Category Archives: History

The Best One-Term President?

I was working on an essay entitled “Perhaps the Best One-Term President in a Century,” In which I compared Trump favorably to the previous five one-term presidents: Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter, Bush I. I think I made a compelling case that Trump’s achievements easily beat those of any of the other five. And then he incites an insurrection!

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. It is tragic that the achievements: a robust economy; significant economic improvement  in America’s working class; massive federal deregulation; peace deals in the Middle East; awakening of the public to the threat posed by China; and fostering of American energy independence; these will be overshadowed by his narcissistic, adolescent, undisciplined and paranoid behavior. He fouled his own nest and his actions led directly to the leftist takeover of the reins of government. Moreover, he has enhanced the possibility of a permanent Democratic/Progressive majority in America. Woe is us – lovers of liberty!

Which Party is Furthest from the Center?

We are told incessantly by the media pundits that the GOP has moved sharply to the right. Supposedly, the Republican Party establishment is under assault from the Tea Party in a largely successful attempt to shift the Party’s center of gravity to starboard. No mention is made of the Democratic Party’s severe lurch to the left over the last half century. It is similarly unremarked how the cultural and political fulcrum of the nation as a whole has migrated to port during this time. No, the only political motion that concerns the moguls of the mass media and the pundits of the political press is the supposed rapid rush to the right of the Republican Party.

I have news for you. The Democratic Party has moved much further to the left than the Republican Party has moved to the right.

This is not an assertion that is easily quantified. But let us try. First of all, we must be clear about what we mean by left and right. If we take as the fundamental criterion the amount by which the government dominates the society, then on the extreme left we have totalitarianism, with authoritarianism to its right; whereas on the extreme right we have anarchy, with mass democracy abutting it on the left. In the center we have a constitutional, representative, federalist system such as in the United States. Of course it is a bit more complicated than that. But hopefully, we can agree that moves from the center to the left would certainly entail: more rather than less government taxation, spending and regulation; government restrictions on individual liberties, restraints on business, and limitations on property rights and freedom of association; and generally, a constriction of the individual rights found in the Bill of Rights in pursuit of more group equality, uniformity and social order.

On the other hand, a move from the center to the right would constitute essentially the reverse of the trends just outlined – in particular, the curtailment of government’s ability to interfere with the individual’s life, property or business; manifested by lower taxes, less government spending and regulation, etc.

Since 1900, the US has had two, perhaps three decades during which the country has moved to the right: the 20s, the 80s and arguably the 50s. In all other periods, the movement has been decidedly in the other direction – especially in the 10s, 30s, 60s, 70s and since the turn of the millennium. But what of the political parties themselves?

In the 1920s, the members and supporters of the Republican Party were generally a conservative bunch. In fact, I doubt that they contemplated their positions explicitly in the terms outlined above. More simply, they likely saw themselves as the inheritors (after a century and a half) of the traditions and mores established by the Founders – only updated to a more modern period. Thus they took seriously the sanctity of property and that business should be largely left alone by government (the Sherman Antitrust Act not withstanding). Republicans in that era subscribed to the idea that the government should limit its involvement in the people’s affairs and businesses. They had a healthy respect for federalism. Moreover, they strongly believed that charity was a matter best left to individuals and private associations, and that it was completely out of the purview of government. However, it is fair to say that the GOP commitment to liberty was not without blemish as the Party had a less than benign attitude toward the role of women and minorities in society. And its members certainly participated in and promoted crony capitalism. But overall, on the scale laid out earlier, the GOP occupied a rather conservative location on the right.

At the same time, the Democratic Party had already become infected with the progressive virus imported from Europe. The dramatic change in the Democratic Party (over the decades spanning the turn of the 20th century) is reflected in the distance between Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson (between whom there were only Republican presidents). Cleveland was quite conservative and in many ways little different from the Republican presidents who surrounded him. But Wilson was super liberal. For example, under his watch, America adopted the direct election of senators, established the Federal Income Tax and gave birth to the Federal Reserve Bank. All of this – and more of its ilk – occurred exactly a century ago as the Democratic Party veered sharply to the left. Moreover, not only were its initial steps to the left rather substantial, but it has never retreated back to the center. The only presidential candidate it nominated in the last hundred years who was not well to the left of center was John W. Davis (in 1924). Moreover, during those hundred years, the Democratic Party has experienced four hard leaps to the left – under Wilson, FDR, LBJ and now Obama. One could argue that small corrections occurred in between (e.g., Davis after Wilson, Truman after FDR, Humphrey after LBJ). But since the nomination of George McGovern, the Democratic Party has fled to the far left end of the political spectrum and there it has remained for 40 years. Until the arrival of Obama – a southpaw, mentally and physically – under whom it has plunged even further to the left.

