EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 1, 1998, issue of National Review.
The conservative moment in American politics was fun while it lasted, but it’s over. Social democracy is enjoying a modest revival throughout the industrialized world. That, at least, has been the message of countless magazine essays and newspaper op-eds over the last two years. Christopher Caldwell, one of the most perceptive political observers around (and a conservative), recently argued in The Atlantic Monthly that an increasingly affluent public will increasingly reject a GOP dominated by Southerners and led by eccentric college professors. Other articles have claimed that Bill Clinton’s formula of cultural moderation combined with governmental activism on behalf of the middle class could define a dawning political era. (I’ve written a few myself.)
But Clintonism has underappreciated weaknesses. It may not have a lasting political impact, partly for this reason: it is incapable of inspiring idealism in young people. This is important because much of the work of politics is, strictly speaking, irrational. Unless you believe strongly in a candidate or cause, you’re unlikely to spend your time going door to door, still less to make a low-paying career in activism. People had that kind of belief in Barry Goldwater and Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Ronald Reagan. These men brought thousands of bright, ideologically motivated kids into politics–where many of them remain to this day.
Broad but shallow support of the sort Clintonism can command is no substitute for the energy of a committed minority. Indeed, as Michael Barone has remarked, unpopularity can be the glue that holds a coalition together. If gay rights and abortion and affirmative action were popular, for example, liberals wouldn’t need the Democratic Party to get what they want. Similarly, the YAFers who cut their teeth on the Goldwater campaign were propelled by the intoxicating sense that they understood things most people didn’t. They changed American politics, as did similarly committed liberal Democrats in the Seventies and Eighties, who never enjoyed the support of most Americans (and, indeed, provoked a backlash that sent scores of Goldwater veterans to Washington), but were able to enact much of their agenda anyway.
Bill Clinton doesn’t have followers like that. He can’t motivate young people to do irrational things. (Okay, except for Monica.) This was not immediately apparent. His first election saw an uptick in voting in general and especially among the young. During the Reagan years, this group had been increasingly gravitating to the GOP. But by 1992, they saw George Bush as out of touch. They flocked to the man from Hope, the would-be heir to JFK.
It took many people decades to learn that Camelot was a sham, and some will cling to it until they cash their last Social Security check. It took Bill Clinton less than a year in office to make it clear that he would not even provide the sham. Now, 18-to-29-year-olds view Clinton more negatively than any other age group. Not even the most deluded young person can regard the Clinton White House as Camelot II. Clinton has destroyed the moral force of the liberal center, both by his personal failings, especially his duplicity, and by his abject subservience to the polls.
These days, the smart, politically active liberal has almost disappeared from the college campus. There are still smart liberals–but they’re in engineering. And there are still liberal activists–but they’re unimpressive. The old saw that the most talented conservatives go into business and leave politics to liberals no longer apply. For one thing, today’s diversity-trained, socially conscious corporations are more comfortable homes for liberals than the business world used to be. And entrepreneurship is more attractive than ever, and politics less so, to young people of all stripes.
In addition, young conservatives tend to have been introduced to conservatism in a systematic way, often by institutions (including magazines) established for that purpose. Young liberals haven’t needed to be introduced to liberalism; they absorbed it from the culture and the schools. Hence some characteristic strengths and weaknesses of each side: dominance among elites and complacency for liberals, drive and marginality for conservatives.
These changes are already affecting the two parties’ candidate recruitment. Barone offers the example of Tom Downey, the paradigmatic Watergate baby, swept into a House seat in a Republican district in New York at the age of 25. From 1974 to 1992, his political talent won him nine of ten elections. “If people just voted party, the Democrats might have won two in that district. The difference between two and nine is the difference between a Democratic and Republican Congress when you multiply by the number of similar congressional districts,” says Barone. The Democrats “are not getting significant [numbers] of Tom Downeys any more.” (He adds that Republicans are doing only slightly better.)
Instead, idealistic and intelligent young liberals are congregating around “community action” groups, academe, AIDS and homeless activism, the radical labor movement. They still provide a lot of the Democratic Party’s remaining energy at the local level, but they’re not in Washington. And they hate Bill Clinton for spurning their pointless enthusiasms.
Which isn’t to say that Clinton’s politics has no young followers. But aside from some bookish theorists, they tend to be people who congratulate themselves for their cynicism, they mistake for sophistication. Cynicism and irony are conservative moods in the sense that they are better suited for defending the status quo than for effecting massive change. They can sustain a movement trying to preserve past liberal achievements that are now threatened. Hostility to conservatives is indeed the closest that these cynical liberals come to a principle. But their new achievements will inevitably be meager. Clintonism may work as a holding action in a conservative era. It is unlikely to yield any deliverance to another liberal era.