Are you beginning to get that sinking feeling? The feeling, I mean, that we — the good guys, the Republican party — are going to need a lot of luck to win this election? George W. is obviously a decent sort, and has been a capable governor of his state. Rick Lazio (I am a New Yorker, so the Lazio-Clinton contest is second in my mind) is likewise honest and effective, so far as I can judge. Why, then, can I not resist this lurking impression that neither one of them has a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning his race?
In part it is a question of confidence — a much under-estimated factor in human affairs, as Kenneth Clark noted when discussing why some civilizations created lasting works of art and some didn’t. The Democrats are the confident party. Well they might be with the media, the academy, Hollywood, the unions, and all America’s vast population of tax-eaters rooting for them. It’s not just that, though: the Democrats own
We all had a lot of fun watching the Republican convention pandering to all the many constituencies they hope to woo from allegiance to the enemy: blacks, hispanics, homosexuals, and so on. But where was the equivalent phenomenon in Los Angeles? Did the Democrats do any pandering to, say, the 59 percent of Americans who think that homosexuality is immoral? To the whatever-large-percent-it-is of Americans who think that immigration is out of control? Did they heck. They don’t need to pander. They are the party of Right — of “tolerance,” of “inclusiveness,” of “fairness,” of “working families.” Republicans hope to win these laurels for themselves: the Democrats hold them. We are postulants, seeking admission to the Order of Virtue; the Dems run it. We are defensive; they are confident. We pander to our enemies; they laugh at theirs.
The problem is not with any particular policy, but in the cast of mind of the American public; at least, of a majority of those who pay attention to politics. The public attitude I am referring to is not one I myself find very attractive. It has components of smugness, of complacency, of envy and self-deception, and a large dash of moral cowardice. But a dedication to representative constitutional government demands a proper humility in the face of public opinion. There it is, that’s what the nation is like. I fear we may be entering a long period of left-liberal control of our government and judiciary.
Such things happen. The most notable spell of party domination in a modern democracy was the so-called “Whig Supremacy” of 1714-1770 in Britain. (This time period actually encompassed one Tory prime minister, the Earl of Bute, 1762-3; but Bute was a brief aberration, the result of George the Third’s first unsuccessful foray into parliamentary politics.) For 56 years — an entire adult lifetime! — the Whigs ran Britain and its overseas possessions, presenting themselves, very plausibly, as the party of peace, progress, prosperity, and stability.
Tories were fixed in the minds of the voting public (an elite minority in those days, of course) as the Stupid Party, the Out of Date Party. Tories were reactionary clods: rustic oafs like Squire Western in Tom Jones, dull-witted Church of England vicars, the boorish Hanoverian court. Such intellectual luminaries as the Tories could claim were regarded as eccentric oddities — think of Samuel Johnson. This negative image was in large part the creation of a single political genius, Sir Robert Walpole.
Walpole was the Bill Clinton of 18th-century Britain. He rose from the lower ranks of the gentry to become, by the usual reckoning, Britain’s first prime minister, holding supreme power for 21 years, 1721-42. A large, clumsy man, Walpole had giant appetites to sustain his bulk. He bought chocolates by the hundredweight and consumed great quantities of wine. Coarse and lecherous, he boasted that when at home “he always talked bawdy, because in that all men could join.” (Compare Vernon Jordan’s answer to a question about the content of his informal conversations with President Clinton: “We talk p—y.”)
Politically he was brilliant, bold, and fearless, and took no prisoners. His was, to be sure, an age when politics was a contact sport — had only just ceased to be a lethal one, in fact. Walpole himself, while leader of the opposition early in his career, was impeached for corruption, expelled from the House of Commons, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He later made a vast amount of money in the dubious speculative-investment frenzy of 1720, from which he salvaged his own reputation at the expense of his chancellor (i.e. treasury secretary), who went to the Tower. Walpole’s enemies asserted that his foreign policy deferred disgracefully to Britain’s old religious (read: ideological) enemies, France and Spain (read: Russia and China).
It all bounced off Sir Robert like so much Lewinsky. A perfect cynic, he believed that all declarations of principle or of concern for the nation were bogus. Men were, he believed, motivated solely by personal interest. Among the phrases attributed to him in dictionaries of quotations are: “the balance of power” and “all men have their price.” His proudest boast was that he had kept his country out of wars: “Madam,” he informed George the Second’s wife, Caroline, in 1734, “there are 50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman.” In many ways, Sir Robert was a deplorable man; yet his country did very well under his stewardship, laying down secure foundations for 150 years of world leadership. His party, of course, did even better. 56 years in power! — that would be 14 presidential elections.
It could happen. It may be that we conservatives of today are a wilderness generation, who can hope for no more than to keep a small flame burning while Clinton, Gore and those who follow their example in philosophy and method bestride our age like Colossi. I weep to think of it, but it could be so. When compiling your Christmas lists this fall, perhaps a suitable gift for your favorite conservative might be a well-bound copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.