The following ideas – which are unmistakably hard left on our scale – are now mainstream in the Democratic Party:

  • The Federal Government may spend any amount of money to address any issue it considers necessary to promote (what it perceives to be) the welfare of the American people. Debt and deficits are immaterial!
  • The Federal Government may impose any regulatory burden on American business it deems necessary in order to protect the people or the environment – cost, economic viability and limitation on freedom be damned.
  • The Federal Government may mandate the playing of favorites in hiring, firing, promotions, admissions, licensing and associations in order to further the goal of “diversity” – thereby in effect legally sanctioning immoral discrimination.
  • The Federal Government may confiscate the people’s wealth, property and business in order to redistribute resources more “fairly” among the population.
  • The American experience is rife with persecution, racism, sexism and colonialism especially in the treatment of women, minorities, gays and third world peoples; the nation has no moral claim to any exceptional status and its WASP heritage is a stain rather than a badge of honor.

These radical left positions are now the staple of the rank, file and leadership of the Democratic Party. They are hard left by any measure. It took a century to get there. But that is where the Democratic Party is, and largely has been for 40 years. It has dragged the country as a whole in that direction, although not as far as the Party has travelled. And it considers its positions to be the new normal, the new center. As far as it is concerned, the radical left positions expressed in the New York Times are dead center, whereas the mildly right ideas espoused on Fox News are far off in the right stratosphere.

Now what has happened to the Republican Party since its heyday in the roaring twenties? In some sense it was a spectator from the onset of the Depression until the arrival of the Eisenhower administration. During that time, it lost a great deal of confidence in its conservative ideals – so much so that Ike and the Republican Congress (in the 1950s) made little attempt to roll back FDR’s New Deal. In fact, the GOP was infected with some of the same progressive ideas that now dominated the Democratic Party. Johnson’s Great Society and the McGovernite capture of the Democratic Party did frighten the electorate, and so the Republicans had a near lock on the presidency for over 20 years (albeit not on the Congress). And, like the country, the GOP did swing back to the right during the 1980s. But it tossed aside that conservative correction with the arrival of the Bushes and again drifted slowly left from 1988 to 2010.

Once again, the Dems (in the person of Barack Obama) scared the hell out of the people – however, not nearly the percentage that they managed to frighten under Jimmy Carter. Since 2010 and the rise of the Tea Party, the GOP (and the nation, to some extent) has been pulled back to port. That the pullback has not been as widespread as it was in 1980 is attested to by the re-election of Obama. In any event, the GOP today is more to the right than it was in 2008. But I venture, it is roughly where it was under Reagan and nowhere near as conservative as it was under Coolidge.

Recently, I had a conversation with a university colleague whom I consider to be thoughtfully and moderately left of center. I proposed to him that we put numbers on my political scale: -10 = extreme left; 0 = center; +10 = extreme right. I asked him to locate the New York Times and Fox News on the scale. He assigned the Times a ‘-3’ and Fox News a ‘+9’. When I indicated to him that my assessment gave the NYT ‘-9’ and Fox ‘+3’, he was absolutely flabbergasted. Motivated by a desire to maintain our friendship, he muted his reaction; but I could tell that he thought I was totally off my rocker. Now my colleague is not a flaming leftist. I see him as perhaps ‘-2.5’ in the spectrum. But he probably sees himself as ‘0’, or perhaps even positive. He is typical of the dramatic shift in the country (and of course in the Democratic Parity), and so finds my assignments completely absurd.

