TCS Daily

Is America Conservative?

By James Pinkerton - December 2, 2003 12:00 AM

So what are the remains of conservatism these days? What remains to be conserved? Consider, for a moment, the actions of the "conservative" Bush administration in three policy areas -- foreign, domestic, and cultural.


First, the administration seeks to guide the Middle East into democracy, an exercise in international social work that dwarfs the Great Society. As President George W. Bush said to Bob Woodward, "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals." That's good, because without the cooperation of the world -- UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is more interested in condemning Israel's wall-making than in supporting America's nation-building -- it's going to be a big opportunity for Bush to show his global-colossus stuff. But of course, remaking the world is not within the traditional definition of "conservative." Edmund Burke, the patron saint of conservatism, believed, "The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition of direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs." Of course, Burke died in 1797, and so Bush Doctrineers will argue that the situation has changed a bit since then.


Second, this conservative administration -- OK, this compassionate conservative administration -- vastly expands the size of the domestic government. Most obviously, there's the new prescription drug benefit, but also, as The Washington Times pointed out recently, most kinds of spending are surging; in the last three years, non-defense/non-homeland security spending has risen 13 percent. Sen. John McCain says that Congress is "spending money like a drunken sailor." But it takes two to tango a piece of legislation, the president as well as Congress. During the first three years of his presidency, Ronald Reagan vetoed 23 bills; by contrast, Bush has vetoed none.


Third, there's the cultural issue of gay marriage and domestic partnerships. Many on the Right are ready to backlash, but it's not clear that born-again Bush is going to take a strong position on the issue. And so social conservatives flounder; the headline in Saturday's Washington Post reads, "Opponents of Gay Marriage Divided." Reporter Alan Cooperman details the split between those social conservatives who merely want to ban gay marriage and those who wish to undo all domestic partnership laws. Conspicuously, the more hawkish social conservatives, including Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, and James Dobson, aren't getting help from the White House.


Is Bush a Conservative?


So what gives? A Texas conservative gets elected president, and we get a New Deal for the Middle East, a neo-Great Society on domestic spending, and a semi-laissez-faire attitude on gay marriage.


Here's what gives: the planted assumption in the first paragraph is that Bush was ever really a conservative, or, for that matter, that America has ever been really conservative. These words of Thomas Jefferson are inscribed on his memorial, alongside the Potomac River, in Washington DC:


I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.


These aren't the words of a willy-nilly radical, but they are the words of a man who was willing and eager to try new things. And so for two centuries, America has been molting off old opinions and attitudes, like so much dead skin.


One might consider, for instance, the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. Even aside from the Civil War, it's hard to think of one conservative thing he did. The Sixteenth President was not a "Radical Republican," as were many, but he believed in raising tariffs, subsidizing railroads, and establishing land-grant colleges. And almost continuously since the Civil War, America has been an activist country, a country impatient with old rules, at home and abroad. And in the course of our political, economic, and cultural expansion, we've made ourselves felt. The 20th century was called "The American Century," and so far, the 21st century is shaping up to be a repeat.


Culture Wars


Now let's turn to a much-discussed piece by Brian Anderson in the current issue of City Journal, which argues that Americans should molt away yet another old idea -- the idea that the media are steadily pushing the country to the left. The article, titled "We're Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore," makes a good case that something has indeed changed; "new media" has muscled out "old media," flexing in a new politics.


"New media," according to Anderson, isn't just talk radio, or cable news, or the blogosophere, but also entertainment fare, such as Comedy Central's animated "South Park." "The non-liberal sphere is expanding, encroaching into the liberal sphere" Anderson asserts, adding, "It's hard to imagine that this development won't result in a broader national debate -- and a more conservative America."


But wait a second: what's conservative? Yes, Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, and 28 governorships -- including the executive mansions of the four biggest states -- but as we have seen, this Republican ascendancy has not led to a return to the old vision of a prudently modest state, guided by ancient moral precepts. In fact, as Rush Limbaugh has opined, in the wake of the prescription-drug-benefit bill, the GOP can no longer make any claim to be the party of smaller government.


But the title of Anderson's article refers to the culture wars, not to the war against Big Government. "Lots of cable comedy," he writes, "while not traditionally conservative, is fiercely anti-liberal." He's surely correct about the "not traditionally conservative" part. To underscore that claim, he begins his cultural consideration with a look at "South Park," the cartoon show, "whose heroes are four crudely animated and impossibly foul-mouthed fourth-graders."


Many conservatives have attacked the show for its "exuberant vulgarity," Anderson observes. But such denunciations are "misguided." Instead, he argues, "Conservative critics should pay closer attention to what South Park so irreverently jeers at and mocks. As the show's co-creator, 32-year-old Matt Stone, sums it up: 'I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.'" In other words, the undermining of conservative values such as manners and restraint is OK, so long as other values are trounced, too. To put it another way, a show co-created a fellow who brags that he hates conservatives is to be lauded by conservatives, so long as the co-creator says that he really fucking hates liberals more. Is that the voice of conservatism speaking -- or the voice of nihilism?


