accountable to God, liberty would produce moral chaos. And that would lead to big government (in the West, as the state gets bigger, God gets smaller). And E Pluribus Unum rapidly came to mean one nation out of many ethnicities and nationalities. Because of that–the Melting Pot idea–in no other country are newcomers of every background so quickly regarded as fellow members of the nation.
Leftism replaces liberty with egalitarianism, a God-based society with a secular one, and an overriding American national identity with multiculturalism.
Only if the American people are taught that the greatness of America is solely due to the unique American Trinity of values–and also taught the mortal threat to these values that Leftism poses–will conservatism prevail. And if it doesn’t, neither will America as we have known it for 236 years.
PAUL A. RAHE
There is no use crying over spilt milk. The milk was likely to be sour in any case. The proud father of RomneyCare is not now and never has been a conservative–much less, as he termed himself, “a severe conservative.” He is by training, instinct, and experience a technocrat, a managerial progressive on the model of Herbert Hoover, a “New-Deal Republican” on the model of Thomas E. Dewey; and he was never serious about repealing ObamaCare. Had he been so, had he genuinely repented and become a conservative–a possibility I entertained when he chose Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee–Mitt Romney would not have run a purely personal campaign divorced from the campaigns of his fellow Republicans, and he would not have stressed his managerial competence and eschewed dramatic appeals to high principle. Instead, he would have harnessed the Republicans together on the basis of something like Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America; he would have nationalized all the local elections, as John Boehner did in 2010; and he and the others within his party would have run as resolute defenders of liberty and individual responsibility against the tyrannical implications of Barack Obama’s massive increase in the size and scope of the administrative entitlement state.
Barack Obama’s victory was a technical triumph–proof positive that when one’s rival runs as a technocrat and is inclined to sit on what looks like a lead and run out the clock–micro-targeting can be made to work. Apart from demonizing his opponent and positioning himself as a champion of the sexual revolution and of punitive taxation, the president had nothing to say. He proposed no agenda. He won no mandate. All that he achieved was to delay the reckoning and to render it far more damaging to his party. America’s withdrawal from the world has set the stage for ugly developments abroad. The recession that is on the horizon will only be deepened by the tax increases that will soon be imposed. And the implementation of ObamaCare will unleash a fury that will make the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 look tame. The immediate prospects for the country are grim, but the prospects for conservatism have never been better. Barack Obama is, step by step, unmasking liberalism and revealing its true character, and his admirers in Democratic strongholds such as California, Illinois, and New York are doing everything that they can to show us the future as they envisage it and to demonstrate that it does not work.
What conservatism still lacks is a standard-bearer. None of the prospective candidates who might have been able to shoulder the burden chose to run in 2012. Mitt Romney won the nomination solely because none of the available alternatives was plausible in the slightest. He was the last man standing because he was the only candidate who had not thoroughly blotted his copybook. The opportunity now looms. It is time for a younger, more principled generation to step forward and to indict the administrative entitlement state for what it is: the “soft despotism” described by Alexis de Tocqueville 172 years ago.
Conservatives are often bewitched by abstract libertarian dreams of self-sufficiency or by a vision of society as nothing more than a wealth-producing machine that needs to be kept well greased by low tax rates. We preach freedom and opportunity. A good message, certainly, but it will not attract widespread support if we cannot speak to the deep human need for solidarity.
We’re at the end of an era. More than 100 years ago, industrialization ripped up the old small town social contract in America and ushered in a new form of social solidarity that eventually stabilized around the suburban middle class in the postwar decades. Today globalization is eroding that basis for social unity. The middle class is declining. Some exit up and into the hyper-competitive and richly rewarding occupations prized in a postindustrial economy. Others slide down into the ranks of the perpetually underemployed, becoming more and more dependent on government subsidies to hold on to middle-class life.
At the same time, since the 1960s we’ve experienced a cultural revolution. It has undermined the broad middle-class consensus. Round-the-clock irony and cynicism make old-fashioned values like working hard, paying your debts, and keeping your word seem, well, old-fashioned and even foolish. Marriage, children, fidelity? Maybe, but maybe not. All told, it’s not just harder for high school-educated young men and women in Muscatine, Iowa, to make a good living; it’s also hard for them to see how to live well. Today, the middle of the middle has a difficult time answering a fundamental question, perhaps the fundamental question for any society: How are we to become responsible, respectable adults?
Conservatism needs to speak to this disorientation, which is the defining political and social challenge of our time.
That’s not going to happen if we make free markets into an ideology. In its essence, modern conservatism involves working within inherited forms of solidarity, which in our context have become intertwined with the modern welfare state. To make abstract pronouncements excoriating the “47 percent” reflects a counterrevolutionary mentality, one that rejects the historical experience of solidarity over the last century. Nothing could be further from a genuine conservatism.
Conservatism will also fail if we punt on morality and culture. Unless we reinforce and support clear norms for adulthood–marriage, family, work, community involvement, patriotic loyalty–then the disoriented middle of the middle, no matter how economically self-sufficient, will become increasingly dependent on bureaucratic and therapeutic support and guidance, which means more government. Over the long term–even the medium term–the party of limited government must be the party of moral clarity. Political leadership is about more than economic stewardship.
In his nominating speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, last summer, Bill Clinton gave a speech that contrasted a selfish Republican Party to Democrats committed to “a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a we’re-all-in-this-together society.” It’s tendentious but brilliant, because it is sadly plausible given the contemporary conservative inability to speak convincingly about solidarity. Conservatism cannot succeed–will not deserve to succeed–unless that changes.
