THE VOICE OF REASON
Himmelfarb

THE NOT-SO-GOOD FUTURE FOR CONSERVATIVES

After their shocking defeat in November, Republicans continue to shake their heads in disbelief and to wonder which way is forward.  A host of ideas have been advanced to resurrect the party so that it can lift itself to victory in 2014 and thereafter. Some pundits urge that it should soften its stance on illegal immigration in order to court the burgeoning Hispanic vote. Others believe that it should make accommodating overtures to citizens on entitlements, such as food stamps, and thereby demonstrate sympathy for the welfare state. Still others contend that it should openly embrace positive positions on cutting-edge issues like gay marriage.  These initiatives represent, according to conventional wisdom, the wave of the future, and Republicans should stand with history rather than against it.

All such proposals imply a common underlying premise, and it is that the party must move leftward to be competitive.  If the goal is to win elections, then Republicans appear to have no choice but to reach out to alienated voters.  Once this premise is accepted, then the conclusion follows, summarized in the promise of amnesty to aliens, an unprecedented expansion of the nanny state, and an acquiescent attitude toward “alternative lifestyles.” Yet the party’s incorporation of these ideas into its blueprint for the future will be a flaunting of cowardice and will doubtless entail a disorienting loss of identity.  There are already more than a few thoughtful critics who believe, and not without good reason, that America’s two-party system is fundamentally a farcical tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, because each does the bidding of transnational corporate powers on vital policy issues. If Republicans move to the left as some pundits recommend, all pretense will be gone and one party will simply collapse into the other.  This prospect may seem inconsequential, but it is not hopeful for American politics and is hardly a harbinger of freedom.

There are also tough-minded commentators who are encouraging Republicans to clarify their conservative message.  In a piece which recently appeared in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol’s mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, pictured below, writes of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  I for one have enjoyed reading her books, notably The Demoralization of Society and Looking into the Abyss.  She is a brilliant historian of Victorian England, who looks to that period of history for intimations of the course American conservatives should follow today.  Echoing Tocqueville, she interprets compassion as a conservative virtue, which was never in Victorian England a character trait that promoted the entitlement state or that favored unconditional monetary allowances to citizens without a return of better conduct from them, such as the attempt to work. Compassion instead dignified the individual, both the donor and the recipient, in a free and vibrant economy where a person could improve himself.  So Ms. Himmelfarb urges that compassion, when properly understood, nurtures a spirit of independence rather than dependence, and – what is perhaps most significant – finds expression in civil society rather than in government.

I am in agreement with her analysis. Compassion, as we know it today, is no longer anchored in morality but in bureaucratic red tape.  Its current modalities foster an attitude of social dependence among citizens and have a debilitating, even disastrous, political effect.  Malaise sets in to politics like gangrene, and democratic participation suffers incremental amputation. Barack Obama’s re-election is not only the product of this development but also reinforces it.

Yet there are tacit assumptions in Ms. Himmelfarb’s treatment of compassion, as robust as it is, that still raise a question or two. She apparently believes that Republicans should seek to re-define the term for the American electorate and that, when it is properly understood, Americans will undergo a change of heart and support conservatism. But one moment please! What was it about Mitt Romney’s message that was so difficult to understand?  He stated in the bluntest terms that what the unemployed need is jobs, i.e., a “hand up” rather than a “hand down.”  He spoke of the need for a solid economy and how it is threatened by current spending policies.  He emphasized the necessity of relief from a monstrous, all-consuming national debt.  Both he and Mr. Ryan explained their vision remarkably well, considering the jaundiced media coverage they received and the generally impoverished level of debate and public discourse in this country.  I am at a loss how these candidates could have advanced their view of compassion in a more two-fisted manner than they did.

The fundamental reason for the downturn in Republican fortunes is not, I think, in the message or the articulation of it. The problem is with the citizens themselves. They realize what the Republicans are offering, and jobs are not what most people want. A seismic shift has occurred in this country, and the consequences have become increasingly manifest during the last 30 years. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” and Johnson’s “Great Society” chart the odyssey of this shift. The Reagan administration, so highly touted by conservatives, represents only a hiatus or an anomaly in the midst of a much larger historical movement.  And Barack Obama’s policies may well be reform liberalism’s crowning achievement.  In what Michael Oakeshott calls “the politics of faith,” the government has increasingly intruded into all aspects of our lives, fostering dependence and subservience it its wake.  The Obama administration amounts to "reform liberalism on steroids," illustrating a difference of degree that translates into one of kind. It has the potential, in my opinion, of becoming the despotic state toward which Tocqueville suspected American democracy was headed.

It is not as if giant ideological shifts are unknown to American political life.  The presidential election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, also signaled a momentous shift in the philosophy of government.  The election officially ended what, in American politics, Adams called “the monarchical principle,” by force of which the office of the presidency transcended party politics.  Jefferson was convinced that the turn from a federalist philosophy to a republican one had nothing to do with his or Adams’ respective personalities, but with the competing principles for which they stood.  In fact, he told Adams, “Were we both to die today [or] tomorrow two other names would be in the place of ours, without any change in the motion of the machinery.  Its motion is from its principle, not from you or myself.”  His point, I take it, was that political forces trump personalities.

In the election and re-election of Barack Obama, we again witness, at least on one level, the Zeitgeist of an era, or the stirring of political forces far more powerful than individual personalities. America, no thanks to its drastically changing demographics, now subscribes more fully than ever to the welfare state. The logic of downsized government and of “compassionate conservatism,” concerning which Ms. Himmelfarb expounds, is virtually untranslatable in the political software of the new immigrant. 

Professor Rob Sobhani warns: “Make no mistake about it:  immigration is interconnected with every other critical issue.”  That it is, and the chickens hatched by the 1965 Reform Immigration Act have finally come home to roost. America has become a multilingual, multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural Tower of Babel.  Most of the new immigrants come from the Third World.  Their first stop after taking the oath of citizenship is usually the Democratic party, which believes equality to be synonymous with the redistribution of wealth. Throw into that devil's brew a multiplicity of social entitlements administered by "Big Brother" who is ravenously hungry for power, and add a corrupt corporate elite giving him "economic" instructions, and the full picture starts to take shape. If it were not Barack Obama, it would have certainly been some other demagogue. He is merely the one who happens to be riding the wave of these troubled times. 

The outlook appears dismal for conservatives.  They can expect rough sailing throughout the foreseeable future.  They are confronted with a Hobson's choice: either they abandon their principles and surrender to leftist opposition, or they stand firm and fight for their principles and continue to go down to defeat in election after election. 

Only a revolution or a catastrophe of equal magnitude will transform the decadent social and authoritarian political landscape defining America today. Then the political wheel may begin turning in another direction.  If and when such a time comes, conservatives who are beleaguered, embattled, and refined by fire must be ready to embrace the challenge.  In the meantime, they must clench their teeth and tough it out.

January 24, 2013