Politics & Policy

After Reaganism

Enjoy this sweeping — and still-fresh — classic from John O’Sullivan, first published in the April 21, 1997, issue of National Review.

‘The commonest error in politics,” said the nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Salisbury, “is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies.” Conservatives have fallen headlong into this error. It is hardly possible to open an op-ed page or to listen to a conservative talk-show without hearing that we conservatives should return to the wisdom of Ronald Reagan. We should have, we are told, tax cuts on the Reagan model; at home we should go for growthmanship and shun the root-canal approach; abroad we need a Reaganite foreign policy; we should have his faith that America’s “shining city on a hill” can expand indefinitely to absorb and accommodate all the cultures of the world; and in all things we should exhibit the genial optimism that President Reagan exuded and that animated his successful campaign in, of all years, 1984.

Now, I count myself a Reaganite and greatly admire Mr. Reagan’s historic achievements and the solid political legacy he left to be squandered by his successor. But let us be clear: Reaganism was not an innovation in political thought. It was conservative common sense applied to the problems that had developed in the 1960s and 1970s. To the stagflation of the economy, it applied tax cuts and the monetary control of inflation; to the market-sharing cartel of OPEC, it applied price decontrol and the “magic of the marketplace”; and to the revived threat from the Soviet Union it applied a military build-up and economic competition.

#ad#These policies were what most conservatives would have recommended as answers to these problems at most times in this century. The only novel thing about them is that they were actually carried out. Previous Republican administrations had merely talked about them. If these ideas had failed when finally given their chance, conservatives would then have had some serious explaining to do. Fortunately, their success confirmed the validity of the conservative approach.

It can even be argued that in one respect President Reagan was extremely fortunate: the problems he faced, though they had baffled liberals, were problems which gave conservatives no great intellectual difficulty. Liberals were then wont to say, indeed, that conservatives were offering simple answers to complex problems. But the problems were complex to liberals only because they insisted on misunderstanding them at a very simple level. Just as the Ptolemaic theory that the sun goes around the earth can be made to yield accurate predictions only by qualifying it with a multitude of exceptions and special cases, so the liberal belief that inflation was caused by unions and corporations seeking higher prices led to a multitude of difficulties as each intervention to hold down prices created more problems which required more interventions which in turn created more problems and so ad infinitum. And what was true for inflation also held for most areas of policy. It was the complex solutions advocated by liberals that caused the complex problems — at least as much as the other way around. No wonder liberals suffered from malaise.

Their malaise deepened as conservatives won two great victories in the 1980s — the consequences of which continue to reverberate. The first was the victory of the West in the Cold War; the second the intellectual victory of free-market economics over economic planning. Taken together, these have combined to produce a marked shift to the Right in world politics, at least in economic policy, comparable to the world’s shift to liberalism after the defeat of the Axis powers and the discrediting of any kind of right-wing authoritarianism in 1945. Marxists from Harvard to the Chiapas region of Mexico now lament the worldwide dominance of “neo-liberalism.” The moderate Left in Europe now asks: “What’s the Big Idea?” — i.e. the big idea that can replace socialism. In this country, Mr. Clinton won in 1996 by endorsing a balanced budget, school uniforms, and white picket fences. Some genuine conservatives have therefore concluded that “We won.”

Unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher remarked, there are no permanent victories in politics. (It was a prescient remark — made in her last party-conference speech as prime minister.) The game of politics continues indefinitely — but it continues on different ground and under shifting rules. And though the Left ought to be more confused than the Right by the ideological flux of the post–Cold War world, it is in fact moving more quickly to redefine the ground-rules of the new political game. It is doing so, moreover, not by conscious political calculation and argument, but by that curious blind but almost infallible instinct which seemingly enables liberals to see and promote their long-term aims collectively yet without any prior agreement — an instinct that led Tom Bethell and Joe Sobran to invent the term “The Hive.” That instinct comes in two parts: there is first the drive to support social trends that foster the disintegration of existing society; and, second, the impulse to build on the ruins a new social order in which traditional relations will be replaced by bureaucratic management. In other words, far from retreating at the end of the Cold War, the Left is seeking to advance: from planning merely the economy to planning society as a whole, from efficiency to equity.

#page#Let me now examine how that two-headed instinct plays out in three areas of policy: the economy, social issues (more precisely, moral issues), and cultural or identity politics (more precisely, the national question).