The country has elected, and re-elected the most extreme leftist president in our history. Let me offer just one piece of evidence to support that claim. Wilson, FDR and LBJ were hard left presidents. Yet, I have absolutely no doubt that each was a patriot, who believed in American Exceptionalism and that America was a force for good in the world. Sadly, they also believed that America could do better by adopting their progressive ideas. By contrast, Obama is not a patriot, does not subscribe to American Exceptionalism (as he stated explicitly), has given no evidence that he believes America has been a force for good in the world and has expressed the desire to fundamentally transform the nation. By the latter, he doesn’t mean switching America’s favorite food from burgers to gruyere cheese. He means overthrowing the belief that individual liberty is the prime purpose of the societal structure and replacing it by a statist, collectivist system. The Democratic Party is one hundred percent behind him. The Democratic Party has moved five steps to the left for every step to the right taken by the Republican Party. That this is not completely obvious to all Americans is testimony to the subtle brainwashing the American people have endured and to which they have capitulated over the last 50 years.

This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative

Uninventing Freedom

Daniel Hannan, the famous Euro-skeptic, recently published a magnificent book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. In it he traces the history of the Anglosphere – the English-speaking countries of the world – from its origin in the British Isles to its greatest flowering on the soil of the USA. It is not my purpose here to formally review the book – two excellent reviews have already appeared. (See Mark Tooley’s essay in The American Spectator [Jan/Feb 2014] and Barton Swain’s piece in the Wall Street Journal [11/29/13], the latter of which is also featured on the Reviews page of this web site.) Instead, I will supply several trenchant  quotes from the book and then use them as a stepping stone to draw some conclusions pertinent to the political mess in which America finds itself. By the latter I mean the predicament emanating from the fact that the people of the US have recklessly elected – and re-elected – a president whose basic political beliefs run totally contrary to the fundamental axioms, which have formed the foundation upon which this nation was established and has been governed.

Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin… [Indeed] the three precepts that define Western civilization—the rule of law, democratic government, and individual liberty— are not equally valued across Europe. When they act collectively, the member states of the EU are quite ready to subordinate all three to political imperatives. The rule of law is regularly set aside when it stands in the way of what Brussels elites want.

Barack Obama’s view of America matches the EU premise. He sees the US as just another country among the nations of the world; its culture, political philosophy and economic system are of no more intrinsic merit than those of any other country. His goal is to meld us into world society as one among equals. He completely rejects the messianic idea, common to our Founders and all of our leaders from Washington to Lincoln and even to FDR, of American Exceptionalism – which posits that the American experiment is unique in the annals of history and that America is to be a beacon of freedom to the world.

What distinguishes the common law from the Roman law that predominates in Continental Europe and its colonial offshoots? Chiefly this. The Continental legal model is deductive. A law is written down from first principles, and then those principles are applied to a particular case. Common law, to the astonishment of those raised in the Roman or Napoleonic systems, does the reverse. It builds up, case by case, with each decision serving as the starting point for the next dispute. It applies a doctrine known to lawyers as stare decisis: previous judgments should stand unaltered, serving as precedent. Common law is thus empirical rather than conceptual: it concerns itself with actual judgments that have been handed down in real cases, and then asks whether they need to be modified in the light of different circumstances in a new case.

Our president cum law professor has little use for common law or stare decisis. This is evident in his increasingly lawless behavior. As his actions regarding Obamacare, the Dream Act, gay marriage, recess appointments and many, many other areas indicate, he is content to ignore the constraints imposed upon him by the Constitution and create law by fiat – that is, by executive order. He sees himself and his minions as wise beings who know what is best for America. The law is merely a vehicle to implement his vision. The opinions of the people on any particular matter are of little import.

Tenth-century England had undeniably started down the track to constitutional liberty. What might have happened had it continued on that path we’ll never know, because, in 1066, it was brutally wrenched out of the Nordic world and subjected to European feudalism. Harold Godwinson, an English nobleman with scant claim to the throne, but with the unequivocal backing of the Witan, was deposed by William of Normandy, who had his own ideas about the duties owed to a king. It was a calamitous defeat for England, for the Witan, and for the development of liberty. Indeed, the next six centuries can be seen in one sense—and were seen by many of the key protagonists—as an attempt to reverse the disaster of 1066.

This quote is included to highlight the effectiveness of the liberal brainwashing that is administered in America’s public schools. Long ago, I identified for myself the falsehoods that were drummed into my head in school: from the nonsense that FDR saved the nation from the Great Depression to the obscenity that Communism was an alternate – and in some ways more effective – economic system as opposed to capitalism. Well, it never dawned on me that the Norman conquest of Britain was a disaster that set back the cause of liberty for 600 years. In school and college, I learned that the conquest was a result of a more or less legitimate dispute over who should possess the British crown, and that its effect on English life was relatively minimal with the exception of hastening the end of slavery on the island. Hannan presents a compelling case that the Normans attempted – with some success – to replace the decentralized, rudimentarily free legal system in England a millennium ago with a centralized authoritarianism. Such a viewpoint is never presented in school. Well, this is perhaps a minor example, but it is representative of the distorted history that was taught, and is taught even more egregiously in today’s public schools.

