Conservatives in Retreat—On Many Tracks

This is not a happy season for American conservatives. The executive, legislative and, to a large extent, the judicial branches of the federal government are almost completely under the control of liberal Democrats. Moreover, as conservatives feared, our liberal masters are pursuing a far left agenda that will catapult the United States much further down the road toward Euro-socialism. We are not doing any better in the culture wars. The media, academia, legal profession, foundations, public schools, libraries and virtually all other opinion molding organs of American society remain firmly in the grip of the Left and, thanks to their influence, perversion (e.g.,pornography, infanticide, same sex marriage) is flourishing while traditional culture (e.g., religion, the family, patriotism) is under attack. When we pass from politics and culture to economics, matters do not improve. The tandem of Bush-Obama, like its predecessors Hoover-Roosevelt and Nixon-Carter, has eaten away at the classic conservative notions of limited government intervention in the economy, laissez-faire capitalism, low taxation and a strict control of the money supply. The only unresolved issue remains: shall we have, as a consequence of their profligate and irresponsible economic policies, a reprise of the Depression of Hoover-Roosevelt or the Stagflation of Nixon-Carter? What a wonderful choice!

No, these are not happy days for conservatives. Unfortunately, in many ways. In fact, in this piece, by fleshing out the themes implicit in the paragraph above, I would like to outline five tracks along which we have been getting our fannies handed to us lately—and by lately, as you will see, I mean over the last one hundred years. This might be cause for despair, but I will argue at the end that if we can mount an effective counteroffensive in a specific one of these tracks, the battle might fall to us in the others as a natural consequence.

The tracks are: politics, culture, economics, sources of power and the nature of man and Nature (the play on words in the last is intentional). What I mean by the first three should be clear and they are already touched upon in the lead paragraph. The last two are more opaque and remain to be explained. But before that, allow me a few more observations on the first three.

Politics. The political positions of conservatives and liberals are well-worn terrain in the US today. There are few surprises and it is not difficult to distinguish between the species based on stated policies and concrete actions—although occasionally, professed conservatives espouse liberal policies, and even more occasionally, the reverse occurs. With no attempt to be comprehensive, let me just say that the political philosophy of conservatives embraces: limited government; low taxation; cuts in government spending; a robust national defense; strict Constitutionalism; a belief in the superiority of the form of government established by the Founding Fathers over any others tried or pending; checks and balances between the branches of government and between the federal government and the States; a trust in the people to express their political will clearly and in their ability to govern themselves; a belief that courts should adjudicate and interpret the law, not legislate it from the bench; the view that crime should be punished, not ‘understood’; and also that ‘international law’ and international organizations have no legal standing in America, particularly when in conflict with US law.

On the contrary, liberal philosophy encompasses: a very powerful and intrusive central government; high taxation, especially on the wealthy; extensive government spending, especially in a weak economy (Keynes); a national defense rooted in multilateralism with force seen as a seldom used, absolute last resort; a ‘living’ Constitution; an emphasis on America’s historical mistakes (slavery, maltreatment of American Indians, limitations on women, internment of Japanese-Americans) and a lack of confidence in America’s special role in the world; getting the branches of the federal government, together with those of the States, onto the same page; judicial activism; trust in ‘experts’ rather than the people to make wise decisions in formulating national policy; the rehabilitation of criminals and understanding of their actions in the hope of alleviating societal conditions that engendered the criminal behavior; and America’s reliance on the UN and other international entities for help and guidance in formulating foreign policy.

The facts that with the exception of Ronald Reagan, every Republican President elected since Calvin Coolidge has largely failed to uphold the conservative principles expressed above and that every Democratic President since Grover Cleveland—without exception—has ardently tried, (with varying degrees of success) to promote the liberal agenda above, those facts should be of grave concern to conservatives. They help to explain the ascendancy of liberalism in the fabric of American life over the last century. Of course, the current Democratic President might be the most Left wing resident of the WhiteHouse in our nation’s history.

Culture. Once again, the differences are stark and well known. Conservatives believe that our culture should continue to be characterized by its original nature, established nearly 400 hundred years ago in Jamestown and Plymouth—namely: a British legal system; English as the mother tongue; a reverence for and adherence to Western Civilization; freedom of worship, but morals derived from our Judeo-Christian heritage; the British traits of humility, modesty, grittiness and the Protestant work ethic; life centered around the traditional family; and above all else a devotion to individual liberty. Liberals, on the other hand, are more interested in a culture that: is multicultural, ecumenical and global rather than parochial; treats religion as purely a private matter, totally divorced from state affairs; values fairness and equity before liberty and freedom; in fact, thinks of individual liberty more in terms of freedom of the individual to do anything he pleases—so long as it does not injure another—rather than as liberty from the coercive powers of the State; and finally, a reverence for ‘change’ over tradition. You only need to spend a few hours in front of the TV or at the movies to see who is winning this battle.

Economics. The picture is not any prettier here. While conservatives advocate free markets, democratic capitalism, respect for the profit motive, control of the money supply, low taxation, limits on government spending, encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit and the fostering of small  business, the power of the pricing mechanism to choose winners and losers in the market and finally a firm control of the national debt; liberals, on the other hand, believe in Keynesian principles, strict government regulation—and (more than) occasional control—of the means of production, redistribution of wealth to address the inevitable inequities that result from unfettered capitalism, a soft money policy, virtually no limit on government debt, industrial planning—i.e., allowing the government to pick winners and losers in the economy by subsidizing segments it favors and penalizing those it opposes, taxation at whatever level is necessary to support a highly activist and interventionist government and wage and price controls. Yet again, if you cast your eyes across the current scene—i.e., what Bush just did and what Obama has started to do, it is not hard to discern the wining side.