At first glance, the economy seems the most promising area for the Right. All parties now pay at least lip service to capitalism, a balanced budget, control of public spending, low (if not lower) taxation, and the good opinion of the bond market. To be sure, there will be disagreements over economic issues between political parties until the end of time. But as far as macroeconomic policy is concerned, we are living in a post-socialist age.

But this conclusion is too optimistic. If the economic argument for statist liberalism has evaporated, the impulse to run other people’s lives which underlies it remains. The politicians and bureaucrats who seek to control us now do so on different and more slippery grounds.

#ad#They begin by expanding regulation on common-sense grounds of protecting consumer health, workplace safety, the environment, and racial or gender “equity.” Who can object to such desirable aims, or even subject them to cool analysis of costs and benefits? Not the average Republican congressman. Yet although these interventions are not advanced on economic grounds, they assuredly have economic consequences. Most obviously, their total costs are a considerable burden on the economy. A 1990 estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency put the opportunity cost of clean-air and clean-water regulation at about 5.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product. As for the economic consequences of more intangible controls such as racial and gender quotas, there has been a noticeable reluctance on the part of academics to wonder whether these have economic costs at all. Fortunately, Leslie Spencer and Peter Brimelow did not share that reluctance. Their research led them to estimate in Forbes magazine that the opportunity costs of affirmative action were on the order of 4 percent of GDP. Everett Dirksen’s observation — “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money” –begins to sound quite modest.

Such regulations presumably account in part for whatever “stagnation” of wages may have occurred over the last 20 years. People have taken the greater wealth produced by economic growth in the form of these dispersed social, health, environmental, and equity “benefits” — which has meant that there is less left for the wage package. The same burden of regulation also powers much of the recent drive for protectionism. Both on the union Left and the Buchananite Right the explicit argument is advanced that regulated American industries are at a competitive disadvantage against the “dirty capitalism” of the Third World. Although this argument overstates the case — American industry is highly competitive when the total “mix” of productive factors is taken into account — it does have the merit of conceding that tariffs would protect not American jobs but American levels of regulation. Once again, complex solutions create complex problems.

More important, they represent an attempt by the liberal bureaucracy to bring nominally independent companies and individuals under its control without the bother of owning them and so being responsible for the consequences of the decisions which the bureaucracy enforces on them — what might be called “socialism without tears.”

But this sort of economic regulation is ultimately less significant than the second area of policy — the social issues — where the Left exercises the moral regulation of society by government. We are told by government, for instance, that equity or fairness dictates not only racial and gender quotas to remedy the effects of discrimination, but also “sensitivity training” to root out ethnic prejudices of which we may be unaware. (Judges now routinely sentence offenders to such political re-education.) Or that a proper concern for our own health (or at least for the social cost of our medical treatment) requires an ever-higher level of regulation of smoking and drinking. Or that if we have inappropriate sexual attitudes — a belief, say, in traditional morality — then government should seek to protect our children from what liberals see as the consequences of such obscurantism (AIDS, unwanted pregnancies) by compulsory sex education at school and, when that fails, the availability of abortion. Or that the government’s obligation to protect the environment goes beyond simple long-term prudence; children are increasingly taught in school that this is a religious obligation which puts the interests of the Earth or Gaia above even the long-term interests of the human race.

(These last two justifications for moral interventionism — children and Nature — are supremely shrewd. They give the socially interventionist Left something which every politician has always wanted: silent constituents. For children are not allowed to answer back, and the environment cannot do so. Listening to Al Gore or Bruce Babbitt, there are times when one wishes that dolphins and chimpanzees really could speak. It would be especially interesting to hear the candid opinion of the sloth on welfare, of wolves on foreign policy, and of the cuckoo on family values.)

#page#The two-headed liberal instinct is very much at work here. First, it discredits the dispersed moral sentiments of traditional society — such virtues as duty, fidelity, and chastity — which enable that society to work spontaneously without too close a bureaucratic supervision. Second, it seeks to deal with the moral problems thus aggravated by imposing its own moral values through law and regulation. Consider welfare policy. By making no moral distinction between the widow or deserted wife and the never-married mother, it sends out the message that the stigma attached to illegitimacy (and by extension to female promiscuity) is no longer taken seriously. That message, however, encourages an increase in the number of children born out of wedlock — and into the welfare system, where the regulations administered by the liberal bureaucracy actively discourage the two-parent family. So the bureaucracy seeks to cope with any ill effects by “safe-sex” education, by a network of social work, and by economic redistribution that enables mothers and children to live without depending upon male support — the only form of dependency of which it disapproves. The net result is that the poor are transformed from a working society, held together by traditional relations, into a disaggregated and dependent mass administered by a social bureaucracy according to its own moral lights.

