In the immediate aftermath of Obama’s election, I had to talk a friend or two off the ledge. They were apocalyptic, foaming at the mouth and muttering about socialism and the Pelosi-ization of America. At one point I had to resort to insult in order to restore sanity: “You sound like a right-wing Barbara Streisand.”
Some weeks have passed, and I think we can begin to entertain the luxury of cool, retrospective reflection. In due time, First Things will run an article that gives us hard analysis of reams of exit-polling data. But right now I want to toss out some decidedly broad observations.
I’ll begin with a paradoxical claim. For all his talk of “change,” Barack Obama won because he was the candidate of retrenchment. As the vast sums he raised indicateas does all the pundit talk about return to the supposedly good ol' days of FDR, his own evocations of solidarity, and the call for the end of “polarized politics”Obama’s election signals a collective American desire for stability.
I’ve seen this desire at work in faculty meetings. Highly educated men and women who are economic winners in the grand scheme of things get extremely agitated by the complexity and uncertainty of our present system. They worry over their retirement accounts. They fight and resist every effort to inject a modest degree of cost-sharing into health benefits. But most of all, they are frightened and paralyzed by the reality of choice, which includes of course the painful possibility that one might make a bad mistake.
Are these reactions surprising? We don’t want wealth for its own sake. We want it so that we can enjoy comfort, security, and the chance to do as we please without risking too much. This underlying, fundamentally non-economic desire for security and stability seems increasingly unfulfilled. This explains the appeal of Obama’s promise of change.
We shouldn’t be surprised the voters read him in this way. American conservatism since 1980 has been the party of innovation and risk-taking. The results have been remarkable. Our society is much more fluid, much more successfuland much more frighteningly unstable.
Of course, the present financial crisis and recession are obvious examples of the vagaries of capitalism. But current events are reinforcing a deeper cultural change wrought by nearly three decades of free market policies. Deregulation in the 1980s broke down the system of monopoly capitalism and establishment cronyism that emerged after the traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. Michael Milliken’s pioneering use of junk bonds roiled the sleepy, complaisant boardrooms of corporate America. Lower marginal tax rates allowed for new accumulations of wealth. Wall Street led the charge toward globalized capital markets. Billions and billions of dollars sloshed through the system looking for big returns.
Conservatives like to point to the remarkable gains in growth that market-oriented policies have produced. That’s all quite true. But we also need to see how the market-oriented policies have reshaped the implicit social contract for the kinds of folks most likely to influence electionsthe well to do.
In the old days of post-War economic regulation, corporate American was largely insulated from direct competition. With guaranteed profits, it tacitly guaranteed lifetime employment for white young men with college degrees. Recession came and went. Factory workers were furloughed, but management never faced lay offs.
Companies now rise and fall. They face hostile takeovers. They frequently “downsize,” and when hard times hit they slice out entire layers of management. Industries shift production overseas in order to stay competitive. Everywhere we see massive changes in the way we do business. All this creative destruction has produced extraordinary new opportunities and huge piles of wealth. But it has also produced a cultural sensibility: Whether or not we are winners or losers in the great scramble to get ahead, most of us feel vulnerable.
Social changes have only exacerbated the sense of uncertainty. The flood of women and non-whites into all levels has ramped up competition for jobs. An ever-changing economic system encourages us to move here and there in pursuit of opportunities, cutting us off from the safety net of family and friends.
At times, it seems as though everything is up for grabs.
“What if I get laid off?” we worry. “How am I going to pay for retirement?” we ask. As parents, we feel the new competitiveness of the market. “What if my kids don’t get into good colleges?” As children we anxiously think about our parents. “What if they get Alzheimer’s? Who will take care of them? Who will pay?”
Should we wonder, then, that the Democrats have been able to tap into a growing sentiment of anxious uncertainty and misgivings about the direction of our society in the last couple of decades?
American conservatism has tried to meet these concerns. Tax incentives encourage us to contribute to IRA and 401(k) plans and, more recently, Health Savings Accounts. The goal is simple: to make each individual his or her own mini-corporation, with assets sufficient to successfully meet the challenges of life in a dynamic, fluid, global economic system.
Leftists want to tell us that only “the rich” have benefited from these policies. Maybe. But “the rich” were the one’s who gave the unprecedented millions to the Obama campaign. Exit polls tell the tale: Americans earning more than $100,000 per year voted for Obama over McCain by a margin of 52 to 47 percent. It turns out that “the rich” went Democrat.
So, conservatives need to face this singular political fact squarely: The people who have benefited the most from free-market policies were the ones who led the charge against the Republican party. And if my analysis is correct, they did so because of a deeply felt insecurityan insecurity that we can trace back to our collective experience with something conservatives fought to achieve: a raucously creative, productive, and invariably unpredictable economic system.
Conservative foreign policy has also added to this feeling of insecurity. I can easily remember the establishment reaction to the Reagan military buildup. It was descried as destabilizing. That turned out to be true, and the Soviet empire fell. The same holds for George W. Bush’s foreign policy. It has destabilized the Islamic worlda very high-staked risk for the sake of a significant change in the social dynamics that have bred Islamic terrorism.
I hope that a new spirit of democracy prevails in the Middle East. But whatever the outcome, conservatives need to be honest. Decisive use of American military power will always throw the world out of kilter. Thus, once again, policies we associate with conservatism seem to ramp up risk. And not surprisingly, in foreign policy Obama’s call for change is heard as a call for stability: negotiation, slow-moving multilateralism, and a shift toward managing rather than altering the dynamics of global conflict.
Thus the challenge for American conservatism. Voters are reading the ideological situation accurately. And they are pushing back against the instabilities that arise from conservative economic philosophy and foreign policy.
Of course, stability has a price. Neville Chamberlain went for stability. The old system of monopoly capitalism in the United States was not just economically inefficient, it was part of a closed system in which opportunity was doled out to a narrow social set. I have no doubt that our society is much more inclusive these days, largely because our economic system became so much more competitive and productive. It’s a lot easier to share a growing pie.
But there is a deeper point that conservatives need to make. Our sense of instability, our feeling that everything is up for grabs, and our anxious insecurity has its most destructive source in the triumph of desire over restraint in contemporary culture. Divorce and serial cohabitation bring fluidity and change into the most ancient touchstone of permanence: home and hearth.
On this point, it seems to me that American conservatism must recognize the primacy of social mores over economic philosophy and foreign policy. We need to expand an old argument. A democracy depends upon citizens capable of ordered liberty. And a culture that seeks economic vitality and is committed to global leadership also requires citizens who can distinguish responsible autonomy from a life of anomic desire. We can endure the inevitable risks of marketplace and battlefieldbut only if we have some confidence about the stability of the deeper, more fundamental things of life.
In our liberal constitutional system, and in our culture of live-and-let-live tolerance, it will be difficult for conservatives to shape a convincing public philosophy of cultural authority. But that’s what we need. Because functional cultural authority is the source of deep existential stability, the stability that will allow us to endure the economic and geo-political insecurities that our nationone committed to vibrant economic growth and global leadershipmust entertain.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.