In most of Europe, landownership was settled, with farms being treated as an inalienable patrimony. In England, by contrast, there was a lively land market from at least the thirteenth century (earlier records are harder to come by). In most of Europe, children would work on their parents’ farms, receiving board and lodging rather than wages. In England—to the surprise and occasional disgust of overseas visitors—children would generally have left the family home by their teens, either for apprenticeships or to work elsewhere. The farmwork would instead be done by hired hands for competitive pay. In most of Europe, the family was recognized as the primary unit, not just in custom but in law: parents generally could not disinherit their children, and the family plot was treated as a communal resource. In England, there was almost no notion of shared ownership. A boy who had reached legal maturity was, in the eyes of the law, a wholly free agent: his father had neither claims over him nor duties to him.

Barack Obama, July 13, 2012 in Roanoke, VA: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Perhaps George W. Bush’s single greatest foreign policy success was to draw India back into the alliance of English-speaking democracies when he accepted the nation’s nuclear status in 2006. That relationship has been vigorously cultivated by David Cameron but neglected by Barack Obama. Fortunately, Indians seem prepared to wait for a different attitude from Washington. They are a patient and courteous people.

Obama is working hard to separate the US from the Anglosphere. One of his first acts as president was to expel the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. He has denied that there is any special kinship between the US and the UK. He keeps Canada cooling its heels for five years waiting on the Keystone XL Pipeline. And I have never heard him utter a warm word about Australia or New Zealand. But perhaps this is unfair as he has been equally rough on America’s non-Anglo allies. His treatment of Israel has been an abomination. And while he bows to kings, hobnobs with Venezuela’s (now dead) Marxist leader, and is anxious to negotiate with Iran, Assad and the dear leader of North Korea, he gives the back of his hand to Poland, the Czech Republic and Honduras. His sense of American history and Western Civilization is … is … well, he doesn’t have any sense of them.

Americans take pride in being self-reliant, optimistic, ambitious. But these characteristics are not a by-product of Mississippi water or turkey meat, and neither are they some magical quality in the American genome. People respond to incentives; culture is shaped by institutions. If taxation, spending, and borrowing keep rising, if more and more Americans become dependent on the state, it won’t take long before they start behaving like the French, rioting and demonstrating in defense of their acquired entitlements… Margaret Thatcher’s political godfather, Sir Keith Joseph, used to remark that if you give people responsibility, they behave responsibly. What goes for individuals goes for entire nations.
There has been a general loss of confidence in the superiority of the Anglosphere model, which fended off every extremist challenge throughout the twentieth century. Cultural relativism feeds into hard policy. Once you reject the notion of exceptionalism as intrinsically chauvinistic, you quickly reject the institutions on which that exceptionalism rested: absolute property rights, free speech, devolved government, personal autonomy. Bit by bit, your country starts to look like everyone else’s. Its taxes rise; its legislature loses ground to the executive and to an activist judiciary; it accepts foreign law codes and charters as supreme; it drops the notion of free contract; it prescribes whom you may employ and on what terms; it expands its bureaucracy; it forgets its history

For Obama and today’s liberals, America’s decline is its just reward for its checkered history. For them, America has failed to live up to its promise. Moreover, that failure was ordained by America’s flawed founding. Its sins are numerous and great: slavery; segregation; abuse of Native Americans, women, gays and minorities; nuking Japan; corporate greed; international pillage; and the promotion of laissez-faire capitalism, States’ rights and gun rights. The fact that America has confronted its true failings (to be found among the previous list, which contains some bogus elements), and made enormous progress in correcting them is irrelevant. Only a fundamental transformation of America into a pliant, social welfare state can expiate its sins.