#ad#What are these moral values? These are rather like the British Constitution — not written down in any single document but deducible from the practice of government over a period. They can be reduced to two basic rules, from which everything else flows: all groups should be treated equally (the definition of “equal treatment” being equal outcomes), and no one should be allowed to harm anyone else or even perhaps himself (the definition of harm generally being physical but open to a liberal interpretation when, for instance, someone is offended or even supposedly made ill by “racism.”) The result of moral regulation on these lines is to keep the form of old-fashioned virtue intact, but to transform its content. Thus, the family is celebrated but redefined to encompass any group of people living in the same household — and on that basis there is strong resistance in the bureaucracy to building the discouragement of illegitimacy into welfare reform. Or the ideal of fairness is supposed to underlie affirmative action; but that fairness has been removed from the individual and transferred to the group so that the individual is often treated unfairly in order to achieve statistical fairness across groups. Or, although a single cigarette is infinitely less risky than a single act of anal intercourse (even under “safe sex” rules), the first is made the target of strong social and legal stigmas whereas the second is encouraged (or at least criticism of it discouraged) in discussions of public health. Under the guise of health education, a different set of moral values is being propagated. Or when the public, worried by crime, demands draconian punishment, the demand is resisted except for those crimes which the liberal bureaucracy itself finds outrageous — “hate crimes,” say, or date rape, or white-collar crime — although the general public is really worried about violent crime or street crime. (And with good reason. As Madsen Pirie has asked: “When was the last time you were afraid to go out at night in case you were embezzled?”)

Although the American people may reasonably be confused about the logic of this process, they actively detest many applications of the liberal elite’s morality, from racial quotas to feminizing the Citadel. So why have liberals had so much success in imposing their values upon the nation? Americans have been persuaded that their own deeply felt moral beliefs and long-held customs are merely the preferences of a class or an ethnic group with no binding force upon the many ethnic and religious groups now inhabiting the territory we arbitrarily call the United States.

Which brings us to the third area of policy: namely, cultural or identity politics, or the national question. If you listen to liberals for only a few moments, you are likely to hear the tripartite lament: racist, sexist, homophobic. These words accurately convey the elite’s basic hostility to the American people — or, to be more precise, to the American majority. For, as the phrase implies, there are others around who are the victims of the people’s racism, sexism, and homophobia — namely, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and feminists.

The bureaucratic elite dislikes the American majority and wishes to protect its putative victims. It has invented various public policies to do so, notably affirmative action, and it has employed various governing bodies in this cause, notably the courts, the federal agencies, and those institutions of American democracy not directly accountable to the voters. But the master-key of its theory is the idea that there is no such thing as an American people at all. There is instead a multitude of American peoples whose conflicting interests need to be continually reconciled through the benign operation of the neutral bureaucratic arbiters in Washington. As Cokie Roberts so memorably put it: “To say that we want only non-professionals governing us is to show a basic disrespect for government, and though that sentiment may be popular, it is dangerous. We have nothing binding us together as a nation — no common ethnicity, history, religion, or even language — except the Constitution and the institutions it created.”

Bertolt Brecht put the same point rather more wittily: “The people has lost the confidence of the government. So the government has decided to dissolve the people and elect a new one.”

And that is the two-headed liberal instinct applied to American nationhood — dissolve the people and elect a new one. The initial process of dissolution goes by the name of multiculturalism — the theory that there is no such animal as an American but that Americans belong to different nations and cultures all sheltering under the umbrella of the Constitution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The utility of multiculturalism for the liberal elite, as Mrs. Roberts indiscreetly allowed, is to justify its own existence, role, and power. For, as Peter Brimelow has pointed out, a nation-state really has no need of a ruling elite to mediate its differences. A state in which people share the same cultural assumptions will have fewer differences to resolve than a multicultural society, and a state in which people speak the same language will be constantly resolving those differences in the conversation of democratic debate. That is a fair description of the American nation circa 1965 — the country of the great American middle class that was forged from the unmeltable ethnics which began melting seriously after the Second World War.