“Should i win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community,” said President Obama in an interview with the Des Moines Register just before the election. “And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America.”
Since the election, the political right has been asking itself why Hispanics don’t vote Republican, but the better question is why they don’t anymore. And the answer provided by Obama is closer to the truth than many conservatives are willing to admit. Between 1996 and 2004, the GOP doubled its percentage of the Hispanic vote to around 44 percent, according to exit polls, culminating in the reelection of Bush, who carried battleground states with large Latino populations that Mitt Romney lost last month in his defeat.
This history suggests that Latinos are swing voters who are open to the GOP’s message, at least when that message isn’t focused on electrified border fences and “self-deportation.” The fact that Romney lost the Hispanic vote to Obama by 44 points doesn’t mean that Hispanics are natural Democrats. It means that Hispanics don’t appreciate being scapegoated for high unemployment, low wages, crime, rising health-care costs, the housing bubble, bad weather, and teenage acne.
The reality is that the GOP is receiving a smaller share of a growing bloc of voters, and winning national elections will become more difficult unless the party finds a way to reverse the trend. If conservatives want the Republican Party to remain viable, expanding its coalition to include significant percentages of Hispanic, Asian, and other immigrant groups ought to be a priority.
This is not an immigration issue, per se. The Hispanic population in the United States isn’t rising because of newcomers–border crossings peaked in 2000 and net migration from Mexico is currently zero–but rather because of birth rates among those already here. Hence, even if the right-wing populists on talk radio got their wish and the border were sealed, it wouldn’t save the GOP from having to deal with its image problem among an expanding Latino electorate.
Going forward, conservatives might try viewing Hispanics as an opportunity to expand the GOP brand rather than as an obstacle to Republicans winning office. Some 40 percent of Latinos in the United States are foreign-born, and an even higher percentage have been here for no more than a decade or so, which means that many have not formed strong, multigenerational ties to one political party or another.
Outreach doesn’t require the GOP to pander or to pocket its principles. Let’s remember that immigrants are self-selecting. Less than 3 percent of the world’s population decides to uproot and move away from family and friends. These are risk takers who do tend to be more motivated, more tenacious, more entrepreneurial. Immigrants to the United States, whatever their skill level, are catalysts for economic growth who exhibit the kinds of characteristics found among people who thrive in free-market societies. Their presence here keeps our workforce young and vibrant while Europe and Asia morph into retirement communities.
Illegal immigration to the United States does not reflect poor character. It results from the simple fact that the supply of visas made available to countries such as Mexico doesn’t come close to matching the demand. Conservatives who want to reduce illegal entries in a humane way that doesn’t hurt our economy or drive Latino voters into the arms of the Democratic Party might try advocating reforms that correct this imbalance.
In the aftermath of electoral defeat, conservatives frequently question their philosophy’s appeal. So it is after this year’s presidential election.
My view is that the future of American conservatism is bright. Its fundamental strengths remain. But refinements and adjustments are needed, as they always are in times of change.
To be clear: This election was not a referendum between two distinct philosophical approaches. President Barack Obama’s handlers believed that if the contest turned into a battle between competing visions for America’s future, his defeat was likely.
So the Chicago Wrecking Crew used their considerable resources to try to disqualify Mitt Romney by assailing his character, business record, and values. They largely, if not completely, succeeded. To many voters, Romney became, in the memorable phrase of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, “a plutocrat with a wife who was an admitted equestrian.”
2012 was a tactical victory for Obama; it was not a strategic defeat for conservatism. For only the sixth time in history, the number of voters dropped from the previous presidential election. And Obama became the first president to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than in his first race.
Still, conservatism faces challenges. There is some irony in the fact that a philosophy based on timeless values, experience, precedent, and practice must periodically update itself, applying its principles to the country’s new condition. Now is such a time.
One reason the political parties that represent conservatism and liberalism (and the latter’s further left cousins) seem so closely matched is that neither has gained a durable advantage in talking about what Americans face in their families and communities. How can people provide for their loved ones? Will they and their neighbors have good jobs? Will their children get a quality education? What kind of a country will their children inherit? Conservative politicians must offer a practical, commonsense, and compelling agenda that speaks to these concerns. Which is why the contributions of scholars, policy experts, think tanks, scribblers in little journals, columnists, writers in magazines and blogs, voices on TV and radio, and leaders of interest groups are more important than in recent decades.
Conservatives must also be alert to tone. Our movement prospers when it is led by individuals who are optimistic, upbeat, and forward-looking. Ronald Reagan drew people to him not because he was pessimistic, angry, whiny, or judgmental. There are vital lessons here both about language and emphasis.
Our values are right and apply to people across America. They can help people in every corner of the country to rise and prosper and lead lives of dignity and worth. We must convince people we mean it, through what we say and through the policies we propose.
Conservatism is also stronger when it recognizes it’s a movement characterized not by one rigid set of beliefs but by a collection of often similar but occasionally different schools of thought. Forbearance and tolerance are therefore necessary, especially in dealing with other conservatives.
Success in politics comes only if we shrug off the despondency that comes after defeat. Losses, like victories, aren’t permanent. Life–and the fight–goes on. Progressives didn’t throw in the towel after 2010. We shouldn’t now.
The Republican Party’s shortcomings should not reflect on the health of the conservative movement. Whereas the former is beset by technological and logistical problems in presidential election years, a shortage of messengers adept at reaching a diverse electorate, and a self-defeating position on immigration, the strength of the conservative movement is evidenced by diverse grassroots organizations, a Republican House wedded to a conservative reform agenda, an era of conservative governance in the large majority of states, and matured conservative media and think tanks. Moreover, core conservative beliefs now resonate in every branch and at every level of government, while smart conservatives, including Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, have emerged on the national stage, where they forcefully articulate conservative values.
