A few weeks after the Presidential elections, anger and dismay among conservatives appear to have given way to malaise. In some places (such as at The Imaginative Conservative) public and intellectual life go on much as before—in part because few of us, here, were terribly surprised by the election returns, in part because we simply do not expect much good to come of mass politics. But it would be wrong, I think, to claim that traditional conservatives are immune to feelings of trepidation and loss, faced with at least four more years of President Obama and his policies.
The question many have asked is, then, “what now?” What should conservatives be looking for, to do, to face the times ahead and perhaps help bring about better times? This is an understandable, even virtuous question. But what form should a conservative response take to this question and these times?
It is tempting to ask for a program of action. Politics, it seems, is all about having a program. If you want to win an election, you have to stand for something, and if you want to accomplish anything in politics, you need to formulate a solid game plan regarding what to enact, when, and how. This has been the view of the American right no less than the left in recent decades. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America helped produce a wave of Republican victories in Congress. Ronald Reagan’s vision of Morning in America was essential to putting the malaise of the Carter years behind us. And among the many failings of the Romney campaign was its refusal to articulate a coherent program to address America’s many economic, political, and social ills.
And yet conservatives traditionally have been leery of “programs” or plans of action. Though Russell Kirk himself wrote a book called A Program for Conservatives, he never ceased to reject the notion that conservatism is a programmatic ideology. We conservatives know that the desire to institute any specific, “best” regime constitutes hubris, and that such overweening pride can only bring disaster.
What is more, there is little doubt as to what policies America needs to revive her culture and former, virtuous way of life. A tax system that minimizes disincentives to work and favors the single-income family with children; restraints on federal power both at home and abroad; restoration of our long-held understanding that our nation and its institutions of ordered liberty are rooted in a specific, religious tradition that can only survive if allowed to breathe life into our various public squares. The list is quite extensive and well-known.
The list also has been rejected, deflected, or undermined time and again at the polls and by public officials supposedly answerable to the people or their representatives. Indeed, conservative principles increasingly are attacked and marginalized in public life and politics with relative impunity. Thus, we have been bombarded with utilitarian arguments about the need for a “truce” on social issues—meaning, of course, that traditional conservatives must hold their tongues and allow people on the left, and the government they largely control, to continue attacking family and faith unopposed. Some in what passes for “our” establishment tell us that they can forge a grand alliance with people who do not particularly care about traditional institutions and so “take back” the government. The sales pitch we hear, even after the Romney debacle, is that a more “moderate” program will bring in people with little or no idea of what they want besides more money in their pockets—that “independents” suddenly will show respect for a way of life they have rejected for years, so long as we show that we can put more money in their pockets. We have too had much of such tactics over the last several decades, and they have brought us the boondoggle of the Bush Administration and the repeated loss of Presidential elections. They will do no better now or in the future.
So, is it time to give up on programs of action? Time to simply retire from public life and tend our own gardens? Not exactly. We should keep in mind that the idea of withdrawing to tend one’s garden is taken from Voltaire, one of the most cynical, destructive radicals of the French Enlightenment, whose ideal was of the isolated rationalist unsullied by common, daily life. And that fundamentally antisocial vision breeds self-indulgence, leaving public life to Jacobins and other utopian radicals happy to tear down whatever bits of civilization they can lay their hands on.
And this shows, I think, both the necessity and the proper type of a program for traditional conservatives today. As I have written before, this is no time for sadness. All we lost on November 6 was the delusion that “moderate” liberalism might stop the movement toward secular social democracy that has been gaining momentum, with only occasional breaks, since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The assault on our culture will be more sustained and overt in the short-term than it would have been under a Romney Presidency, but the long-term trend has not changed. And there is a bright spot in the elections, in that it is now crystal clear that we will not restore our culture at the ballot box.
At the same time, however, great events, such as the end of a great war or the beginning of a new political regime, require reflection, particularly among conservatives. We are entering a new era now, as we have been for some decades with increasing speed and surety. It is time, then, to reconsider where we are and where we, as conservatives, are to go.
The new era is one of social democracy. With the second victory of Mr. Obama, the forlorn hopes of restoring the old republic are well and truly dead. However much we (and by that I mean “I”) might wish we could simply blame the Republican establishment for choosing such an abysmal presidential candidate, pseudo-Republicans like Chris Christie for choosing their own political well-being over that of the nation, the so-called mainstream media for its rank toadying to its friends in this Democratic Administration, or the Democratic political machine for its dirty tricks, the fact remains that a majority of American voters chose to keep President Obama in office, either actively or by passively not voting. After four years of all out assault on traditional American values and institutions, not to mention economic blundering and a feckless foreign policy, America has said “four more years.”
Thus, despite the inclination to (and fun involved in) spending all our time pointing out the inconsistencies, injustices, and abnormity of our ruling classes and ideologies, it is good for conservatives to consider, not just what has been lost, but also what we can do to preserve a decent way of life in indecent times.
There is still room for political argument, but of a limited and largely negative sort. We must strive to carve out as many exceptions (and as wide) as possible to destructive programs like Obamacare, with its abortion and contraceptive mandates. Political reasoning also must be analyzed and criticized. But we should not lose sight of the magnitude of the problem, here, or of its cultural roots.
For example, an ever-expanding social welfare state is now essentially a certainty, until bankruptcy intervenes. Why? Because most Americans have accepted its underlying logic. That logic is best captured by the question “shall we allow people to starve?” Of course no decent person would “allow” people to starve to death, or die from a curable disease, or, frankly, one may fill in the blank with any other preventable tragedy. The question itself, however, assumes a binary choice: we either institute endless federal programs, or we allow people to die or suffer other preventable tragedies. That is, the question assumes that the federal government, and only the federal government, can protect us, or the most vulnerable among us, from misery. Yet tragedy continues, even with massive federal programs. It is sad but true that even today we hear now and again of someone having starved to death. Generally the culprits are abusive parents. Does this mean the federal government should eliminate the family so as to prevent such tragedies? I submit that would be unwise. Moreover, public employees themselves have been known to commit bad acts also.
No system made or administered by human beings can achieve 100% success. No human system can eliminate the need for human virtue. And it is too easy for virtue to atrophy when we assume it is the government’s job, rather than our own, to prevent misery.
So long as people think of the state as the guarantor of our well-being, with the right and duty to protect us from life’s ills, the families, churches, neighbors, and social organizations in which decent lives are lived and tragedy mitigated in a humane manner, will continue to atrophy unto death.
Even here the political program is clear: government and the federal government in particular, must cede power, must decentralize and give up its commanding role at the same time it frees more local associations to form and carry out the tasks that naturally belong to them. Features of our tax code, corporate law, public policy, and misinterpreted constitutional law all actively prevent the flourishing of families, churches, and local associations. But so long as people think of the state as our guardian, they will not enact policies that empower the associations in which we can lead decent lives.
This should tell us that the real work ahead of us is cultural in nature. Such a statement should come as no surprise to traditional conservatives, but it bears repeating when one is considering the question, “what now?” A program for traditional conservatives is needed, but must be aimed at cultural and spiritual rejuvenation, which may, in time, bring about a return to political sanity. The good thing about a situation such as ours, in which we have been routed for decades in every sphere, is that there is no end of choices of where to begin working for improvement. I hope in future posts to address some major areas of concern in at least some detail. For now I would merely point out that a program for traditional conservatives will, if it is to be useful, focus on what we can do in the places where we live, work, and worship, to create an atmosphere for cultural renewal.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.