#page#This multi-ethnic but monocultural country had a social and political elite, to be sure, like all other countries; but by 1965 that elite did not feel itself to be distinct from the rest of society — let alone hostile to it, let alone a neutral arbiter between its component ethnicities, let alone carrying the burden of national unity on its Ivy League shoulders like some Atlas in khakis and loafers. But the New Class elite, which first infiltrated and then replaced the old ruling elite from the Sixties onward, did have a distinct self-consciousness and indeed a sense of mission. Here I would like to pay tribute to Irving Kristol, who identified this phenomenon in American life which I believe to be as important as the rise of the proletariat in the nineteenth century — a sign that Mr. Kristol’s early Marxism was not a misspent youth.

The New Class’s long march through the institutions since then has been impressive. It first established itself in the country’s cultural institutions — the universities, the media, Hollywood; then it spread to the bureaucratic institutions of government and the courts; and finally it is extending its power to those institutions, such as the corporation and the military, which had remained redoubts of conservatism. Sometimes it plants its own agents inside such bodies — the personnel and public-affairs departments of most corporations are liberal and give liberal advice to timid CEOs; sometimes it enforces its will on nominally independent companies or colleges through the courts or bureaucratic regulation; and sometimes it compels recalcitrant groups to adopt New Class values, as the military has been compelled to adopt feminist standards in military training.

#ad#And since the New Class was hostile to the mores of the nation it sought to rule, it followed that blind but infallible instinct which decreed: the first step toward ruling America is to divide it. The New Class had to create a multicultural America. This it has set about doing by a series of interwoven policies: bilingualism in the schools which fosters linguistic ghettoes, damages the economic prospects of ethnic minorities, and generally encourages the maintenance of separatist ethnic identities; opposition to entrenching English as the official language with a privileged position in law and custom; a teaching of history that downplays the central story and heroes of the American Republic, emphasizes the grievances of minorities, and paints a false picture of an America that was multicultural from 1776 onward; a system of race and gender quotas extending to recent immigrants from “protected classes” that has manifestly aggravated ill-feeling between the races and given people economic incentives to choose an “ethnic” identity over an American one; and a set of arbitrary rules governing immigration policy that have brought into the country large numbers of people who speak different languages and embrace different cultural traditions — with the result that multiculturalism has been given an entirely unwarranted plausibility in the public mind.

The aim of this nexus of policies is to shape a society composed of culturally distinct ethnicities — what Horace Kallen, an early multiculturalist, called “a federation of nationalities.” The New Class, having divided these American tribes, will govern them by mediating their disputes and transferring resources from one group to another in order to ensure equal outcomes and social harmony — rather as the handful of young men from Oxford in the Indian Civil Service governed 600 million Indians of various sects and religions in the last century. Of course, the reality is less harmonious than the image. Race-conscious policies make people conscious of race, the policy of divide-and-rule sometimes requires divisiveness, and social harmony takes a hit. We got a flavor of this in the recent internal Democratic National Committee memo recommending that criticism of the Clinton-Gore fundraising scandal should be denounced in turn as anti-Asian. Doubtless some New Class elitist in the DNC reluctantly calculated that you sometimes have to go in for that kind of thing when you are governing benighted heathens in the cramping conditions of a constitutional democracy.

And here we finally reach the Utopia of the title. For what is being pursued here is a truly utopian idea — creating the first democratic multicultural society in history. The Tory philosopher Michael Oakeshott was fond of citing the Tower of Babel as the ultimate symbol of utopian politics. But the project of a democratic multicultural America improves upon the Tower of Babel in that its advocates, unlike the builders of Babel, actually intend that everyone should end up speaking different languages. Where the Bible sees a rebuke to hubris, they embrace a social ideal.

America is not, however, the sole case of such a project. Throughout the advanced world, politics now consists largely of a liberal New Class seeking to extend its control of society by law and regulation while emancipating itself from democratic accountability by moving decisions from elected bodies to judicial or bureaucratic ones shaped by its values. The most extreme version of this seeks to dissolve the democratic nation altogether and replace it with a heterogeneous electorate divided by race, ethnicity, culture, and, above all, language. In the U.S., the New Class seeks to splinter a single nation into a multiplicity of ethnic groups while maintaining a single centralized government; in Europe it seeks to amalgamate several historic nations into a multicultural federation under a single centralized government. In both cases, however, the result is the same: what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has described as “a poly-ethnic federation administered by a single ruling class.”