Hannan calls attention to these perverse views held by Obama and describes in detail how they violate the history and calling of the Anglosphere. Nevertheless, Hannan remains optimistic that the US can overthrow the tyranny of Obama’s fundamental transformation and restore the nation to its historic calling, to its rightful place as the leader of the Anglosphere and thereby guarantee freedom and prosperity to the American people for ages. His final words evoke an American patriot of whom Ronald Reagan was fond:

For we are not finished. We remain an inventive, quizzical, enterprising people. All we need to do is hold fast to the model that made us that way. Edmund Burke’s words about America in 1775 apply, mutatis mutandis, to the Anglosphere as a whole today. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.”
[And in Burke’s time] at the other end of the Anglosphere, a young doctor in Boston named Joseph Warren—the man who sent Paul Revere on his ride—was seeking to rally his countrymen in defense of the same principles. His words ring down the ages: “You are to decide the question on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
You, reading these words in his language, are the heirs to a sublime tradition. A tradition that gave us liberty, property, and democracy, and that raised our species to a pinnacle of wealth and happiness hitherto unimaginable. Act worthy of yourselves.


This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative

Thirty Years of Politics, Passion and Persuasion

Usually, when a journalist publishes a book containing reproductions of his past journalistic endeavors, it is little cause to open up for a download. Way more often than not such an event is an exercise in self-indulgence, or a consequence of the journalist’s lack of anything new to say or an attempt to cash in on old news. Not so with Dr. Charles Krauthammer. His new book, Things That Matter, is a brilliant compendium of some of his most notable weekly columns and magazine pieces composed over the last thirty years. Moreover, the short essays are accompanied by a deeply personal, long introduction and five significantly longer essays that addressed several compelling topics from recent decades. The combination makes for a sparkling read that spotlights Krauthammer’s brilliant insights and analyses over the years. Throughout the entire book, the reader will find original thought on many of the most significant topics of the last thirty years – expressed clearly, originally, passionately and persuasively. The ubiquitous wit and humor alone are worth the price of admission.

Most of the entries are copies of pieces that Krauthammer published in his weekly column in the Washington Post – a staple of the DC pundit scene for nearly 30 years. Others are reproductions of short essays that appeared in Time, The Weekly Standard, the New Republic and a couple other places. They are organized into three broad categories: Personal, Political and Historical. Within these three parts, there are chapters, each organized around a distinct theme, and in which Krauthammer treats the issues that he sees as the most important that America faced (and still faces in many instances).

For example, in the Political part, there is a chapter entitled “Citizen and State” containing material on the Constitution, the balance of power between the individual and the government, and the enduring nastiness of US elections. In the Historical part, there is a fascinating chapter entitled “The Jewish Question, Again” in which the columns contain amazing new insight about a political/cultural terrain that has been worked over as thoroughly as any subject in political philosophy. Finally, in the Personal part, there is a chapter entitled “Passions and Pastimes: whose columns describe some of the activities (outside of politics) that Krauthammer has pursued with passion over the years (e.g., baseball and chess).

Virtually all of the columns contain amazingly fresh ideas. One gains insight on matters recent and long past. For example, here are five randomly chosen, representative samples:

Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns. The entire 20th century with its mass political enthusiasms is a lesson in the supreme power of politics to produce ever-expanding circles of ruin. World War I not only killed more people than any previous war. The psychological shock of Europe’s senseless self-inflicted devastation forever changed Western sensibilities, practically overthrowing the classical arts, virtues and modes of thought. The Russian Revolution and its imitators (Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian) tried to atomize society so thoroughly—to war against the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state—that the most basic bonds of family, faith, fellowship and conscience came to near dissolution. Of course, the greatest demonstration of the finality of politics is the Holocaust, which in less than a decade destroyed a millennium-old civilization, sweeping away not only 6 million souls but the institutions, the culture, the very tongue of the now-vanished world of European Jewry.

The most considered and balanced statement of politics’ place in the hierarchy of human disciplines came, naturally, from an American. “I must study politics and war,” wrote John Adams, “that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. Adams saw clearly that politics is the indispensable foundation for things elegant and beautiful. First and above all else, you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness. That’s politics done right, hard-earned, often by war. And yet the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.

For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class—social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies—arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).
Two decades ago, however, socialism and communism died rudely, then were buried forever by the empirical demonstration of the superiority of market capitalism everywhere from Thatcher’s England to Deng’s China, where just the partial abolition of socialism lifted more people out of poverty more rapidly than ever in human history. Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but—even better—in the name of Earth itself.
Environmentalists are Gaia’s priests, instructing us in her proper service and casting out those who refuse to genuflect.

