by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine
This year we will see if America is still a center-right country, or if Obama’s two terms will mark a historic shift to the left. History and recent events give cause for optimism, subject, of course, to unforeseen events.
The champions of big government, wealth redistribution through taxation and entitlement transfers, and a coercive, intrusive regulatory regime have many times exaggerated the death of conservatism and the final victory of progressivism. Remember this famous pronouncement by culture critic Lionel Trilling in 1950? “In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation . . . But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Even as Trilling wrote those words, the work of Russell Kirk, F.A. Hayek, Richard Weaver, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, and many others were developing a powerful conservative philosophy that would bear fruit in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Or those of a certain age can remember the triumphalism of the left after the disgrace of Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, which was followed a year later by the debacle in Saigon and the seeming repudiation of the conservative view of America’s role as the defender of freedom against communist expansion. But the incompetence and naïve idealism of Jimmy Carter’s four years as president quickly made plain the deep flaws of the progressive ideology, as stagflation at home and foreign policy retreat abroad taught us once again that the utopian fever dreams of the progressives threatened our prosperity and endangered our security. The failure of the Carter presidency created the conditions favorable to conservative ideas, and galvanized a people receptive to the philosophy of prudence, self-reliance, and the Constitutional principle of limited government.
The last 54 months of the Obama regime and its rampant progressivism cannot obscure the epochal shift away from the big government doctrines of tax-and-spend and top-down social engineering, the sea change achieved during the Reagan years. Even Bill Clinton admitted that “the days of big government are over,” signed welfare reform into law, and tread carefully on the issue of raising taxes. The giddy progressives’ celebrations in 2010 over the passage of Obamacare, despite the obvious distaste for it among the people, deluded many into thinking the tide had turned yet again in favor of the progressives, and away from even the “third way” of Clintonian liberalism. But the rise of the Tea Party and the rambunctious town-hall meetings the following summer rudely awakened the pipe-dreaming Democrats, and reminded them that there are still millions of Americans who treasure their birthright of freedom and autonomy, and resent an overweening nanny state. The midterm election that year gave the House to the Republicans, and slowed if not stopped the fulfillment of the rest of the progressive wish-list such as amnesty for illegal aliens, punitive tax hikes, and even more Keynesian “stimulus” voodoo.
This history suggests that we may see in 2014 a further shift away from progressivism, for several reasons. The rank incompetence, arrogance, and juvenile narcissism of Obama more and more confirm that his election was not about progressive ideas, but about a misguided yearning for racial reconciliation, and a naïve attempt to lay to rest the ghosts of America’s racist past. We are unlikely to see a similar mistake in the future, particularly since the wages of voting for any reason other than principle and competence have been made painfully clear in the dangerous American retreat abroad, and the economic malfeasance here at home.
And that brings us to the next reason for optimism: the continuing disaster of Obamacare, which promises to be for conservatives the gift that keeps on giving. All the problems plaguing this ill-conceived, reckless legislation––escalating health-care costs, more people losing health care than gaining it, the narrowing of doctor and hospital choice for those who do get coverage, and the promise of exploding government spending to keep the whole contraption functioning––are likely to worsen rather than improve. Those failures and disasters will be a constant reminder of everything that is wrong with the progressive ideology, particularly its arrogant notion that a superior elite of technocrats are better able to organize social and economic life than are individuals, families, civil society, local government, state government, or the free market. They will remind Americans that self-reliance and personal freedom are written in our DNA, that most of us are like Huck Finn, apt to resent every progressive Widow Douglas and Miss Watson trying to coerce us into her idea of being “civilized.”
Other signs of change are in the air. The clumsy, craven, and failed response of the A&E network to some comments by “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson––a modern Huck Finn if ever there was one–– is a rude reminder that if you are a for-profit enterprise in America, it doesn’t do to alienate your customers just to curry favor with a minority of self-selected commissars of virtue whose intolerance and preening self-righteousness would make an old Puritan patriarch blush. This episode may be transient, but it also may be the harbinger of a growing recognition on the part of conservatives and libertarians that they are not a minority, and that their patronage should not be taken for granted. More attempts by special interest groups and businesses to stifle dissent and impose politically correct orthodoxy may be sparks that along with the failures of Obamacare kindle a nation-wide uprising against the statist status quo like the one we witnessed in the summer of 2010.
Finally, even the mainstream media, long a reliable lapdog for the administration, have had to confront the swelling tide of change. A new CNN (sic!) poll shows Republicans leading Democrats in the generic ballot 49% to 44%, a 13-point swing over the last two months. Only 22% of Democrats are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting next November, while 36% of Republicans are. And 55% of voters say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes Obama, compared to 40% who would favor a candidate who supports him. And Senate Democrats in the Senate are vulnerable. According to National Journal, 13 of 15 seats likely to switch parties are held by Democrats, as are all 7 seats most likely to switch. If the Republicans take 6 of those 7, they will take back control of the Senate, and be able to stand athwart Obama’s second-term agenda yelling Stop.
We’ll see. Prudence is a conservative virtue, and November is far away. But if history is any guide, if Obamacare continues its slow-motion implosion, if the progressive Nurse Ratcheds keep trying to make us swallow their toxic intolerance, and if conservatives stiffen their spines, they stand a good chance of slowing down the progressive agenda.