If modern conservatism, in its essence, is the defense of freedom secured by limited government and the cultivation of a virtuous populace through intermediary institutions (family, church and synagogue, and civic organizations), then its currency is strong. Reform of the welfare state has become at least the stated goal of both parties. The mantra of low tax rates and fiscal sobriety has been echoed by bipartisan debt-reduction commissions. ObamaCare remains on the books, but conservatives have convinced most Americans that the government takeover of one-sixth of the economy is deeply misguided. Even liberal judges now strive in imitation of conservative jurists to find textual support for their pronouncements. Pro-life activists have made strides in both state legislation and public opinion. It is telling that the presidential election featured one side presenting a conservative agenda and the other failing to offer a liberal agenda that would pass muster with voters.
This is not to say that the conservative movement faces no challenges. The intellectual and moral wasteland that is our public school system threatens the essence of self-government and renders the language of conservatism unapproachable for millions of citizens. The expansion of the welfare state, however unenthusiastically obtained, may acclimate Americans to a European-style social democracy. It will take innovative policy leaders, education reformers, and creative politicians to translate conservatism into a message for the masses and to restrain the liberal entitlement machine.
Conservatives’ policy challenges are not insignificant. Conservatives must grapple with the widespread acceptance of gay marriage. Both as a practical matter and in keeping with constitutional devotion to federalism and respect for the habits and morals of our countrymen, conservatives will find it impossible to reverse a sea change in public opinion expressed through a series of state referenda. More generally, honesty dictates that “small” government is no longer attainable, but conservatives should strive for effective, limited government.
The right’s most daunting task is constructing a 21st-century freedom agenda. Conservatives must recognize Americans’ understandable war fatigue and the Arab Spring’s decidedly anti-democratic tint. This is not the Prague Spring of 1968. Faith in American exceptionalism must be contained within a politically and economically sustainable approach that aligns America with free peoples without committing the country to an endless cycle of prolonged combat. The skepticism and humility conservatives demand in domestic policy must apply to foreign policy as well.
Just as the conservative movement needs domestic reform that recognizes that Americans want limited but effective government, conservatives must revisit their stance on social and national-security policy so as to remain true to the essence of conservatism (the promotion of liberty) and to maintain the ability to govern.
First, it must be said that the Republican Party can have a bright future even if what we understand as movement conservatism does not. One of the central progressive goals is to change the goalposts of our debates over the role of government and voluntary cooperation in meeting public needs. In much of the Western world, center-right political parties champion single-payer health systems, nationalized business enterprises, and many other institutions American conservatives wouldn’t dream of defending.
But of course one can imagine Republicans a generation hence insisting that they would never dream of opposing ObamaCare, just as today’s GOP has declared, rightly or wrongly, Medicare and Social Security sacrosanct. Rick Scott, the governor of Florida and by all accounts a committed small-government conservative, has recently embraced ObamaCare, a reflection, one assumes, of the demographic realities of his electorate. A growing share of low-income Floridians do not have access to employer-sponsored insurance coverage, in part due to overregulation and the cartel-like arrangements that give medical providers enormous pricing power, and so ObamaCare’s dramatic and most likely unaffordable Medicaid expansion meets a social need.
Granted, this social need was arguably created, or at the very least greatly exacerbated, by earlier government interventions, but that is, from the perspective of low-income Floridians, immaterial. The president and his allies have promised to do something, and those who in contrast offer to do nothing are not apt to curry favor. We can thus safely conclude that Republicans of the future will embrace the politics of doing something. The real question is whether Republicans will take on this charge constructively and intelligently or if they will embrace a crude form of interest-group politics.
The deeper challenge facing conservatives, and not Republicans as such, is the ongoing breakdown of the American family. As of 2010, 41 percent of U.S. births were to unmarried mothers. Among native-born black and Latino Americans, the shares are 78 percent and 50 percent respectively. And among non-Hispanic whites, the share is 30 percent. The happy news is that at least some of these births are to mothers who are in a stable relationship with the father of their children. The unhappy news is that a large majority are not, and indeed many of the children born to married mothers will see their parents’ marriages dissolve before they reach adulthood. What had been a family-disruption problem plaguing impoverished urban neighborhoods now stretches deep into the suburbs and rural areas. Children raised in disrupted families can flourish, of course, thanks to the tireless efforts of devoted parents and grandparents and others. But millions of children suffer enormously from the lack of family stability and find it difficult to acquire the skills they need to flourish in school and in the workplace.
For a conservatism that celebrates voluntary cooperation and civil society, family breakdown is a profound challenge. Free societies depend on a citizenry that has the capacity–intellectually, morally, and economically–to take on the task of enriching the life we share in common. These capacities are formed not in schools, but rather in families. And the evaporation of stable families strikes at the foundation of our rich associational life. To those who have known only fragile families, and who don’t have the skills to make their way in the world, the state can look like a firm friend. To those who do have stable and prosperous families, the state can look like a bulwark against the spread of social disorder. Somehow conservatives need to find a way to speak in this new landscape–not by scolding or hectoring an America that won’t listen, but rather by crafting a language that is relevant and compelling to young people open to breaking the cycle. This will prove an enormously difficult task. But it might be the only one that matters.