#page#Long before now, therefore, we should have seen a strong conservative reaction to this latest utopian experiment. Conservatism is, after all, reactionary in the literal, non-pejorative sense. It represents the reaction of the solid citizens of society against dangerous social experiments. Edmund Burke’s Reflections was the first great expression of such conservative reaction in modern times. The West’s containment of Bolshevism extending over 70 years was the second such response. Where is the sustained critical response of American conservatism, intellectuals and politicians, to this latest impulse from the depths of Utopia? To be sure, there have been individual scouts and privateers, firing back or infiltrating the enemy camp to return with stories of libraries sacked, scholars executed, and Visigoths billeted with reluctant citizens — Gertrude Himmelfarb, John Fonte, Hilton Kramer, David Horowitz, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. But they have been few in number even among conservative or moderate liberal intellectuals. And there has been a resounding tinkle from the political wing of conservatism. Indeed, whenever such topics as affirmative action or official English have emerged into the spotlight, we have witnessed an undignified wriggling from leaders like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole as they sought unsuccessfully to reconcile a past statement of principle with their current opportunity to do something about it.

#ad#For the latest such evasion, examine the 13-point agenda issued recently by the GOP House leadership in an attempt to demonstrate that it was still there. This would be described as “listless” if it were not a laundry list. It is a catalogue of worthy aspirations –a stronger defense, local control of schools, a Balanced Budget Amendment — unconnected by any inspiring theme, and capable for the most part of being endorsed by President Clinton, or Dick Morris on a slow day. My spirit lifted briefly when I came to Point 13 –ensuring the integrity of American elections — since this is a pressing necessity, it is in the GOP’s own electoral interest, and furthermore it would represent one small battle in the war against devaluing American citizenship. But the fine print reveals that this is to be done by ensuring that “current laws are followed and enforced” when the problem is that current laws are designed to make vote fraud simple and easy. John Fund has shown, for instance, that the Justice Department opposes identity checks for election security as unconstitutional, whereas it requires those very same identity checks for selling cigarettes — a wonderful illustration of New Class priorities. But you will search the GOP statement in vain for any reversal of Motor Voter, for an endorsement of Charles Canady’s bill to rein back federal quotas, or even for a mention of official English (supported by an 80-20 split in most polls but blocked in the Senate Judiciary Committee). These issues are simply out of bounds. Republicans are nervous of even discussing them. Indeed, given the current state of the GOP, isn’t cloning sheep more or less redundant?

One explanation for this is offered in a recent issue of Commentary by David Gelernter: Republican leaders, and conservative leaders more generally, are themselves a junior branch of the New Class — what in the old Soviet jargon we might call “candidate-members” of the establishment. Here is Professor Gelernter: “Leading Republicans speak the elite’s language as the Democrats do. (‘Diversity is our strength,’ — Newt Gingrich), honor and obey the basic tenets of orthodox feminism, are no more than Democrats to be hemmed in by traditional family structure. When VMI’s future was on the line, you didn’t see Republicans rallying to its side. A few complained; most shrugged.” The same point is made in a different way by Peter Brimelow in his book Alien Nation. Citing Norman Podhoretz’s concept of the “brutal bargain” made by immigrants who surrendered their original language and culture as the price of entry into the American dream, Mr. Brimelow invents the conceit of the “bland bargain” made by conservatives after 1945, whereby they were admitted into respectable politics provided that they abjured racism, nativism, isolationism, and all the other bigotries of which their parents had been allegedly guilty.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in principle with such a bargain — and for a long time there was nothing wrong in practice with it either. It smoothed the way for the development of the morally serious conservative movement that won the White House in 1980 and the Congress in 1994. The problem is that the definition of what is respectable in these matters and what is not — racism, nativism, etc. — lies in the hands of the cultural institutions, particularly the media, which are themselves in the hands of New Class liberals. And they are constantly expanding the definition of established sins like racism, as well as inventing new ones like sexism, so that conservative leaders in thrall to the “bland bargain” find themselves morally disarmed on issues where the American people are on their side. As long as they remain silent on such issues as bilingual education or immigration and concentrate on “safe” topics like balancing the budget, they will be treated as respectable figures. If they do not, they risk being demonized by their opponents and disowned by their colleagues. And, by and large, notwithstanding the occasional Buchanan, they have observed a prudent silence on the central political issue of the reshaping of their country along non-national lines. Their reward is that American conservatism today occupies its own modest principality in the Utopia being built by the New Class.

