In the past several days, I have noted three things in the media that bear on the struggle over conservatism. Well, maybe more than three, but I would like to comment on three. This will not be a very fun Impromptus, maybe — but, on the plus side, it’ll be brief.
Here I go.
• The Weekly Standard has published a very interesting article by John McCormack. It’s called “Rubio Goes Nationalist: Meet the new Marco.” One line in particular grabbed me by the throat.
It comes from Rubio himself, who denounced — get ready — “the radical you’re-on-your-own individualism promoted by our government and by our society in the last 30 years.”
Um . . . has our government, and our society, promoted such an individualism over the last 30 years? Not the government or society I have watched.
But it was the words “you’re on your own” that really grabbed me. That’s what Barack Obama used to say. When he was deriding, and caricaturing, conservative philosophy, he’d say, “You’re on your own!” That was what we conservatives were telling people, according to the Obama caricature.
I blasted him for this many times. And now to hear the same words out of the mouth of Marco Rubio? There could not be a clearer sign of the times.
Actually, Google tells me that Democrats have been using the “You’re on your own” slander for ages (and I have been blasting them for those ages). In 2007, Senator Hillary Clinton did it to President George W. Bush. What he was calling an “ownership society,” she said, was really an “on-your-own society.” (I blasted her here.)
I never heard a better answer to “You’re on your own” than one given by W. himself, after he left office. This was in 2013, when he was inaugurating his presidential center in Dallas. All the living ex-presidents were there, and their wives (so this included Mrs. Clinton). President and Michelle Obama were there too.
And in front of one and all, Bush said, “Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.”
David Cameron, too, gave a good answer. This was in a speech delivered in 2014: “I care deeply about those who struggle to get by — but I believe the best thing to do is help them stand on their own two feet. And no, that’s not saying, ‘You’re on your own,’ but, ‘We are on your side, helping you be all you can.’ And I believe in something for something; not something for nothing.”
Back to Senator Rubio (of whom I’ve long been a fan, which is why he ticks me off — most politicians, I’m indifferent to): When he embraced the “You’re on your own” smear, he was celebrating civil society, or, as he put it, “community.” I find the whole passage bizarre. You can read it in this speech, delivered earlier this summer.
In the past, conservatives emphasized limited government, civil society, and personal responsibility. We were not for dog-eat-dog individualism; we were not Social Darwinists (many conservatives weren’t Darwinists of any kind, and still aren’t!); we wanted solutions for people, whether those solutions were governmental or not.
When I was in college, some kids chanted, “Reagan, Bush, you can’t hide, we charge you with gen-o-cide!” What did they mean? They meant that the Reagan administration was trying to slow the rate of increase of social spending. They were not trying to decrease social spending — that was a pipe dream. They were trying to slow the rate of increase. And, for that: “gen-o-cide.”
Currently, there is a critique of the Right that goes something like this:
For years, conservatives had a message for the down and out in inner cities: Quit blaming others for your problems. Take responsibility for your lives. Drop the mantras of “systemic racism” and “the legacy of slavery.” Reject the victim mentality. Turn down your music, hitch up your pants, lay off drugs, stop having babies out of wedlock, get a job.
The critique continues,
And now? The Right talks differently, when it comes to the down and out — the down and out in places other than inner cities. They do a lot of scapegoating: of foreigners, immigrants, banks — the whole populist arsenal.
If this critique stings, it may be because there is truth in it. I think of Donald Trump’s closing ad in the 2016 campaign, his “final argument.” See it here. It is complete with pictures of George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein.
In 2000, another candidate, another Republican nominee, spoke of “compassionate conservatism.” That was George W. Bush. And a lot of conservatives, including me, didn’t like it very much. (I thought it might be useful for rhetorical purposes.) Phil Gramm memorably said, “Freedom is compassionate.”
Other conservatives were more heated than that. They denounced “compassionate conservatism” as a mollycoddling false conservatism, accepting of big government.
Today, many of those same people denounce pre-Trump conservatives as heartless — as “globalist” “elites” who say to ordinary people the equivalent of “Let them eat cake”: “You’re on your own.” The mind reels.
The pre-Trump conservative should defend his beliefs from defamation, whether it comes from Left or Right.
• In Ohio, the 12th Congressional District has just had a special election. And Robert Costa, an ace political reporter of the Washington Post (formerly an ace political reporter of National Review), tweeted the following:
“The moment that sticks out for me in this Ohio race: Ohio state Sen. Troy Balderson, a low-key state lawmaker, somewhat awkwardly adopting Trump’s style at Sat.’s rally. Glancing down at his notes, he took shots at ‘Dishonest Danny’ as Trump looked on.”
Name-calling has apparently become a Republican trait — a sine qua non. The Trump style has trickled down to the Republican party and the conservative movement at large. This is something hard to measure in the usual balls-and-strikes approach to Trump.
According to polls, a startling percentage of Republicans have a favorable view of Putin; and a startling percentage wish Trump had the authority to shut down media outlets he dislikes. How do you measure that in balls and strikes?
Back to this name-calling business — the style of brats and bullies in the schoolyard. I think of WFB, William F. Buckley Jr., who once presided over the conservative movement. He had notably good manners. He thought they were part of civilization, and thus of conservatism. When he lapsed from them — which was rare — he regretted it keenly. (I wrote about this not long ago, here.)
Whenever I write about manners — and the Trump persona — I hear from people who say, “Well, your well-mannered Romney is a loser, and you are a loser, and loser loser loser!” I’m not sure that the Trump style will win in the long run.
Or that it is good for the soul. Or that it is conservative. Or right.
• Some of my fellow conservatives knock what they call “zombie Reaganism.” What they are saying, I think, is that policies of the Reagan era don’t fit every time and place. Which is naturally true.
I have written on this subject over the years. I think, in particular, of an interview I did with Michael Gove, the British politician and writer, in 2014. I brought up “Reagan nostalgia,” and its cousin, “Thatcher nostalgia.” Gove was interesting on this question, as on all others.
Yet this notion of “zombie-ism.” Well . . . I think of free enterprise. Free trade. An opposition to dictatorship. Support of democracy and human rights. Alliances, such as NATO. American leadership in the world. An appreciation of immigration. A scorn for “crony capitalism.” An honest patriotism. Decency in office. E pluribus unum. And much more.
If this makes us old Reaganites zombies, fine: Paint a Z on my chest. And I’d rather be a zombie Reaganite than a zombie a-lot-of-other-things that are floating around, and, indeed, reigning.
Well, I promised you a short Impromptus — full of vegetables (lima beans?) — and you got it. See you next time!
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