A few thoughts in the wake of the 2012 presidential election.
First, some historical context. Political engagement is operating on one level or another of a great matrix. The most common level is that of ordinary politics. This is the standard give-and-take of republican government, the sort of thing we saw, for example, in the summer of the debt-deal. Beyond ordinary politics, we get to constitutional politics which, when fully engaged, culminates in a "Constitutional moment." When we must move beyond even this, we get outside of constitutionalism and arrive at the root of the matrix, somewhere closer to a state of nature in which the only hope of order and justice is a strong hand. (I pause to note that billions of souls exist solely within this weak, flat kind of society.) This is the point at which George Washington wrote, as he fought what appeared to be a futile struggle of arms against the world's greatest empire: "We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again. If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth New Exertions and proportion our Efforts to the exigency of the times."
None of this is meant to diminish the importance of our current struggle. Ordinary politics is often a form of constitutional practice (e.g. Congress regulating interstate commerce, states appointing electors). But when ordinary politics becomes a proxy for engaging our "creedal passions" (to quote Sam Huntington), we have reason to be alert. Things usually don't come to a head and lead us to full-on constitutoinal moment, but when we arrive at such a moment, this is how it begins. The Boston Tea Party was hardly a spontaneous event. It followed on the heals of a decade and more of petition, protest, mobbing.
The battle is one of values. The left sells its values by directing recipients to the material benefits they stand to gain directly. The economic and social philosophy underlying this scheme is not incoherent. Accumulations of wealth are inherently immoral, but even if they weren't, they would have been gained largely through exploitation. Universal human rights require a certain level of material comfort. As the theory goes, the state is the proper agency for ensuring the first great program is configured in service of the second.
In practice, this is a politics of division. It engages the worst in people, inspiring envy and bitterness towards their fellow citizens. There are a lot of wrong ideologies in this fallen world, but the successful ones turn aspects of truth to the service of humanity's baser instincts.The New Deal was successful in building this "permanent democrat majority" by generationally segmenting the American people in to interest groups. This sort of politics makes Madison's factions look like philosopher kings.
An example may help. Progressives are right to bemoan the widening income gap. This is prima facie evidence of a broken economic policy. We can examine corporatism - a phenomenon of the statist left in which the both parties are happy to indulge - and Byzantine tax regulations as contributing to the problem. We might even be able to identify some instances of dishonest brokering and actual exploitation. But not when those who earn profits are ipso facto exploitative. If this is a premise and not a conclusion, there is space only for demagoguery, and none for discourse.
This is not an ideology of hope, community, or the future. It is one of pettiness, faction, and, ultimately, despair.
Our message is one that reverberates terror both in the Julias of the world and those who would be her keeper. The poor and downtrodden are justifiably afraid that the language of little platoons will leave them in the lurch. And how could it do otherwise now that a generation of atomization has destroyed all of the social fabric needed to uphold communities?
The liberal caretakers, likewise, cannot abide the tapestry model of society. Just as the economy is too uncertain to properly allocate resources, so too is a free society incapable of creating and sustaining the kinds of structures that are needed to take care of all. So, better that the "curably sick" die if that is the cost of allowing everyone to walk through the clinic door.
The inability for planners to properly allocate resources is just a proxy. Our wealth is a proxy for the things we build and value in life. An ideology that treats this as some kind of common stock amenable to redistribution by distant and wise burueaucrats is a system of involuntary servitude.
Some may choose such a life, but it is unthinkable that they have the power to choose it for the rest of us.
As I wrote before the election, the republic is where our dreams meet reality. It is also where our fears meet reality. It is the realm where our political imaginations take shape.
I am a conservative because I believe the principles are true and because (not coincidentally) the policies derived from that ideology are most conducive to human flourishing. So you can imagine my distaste for an ideology that appeals to human flourishing only in a very narrow, material sense, all the while diminishing the people's ability to flourish, materially or otherwise.
Russell Kirk, in the stream of a tradition running from Plato to Brownson to Nisbet, teaches us that democracies may succumb to these ancient fears. If 2012 proves that 2008 was a realignment, then our task is all the more at hand. The people themselves are choosing decay over growth, looking to their short-term material self-interest at the expense of both their own dignity and their posterity's wellbeing. This is indeed a self-perpetuating system, one that is threatened only by its own inevitable collapse under the weight of unkept promises.
But we worship the God of history, not the god history. The victory of the left's vision would indeed vindicate Marx's inevitability thesis, and the society we received would at least operate in some measure in the way he expects. Generations of innovation might even make it tolerably affluent, though in perpetual decline.
