I have written a bit of late about the collapse of our political institutions, both domestic and international. We are living through an interesting time in that we are seeing great technological progress that is threatening to blow apart the societies and institutions that brought about the technological revolution. It once again illustrates that nature is all about trade-offs. In a finite world, an entry on one side must have an entry on the other.
The world around us, in terms of traditions, cultural institutions, political institutions and so forth, was here when we got here. Take something as mundane as banking. We just take banks for granted, as if they are eternal, because to us, from our point of view, they are eternal. They have always been a part of the economic life we have experienced. Like most everything around us, we take them for granted.
I was in a meeting once around President’s Day and someone brought up that we should go back to calling it Washington’s birthday or maybe Lincoln’s birthday. A young gal said that we would have to have one for a Republican president if we’re going to have a day for the Democrat presidents. There was one of those odd silences and then someone changed the subject so we could avoid correcting her.
The young woman who thought Washington and Lincoln were members of the Democrat party was not a moron. She just lived her whole life in a time and place in which the good guys were Democrats who helped black people. She therefore assumed the guy who freed the slaves must have been a liberal Democrat. A surprising number of people make this mistake, underscoring the power of culture to blinker even the intelligent people.
That’s what we are seeing with our political institutions and the men and women who have made careers in them. They were born into a political world, for example, where Left and Right were defined along a linear economic scale. Libertarians were at one end and Communists on the other. One end worshiped free markets, while the other end had the labor theory of value.
The boys and girls that went into politics learned the team cheers, the responses to the other team’s cheers, their respective uniform options and so on. Their world was a comforting binary universe of us and them. There was no need to rethink anything. In fact, questioning orthodoxy was a good way to get sent into exile. The good liberal or conservative just repeated their lines from the catechism.
Anyway, the great challenge to the Orthodox Right we see underway in the Republican primary is a good example of the hollowness of their dogma. Consider this piece by Charlie Cooke posted at National Review Online today. It is supposed to be a response (dismissal?), of the question supposedly posed by the Donald Trump campaign. What conservatism done for anyone?
The interesting thing about the article is how little the author can come up with as a response to the question he claims to answer. Here is the key paragraph:
When confronted by this challenge, one is tempted to list the monumental ideological victories that the Right has won over the past 40 years. And rightly so. Since Ronald Reagan made his first serious presidential run, in 1976, conservatism has produced a cornucopia of significant changes — not only to government policy, but to the baseline presumptions of American life. Among these alterations are the tarring and feathering of the reflexively technocratic mindset that obtained from the outset of the New Deal to the end of the 1970s; the marginalization of wage and price controls, and of other centralizing tools; the lowering of destructive tax rates on income and other forms of wealth; the deregulation of a significant number of major industries; a renewed focus on national sovereignty; the successful reform of the welfare system; a consensus around free trade; a much lower minimum wage; a focus on both the text and the original meaning of the Constitution when discussing limits on government power; the restoration of the right to keep and bear arms; the stronger protection of freedom of expression; a national partial-birth-abortion ban; the death of speech-killing “campaign-finance reform”; and, lest we forget, the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union. For some much-needed context, understand that the GOP’s standard-bearer in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon, was the mind behind the Environmental Protection Agency, whereas today’s Republican candidates are opposed to so many departments that they can’t always remember all of their names.
These claims fall into three categories: Nonsense, fantasy and inconsequential. An example of nonsense is the bit about “tarring and feathering of the reflexively technocratic mindset.” National Review employs Ramesh Ponnuru who pumps out mountains of copy in support of using the tax code for social engineering. The Conservative Industrial Complex is brimming with organizations like AEI that do nothing but sell technocracy.
The fantasy part, and I’m being kind when calling it fantasy, is the stuff about eliminating wage and price controls and other centralizing tools. They were simply replaced with more subtle tools. Reagan gave us the modern Fed that sets prices through currency manipulation. Similarly, Carter started the deregulation process with the airlines. Of course, the line about national sovereignty is just a laugh out loud whopper.
No one cares about the ideological points Red Team scored against Blue Team at their annual softball games so those items go down as inconsequential, along with stuff like welfare reform and tax rates. If your great achievement was reversed by the next president, you achieved nothing. That’s the reality of Buckley Conservatism. It has left no lasting mark on American society, with one exception and that’s the Cold War.
But the Cold War is over.
Whether or not you think Buckley Conservatism was a winner or loser, does not matter all that much in the present. Conservatism may have been all that Charlie Cooke and his coevals say, but that avoids the heart of the question. What does Buckley Conservatism have to say about today and tomorrow? The answer is mostly a replaying of old tunes and the telling of stories by the geezers about the time they met Reagan.
That’s the reality dawning on many Americans who have counted themselves as men of the Right. Buckley Conservatism was basically two things. Beat the Soviets and keep the Progressives from pulling the roof down on us. The Soviets are gone and the Progressives are too busy hooting about men in dresses to care about pulling the roof down. Buckley Conservatism, it turns out, is not a timeless philosophy after all.
I’m running long here so let me just finish with this. There was a time when the Whigs were an important check on the Jacksonian Democrats. No one knows what a Whig is today. Fifty years from now, it will be hard for people to understand “conservatism” and why it was important. The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.