Let's compromise, and say that the true voice being heard here isn't conservatism, nor nihilism, but rather something different. Blogger Andrew Sullivan calls it "South Park Republicanism," but let's call it something broader: "Right-wingerism." That is, it combines anti-liberal, anti-Left values into a brainy, in-your-face style, as embodied by, say, Newt Gingrich.


Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that style, but it's important to see this post-Burkean mode for what it is, and for what it portends. Is it good or bad? I'll report, you decide.


After Burke


First, in foreign policy, the shift is clear. In 1821, John Quincy Adams proclaimed that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." But today, the new breed of "South Park Republicans" are inclined to support an energetic foreign policy. That activist approach succeeded in some places (Germany and Japan during and after WW II) and stumbled or failed in others (Vietnam, Haiti, and Somalia, all through the 20th century ), so now we'll see what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. Early indicators are, shall we say, mixed, but if Bush is re-elected, he could have a mandate, and four more years to work his democratic magic.


And as for the domestic policy area, more specifically the political demand for expanded health coverage, that's a no-brainer for many post-conservative Right-wingers. Following the logic of Anderson's argument, watching "South Park" might make one less compassionate toward others, but it hardly makes one fatalistic about one's own fate. So while South Parkers are likely to embrace capitalism as the best way to get rich -- plus, as a bonus, bash some bureaucrats along the way up the ladder -- the same non-shrinking-violet ethos will be felt on the spending side. That is, the style of jeering and mocking is perfectly consistent with an I-want-it-all-now approach to domestic policy.


Speaking for the older, constrained vision, Sen. Chuck Hagel laments, "We have come loose from our moorings." And libertarian wonks might argue that the free market will deliver better health care over time, but in this TV-clicker world, it seems as though nobody wants to wait to see what the invisible hand can do; people want the visible hand of the government, and they want it before the next commercial break.


It can also be argued, of course, that expanded health coverage is simply inevitable. Once upon a time, conservatives railed against driver's licenses, sanitation measures, Social Security, and pollution laws. Principle notwithstanding, are any of those "nay" positions politically viable today? In a globalized world of open borders and communicable diseases, can we really afford to be indifferent to public health as a good for all of us? And if we insist on auto insurance before we let people drive around, do we really not care if people don't have health insurance before they walk around? By all means, the Cato Institute and the National Center for Policy Analysis should come up with better approaches to providing health care, but let's realize that the political reality is that any passable plan must leave everyone passably covered.


And Burke might not be opposed, after all. It was he who defined the task of the statesman: to sluice the tides of change through the canals of custom. In other words, accept that change is inevitable, but don't let it get radical. And so one wonders: at a time when all industrialized countries provide a national health plan, is it really "radical" for America to join their ranks?


The third area to be considered is cultural policy. Here the big debate is over gay marriage. The President has said that marriage should be between "a man and a woman," but he has resisted entreaties to back up those words with action. In fact, Bush is widely derided by "movement conservatives" -- a phrase that, in itself, doesn't make conservatism seem so conservative -- as being "squishy" on this issue. But here, the basic libertarianism of South Park Republicans comes to the fore: We reserve the right to make fun of gays and lesbians, they seem to be saying, but of course, we reserve their right to make fun of everyone -- including prudes, squares, and gay-bashers. The upshot is a kind of politically incorrect free-for-all, in which speech is free, even as government gets more expensive. Any similarity between this South Park view and the view of the American Civil Liberties Union is, of course, completely coincidental. 


No wonder, then, that David Horowitz -- a non-conservative conservative if there ever was one -- endorsed domestic partnerships back in 1997. And in 2003, self-described "libertarian conservative" William Safire feels the same way. Meanwhile, David Brooks, Bard of the Bobos, has endorsed the full marriage-monty.


But the big tremor in the Force was felt when George F. Will, an American Tory, came out against a federal ban on gay marriage. He cited the reality that marriage is no longer primarily a procreative institution, in that many who are married don't procreate, and many who procreate aren't married. Perhaps these deep-seated cultural trends can be addressed, Will allowed world-wearily, but in the meantime, it was a bad idea to seek a national ban -- because it's a bad idea to use the Constitution to make social policy, and because it's a bad idea to deprive the states of their "laboratories of social policy" function.


Jefferson, who said, two centuries ago that "institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times," would no doubt be pleased.


It's very American to take something old and turn it into something new, be it Iraq, health care, or marriage. We might not succeed at all these experiments, but even failure does not deter us -- we try, try, and try again.


I don't agree with everything that Bush is doing, not by a mile. But personal preference aside, one must recognize that he is not only president, he's also popular. The non-conservative worldview of South Park Republicanism, or Right-wingerism, is in the ascendancy. This force might be shaped, but it can't be stopped, at least not now, any more than the great Burke could staunch the tides of change in his time. Instead, what's needed is a new vision of sluicing inevitable change. And if the new response to this new age needs an "ism" for a suffix, give it this one: Inevitabilism.


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