#page#But this cynical interpretation is not the full story. Unfortunately, conservatives have a legitimate title to the property. For there are marked utopian strains in much American conservative thought. This is clearest in libertarianism, where writers like Murray Rothbard have been openly utopian, devising ideal anarchic societies in which, for instance, law and order would be maintained by the insurance companies. Of course, such imaginings are in part a heuristic device, intended to throw light on less remote possibilities here and now. But libertarianism in general neglects important aspects of the “meta-market,” principally the cultural underpinnings needed to make capitalism work. These cultural factors occur in some societies and ethnic groups more than others, as Milton Friedman pointed out a few years ago in Forbes magazine. Asked if there might be such cultural prerequisites, he replied: “Oh, yes. For example, truthfulness. The success of Lebanon as a commercial entrepot was to a significant degree because the merchants’ word could be trusted. It cut down transaction costs. It’s a curious fact that capitalism developed and has really come to fruition in the English-speaking world. It hasn’t really made the same progress even in Europe . . . I don’t know why this is so, but the fact has to be admitted.”

#ad#Less self-critical libertarians imagine that the market will spontaneously solve all the problems caused by the multiplication of cultures in modern America. And so, in a sense, it will — but at a price. The trust mentioned by Friedman is less evident in certain cultures, notably those of Latin America, and even when it exists within cultures, it is inevitably less reliable as a bridge between cultures. The market can solve this erosion of trust — and has done so in America by the spread of a meta-culture of legalism and the multiplication of lawyers. But just how satisfactory is that?

The same objection, if to a lesser extent, applies to the Hope, Growth, and Opportunity school of conservatism, a/k/a supply-siders, namely Jack Kemp, Steve Forbes, Jude Wanniski, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They too can be caricatured as utopians — “panacea men” who believe that tax cuts will cure the common cold. But the underlying strategy is a serious one: that a combination of low marginal tax rates and fixed exchange rates will raise the long-term rate of economic growth, which in turn will give “hope” to the various ethnic groups in America, who will thus cooperate with one another without needing the social cement of a common culture and a sense of common nationhood (or, of course, the liberals’ cement of economic redistribution). The constituent parts of this theory also have merit. Social harmony is easier to achieve in times of prosperity than during depressions. Lowering marginal tax rates over the last two decades have both boosted the economy, as the supply-siders predicted, and restrained government by depriving it of revenue, as Milton Friedman proposed. And for those very reasons, a political strategy built around cutting taxes unified the maximum number of conservatives under Ronald Reagan’s banner.

But important caveats have to be entered too. The first is that those conservatives who advocate tax cuts as a way of fueling the expansion of government services are doubly utopian. Their aim is undesirable and, fortunately, unachievable: tax cuts produce an actual increase in revenue only if the rates are extremely high (according to Alan Walters’s calculation, at Swedish levels of 80 percent or thereabouts). And while tax cuts remain an important part of any conservative message, relying on them as the main element in a political strategy is equally unrealistic. They are inevitably less appealing to the voters in the circumstances of today than in 1980, when the top marginal rate was 70 percent and the economy plainly needed a strong cure for a misery index that was in the mid 20s.

It is on fixed exchange rates, however, where the utopianism of the opportunity conservatives really reveals itself. For fixed exchange rates always break down in the end — and they do so for a significant reason. The pre-1914 Gold Standard lasted as long as it did because it was embedded in the moral conscience of Victorian England. It was a cultural symbol — “as good as gold” — as well as a financial policy. Those who understood how it worked thought it would be a sin to go off gold, and those who didn’t thought it would be literally impossible. Lest you think I exaggerate, consider the British financial crisis of 1931 when the Labour government fell from office in a failed attempt to maintain the pound at its pre-war value in gold. When the Tories came in, they promptly floated the pound. On hearing the news, Sidney Webb, who had been a Labour cabinet minister, remarked: “They never told us we could do that.”

Well, everybody knows now. Furthermore, fixed exchange rates are not embedded in the American financial conscience as a shibboleth requiring unquestioned obedience. (Is anything?) So it is highly uncertain that a policy reliant on a fixed rate would be sustained if times got bad and the price for its maintenance was sky-high interest rates and rising unemployment. (Compare the 1992 collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in Europe, which occurred despite interest rates that, in the case of Sweden, reached 500 percent at one point.) Fixed exchange rates are not the same thing as stable money. Indeed, they tend to destabilize domestic monetary policy. My own far-from-expert instinct in these matters is to place greater trust in Hayek’s vision of competing currencies, which would give no single government a monopoly over my economic prospects.