In the wake of the 2012 election, liberalism driven by patronage more than policy is philosophically vitiated and politically vital. The reverse is true of conservatism, which thrives intellectually even as it is politically stunted. The task ahead for conservatives is to bring conservative principles to bear on practical situations
Whatever his many genuine virtues, Mitt Romney lacked the political skill to either win over enough working-class whites or pin President Obama to the Chicagoan’s faux populism. Romney referred at times to Obama’s crony capitalism, but he never pressed the issue. The upshot was that the president never had to account for the privileged tax position of his political allies at General Electric and Google and Goldman Sachs.
There were many forsaken opportunities, but there are also many new opportunities ahead. The spate of municipal bankruptcies in California and Pennsylvania and perilous fiscal conditions in Illinois and the once Golden State offer the opportunity to define conservatism in the light of the specific circumstances of liberal fiscal and governmental failure. Take liberal Illinois. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker won his recall election in part by repeatedly referring to the real-life consequences of liberal policies in its Great Lakes neighbor to the South. Illinois, where four of the past seven governors went to prison as felons, loses roughly 148 residents daily. It ranks 47th in job growth and 48th in economic performance. Faced with a meltdown of the public-sector pension systems, Illinois governor Pat Quinn pushed through a 67 percent increase in Illinois’s state income tax. What followed was a classic case of crony capitalism. It should have been central to this year’s election.
Confronted with threats to flee Illinois by Caterpillar, John Deere, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and unwilling to cut spending for fear of angering the powerful public-sector unions, Governor Quinn handed out a half-billion dollars in tax abatements to politically connected corporations. Why wasn’t this object lesson in conservative principles part of the presidential campaign?
Scranton, Pennsylvania, is famously the hardscrabble hometown of Vice President Joe Biden, who currently resides in Delaware’s Castle District. Scranton has already defaulted on some of its debt and teeters on the edge of a full-scale bankruptcy because of the demands of its public-sector workers. Scranton is an example of philosophy expressing itself in practical terms, and it would be nice if Biden were asked about public-sector unions and the plight of the town he’s attached himself to as a totem.
Liberal California, which now has a less competitive political culture than Mexico, is by far the most target-rich environment. Ongoing bankruptcy cases as in Stockton and new cases such as San Bernardino offer the opportunity to explain on a local level the consequences, which we will be debating nationally, of over-mighty interest groups imposing unsustainable costs on our political and economic system. California’s cities and the state as a whole offer a picture of the dangers ahead imposed by the power of public-sector unions, a topic little discussed in 2012.
What conservatism needs now are knowledgeable politicians who can speak to the specifics of state and local problems while placing them in a conservative conceptual context. When California and Illinois come forward with calls for a federal bailout, their appeals will have been preceded, we hope, by a very public debate about the liberal policies that produced the debacle. History will teach by example if articulate conservatives bring the individual cases to the fore.
The first thing conservatives must do is get rid of their name. I’m not being entirely facetious here. Being identified as the party or ideology of fogeyish white men is a prescription for rigor mortis, given current demographics. It’s time to aggressively embrace the modern.
By that I don’t mean trendy techno-drivel such as Project Orca. I’m talking about genuinely forward-thinking ideas that point to a creative, entrepreneurial future. Conservatives must outflank the liberal-progressive whatevers who are indeed the true ideological fuddy-duddies. That is the key to our salvation. Otherwise we will be left behind.
Don’t believe me? Not only have we lost Hispanics. The most depressing statistic from the last election was that the most educated, ambitious, forward-looking, and financially well-off group in our society–Asian Americans–voted Democratic by 3 to 1. Yes, all those brilliant kids from the Bronx High School of Science are now Democrats. Shame on us.
What is to be done, Comrade? First of all, take the social issues entirely off the table. They are not the province of government and cannot, in the real world, be legislated. And they, more than anything, provide a cudgel for bludgeoning conservatives and Republicans in perpetuity in the eyes of women and young people. (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is among the most influential statements of all time for a reason. The bedroom is not Caesar’s.)
I know what the social conservatives are thinking: Oh, Simon, he’s an ex-liberal who favors gay marriage, etc. True. But I have some good news for them. By removing their social goals from the political sphere as much as possible, they are more likely to achieve them in the society itself. It’s human nature.
Next, take the lead in instituting a rational immigration policy. I suspected that Mitt Romney (a man I genuinely admire) had already lost the general election when he ran to the right of Newt Gingrich on immigration during the primaries, and, unfortunately, I was right. Gingrich’s ideas on immigration are a good start. Go with them.
Meanwhile–and this is more difficult and even more important–move to take back the arts and entertainment. Conservatives whine incessantly about Hollywood. Stop whining and do it. Learn to make movies and TV shows that are as good as theirs. As a film professional, I know how difficult this is, but it can be done. Like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall, all it takes is practice, practice, practice.
The same goes for the other two pillars of our culture: education and the media. Home-schooling is not enough and will always be marginal because too many parents have to work for a living. Infiltrate the public school system and demand equal time for conservative ideas. If we don’t do this, the future is lost before it starts.
Finally, and I know this is self-serving, support new media as never before. We cannot compete with the New York Times or CBS without moral and, alas, financial support.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that $8,000 worth of drapes be placed over two imposing neoclassical statues–one of them a female figure with an exposed breast–that had graced the Justice Department’s great hall since the 1930s. The statues, known as the “Spirit of Justice,” were not to Ashcroft’s taste. They weren’t seen again until he left office.
Other contributors to this symposium will no doubt have smart things to say about how to make the politically winning case for conservative governance. Better candidates and messaging. Small-government basics. More talk about aspiration, less about tradition. A new approach to immigration based on free-market principles, not cultural prejudices.