Our task is not an easy one. Even as evangelicals coalesce around a single party, we still struggle to find the words to express our vision for society. Conservatism is inherently reactionary: we value the settledness of tradition, and throghout history tradition's inertia has been its own defense. But gone are the days that Locke's conception of property resonates with most souls. We cannot rely on the American polity to implicitly except Montesquieu's defense of separation of powers in a constitutional system.
The GOP surely will have to adapt or be lost in the shuffle of Leviathan, the great transfer state. The reaction from the left and the moderates - from the GOP's detractors, that is - has been to encourage it to get in on the game while the going's good. To use the language of public choice economists, as long as the rent-seeking festival is afoot, you only lose by not playing.
First of all, this is not even good advice from a practical standpoint. As David French and others have pointed out, Republicans are foolish if they think they can successfully mimic the liberals on these issues. The GOP has tried playing the state-qua-provider game for the past 50 years or so, and all it's gotten us is nationalized automakers and a federal takeover of healthcare.
We have no state church in this nation, but it remains an important role of the church to proclaim the truth to the state (a sort of prophetic role). Catholics and Protestants are in accord on the fact that the state should not do for communities, families, or individuals, that which it is proper for them to do themselves. So, in addition to being a losing proposition, it would actually be evil for us to participate in this scheme that we know is harmful to people.
What we must not do, then, is clear.
The more difficult question is what remains to be done. This kind of planning is, to quote one of the great moral philosophers of our day, "above my pay grade." Much of it is not susceptible to formulating and executing a plan. Here are a few scattered thoughts.
I agree with much of what has been said. Tucker Carlson and Brian Mattson have been especially clearheaded in calling for the end of amateur hour, a putting aside of derisiveness, and a recognition of changing ideas and demographics. We must of course not abandon our principles, some of which I have described above. But even the prophet of conservatism, the great Edmund Burke, realized that "change is the means of our preservation."
Thoughtful leaders are in the ranks already. The next generation of Republicans are finding a voice of truly compassionate conservatism - not a halfhearted paean to watered-down statism, but a lanuage of humanism, of community, of growth. I have heard it from them.
I will admit I am shocked by the exit polling. Overall turnout was down, but the Obama campaign outperformed my expectations. For weeks before the election, I was boastfully telling people that there was no way he would match his 2008 enthusiasm, and there was no way Romney supporters were less motivated than McCain supporters.
Young people are drifting away. This should come as no surprise to those of us who bemoan the culture of self-fulfillment. But as Nicole Gelinas says, "When exuberant young people can mean only one thing, it’s a bad sign for the GOP." Indeed, and a bad sign for the republic. Jonah Goldberg explains that fascists historically looked to capture the violent and revolutionary tendencies of the youth. The Democrats aren't doing that, exactly, but I fear it is these same aspects (instant gratification, shortsightedness, impulsiveness) that is being played in our politics today.
The diagnosis here goes deep. It reaches no-fault divorce laws and the disintegration of the American family. It touches public schooling and public-sector unions. I will leave this off for another time - but the immediate lesson for us is, to quote that great Whig statesmen Neil Young, to "raise our children well."
There's much more. We must acknowledge the fact that over 90% of our black neighbors did not vote for our candidate. Even if it is the result of an invidious plan of racial and socioeconomic division, we cannot simply disregard this fact. Somehow we have to reconcile to that political reality.
It is also time to stop talking circles around the immigration issue. Both sides are essentially right. Our pourous southern border is a national security threat. Our incoherent immigration policies are a national identity threat. Before you call me a nativist on that last point: what I mean is that if the American identity is founded on an ideal and not an ethnicity or a shared ancient historical expeience, then our national identity is more susceptible to distortion than any other nation.
But it is also a humanitarian travesty to suggest sending in armed police to round up millions of people from our streets. Our leaders need to be willing to say this, and they must be able to do so without coming across as "pandering." Because it isn't pandering. How this can be done is well beyond me. I'll be satisfied if I made it through this post without someone thinking I'm Josiah Strong reincarnated.
Eric Holder called us a nation of cowards on the race question. He was right, but he only proved that you can't shame the shameless. (If there is an honest conversation on race, it will not come from those who stand to benefit from the status quo.) But he said too little: we are a nation of cowards on more than just race. Most of Washington is engaging in a politics built on lies: promises they can't keep, premises they can't defend.
The ones who aren't actively playing that game are horrified at the prospect of being the one to call out that the emperor is naked. It's time to reintroduce the concept of shame to our politics.
There are many tasks ahead for the GOP, not the least of which is messaging. We may be seeing a realignment, but nothing is inevitable. As Jeff Ventrella likes to say, "The stuff in the middle matters." This mantra is directed at Christians who think they are biding their time from birth until glory, but it applies with equal force to all. This is a struggle not only for ourselves and our neighbors, but for our children and our neighbor's children.
So be thoughtful, be kind, be prudent. And be unrelenting: the battle is ours to win.