Editor’s Note: This piece by Paul Weyrich, who passed away this morning, originally appeared in the September 3, 1990 issue of National Review.
Conservatism today must pay the price of its own success. Modern American conservatism arose after World War II as a movement of protest, a dissent against the reigning liberalism. Over the course of half a lifetime it became intellectually respectable and increasingly persuasive as liberalism revealed itself as bankrupt. Finally in 1980 a plurality of American voters decided to give the conservatives a chance to govern — not because they were convinced the conservatives had the answers, but because they were sure the liberals did not. Finding the experience satisfactory, they returned conservatives to the Presidency in 1984 and 1988. In fact, by the end of the Reagan Administration, the very word “liberalism” had become a recognized political liability.
But this accomplishment is not equivalent to convincing the American people that conservatism should replace liberalism as their political faith. This is especially evident in the domain of policy, where liberalism remains competitive, perhaps even dominant. This remains so for three reasons. First, liberals possess a coherent agenda, a vision which is a fertile source of policy initiatives. Second, liberalism is an elite movement, and elites are more easily able to translate their ideas into policy. And third, the liberal movement rests on a network of discrete, readily mobilized constituencies which form strong grassroots coalitions.
On the other hand, as a movement of dissent, conservatives have cast much of their agenda in negative terms: anti-Communism, opposition to big government, resistance to ideological egalitarianism. When an opposition movement gains power, however, it must replace the old politics with a coherent new agenda.
The Reagan administration did not do this. It did not revoke the New Deal or restore state sovereignty or even stop the growth of the federal government. With a few noteworthy exceptions (the salutary improvements in the judiciary, the proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the stimulation of the economy through tax cuts) the accomplishments of the Reagan administration were mainly negative ones: it did less harm than the preceding liberal administrations.
Even during the Reagan years, the political conversation was mainly about liberal ideas, although now they were being rejected instead of accepted. And the liberals are still putting forward new ideas (federal day care, homosexual rights, disarmament, and the peace dividend). Conservatives have to do more than just say no to the liberal agenda; we must have new ideas of our own that can capture the imagination and loyalty of new constituencies. Otherwise the Reagan Revolution will be just an hiatus in the triumphant march of liberal progress.
A new conservative agenda must speak to the concerns Americans feel. At the very time when some intellectuals are hailing the “end of history,” ordinary Americans feel insecure about their present and their future. They worry that their children might be entrapped by drugs, or that the schools will fail to give them a decent education. They worry about crime and the emergence of an apparently permanent underclass. They worry that their children will be unable to live the American dream — to own their homes or support their families adequately. They worry about declining economic productivity, and worry that tomorrow will be worse, not better, than today.
The unifying theme in these concerns is a sense of cultural breakdown, a loss of the moral standards and ideals of excellence that make society function. The conservative agenda must address these concerns by including in its vision of government the role of fostering basic American values — the American culture.
To be effective in this way, our agenda must root itself in the ideals and beliefs which Americans actually hold. America is strong and good because of the virtues which its people have historically lived and which they continue to live today.
ELITES v. THE PEOPLE Democracy is the one form of government which depends for its success upon a virtuous people. Democracy works only so long as a sufficient proportion of the people are willing to place the common good above self-interest, and only so long as there is a broad consensus on what constitutes virtue.
In a fundamental sense, democracy represents an act of faith in the virtue of the people, on average and over the long haul. We are not speaking here of a utopianism which assumes that men are angels or can be made such, but rather of a confidence that, on balance, the people prefer good to evil and can be entrusted with the responsibility of self-government.