The Conservative Interest
McCainiacs and anti-McCainiacs.


John O’Sullivan

The king’s decision inflicted a bad government on Britain for less than two years. But it reconciled the working class to the British system of democracy (in the difficult economic circumstances after the Great War) and it demonstrated to everyone that British democracy was not a façade for class rule that the Marxists claimed. Ultimately it meant that the Britain which went to war in 1939 was a socially united country.

It is important not to be starry-eyed about the conservative interest. It is rooted in prudence rather than any more idealistic virtue. It is an amoral basis of calculation, sometime allied with justice, sometimes indifferent to it, but always seeking social stability, as my two American examples will demonstrate.

The first one is the abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War in order to reintegrate the south into the United States. That object was achieved but at the cost of the U.S. allowing the installation of Jim Crow laws throughout the south. The reasoning that justified this decision was essentially that the south would have to be held down permanently by armed force if Reconstruction was to be sustained indefinitely. There was little appetite for this in the north in part because most northerners were themselves not yet converted to civil equality between the races. So the rights of black America were sacrificed for 70 years to the object of reintegrating the south in the federal republic. And whatever we may now think of that bargain, its object was achieved. The south was reconciled with the U.S. and, far from remaining disaffected, fought bravely in all its subsequent wars.

My second example is the reversal of the first: namely, the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. It was clear after the Second World War that the post-Reconstruction bargain was now itself unsustainable. Most Americans, including some in the south, recognized that the black Americans who had served alongside them in the Second World War were denied elementary rights in part of the country that they had fought to defend. black Americans themselves were bolder in asserting those rights. Unless their rights were restored, Black America would be increasingly disaffected from the nation and civil unrest might be permanent. The conservative interest counseled the federal protection of civil rights and racial equality. Jim Crow was reversed. And a series of measures, not all of them sensible, was undertaken to fully integrate black America into the nation.

What does the conservative interest indicate on this occasion? It seems possible and even likely that a victory by Barack Obama would be the climax of this long policy of fully integrating black and minority America into the nation and putting the querulous politics of race behind us. As I have argued elsewhere, the mere fact of a President Obama would strengthen and stabilize America just as a Polish pope undermined Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Black and minority America would be fully integrated into the nation as the British working class was fully integrated into the British political nation by George V. Americans would feel better about themselves and the world would feel very differently about America. The conservative interest, as defined above, would therefore smile upon a vote for Obama.

Notice that this analysis does not depend upon the actual policies pursued by Obama. It is the fact of an Obama presidency that would be a long step towards national cohesion. That fact is enhanced by Obama’s rhetoric of one nation. But what if Obama’s actual policies weaken this cohesion? Since he seems to favor more or less open immigration, multiculturalism, bilingual education, racial preferences, and other policies that emphasize and reward ethnic division, he might well obstruct and delay the overcoming of race that his presidency symbolizes and contradict the rhetoric of one nation used by Obama to such good effect with voters of all races. Obama’s proposed policies therefore open a line of attack for Republicans to exploit. Unfortunately for the GOP, John McCain takes almost exactly the same position on these “National Question” issues as Obama — without having the Democrat’s symbolic or rhetorical appeal.

If the National Question is to be the main deciding factor, then the conservative would point to a vote for Obama. Any Republican argument for supporting McCain over Obama has to rest on all the other policies where they differ — taxes, national security, the economy, health, etc. Here, of course, McCain enjoys an overwhelming advantage with potential conservative voters.

From this long-winded and roundabout argument — far longer and more roundabout than I intended — I draw three conclusions. First, McCainiacs and anti-McCainiacs should hold off on the insults and jointly seek to influence the McCain campaign to match Obama’s symbolic appeal of national unity with practical policies designed to achieve such unity. That would involve above all the Senator’s proposing very different policies on immigration, multiculturalism, and the rest. Such influence should be quietly private, unaccompanied by threats, and strategic — i.e., it should point out that McCain has a potential vote-winning argument here. But it should be attempted. Whether or not that fails, conservatives should devote most of their time, money, and effort into electing Republicans who support such policies and into making them a strong reason for voting GOP in congressional races. A Congress composed of Republicans and Democrats who had told their voters they would oppose “comprehensive immigration reform” or its equivalents on multiculturalism and other national questions would be a restraint on whoever is elected president.

And if it should turn out to be Obama, Republicans will take cautious comfort from the possibility that his presidency will advance the wider conservative interest in a less fractured America. For that would be a permanent gain for conservatism under any president.

 – John O’Sullivan is NR editor-at-large.