Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Conservatism at a Crossroads

It is the best and the worst of times for conservatives. Those who believe in fiscal responsibility, smaller government, individual freedom, strong defense, and reverence for Western traditions and American customs have won back both houses of Congress. Republicans enjoy strong majorities of the state legislatures and governorships. President Obama’s approval ratings in the polls regularly fall below 45 percent. The public seems to tire of politically correct demagoguery, the dumbing down of every issue into a matter of the noble people versus the selfish individual.

Most polls suggest that far more Americans see themselves as conservative than as liberal. Red states run much smaller budget deficits despite having lower taxes. Few Americans believe that states such as California, Illinois, and New York, or cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit, are paradigms of 21st-century good government. Abroad, statism — whether the crony-state capitalism of China or the paternalistic socialism of the European Union — is in crisis.

But on fiscal and defense issues, conservatives remain weeds in an otherwise largely liberal garden. Defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP are sinking to pre–World War II levels. The national debt will soon top $20 trillion; $500 billion annual deficits are now hailed as proof of fiscal discipline. In foreign policy, “leading from behind” and offering a “reset” of relations with antagonistic states characterize America’s retreat from its traditional post-war leadership. Chaos fills the void.

The Affordable Care Act is transforming health care from a private enterprise into another government-run entitlement. Climate-change legislation, largely thwarted by congressional resistance, is being implemented by executive order and by the EPA’s freelancing efforts to shut down fossil-fuel plants. Taxes have been raised — and are likely to rise again, given public reluctance to prune back unsustainable Social Security and Medicare spending.

On many social and political issues, conservatism is even further strangled. Gay marriage by judicial fiat is suddenly the law of the land and imposed intolerantly on private businesses that dare to object on religious grounds. Half the country believes in abortion on demand, despite periodic revelations of the macabre practices of a Dr. Gosnell or a Planned Parenthood. Bureaucratic regulations grow at the expense of markets and property rights. Enforcement of federal immigration laws in many states is nonexistent.

The common denominator of the new lawlessness is a perception of social justice. Perceived equality and fairness determine whether a particular law is enforced or ignored. Sanctuary cities declare themselves exempt from federal immigration laws, even though no community could renounce the Endangered Species Act or exempt itself from federal laws governing handgun purchases.

Popular American culture — and indeed Western civilization from Europe to the former British Commonwealth — is largely liberal. Progressive opponents of religion criticize a liberal pope, who admonishes his flock on everything from climate change to consumer capitalism, for being too conservative. Art, literature, music, and architecture are evaluated mostly through the prism of race, class, and gender, and according to the degree to which they contribute to progressive change and equality of outcomes. Hollywood movies rarely reflect American values of patriotism, individual heroism, physical courage, or the defense of tradition and custom. Most American institutions — academia and the public schools, state and federal bureaucracies, the entertainment industry, journalism and the media, and philanthropic foundations — are decidedly liberal. Their creed is a government-mandated parity and equality of result, ostensibly directed against the exercise of personal choice and individual liberty.

Illegitimacy and divorce rates are high, and birth rates are low. “The Life of Julia,” an Obama-campaign slideshow about cradle-to-grave dependence on federal assistance, not Little House on the Prairie, is the preferred social model. Gratuitous violence, sexual decadence, and cruelty are the stuff of popular video games and rap music. The graphic lyrics and showmanship of Jay Z and Miley Cyrus have replaced the upbeat messages of the Four Tops and the Beach Boys; the latter had not been necessarily antithetical to earlier musical genres such as jazz and folk music. Multicultural separatism, not the old American idea of a melting pot, is the norm; identity politics deliver far greater career dividends for a racial and ethnic elite harboring an array of grievances than does assimilation.

In reaction to all this, the rise of the Tea Party, constitutional conservatives, and outsider presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina may represent about half the country, people whose anger at the direction of their culture and politics has grown, especially during the years of the Obama administration.

Americans and perhaps Westerners in general sense that the leisure and affluence that follow from free markets and consensual government — especially the marriage of consumer capitalism with constitutionally protected freedoms — have created ostentatious wealth and hedonism that can easily descend into license and ennui. So powerful is the allure of the redistributive state — from convalescent care for seniors to Social Security payouts for Baby Boomers — that even conservatives don’t dare to question the expansion of government programs that are largely unfunded.

So there is a conservative awareness that the direction of the West is neither healthy nor sustainable. But solutions give way to confusion and frustration, echoing the Roman irony that the remedy is felt to be worse than the disease. Several forces contribute to this trend toward ever-increasing government services and state-mandated redistribution.

Globalization and worldwide instant communications have blurred national borders. Germans and Californians may have ample safety nets in place for their own poor. But if millions of migrants from impoverished failed societies reach their lands — and if the ordeal is televised to hundreds of millions — they are first felt to be obligated to accept “refugees” and then almost immediately held culpable for not ensuring near-instant parity. The disaster in Congo becomes, in Washington, a referendum on caring; those fleeing the Third World mess of Oaxaca are seen as California’s moral responsibility.

Technology may redefine poverty even as it accentuates increasing anger over imparity. The abundance of mass-produced goods and electronic appurtenances has put the computing power of the late-20th-century rich into the palms of the underclass of 2015. Today a cheap Kia is by all measures a better car than a Mercedes of 20 years ago. Hot-water heaters, air conditioners, and central heating enable the American poor of Bakersfield to enjoy the same interior environments as those in $30 million beach homes in Malibu. Yet with this widespread material improvement comes only increased appetite — and increased anger over inequality. It matters not that the Kia of today is better than yesterday’s Mercedes if only the so-called rich can afford today’s Mercedes.

America and the West in general are increasingly urbanized. Population density fuels more government. The self-reliance necessary to live a rural life, as the Founders saw, also provides a check on the natural tendencies of cities to grow, of populations to homogenize, and of government to prune liberty. The collective dream of the Western planner is now high-density apartment buildings, mass transit, and government control and ownership of collective green spaces outside the urban core.

Urbanism ensures romantic ignorance about nature and the countryside — and ultimately collective suicide: Techies in hiking boots and parkas confuse their day trips to Yosemite with back-to-nature purity and then agitate for regulatory protection of three-inch bait fish in the San Francisco Delta, to the point of cutting off the irrigation water that ensures the availability of the organic grapes and lettuce they buy at Whole Foods. Both environmentalism and notions of fairness are fueled by urban density and ultimately war against the logger, the farmer, the miner, and the rancher — and their creed of muscular autonomy, autarky, and a more realistic appraisal of nature.

The challenge of conservatives is educational and informational: not just to see Republicans take back the three branches of government, but also to explain to a new generation of Americans how their lives are daily being co-opted and trivialized by an overarching bureaucratic state and the attendant popular culture that it spawns. If, instead, we persist on the present course, America as we have known it will end not with a bang but a whimper.

Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

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