Imagine you’re an umbrella salesman during the early rainfall that led to Noah’s flood. You might think these are the best of times because business is so good. Or imagine you’re the pastor of the last church in town because the rest have been bulldozed to make way for strip malls and strip clubs. You might think the standing-room-only crowd was a sign of moral health. Imagine you’re the leader of the last polka band in America…oh you get the point: Success and progress can be deceptive.
One more example: Imagine you’re the grand strategist of the Republican party during an age of unremitting social change. Homosexuality has been mainstreamed. The New York Times announces gay “weddings” alongside “traditional” ones and the social momentum is toward full legal recognition of gay marriages sometime in the near future. The popular culture being pumped into American homes is often coarse, smutty, and alien to traditional values. Narcissism has filled the vacuum of nihilism–designer drugs, designer bodies, designer children with nary a drop of shame for any of it. Technology itself is reducing the once-sacred boundaries of self and soul to a vast gray area where people are a collection of software and interchangeable parts. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are cutting off heads, blowing up Americans, and threatening to use nuclear or biological weapons on American soil. Even many of our European “allies” have decided that hating America is simply easier and more satisfying than hating America’s enemies.
I don’t mean to swipe John Derbyshire’s pessimism hat, but I think the folks who celebrate the Republican triumph as a conservative triumph may be getting ahead of themselves.
Forget conservative and liberal for a moment. Think order and disorder. Disorderly times are good for orderly parties. Orderly times are good for disorderly parties, largely because mankind can always be counted on to cure its boredom by mucking things up.
According to the conventional wisdom, Bill Clinton was the candidate of “change” in 1992. I don’t think so. I think he was the candidate of order. He may have been the Man from Hope, but he played on peoples’ fear and exploited an image of Bush as a passive, “aloof” president unconcerned with the roiling changes in society. People forget that the Harris Wofford senatorial race revealed and galvanized popular anxieties about healthcare. The central issue was that in an age of ever-increasing job-turnover, health care (and retirement) became a huge concern because your job was your access-point to a vast array of social services. Clinton promised to provide “economic security”–which meant, among other things, giving people guaranteed healthcare. Crime was perceived as being out of control, as was welfare. Clinton promised to “end Welfare as we know it” and to put 100,000 police on the streets. He was pro-death-penalty and wanted to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” In others words, and to make a long story short, his promises of “change” were actually promises to restore order. His stances on almost every issue were designed to make people think society would be more stable, more rational, and more “secure.”
Perhaps because Bill Clinton was what social scientists call “a liar” he didn’t actually intend to govern that way. Or perhaps he simply bungled things. But his first two years in office were not what one would call orderly. He started with the gays-in-the-military fiasco and then waltzed right into HillaryCare. That plan, which was designed to do exactly what Bill Clinton promised, had the unintended side-effect of being far more chaotic than the status quo. It scared the dickens out of people.
This opened the way for Newt Gingrich, whose Contract with America seemed like a compact with the American people to restore order out of chaos. Term limits for committee chairs, new ethical standards, applying the laws of the land to government officials: These sounded like steps to bring the chaos and scandal of Clinton’s reign under control. But Newt Gingrich was not a candidate for order. He wanted to privatize this and shut down that. He called himself a “revolutionary.” I liked that stuff, but Bill Clinton was able to convince the American people that they shouldn’t. The government shutdown hurt Republicans, not Democrats. I was gravely disappointed by that at the time, but it appears that while Americans may not love government, they want it when they think they need it and they want it to be run well. Sigh.
In 1996 Clinton ran on such issues as the V-Chip, seatbelts on school buses, school uniforms, “saving” Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the environment (who can forget that mantra?), food safety, and his boasts to have expanded the death penalty (he did but in ludicrously tiny ways). He was, critics charged, running for mayor of America. Other factors aided his victory–Dole’s candidacy, Clinton’s gift for making a victim out of himself, his signing of the welfare-reform law–but at the end of the day Clinton won because he was able to tap into small symbols of disorder and translate them into promises of a restored order.
Indeed, one of the reasons Gingrich was such a useful foil for Clinton is the inherent contradiction within the conservative movement. Conservatives are the chief defenders of a capitalist, free-market system, and the capitalist, free-market system is perhaps the most profoundly unconservative social force in human history. Markets topple established customs, they raze settled communities and erase whole ways of life. Conservatives defend this system not out of greed, but out of principle. Freedom without economic freedom is a farce. And economic security provided by government planners has, historically, been the security of guaranteed impoverishment. But that doesn’t negate the fact that as much as I like libertarian economic policies, they can be a real handicap at the polls. Nearly 80 years of bribing the public with entitlements has made the idea of yanking entitlements a politically risky proposition.
Let’s skip ahead to 2004. The Republicans won and won bigger than the tallies would suggest given that so many forces were arrayed against Bush. We had gotten to the point where “enlightened,” “reality-based,” and “sophisticated” had become euphemisms for “Bush-hater” in certain coastal corners of America. Whether the roles played by terrorism and/or “values” were as big as their partisans claim, both categories are attractive to people seeking order for reasons too obvious to spell out. John Kerry may have talked a good game about “economic security” but he was almost entirely tone deaf on “values.” And his record on foreign policy was sufficiently worrisome that even veterans overwhelmingly voted for the alleged draft-dodger over the decorated vet.
Anyway, here’s the point. The rate and degree of societal change depend on a lot more factors than mere partisan politics. Technology, economics, culture, foreign events, demography, and for all I know the tides can play much larger roles in forcing change on society. I fear that the Republican party’s success in recent years has much to do with the fact that they are perceived as a port in the storm, not the means of reversing the storm. It’s entirely possible that the GOP will continue to rack up more and more victories even as society moves further and further to the left. Even Bush came out in favor of some kind of civil unions toward the end of the campaign.
The problem for conservatives is that a party dedicated to “security” or “order” is going to be less ideologically conservative (i.e. for aggressive reform, downsizing government, expanding markets, etc.) even as it becomes more temperamentally small-c conservative. Bush has straddled this divide without that much commentary over the last four years. When he said, “the government must move” when someone is “hurting,” it was written off as either squishy liberalism or gross pandering. What if it’s neither?
I’m not as down on the Bush administration–or life–as I sound here. Keep in mind, for example, that the two forms of conservatism don’t have to be in conflict. Bush’s “ownership society” might just be a brilliant bit of marketing for a raft of ideas that have seemed too scary in the past. By emphasizing that citizens will gain “control” over their lives and their money, what was once a “radical” dismantling of the safety net is now a means of giving people a sense of security over changes in their life. “Control” is an “order” word and if libertarian economic policies can be sold as a means to increase individual control, that’s great. And I should say I don’t think all of the changes some conservatives dislike about contemporary culture are necessarily all that bad.
Nevertheless, it might be worth pondering that a Republican party that succeeds on fighting terrorism and cultural rot may be a sign of the GOP’s health and simultaneously a sign of the society’s problems. Surely, America would be better off if the GOP didn’t have terrorism as an issue to take advantage of. Why? Because terrorism is really, really bad. Similarly, America would be better off if parents didn’t need to buy V-chips and home-school their kids. In other words, enough celebrating the GOP’s success and more worrying about why it’s successful.