Conservatism needs to lighten up
The crisis has been resolved, but this respite is temporary. We are bound to have more standoffs and brinkmanship in the months and years ahead. To understand why, you must recognize that, for the tea party, the stakes could not be higher. The movement is animated and energized by a fear that soon America will be beyond rescue.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) put it plainly at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington: “We’re nearing the edge of a cliff, and our window to turn things around, my friends, I don’t think it is long. I don’t think it is 10 years. We have a couple of years to turn the country around or we go off the cliff to oblivion.”
Cruz dominated the summit’s straw poll, taking 42 percent of the vote, more than three times his nearest rival. His fundraising committees reported this week that they took in $1.19 million in the third quarter, double the total in the preceding quarter. Cruz’s national approval rating may be an abysmal 14 percent, but to the base of the Republican Party he is an idol.
The current fear derives from Obamacare, but that is only the most recent cause for alarm. Modern American conservatism was founded on a diet of despair. In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. began the movement with a famous first editorial in National Review declaring that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” John Boehner tries to tie into this tradition of opposition when he says in exasperation, “The federal government has spent more than what it has brought in in 55 of the last 60 years!”
But what has been the result over these past 60 years? The United States has grown mightily, destroyed the Soviet Union, spread capitalism across the globe and lifted its citizens to astonishingly high standards of living and income. Over the past 60 years, America has built highways and universities, funded science and space research, and — along the way — ushered in the rise of the most productive and powerful private sector the world has ever known.
At the end of the 1961 speech that launched his political career, Ronald Reagan said, “If I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” But the menace Reagan warned about — Medicare — was enacted. It has provided security to the elderly. There have been problems regarding cost, but that’s hardly the same as killing freedom.
For most Americans, even most conservatives, yesterday’s deepest causes are often quietly forgotten. Consider that by Reagan’s definition, all other industrial democracies are tyrannies. Yet every year, the right-wing Heritage Foundation ranks several of these countries — such as Switzerland — as “more free” than the United States, despite the fact that they have universal health care.
For many conservatives, the “rot” to be excoriated is not about economics and health care but about culture. A persistent theme of conservative intellectuals and commentators — in print and on Fox News — is the cultural decay of the country. But compared with almost any period in U.S. history, we live in bourgeois times, in a culture that values family, religion, work and, above all, business. Young people today aspire to become Mark Zuckerberg. They quote the aphorisms of Warren Buffett and read the Twitter feed of Bill Gates. Even after the worst recession since the Great Depression, there are no obvious radicals, anarchists, Black Panthers or other revolutionary movements — save the tea party.
For some tacticians and consultants, extreme rhetoric is just a way to keep the troops fired up. But rhetoric gives meaning and shape to a political movement. Over the past six decades, conservatism’s language of decay, despair and decline have created a powerful group of Americans who believe fervently in this dark narrative and are determined to stop the country from plunging into imminent oblivion. They aren’t going to give up just yet.
The era of crises could end, but only when this group of conservatives makes its peace with today’s America. They are misty-eyed in their devotion to a distant republic of myth and memory yet passionate in their dislike of the messy, multiracial, quasi-capitalist democracy that has been around for half a century — a fifth of our country’s history. At some point, will they come to recognize that you cannot love America in theory and hate it in fact?