Let us suppose, however, that fixed exchange rates and tax cuts will produce the best available economic outcome. It still requires a large leap of faith to believe that they will significantly raise the long-term rate of economic growth. A multitude of social and economic factors go into determining this rate, which has heretofore proved not very responsive to policy and even hard to measure accurately at times. The aphorism that it is not in mortals to command success seems to apply with special force to Treasury secretaries. And even if higher growth were to be achieved, can we be sure that it would produce social harmony? Economic growth generally rewards different groups unequally, with some groups falling behind in times of rising prosperity. If those groups were already cut off from most Americans by language and culture, this differential prosperity might only aggravate their grievances. Let us recall that the 1905 revolution in Russia took place after 40 years of dramatic economic advance. The lesson seems to be that whatever economic policy we favor, we cannot rely exclusively on it to solve the problems of ethnic distrust and social disintegration that other policies are fostering. We must deal with these problems directly.

#page#But there is a third utopian obstacle to such directness: namely, the neoconservative belief that America is not a country, but an idea — a “credal nation” held together not by ethnic links, cultural sympathies, or shared historical memories, but by conscious subscription to the liberal political ideas outlined in the Declaration of Independence and entrenched in the Constitution. Because being an American is a matter of believing these ideas, the country is thought to be capable of absorbing and assimilating people from different cultures in limitless numbers. America is the first universal nation, in Ben Wattenberg’s phrase, and everyone in the world is a potential American.

A warning that the nation here described is less America than Utopia is sounded when we look at some of its supporters. The anti-American European Left, having been disappointed by one Communist utopia after another from Cuba to North Korea, now hails America as the last best hope of mankind. For the U.S. allegedly shows that, despite the failure of ideological states like the Soviet Union, a nation does not require the unbidden loyalties of culture and ethnicity, but can be constructed on the foundations of ideology, conscious political choice, and even the availability of welfare benefits.

#ad#Support from the Left does not, of course, conclusively disprove the neoconservative view — though it should give us pause. As it happens, however, there are substantial conservative objections to it:It is incoherent. If America really were reduced to liberal political ideas, that would make it impossible to distinguish Americans from liberal-minded foreigners. Which is absurd. What is not absurd but worrying is the potential for intolerance embedded in this ostensibly liberal concept, since it casts doubt on the patriotism of anti-liberal Americans (who now apparently include contributors to First Things).It is historically false. As John Jay pointed out in The Federalist Papers, the people who wrested their independence in 1776 were not a heterogeneous multitude united by political ideas. They were one people with their own language, culture, laws, and institutions. Immigrants subsequently arrived in the U.S., but they then assimilated to this English-speaking American culture. They also enriched it — and membership in this common culture, which encompasses all the nation’s constituent ethnic groups, is currently the best definition of being an American. The principles of the Declaration are the conscious political distillation of this culture, but not the whole and sum of it.

It is practically false. Opinion experiments have shown that many ordinary Americans, if stopped on the street and read passages from America’s central political documents, will indignantly reject the ideas expressed there. Are they bad Americans? Of course not; but they are not political theorists either. Shaped by America’s culture, they experience liberty and equality not as abstract political ideas but as lived experiences, and so they say what they think — not what they were taught long ago in a dull civics lesson.

Above all, it offers no defense against the New Class utopia of a multiculturalist America. Indeed, America-as-an-idea is a carrier of multiculturalism. If Americans are united not by a common culture and a sense of common nationhood, but merely by liberal political ideas, then there is no reason why traditional American culture should be “privileged” as the culture of the entire American people. It would merely be the culture (and language, and customs, etc.) of a particular ethnic group — one among many competing for attention and respect in the public square. And all that would be required of an ethnic culture seeking equal public expression (and protection) in schools, the voting booth, the workplace, etc. would be that it conform broadly to the liberal political ideas of the Declaration. But these ideas would be increasingly deprived of the cultural soil in which they grew and which gave them meaning in political debate, court decisions, and local customs. They would then be increasingly defined by the courts so as to reconcile them with New Class values — e.g., the equal status of all cultures except where one clashes with feminism. Multiculturalism would be advanced rather than restrained.

