In 1964, Phyllis Schlafly became a major spokesman for political conservatism with her Goldwater campaign book, A Choice, Not an Echo. That was fifty years ago. It is time for an assessment of where we are today.
Let us begin with David Brooks. He is known as a conservative. He is a New York Times columnist. He is a weekly commentator on the PBS NewsHour. That is to say, he is the #1 conservative inside the American liberal media. He is a big-government conservative.
He used to be on the staff of The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative journal.
Last Friday, he said this on the PBS NewsHour.
Marco Rubio had a speech today, or this week, which was, I thought, a quite impressive speech, much more affirmatively using the power of government to address poverty problems, whether it’s wage subsidies, whether it’s through direct grants, much — for a party that has become instinctively anti-government, we are beginning to see Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and some others wanting to affirmatively use government, I think, in targeted, but limited and conservative ways to really address practical problems.
This is big-government conservatism. He has not changed his tune in the last 17 years.
In 1997, he wrote an essay The Weekly Standard, “A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed.” It was a cheerleading piece for the American Empire.
It was not simply a cry for big-government foreign policy. It was a naïve piece that assumed that the foreign policy of the United States has in some fundamental way changed since the entry of the United States into the war in Europe in 1917. It hasn’t.
Brooks wrote this:
America is a more dominant power in the world than Americans a century ago could ever have imagined. Yet we have almost none of the sense of global purpose that Americans had when they only dreamed of enjoying the stature we possess today. Domestically, we have a president and a Congress whose major common purpose is . . . balancing the budget.
Bill Clinton officially achieved this, although by tapping into Social Security’s surplus, and not counting the IOUs written to the Social Security Trust Fund as deficits — which had been done since Reagan’s first term, at Greenspan’s recommendation. Brooks saw this as narrow-minded and parochial. Bush and Obama surely solved that!
For much of this century, liberals possessed high aspirations and a spirit of historical purpose. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier — these were efforts to aim high, to accomplish some grand national endeavor. Liberals tried to use American preeminence as a way to shape the world, fight communism, put a man on the moon. But then came the 1970s, and suddenly liberalism became a creed emphasizing limits. Small became beautiful. A radical egalitarianism transformed liberalism, destroying hierarchies and discrediting elitist aspirations. An easygoing nihilism swept through academia, carrying away any sense of a transcendent order. The civil-rights era turned into the affirmative-action era, and what had been a great national crusade for justice devolved into a series of petty squabbles over spoils.
Nothing changed in Washington, either domestically or internationally. Small was never entertained as beautiful by any liberal inside the beltway. On university campuses, tax-funded, tenure-seeking New Left radicals voiced opposition to the old liberalism in the name of Marxism, feminism, multiculturalism, and a host of parochial concerns, but they had no influence off campus.
As for petty squabbles over spoils, this has been the major concern of American politics ever since 1788. This was stated best by multimillionaire (in 1905 dollars) Tammany Hall hack George Washington Plunkett: “I seen my opportunities, and I took ‘em.”
Thus has our America neglected the sphere of issues that transcends the desires of a single generation. As a nation, we have realized Tocqueville’s worst fears; we have replaced high public aspiration with the narrower concerns of private life. These days in politics it is more important to be seen possessing the private virtues — compassion and caring — than it is to be seen possessing the public virtues like courage and integrity.
I have read Democracy in America twice. I do not recall Tocqueville’s worrying about “the narrower concerns of private life.” He praised the localism of American life — non-state activism. He had no use for the French Revolution, in which his grandfather — a liberal — had lost his head. America in 1830 was 98% private for the masses, who lived on farms and rarely had any contact with the state. Yet Tocqueville thought America was a great nation.
Tocqueville was concerned about the rhetoric of equality. He saw this as a threat to liberty.
In any case, when has courage and integrity been basic to political life? Mark Twain wrote: “There is no distinctly American criminal class — except Congress.” Americans nodded their heads in agreement. They have always known this.
But it is primarily the fault of conservatives that America has lost a sense of national mission and national greatness. After all, this is a conservative era, and one shouldn’t expect the Democrats to come up with the energy that animates a conservative era. But since Ronald Reagan returned to California, conservatism has shrunk.
The federal budget did not shrink. The federal bureaucracies did not shrink. The number of military bases outside the United States did not shrink. Conservatives did not suggest a shrinking federal government. They demanded more — just slower. This was American conservatism after December 7, 1941.