Which is why with the waning of the decade [1980s] the conservatives’ time might soon be up. Voters are not sentimental. They don’t give points for past achievement. They turned out Winston Churchill less than three months after V-E Day. The rule is: What have you done for me lately? After the Democratic Party built the magnificent structure of the New Deal, it ran out of ideas, and the voters threw the rascals out. Conservatives have done what they were asked to do in 1980: break inflation and restore Western power. Their job is done. The voters sense it. The Republicans took a whipping in the 1989 elections. Their social agenda (most prominently, abortion) proved unenactable. And that was the fallback for a party whose economic and foreign policy agenda has already been enacted. There is another turn ahead. Democrats will do everything in their power to blow it, but one new idea and the ’90s belongs to them.

Facing the choice of whether to maintain our dominance or to gradually, deliberately, willingly and indeed relievedly give it up, we are currently on a course toward the latter. The current liberal ascendancy in the United States—controlling the executive and both houses of Congress, dominating the media and elite culture—has set us on a course for decline. And this is true for both foreign and domestic policies. Indeed, they work synergistically to ensure that outcome.

As fresh and enlightening as the columns are, it is the Introduction and the five long essays that make the book truly special. In his Introduction, Krauthammer, describes with passion his personal journey from McGill University to a fellowship in political philosophy at Oxford, then to Medical school and a budding career in psychiatry at Mass General, abruptly altered by a trip to Washington that led to a lifetime as a political pundit – interrupted in the early going by a tragic accident that put him in a wheel chair for life. The story is told with humility, wit and wonder, and one cannot help but admire a man who refused to allow a severe disability to interfere with his life plans.

As for the long essays, there are five. All are chock full of insight, originality and a deep and penetrating understanding and analysis of several fundamental issues of our times. They deal with: the ethics of embryonic research; the fate of the Jewish people; and, most importantly, the fate of the American experiment in individual liberty – as seen at ten year intervals between the fall of the Soviet Empire and the advent of Barack Obama. I discovered so many original insights in these that I read them several times.

Finally, what’s a book review without some criticism? In fact, there is little to criticize here. Well, as with any compendium of essays written over many years, there is bound to be some disjointedness and jarring discontinuities. Often the chronological flow is barely discernible. Also, as is inevitable in a reproduction of old material, there are more than a few places where one can’t avoid reacting with: “Well that didn’t work out the way you predicted.” But these minuses are extremely minor compared to the overall positive impression. Things That Matter is aptly named. Krauthammer has selected from among his treasure trove of columns some of the best that: treated the major events of the day, put them in historical perspective and predicted the consequences with uncanny insight. Together with his moving introduction and five captivating essays, they add up to a brilliant read and a valuable resource to consult as America continues to struggle with its self-imposed mandate to keep alive the fire of liberty that was lit by our forefathers more than two centuries ago.

This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative. However, that site is experiencing technical difficulties. The link will be provided when the site is back to normal.

The Legacies of Goldwater and McGovern

George McGovern died recently. Coincidentally, I just reread Barry Goldwater’s 1960 classic, The Conscience of a Conservative. These men are linked by the identical fate that they suffered in their sole presidential run (in 1972 and 1964, respectively). Namely, both were thoroughly demolished by an incumbent president. Each was viewed as emanating from the extreme wing of his party – Goldwater on the far right of the Republican Party and McGovern from the ultra left side of the Democratic Party. Their crushing defeats were interpreted as rejections by the voters of the extreme politics that they supposedly represented. However, that is where the similarity ends; for their legacies on their parties and on the American drama has been totally dissimilar.

Prior to McGovern, the Democratic Party embraced a spectrum of points of view that could legitimately be characterized as from far left (Henry Wallace, JW Fulbright) to centrist (John Kennedy, Edmund Muskie) to even mildly conservative (Scoop Jackson) – especially in matters of foreign policy. But beginning with the 1968 Democratic convention and culminating in McGovern’s nomination, the center of gravity of the Democratic Party shifted sharply to the left. It has remained so, in fact so much so that today what are really far left leaders – at least as left as those cited above – like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi are viewed as mainstream Democrats. The Party has plenty of room for loony leftists even further to the left than those just cited – e.g., Maxine Waters, but there is virtually no substantial person of any stature in the Democratic Party who could be considered centrist, much less right of center. The sole exception, Joe Lieberman (like Scoop Jackson, largely in foreign affairs), was driven out of the Party. The extremism that McGovern represented is absolutely mainstream today in the Democratic Party.