The previous paragraphs addressed the three principle topics according to which the differences between liberals and conservatives are usually identified. Now I wish to add two more.

Power Source. Here I take my cue from the basic idea in an article, ‘Scientific Pretense vs. Democracy’ by Angelo Cordevilla in the April 2009 issue of the American Spectator. He argues that the fundamental philosophy of our Founding Fathers was that the ultimate authority, the basic source of power, the true ruler ofthe realm in the American experiment in self government was not a monarch, not an oligarchy of nobles, not an established church—but the people themselves. Perhaps the most revolutionary idea in the Declaration of Independence was that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Prior to that groundbreaking concept, no ruler ever thought of his authority as any different from that of a parent toward a child—namely, an innate right (derived from his divine status or class status or ecclesiastical status) to do to or for his subjects as he saw fit. Not in America! Its government can only exercise powers that its ‘subjects’ see fit to grant to it.

Well, Codevilla explains, the Left has a new and different idea. Namely, the control of society shall be ceded to ‘experts.’ The nature of modern society is so complex, so multifaceted, so intricate that it is beyond the ken of the normal individual. The economy, foreign relations, the welfare of the heartland, not to mention general issues such as education, health, energy, transportation, housing and agriculture as well as special issues like climate change, Islamic radicalism and the future of entitlements are far too complicated to be understood and intelligently addressed by John Q. Public, whether acting individually or as a member of a vast electorate. Only those who are wise, well trained and accredited, i.e., experts, are competent to direct our affairs. Only those politicians who appreciate this need and who can tap into that expertise are fit to govern us.

And so for a fourth time, take a look at what prevails today in the body politic and decide who is winning this argument. It would appear not to be us.

Nature of Man andNature. I will develop this theme more fully elsewhere; here I only give a capsule summary, indicate the diametrically opposed views of conservatives and liberals, and once again point out that liberals seem to be carrying the day. (Some of the ideas are developed in my book, Liberal Hearts and ConservativeBrains—see In short, the view of man normally adopted by conservatives is that he is a limited creature, prone to make mistakes, given to violence and greed and that what is exceptional about him is when he overcomes these tendencies to behave with charity, goodness, consideration and graciousness. Society might progress technologically and so man lives better and longer, but his inherent nature as a flawed creature is immutable. In a parallel way, the conservative view is that despite our great technological progress and evolving political structures (from despotism to democracy), there really is nothing new under the sun. The world has been, is and will continue to be threatened by natural calamities (earthquakes, cyclones and the like) and man-made atrocities (genocide and terrorism). The best we can do is to try to avoid or prevent these disasters and when we fail, to cope with them as best we can. We can improve ourselves and the world, but fundamentally it’s an almost impossible task that flies in the face of who we are and where we live.

Not so, says the liberal. Humanity and the world it inhabits are susceptible to serious improvement, indeed both are perfectible. We just have to be smart about it, recognize the limitations of nature and negative impulses of man and through our ingenuity and observation of what has failed in the past, we can devise methods to conquer the failings of man and the vicissitudes of nature.

I am sorry to say that, as liberalism prospers and conservatism pales, the latter view seems to prevail.

So, we conservatives are getting our teeth kicked on all five fronts. Where do we look for succor? What shall we do to preserve our viewpoint, convince more Americans of its value and rescue American society? I believe I gave the answer in a recent post. I encourage the reader to consult that source, but let me recall it briefly here. The liberals achieved their supremacy over the last hundred years by following (accidentally or on purpose) the advice of the Italian socialist and philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. He argued that if liberals could capture the culture, then the politics would follow. That is exactly what has happened. I suggested in the article that the redress was to take back the culture. Then once again the politics would follow. My point here is that the other three pegs on which I have hung the differences between liberals and conservatives would also follow. That is as clear for economics as it is for politics. But it is also clear regarding the sources of power and the nature of man and the world. If one’s view on the culture of American society conforms to the conservative model I presented earlier, it is unquestionably the case that one’s opinions in the two latter categories will also gravitate to the conservative side. That is, we the American people will come to understand how foolhardy it is to allow the country to be ruled by experts, and we will attain a better perspective on humanity and nature, and thereby throw off any false confidence in the perfectibility of either. Of course, as it was for the liberals, it might very well be a hundred years project. So get busy conservatives. As I said in the above cited article:

We need to have conservative philosophers and cultural icons that state the case for and epitomize the worth of traditional Western culture. More mundanely, we need to nurture conservative film makers, fund conservative law schools, build conservative foundations (like Heritage, but more of them), defend and expand talk radio, establish conservative newspapers (like the Washington Times, but more of them), concoct an organization to counter the NEA in the minds of the country’s teachers, abandon the mainline churches and support religious institutions that champion traditional values, etc. … If we don’t do this, then the America that we have loved and which has proven to be such a boon to the peoples of the world will surely — perhaps slowly, but maybe not so slowly — wither into one more Euro-socialist State. Then the light from mankind’s last best hope will have gone out.’