The end result would be the Tower of Babel mentioned above — as the mass immigration supported by neoconservatives continued, and as the assimilation sought by them gradually became meaningless in a country as marked by cultural and linguistic separatism as an Ivy League campus today. Were not similar predictions made in the early years of this century disproved by the rise of the strong American nation with a sense of common destiny that won the Cold War? Certainly. But immigration was sharply restricted in the early 1920s. For practical purposes, there was an immigration “pause” between 1925 and 1965 — after which the New Class emerged and began its long march to Utopia. Neoconservatives thus find themselves hiring the bricklayers for a Utopia which they oppose building.

A final symptom of utopianism is more worrying than all the rest because it may have ordinary Americans, not just Republican politicians and conservative ideologues, in its grip. On the evening of Senator Dole’s acceptance speech, Bill Kristol was giving his judgment of it on television. He praised the speech in general as eloquent and uplifting; but he expressed a prescient anxiety about one element in it. He worried that Senator Dole’s offer to be a bridge to America’s better past would prove to be unsettling to an electorate that had generally shown itself to be optimistic and future-minded — and, he might have added, to a party which had just staged a convention celebrating diversity, victimhood, and other themes of New Class utopianism.

#page#Of course, this theme may not have been crucial to Mr. Dole’s defeat — to which, indeed, everything seemed to contribute. But there is no doubt that President Clinton and Dick Morris independently reached the same conclusion as Bill Kristol — unless, that is, they were watching TV at the time and Bill actually tipped them off — and neatly turned the Republican’s metaphor around to their own advantage.

Yet Mr. Dole was making a perfectly valid argument: that an America of safe streets, intact families, and caring communities was not an impossible dream but an achievable reality, since he and many people now living had inhabited just such a country. As Bertrand Russell once said, the existence of a thing is conclusive proof of its possibility. And it was also a deeply conservative argument. Conservatives, when seeking to describe the kind of society they find congenial, instinctively look to the past, whereas liberals and radicals look to the future. We cite the past because it seems to confirm our view of human nature; they cite the future because it cannot disprove their view of human nature. (Indeed, they generally have to invent a new sort of human being — Soviet Man, the Bicultural Canadian, the New European, the Universal American — if their new sort of society is to work at all.) We remember a Golden Age; they imagine a Utopia.

#ad#It would be a bad portent for conservatism, therefore, if a future-minded utopianism were to dominate the reaction of American voters on the social and national questions. But a closer examination of the electorate’s opinions offers some comfort. The recent poll by Fabrizio & McLaughlin, examining the social groups making up the Republican coalition, reveals a large body of floating voters whose principal anxiety focuses on the fraying of America. They are concerned about crime, quotas, and almost certainly — though, curiously, the poll did not ask questions on these topics — about immigration and bilingualism. These voters were termed “cultural populists” by the pollsters, christened “Buchananites” by candid friends of the GOP such as E. J. Dionne, and promptly dispatched to the outer darkness. As with white males in 1994, it is probably not respectable to seek their votes, and a victory gained with them providing the crucial margin of support may be of dubious constitutionality.

They are also in danger of being misunderstood. They are not especially supportive of Mr. Buchanan — a little unfairly, since he has been the principal spokesman for their concerns. Most do not think of themselves as conservatives. Indeed, in their opinions, they are more “like” other Americans than, say, the “moralists” in the Republican coalition. Indeed, they may be too like most Americans: 44 percent of them voted for Bill Clinton in 1996. And there are a lot of them. They account for just under a quarter of the GOP’s voters and — more interestingly — for an even larger group among Democrats and independents. They are disproportionately young, disproportionately female, disproportionately situated in the growing regions of the country like the South and the West. They fit the ideal target voter profile for Republican pollsters — in every respect except one. They are too conservative, too realistic about the balkanization of America — too concerned, in short, about the issues which the Republican and conservative leaderships want to avoid.

What they demonstrate, of course, is that conservative nervousness and Republican passivity over the multicultural fraying of America is politically foolish as well as morally obtuse. These Americans know, with Macaulay, that an acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia, and they know, with Bob Dole, that their little acre was once safer and better tended than it is today. They would like to restore it to its earlier condition. Their only problem is that conservatives are giving them no one to vote for.

COPYRIGHT 1997 National Review, Inc.

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