A habit of pessimism, it seems, comes with the conservative territory. It’s been more than half a century since Clinton Rossiter described American conservatism as the “thankless persuasion,” but the label seems as appropriate now, at least in indicating a prevailing mood, as it did when Rossiter coined it in 1955. Conservatives in the fifties—when they were scarce on the ground and no one paid them attention—were sure that things were bad and getting worse, and that gloomy assessment persists today even when there are lots of conservatives wielding lots of influence. There’s something in the conservative psyche that wants to insist, in season and out, that the end is near—and maybe not a moment too soon.
That melancholy mood made sense in Rossiter’s day. America’s few self-confessed conservatives huddled in cult-like isolation, and conservative thought barely registered on the national consciousness, dominated as it was by a liberalism so pervasive that it seemed not so much an arguable body of thought as a statement of how things are. (There were, to be sure, a number of politicians engaged in conservative political practice—rear-guard sabotage of the New Deal—but there was precious little in those pre–National Review days resembling a coherent conservative philosophy.) As Louis Hartz famously argued (also in 1955) in The Liberal Tradition in America, American political thought consisted in large part of variations and themes on the philosophy of John Locke. It is instructive to recall that Dwight Eisenhower created a public stir when he declared to a Republican assembly in mid-decade that they should not be ashamed of the word conservative.
Today, of course, we live in an entirely transformed political universe. How that transformation occurred is a story too complicated to recapitulate here, but the capsule version is that liberalism in the 1960s tore itself apart in a spasm of New Left and New Politics excess and in the process lost the confidence of a frightened and bewildered American public. America turned right not so much by deliberate choice as by default. Richard Nixon was the immediate beneficiary, an advantage he then squandered in the Watergate debacle, but the feckless Jimmy Carter interlude confirmed the suspicion that liberalism had exhausted its political and moral resources. Liberals had botched things up—the accusation of failure found many adherents among liberals themselves—and only conservatives were left to pick up the pieces. (No one outside the precincts of academia or the New York Review of Books took seriously the suggestion that the nation should move further to the left.)
It was Ronald Reagan who convinced the American people not simply that liberalism had gone wrong but that conservatism had a plausible set of ideas and programs to set things right. Historians debate the degree to which Reagan managed to transform the deep structures of America’s political economy; conservative critics in particular note his failure to cut back the welfare state or significantly reduce the reach and power of the federal government. But that debate misses the point of Reagan’s accomplishment. He changed the trajectory of American politics, and he changed the terms of debate within which that politics operates. Reagan not only frustrated the left’s long-nurtured ambition to expand the nation’s modest welfare state into a social-democratic redistributive state, he revitalized faith in such traditional (and presumably outmoded) American traits as individual responsibility, private enterprise, voluntarism, the work ethic, and personal freedom. (He also, it should be noted, adopted for the conservative agenda traditional attitudes toward pressing social issues: abortion, homosexuality, the family, and moral and religious values.)
The Reagan presidency changed the story line of American politics and put liberals on the permanent political defensive. Consider the two post-Reagan Democratic presidencies. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are, by any reasonable definition, men of liberal conviction. Yet both have worked hard at obscuring what they so obviously are. Clinton’s most noted public declaration (aside, perhaps, from his disquisition on the meaning of “is”) was his announcement of the demise of the era of big government. And, after his health-care initiative went down in flames, he governed accordingly. He made notable gestures to the right—welfare reform and balanced budgets—and for the rest played political small ball. He was successful politically insofar as he managed to disguise his political preferences.
President Obama is almost certainly to Clinton’s left politically, but he too pretends he is other than he is. He regularly insists that he is not just another “tax-and-spend liberal,” and instead presents himself as a pragmatic problem-solver preoccupied with getting things done without regard for the distracting irrelevancies of ideology. He depicts his political agenda—the most ambitious expansion of the power of government since the Great Society—as simply a response to the exigencies of the economic crisis he inherited. Like Clinton, he assiduously avoids the word liberal except when denying that he is one.
Yet the American people are not so easily deceived. They know liberalism when they see it, and, judging by their response to Obama’s legislative program, they don’t much like it—even in the aftermath of an economic collapse that most analysts assumed would allow the administration considerable room for maneuver. The current conventional political wisdom has it that Obama overreached, and that his hopes for political revival depend on duplicating Clinton’s post-1994 ideological backtracking. (This is written prior to the November midterm elections.)
If the foregoing analysis is anywhere near correct, one is left puzzled as to why conservatives, despite the considerable evidence of the long-term success of their cause, seem so despondent. Conservatives are of course naturally attuned to the human propensity for folly and thus predisposed to mordant estimates of how things stand, but, even so, their insistently dark view of the current American situation seems somehow excessive.
It is important to emphasize at this point that the conservatism to which First Things adheres and with which it is primarily concerned is not political in the ordinary sense. Our conservatism is theological and cultural—in the tradition of our founding editor Richard John Neuhaus we regard ourselves as theologically orthodox and culturally conservative—and we impose no political litmus tests on our contributors (not to mention our readers).
Still, ideas and inclinations cluster, and it is an obvious empirical reality that theological and cultural conservatives are, far more often than not, political conservatives as well. (As evidence, note the high positive correlation between regular worship and conservative voting habits.) Which means, willy-nilly, that politics is not beyond our purview.
But there’s more than that. Orthodox religion keeps politics in its place. We know—or should know—that it is not primarily as political beings we were created and that it is not finally politics that commands our highest loyalties and concerns. Christians who are part of the Great Tradition understand that it is unwise to invest too much of themselves in the public square. As Fr. Neuhaus never tired of reminding us, the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.
Which suggests that we should be as wary of dystopian despair as we are of utopian enthusiasm. Politics provides neither final victories nor final defeats. Conservatives need no instruction in the dangers of inordinate optimism, but they might need some help with its opposite. The notion, widespread on the right, of an America irredeemably alienated from its founding principles and but a half step removed from abject capitulation to collectivist schemes has lost touch with where we are and with conservatism’s own best tradition of seeing things whole.
Political conservatives who have not cut themselves off from Burkean sobriety will know better than to give in to the fantasy that all is lost or that the apocalypse looms just beyond the horizon. They might even, if they attend to the historical record, come to understand that it is liberals who have more to despair of than they do. But perhaps it is unrealistic to imagine that conservatives could so uncharacteristically succumb to hope.