And so on. For now, I’d be content simply to be less frequently embarrassed by the party to which I belong.
I know it’s a small thing in the scheme of the universe that Ashcroft should have been offended by a piece of statuary. It’s probably no big deal that Senator Marco Rubio professes agnosticism as to whether the Earth is thousands or billions of years old. Had Todd Akin of Missouri been elected to the Senate, his notions of reproductive biology would have had scant bearing on, say, his votes on defense. The fact that a considerable percentage of Republican voters believe Barack Obama’s college transcripts are the Da Vinci Code of his presidency is of slight consequence to the future of Western civilization. It makes little practical political difference that so many Republicans consider the theory of evolution to be a piece of quackery on par with, say, the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The mysterious inability or unwillingness of so many Republicans to use the adjectival form when speaking of the “Democrat Party” is not an issue on which the fate of the Republic hinges.
But it adds up. To a greater degree than some readers of this magazine may care to admit, the conservative movement has grown prudish, crotchety, God-obsessed, conspiratorial, retrograde, and insipid. Somebody needs to stand athwart and yell “stop.”
I write this as someone who thinks the Obama administration is wreaking long-term damage on the United States at home and abroad. So it’s all the more depressing that the conservative movement and its organs in politics and the media failed to pass what ought to have been an easy test: winning a winnable election. If the GOP could not defeat an incumbent president who had saddled himself with high unemployment and the most unpopular legislation in modern history, how do they expect to defeat Hillary Clinton should she run in 2016?
Ronald Reagan has now become the patron saint of the conservative movement, and rightly so. Reagan was neither a scold nor a prig. He was a pragmatic idealist who knew how to combine humor with moral purpose. His personal correspondence shows a mind capable of engaging an argument at its deepest levels and extracting philosophical meaning from everyday experience. He lived in his times and could change his mind without betraying his convictions.
Of how many leading Republicans can that be said today? The future of conservatism depends on many things, but surely one of them lies in somehow producing many more Reagans and far fewer Akins.
Not to be too pedantic, but for there to be a “future of conservatism in America” there first has to be a future in America. And that’s a more open question than my more optimistic comrades like to admit. The Brokest Nation in History has just told the rest of the world that it is incapable of serious course correction–and around the planet prudent friends and enemies will begin planning for a post-American order. So at some point reality will intervene–either in the form of total societal collapse or, one hopes, something marginally less convulsive. The first responsibility of conservatives between now and 2016 is to have an adult conversation with the citizenry–the one that Mitt Romney chose to eschew in favor of vague jobs promises punctuated by bold assertions that “I believe in America.” So what? What matters is whether reality still believes in America.
And, when reality strikes, will Americans turn to conservatism? The evidence from November is not reassuring. Romney dusted off the old surefire winner–“Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?”–and took it to read: “The economy’s dead. Vote Mitt.” A decisive chunk of lower-middle-class America agreed with him on the first part, and acted on its logic: “You’re right. So I’m voting for the party of endlessly extended unemployment insurance, universal food stamps, and increased Social Security disability enrollment.” If 1.7 percent growth is the new normal, this constituency will metastasize. As his post-mortem observations to donors confirmed, Romney’s leaked “47 percent” aside is indicative of the way he thinks, and not a small thing. Indeed, it’s a betrayal of core conservative morality: from “Teach a man to fish” to “There’s no point even bothering to try to teach 47 percent to fish.” I was born a subject of Her Canadian Majesty and, even in a parliamentary system, it would not be regarded as healthy for the Queen’s Prime Minister to think like this. In a republic in which the head of government is also head of state, it’s simply unbecoming. The next guy has to be running as president of all Americans, even the deadbeats.
That means an end to the consultant-driven, small-ball model of Republican strategy. The Democrats used their brutal Romney-gives-you-cancer/ Ryan-offs-your-granny advertising in Ohio as bad cop to the good cop of Obama’s cultural cool. The trouble for conservatives is we have no good cop. That’s to say, we have no positive presence in the broader cultural space where real people actually live. We have all the talk-radio shows and cable networks we need, and the rest of the country is happy to leave us walled up in those redoubts. But culture trumps politics, and not just in the movies and pop songs, grade schools and mainline churches, but increasingly in the boardrooms, too. Instead of giving your hard-earned dollars to help drag some finger-in-the-windy squish with an R after his name over the finish line every other November, conservatives need to start fighting on the turf that matters. We risk winding up like the Shakers–dependent on conversion while eschewing all effective means thereof.
And finally please don’t waste another four years obsessing over whether Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan Commie or whatever. He may be all those things, but the lesson of November 6 is that a majority of the American people agree with him. He’s not the exotic other, he’s all too typical. That’s the problem.
It’s a postelection commonplace that demographics imperil the Republican Party. Barack Obama won a narrow victory thanks to huge majorities among fast-growing segments of the electorate: Hispanics, Asian Americans, single women. It seems irrefutable that unless the GOP expands its appeal to minorities, within decades it will be unable ever to assemble a majority.
Before that happens, though, demographics are likely to doom liberalism as we have known it since the 1930s. The core of contemporary liberalism is the old-age entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, which have grown progressively more generous–and expensive–since their establishment in 1935 and 1965, respectively. That trend was sustainable only as long as the payroll-tax base kept expanding, which it did thanks to the postwar population boom and the mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1970s and 80s.
“The Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics,” Paul Krugman observed in an article on Social Security in 1996. With the baby boomers beginning to retire, that day draws near. Since the 1960s, fertility has declined while illegitimate births have multiplied. Female labor-force participation can’t go much higher, and male participation has actually gone down as increasing numbers of working-age men go on disability. At some point soon, there won’t be enough workers to pay promised benefits unless payroll taxes rise to confiscatory levels.