Goldwater’s lasting influence on the Republican Party has been far less dramatic. It is true that the Party has experienced conservative surges in 1980 (Reagan), in 1994 (Gingrich) and in 2010 (via the TEA Party). But the center of gravity of the Republican Party has moved to the right nowhere near as extensively as that of the Democratic Party has moved to the left. This is manifested in three ways. First, the roster of the most prominent leaders of the Party still includes substantial numbers of centrists or moderates. Examples include both Bushes, John McCain, Jon Huntsman and, arguably, the current GOP presidential nominee. Whereas every Democratic nominee for president since McGovern has been a hard-core liberal – and in a few instances (e.g., the current president), a doctrinaire leftist; with the exception of Reagan, no Republican presidential nominee since Goldwater comes even close to resembling a hard-core conservative or committed rightist.

Second, the Party apparatus – at both the federal and (most) State(s) levels – has remained to a large extent ‘country club’ Republican. By that is meant those who qualify as ‘big government’ Republicans – people who endorse the huge role that government plays in the lives of the American people, believing that Republicans can discharge the attendant responsibilities more effectively and more economically.

The third manifestation is more subtle. Polls repeatedly show that twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservative than those who identify themselves as liberal. Yet, the numbers who self-identify as Democrat is at least as large as those who self-identify as Republican. The inescapable conclusion is that there are a huge number of Republicans who are not really conservative.

Thus Goldwater’s lasting effect on the Republican Party does not match McGovern’s long-term influence on the Democratic Party.

Concerning their affect on the American people, the legacies are more nuanced and difficult to characterize precisely. The substantial shift to the left of the Democratic Party both reflects and influences a corresponding shift in the electorate. Positions and phenomena that, prior to McGovern, would have been considered extreme by the American people are viewed as mainstream today. Same sex marriage, blatant and wanton promiscuity in the entertainment media, abortion on demand, banishment of religion from the public square, a government takeover of the auto industry, massive federal deficits and debt, and a popular president who denigrates US history, abrogates America’s founding principles and apologizes for American behavior are but some examples. What is unclear is what percentage of the American people is politically and philosophically in support of these radical developments and what percentage just acquiesces in them, either because those folks are not really paying attention or because – while perhaps philosophically opposed – they see some good consequences for themselves.

At the same time, a substantial minority of Americans, appalled at the severe leftward drift of the country, has begun to organize a counterattack. These would be the TEA Party contingent. Such people subscribe to the ideas expressed in Goldwater’s book, believe that America has been betrayed by those who have led the country down the McGovernite path and are determined to restore America to what they see as its classical moorings. But if they are to match the success enjoyed by the McGovernites the last four decades – indeed, by the progressive movement over the last century, they must do two things:

  1. Take control of the Republican Party exactly as the McGovernites took (and retained) control of the Democratic Party.
  2. Build numerous, robust conservative social entities (e.g., media outlets, educational institutions and foundations) in order to have the same lasting influence on the public as the uncontested leftist analogs have had.

As an inspiration to do so, let me close with a relevant quote from Goldwater’s book:

Though conservatives are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing, and know that Conservatism holds the key to national salvation – and feel sure the country agrees with us – we seem unable to demonstrate the practical relevance of Conservative principles to the needs of the day. We sit by impotently while Congress seeks to improvise solutions to problems that are not real problems facing the country, while the government attempts to assuage imagined concerns and ignores the real concerns and real needs of the people.

Perhaps we suffer from an over-sensitivity to the judgments of those who rule the mass communications media. We are daily consigned by ‘enlightened’ commentators to political oblivion: Conservatism, we are told, is out–of-date. The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline. The principles on which the conservative political position is based have been established by a process that has nothing to do with the social, economic and political landscape that changes from decade to decade and from century to century. These principles are derived from the nature of man, and from the truths that God has revealed about His creation. Circumstances do change. So do the problems that are shaped by the circumstances. But the principles that govern the solution of the problems do not. To suggest that the Conservative philosophy is out of date is akin to saying that the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments or Aristotle’s Politics are out of date. The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today. The challenge is not to find new or different truths, but to learn how to apply established truths to the problems of the contemporary world.
This article also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at
and in The Land of the Free at