Obama’s political success demonstrates that the public is not yet ready to confront the crisis. But when the crisis confronts the public, conservatives will have the advantage of having thought about the problem and put forward possible solutions. George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2005 proposal for Social Security reform made him look foolhardy. By 2015 or 2025, he may look prescient.
Because the roots of the problem are social as well as financial, social conservatism, currently in such disfavor, may make a comeback as well. During the 2012 campaign, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney for wanting to return to “the social policies of the 1950s.” But it was the subsequent decades’ decline in marriage and fertility that made the welfare state unsustainable in the long run. The challenge for conservatives in the decades ahead will be to advance family-friendly policies without being unpleasantly moralistic or sectarian about it.
It’s not impossible that the left will do so first. In his 2004 book, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, Phillip Longman offers a clear-eyed view of the problem and some intriguing left-liberal policy proposals.
But Obama’s approach has been notably hidebound. Rather than work to forestall an entirely predictable crisis, he hastened it by pushing Congress to enact a massive new health-care entitlement. Then he made the provision of free birth control a signature ObamaCare initiative, as if America were suffering from excessive fertility. Obama-era liberalism reflects a view of “progress” that is at least a half-century out of date. That’s why the coming crisis of the welfare state will be an opportunity for conservatism.
JOHN B. TAYLOR
If conservatism in America holds to and actively promotes the principles of economic freedom upon which the country was founded, then it will have a bright future, and so will America. At its most basic level, economic freedom means that people are free to decide what to
produce, what to consume, what to buy and sell, and how to help others within the context of predictable government policy based on the rule of law, with strong incentives derived from the market system and with a clearly limited role for government.
Adherence to these principles is what made America a great and prosperous country. But when it has deviated from these principles–as in the 1930s, the 1970s, and now–economic performance deteriorated for all Americans and especially for the disadvantaged. When America moved back toward these principles as in the 1980s and 1990s, the economy improved as unemployment came down and economic growth rose.
While this historical experience tells us that America will prosper again if it returns to these principles, the obstacles are now greater than ever due to powerful countervailing forces both external and internal to the conservative movement.
Externally, those left of center are making the case that all America has to do is increase taxes on the rich or increase regulations on entrepreneurs or step up fiscal and monetary interventions and the economy will do better. An appeal to class warfare and even revenge may persuade some, and many young people and minorities appear to be buying into the arguments that incentives and the rule of law do not matter or that well-intentioned government activism can always do better than the market. But that is not what history or economics or even politics tells us.
Internally, many conservatives are forgetting or not trying hard enough to demonstrate the benefits of economic freedom, not only for the middle class but especially for the poor and disadvantaged. Highly taxed or excessively regulated firms scared off by unpredictable government controls on their prices and products are not going to expand or create jobs, and thus unemployment will remain high. Children in poor neighborhoods prevented by the government from going to good schools and learning needed skills will be trapped in high unemployment or low wages, and income inequality will persist across generations. And pro-growth policies will provide more resources for needed infrastructure and other public goods.
Ironically, reformers in China and other emerging markets were not afraid to tell the story of economic freedom as they moved away from central planning and their economies grew rapidly, bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. While China has a long way to go, it is not an exaggeration to say that as China has been bringing people out of poverty, America has been putting more people into poverty. The reason is that America is moving away from these principles as China continues to move toward them.
To make this case for economic freedom, conservatives in the past have used terms like “compassionate conservatism,” but adherence to the principles of economic freedom is compassionate by definition because it is the surest way to improve the lot of all Americans.
Conservatism no doubt took a big hit on November 6, but the eulogies for the movement are premature. Liberals were in worse despair after the 1988 election–liberalism’s third-straight defeat–when talk of the Electoral College lock and the southwestern demographic “tilt” led analysts to conclude that they would not be able to recapture the presidency. As Bill Schneider wrote in 1988: “The Democrats are the victims of demographic change and ideological change. The movement of population to the Sun Belt has shifted the balance in the Electoral College decisively.” The Democrats have won four out of six presidential elections since 1988, and the popular vote in five out of those six elections.
Conservatives can take some solace in noting the folly of projections based on straight-line extrapolations, but the fact remains that conservatives must act if they want to turn things around. The Democrats did not just wait for the Electoral College lock to break on its own. They went out and shattered the lock, picking some more effective candidates, changing their rhetoric, if not their policies, and taking advantage of those demographic trends that were in their favor.
The GOP needs to go out and do these same things. The GOP’s problem in 2012 was not that it was too moderate or too conservative, but that it did not lay out a cogent vision of conservatism. The Republicans ran a “safe” campaign and tried to avoid ideological matters. As it turned out, this was not a “safe” approach at all, and was somewhat analogous to the New York Giants’ ineffectual “prevent offense” of the 1970s.
A better approach would be to have the presidential standard-bearer embody conservatism. This was Ronald Reagan’s gift. Reagan made clear that his views were those of conservatism, and he did not allow other voices on the left, the right, or in the mainstream media to define conservatism for him. This is not unique to Reagan. George W. Bush came up with the concept of “compassionate conservatism” in his 2000 election, making that vision of conservatism his, and implicitly defining other perspectives as contrary to it.
The next GOP candidate should learn from Reagan and make his or hers the voice of an articulate and coherent conservative ideology. The conservatism the candidate expresses also needs to be Reaganesque in nature: inclusive, confident, optimistic, and forward-looking. This conservatism can overcome its demographic challenges by offering a vision popular enough to transcend the Democrats’ identity politics, in much the same way that Reagan won over Northeastern Catholics and Bush secured over 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.
The unacceptable alternative is to countenance a communications vacuum that allows political gaffes from a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock–or the political accusations of a Joe Biden or Chris Matthews–to define and caricature conservatism. If conservatives are successful in this endeavor, the lesson for the future will be that Republican candidates lose when the only conservative voices heard are the ones not their own.
The future of conservatism in America is bright, since it offers the best insights into human nature, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and how to achieve a more just social order.
Those who travel under the banner of conservatism need to do some repair work and embrace a genuine conservative disposition. What that means is appreciating the complexity of human society and the importance of human experience in shaping our approach to contemporary challenges, and recognizing that politics involves prudential and imperfect judgments. Which is to say that conservatism is hurt when its adherents treat it as an adamantine ideology, which is quite different from grounding it in enduring principles.
An example: During a 2012 GOP primary debate, Fox News’s Bret Baier posed a question to the eight candidates on the stage. “Say you had a deal, a real spending-cuts deal, 10-to-1 spending cuts to tax increases.?.?.?.?Who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?”
Each of the eight candidates raised his or her hand.
This was, to me, a danger sign. I say that not because I favor higher taxes (I don’t). But we had reached a point where none of those running for president on a conservative platform could admit to any scenario in which he, or she, would raise taxes, even if as a result doing so might roll back the modern welfare state.
“No new taxes” is fine as a goal. It is certainly a reasonable starting point in negotiations. It may even be the right end point. But to elevate it to an inviolate principle–and to insist that politicians take pledges opposing tax increases under any and all circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Taxation is always a balancing process, one that needs to be seen in the context of specific economic conditions and other possible gains. For example, no responsible conservative would forgo reforming Medicare (which is the main driver of our fiscal crisis) by injecting competition and choice into the system in exchange for slightly higher taxes on the top income earners in America.
Every political movement, including conservatism, faces the danger of elevating certain policies into catechisms and failing to take into account new circumstances. When that occurs, we lose the capacity to correct ourselves. Conservatism, at least as I understand it, ought to be characterized by openness to evidence and a search for truth, not attachment to a rigid orthodoxy. “If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction,” Ronald Reagan said in 1977, “it is American conservatism.”
What I’m talking about, then, is a conservative temperament, which affects everything from tone to intellectual inquiry to compromise. It champions principles in reasonably flexible ways that include a straightforward evaluation of facts.
To put things in a slightly different way: Conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with the true spirit of conservatism, which is reform-minded, empirical, anti-utopian, and somewhat modest in its expectations. It doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It doesn’t treat political opponents as enemies. And it isn’t in a state of constant agitation. Winsomeness goes a long way in politics.
Since 1965, arguably the most important conservative politician after Ronald Reagan is Newt Gingrich. He achieved some remarkable, impressive things. But he practiced a style of politics that was quite different from Reagan’s. It was characterized by apocalyptic and incendiary rhetoric, anger, impatience, and revolutionary zeal. While his positions on issues were often conservative, Gingrich’s temperament and approach were not. Yet it is the Gingrich, not the Reagan, style that characterizes much of conservatism today. It would be better for conservatism, and better for America, to recapture some of the grace, generosity of spirit, and principled politics of America’s 40th president.
In order to clarify the path forward in the difficult years ahead, conservatives should first look back. And the text to which we should revert is the Preamble to the Constitution.
There, the “People of the United States” committed themselves to forming “a more perfect Union,” which would not only manage the country’s affairs but also “establish Justice” while promoting “the general Welfare” and securing the “Blessings of Liberty” for the future. The Constitution, in short, is replete with moral commitments, commitments that can only be fulfilled by a virtuous people. Those who would strip American conservatism of the “social issues” should reflect upon the fact, which the Founders and framers understood well, that decadence and democracy cannot coexist indefinitely; neither can decadence and the free economy.
Democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves. Liberals and libertarians alike seem to imagine that it can be so, that if one only gets the machinery of governance and exchange properly designed, balanced, and tuned, the machinery of self-governance and exchange will purr along, undisturbed. But that cannot be the case, according to the Preamble.
People cannot work toward a more perfect polity unless they have some notion of what the good polity is and what personal and communal sacrifices are required to make the good political community work. Justice cannot be established if justice is reduced to an anorexic notion of “fairness” that appeals to three-year-olds and ought to appall adults. The “general Welfare” is always going to suffer when personal aggrandizement, financial or sexual, trumps every discussion of public policy. And securing the “Blessings of Liberty” within a law-governed constitutional democracy will be virtually impossible if liberty is confused with license and the source of all “blessing” is understood to be the imperial autonomous Self.
Conservatives will not far advance our goals in strengthening political and economic liberty without concurrently promoting and defending the virtues necessary to make freedom work so that the net result of free institutions is genuine human flourishing. In the years immediately ahead, freedom will be under intense assault from both the statism inherent in modern politics and from the allure of decadence–a lethal combination that, throughout the Western world, is leading us toward a soft dictatorship of relativism that is no less dangerous for its lack of Gulag camps. Thus defending and advancing conservative goals for promoting liberty will require conservatives to pay far more attention to strengthening civil society, to repairing the damage that 40 years of the sexual revolution have done to marriage and the family, and to building firmer foundations for an American culture of life capable of resisting the utilitarian debasement of the human person.
That America will need a new birth of freedom after the Obama years few conservatives will deny. The new birth of freedom that can give new energy to American democracy and American economic life is freedom tethered to truth and ordered to goodness, a freedom that seeks the common good through the responsible use of individual liberty. It takes a certain kind of people to do that. Those kind of people just don’t happen. Raising them up is a prime imperative for any conservative who cares about the future of American constitutionalism.
Conservatives have long since taught themselves to handle with tongs any political advice from non-Republican libertarians like me. But amidst the depressing-to-some meteor shower of post-Romney headlines about how the GOP needs to “go more libertarian,” I come from Planet Freedom bearing unseasonably happy tidings: You don’t need to become a heroin-legalizing, amnesty-embracing, blame-America-firster in order to reassert conservatism’s electoral and philosophical relevance during President Barack Obama’s second term. No, the only two transformations required are re-learning a grand tradition’s
intellectual commitment to reducing the size and scope of government and recalibrating electoral tactics and even the basic selling proposition around the notion of playing defense, not offense.
There will be many people, perhaps in these pages, making the case that Democrats humped a failed incumbent over the finish line in large part by successfully scaring their base that Republicans are a rump party of atavistic Southerners hell-bent on restricting the rights and privileges of anyone who is not a white American man. This is technically true (the “successfully scaring” part, anyway), and there were just enough GOP outbursts about “legitimate rape” and “self-deportation” to sustain this hidden-ball trick of a narrative through one more election cycle.
But when given the opportunity to choose politicians who actually name and confront the main danger facing us–a government piling up commitments and expenses and debt just before the baby boomers retire and send the entitlements system crashing down–the Keynesianism-hating American electorate these past three years has mostly ignored sideshow utterances and rewarded those brave enough to take on Leviathan. Mike Lee, Scott Walker, Rand Paul: These class-of-2010 politicians might not agree with me (yet!) about deregulating reproductive decisions, narcotics intake, and the U.S.-Mexico border, but on the issue of the day they have shown up for work and given Obamanomics-weary voters a clear alternative to the never-ending bailout.
And yes, taking fiscal policy seriously also requires unblurring the distinctions between military and defense spending and coming up with a more affordable, realistic, and strategic projection of American power abroad. There is no such thing as an orderly retreat during a debt crisis.
Just as we need to steel ourselves against the real possibility of a debt spiral and the dead certainty of an entitlements time bomb, so too can the social- conservative agenda (which I do not endorse) lose its off-putting taint by switching to a defensive posture. Gay marriage will be legal in most of the country during our lifetimes; conservatives should have long since gotten out from under the eventually disastrous strategy of trying to offensively outlaw same-sex inclusion, and instead switched to the righteous defensive posture of making sure such recognition does not create intrusive new government mandates on religious institutions and even (Google it!) wedding photographers. Instead of proposing new constitutional amendments for every activity they disapprove of, conservatives should have recognized that the Bill of Rights is essentially a defense from, not an enabler of, an already rampaging federal government.
More Americans than ever think that government is trying to do too much. All conservatives need to do now is provide those people with a believable place to go.
Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.
RUTH R. WISSE
When asked how it feels to be a rare conservative on a flagrantly liberal campus, I declare nothing’s easier than practicing freedom from behind the protective shield of tenure. A reputation for political nonconformity gets me access to the most genuinely independent undergraduates in the school. Almost never in my 20 years at Harvard has any colleague ever taken issue with my political writing: They apparently don’t read alternative publications, and like the president–who attended our law school–they prefer not to engage the other side of the aisle.
This pleasant life may explain why, like many old-school liberals now known as conservatives, I cheerfully forfeited the university in order, as I thought, to win the polity. I was delighted to see the boldest of our students gravitate toward opinion journalism, think tanks, the Federalist Society, and politics outright. For conservative-tending students who were headed to graduate school in the humanities or social sciences, I crafted letters of recommendation downplaying their bent lest they meet the fate of Jewish applicants in the 1930s.
All along, I expected “the people” to resist the academy; but all along, the academy has been reconfiguring the polity. Where others attribute electoral shifts to demographic changes (as though we expect people to vote their skin color), I see a political landscape influenced by university policies of racial profiling. Affirmative action–aka group preferences or quotas–has displaced the civil-rights commitment to equal treatment irrespective of color, gender, or creed. Faculty members admitted and advanced through policies of grievance and victimhood promote ideologies of grievance and victimhood, and they sponsor or become candidates for public office who win on that platform. The authorized liberal gatekeeping that was once introduced as a measure of redress for past injustice has all but eliminated conservative faculty and with them the conservative foundations of traditional liberal-arts education. Half the polity is no longer represented in the university, and students from that half are subjected to America’s version of political reeducation.
Key to this change is the word diversity, which has been hijacked (much as democratic was by the German Democratic Republic) to mean “politically conformist.” An academic questionnaire now circulating to determine levels of faculty satisfaction includes under “demographics” the categories of gender, with subheadings for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer”; Hispanic or Latino; American Indian or Alaska Native; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific. (Categories have grown more refined with the appointment of each new “diversity” dean.) Designed to identify areas of stress, the questionnaire cannot fathom that some faculty may be stressed out by the substitution of this vulgar categorizing for the intellectual and ideational world we thought we had entered.
I take this presidential election as a call for university reform as well as tax reform. For a start, I suggest citizens challenge the use of “diversity” for racial and gender profiling and argue for reinvestment in teaching the foundational texts of Western thought. To conserve our liberal democracy, conservatives and other concerned citizens will have to work harder.
What Is the Future of Conservatism in the Wake of the 2012 Election?—A Symposium
Must-Reads from Magazine
t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.