On the Future of
Robert L. Bartley | Peter L. Berger | Walter Berns | William F. Buckley, Jr. | Midge Decter | David Frum |Francis Fukayama | Mark Helprin | Gertrude Himmelfarb | William Kristol | Michael Novak | Norman Podhoretz | Irwin M. Stelzer | George Weigel | Ruth R. Wisse
THE NOVEMBER 1996 election and a number of other recent events have offered an opportunity for reassessment among conservatives. At issue is not only the meaning of the election results themselves but the present and future character of a movement which only two years ago seemed to some to be bringing about a "revolution" in American political life.
Writing in COMMENTARY last March, Irwin M. Stelzer pointed to a possibly fatal divergence between "economic" conservatives, for whom the primary considerations were the growth of government and the degree of its intrusiveness into the business of the country, and "social" conservatives "intensely concerned with their vision of a re-moralized America" and not necessarily indisposed to the use of government to promote it. Since that time, not only has the rift Stelzer pointed to evidently gone unbridged, but the "social," or "values," conservatives have themselves shown signs of splitting apart.
Thus, in a symposium entitled "The End of Democracy?" (November 1996), the editors of the religious journal First Things, citing the "judicial usurpation of politics," put into question the very "legitimacy" of the American democratic system and invited a number of writers to consider the steps, not excluding force, which a citizen might be morally entitled to take against "the existing regime." The symposium, with its explicit invocation of the analogy of Nazi Germany, and its echoes of 1960's-style radicalism, prompted the outraged resignation of a number of prominent conservatives from the magazine's board. Articles on this episode followed in newspapers and weekly periodicals; the January issue of First Things carried a response to the original symposium and a further statement by the editors.
Other signs of disarray include the apparent division between most conservatives and the leadership of the Republican party over the California Civil Rights Initiative outlawing racial preferences, as well as ongoing and perhaps irreconcilable differences within conservative ranks on issues ranging from foreign policy to immigration to relations between church and state.
We asked a number of distinguished intellectuals to weigh these matters and respond to the following questions:
1. What is the significance of the November election's mixed results, and what do they reveal about the current standing of conservatism in American political life? Does it still make sense to speak of a conservative "revolution"?
2. How deeply are you troubled by the splits within conservatism? Are some more consequential than others? In particular, what to your mind are the longer-term implications of the radicalizing mood revealed in the First Things symposium?
3. What is your own view of conservatism's mandate in the period ahead?
The responses, fifteen in all, are printed below in alphabetical order.
Robert L. Bartley
FOR NEARLY two decades now a conservative tide has been running through our life and times. I see no reason to believe that either one equivocal election or a bit of clerical hyperbole represents a basic change of direction. While not every wave washes beyond the last, we are still at flood rather than ebb.
History is likely to regard 1996 as the year Republicans confirmed their control of the Congress, despite the mistakes of their short tenure and the frantic efforts of their political and cultural opponents. If the historical pattern of second-term presidencies repeats itself, the Republicans will add to their majority in the next election, and they are learning how to wield the enormous power of the institution they won in 1994. While they are a bit chastened by the attack they had to withstand, the weight of their caucus is not less conservative but more so.
President Clinton won reelection not by opposing conservative themes but by "triangulating" them. It is not easy to defeat an incumbent President with a reasonable economy and no foreign-policy trauma. The economic expansion was a gift from the Republican Congress; the bond market bottomed out precisely on the day the GOP took the Congress in 1994. And the Reagan-Bush victories in foreign policy left ample room for both their own mistakes and those of their successor. Meanwhile, Clinton ran this past November as the most conservative Democratic presidential nominee since Grover Cleveland.
The electorate, finally, gave the President a presumption of innocence in the sprawling scandals of his administration. The standard of "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" typically applies in criminal trials, when the stake is sending someone to prison. It may strike some of us as strange to apply it when the stake is whether to give someone the nation's highest office. Yet the recent history of scandal and the recent headiness of fads do carry dangers, and there is something to be said for the electorate's view. Indeed, it could be called a conservative view. Yet President Clinton seems certain to be crippled by ongoing scandal, and, reelected with no mandate, he is no more likely than King Canute to stop the tide.
The most powerful exception concerns the judiciary. While newly solid Republican majorities in the Senate will block strongly ideological liberal appointees, the President still holds the initiative in naming judges. And even Republican jurists, we have seen, are susceptible to the liberal drift in the bar and law schools. The schism between judges and the people is likely to grow over the next four years. It is totally unsurprising and entirely appropriate for conservatives to worry the issue of judges abusing their powers in order to substitute their personal views for those of elected representatives and even voters' decisions in referendums.
There is, indeed, no issue on which conservatives are more solidly united. Nothing could be more fanciful than the notion that the issue of judicial usurpation was discovered in the recent First Things symposium; conservative consensus on this issue has been complete since at least the time we started to learn what Justice David Souter really thinks. With great talent for agitating an issue, Father Richard John Neuhaus wrapped the underlying consensus in inflammatory rhetoric. It is conceivable that when the dust settles, his stridency may even have done some good, in both heightening the issue and showing that conservatives do draw limits. If memory serves, in the 1960's liberals did not resign from publication boards over "Off the Pigs" or front-page recipes for Molotov cocktails.
But where is the great split in conservative ranks? It seems to be Neuhaus against everyone else. Even Robert Bork, the most important contributor to the First Things symposium, has written a letter to the editors (in the January issue of that magazine) suing for divorce. Despite liberal propaganda to the contrary, the leaders who have mobilized the Christian Right by no means buy into the Neuhausian rhetoric; to the contrary, they saw the symposium as an invitation for Christians to drop out of politics in favor of the next world.
As the conservative cause prospers, its proliferating publications inevitably have to practice what the business world calls brand differentiation. National Review stakes its ground on outlawing immigration and legalizing drugs. The Weekly Standard becomes the inside-the-Beltway bible. The American Spectator presses Whitewater harder than even I would. My own taste runs to the weekly edition of the Washington Times, a newspaper where you find the news the mainstream media missed or buried. If First Things finds its thing with the illegitimacy of the "regime," so what? May they all in their own ways prosper.
THE SPLIT that does concern me is between the conservative mainstream and the libertarians, who have been a splinter but are riding a great wave of demographics. Among both Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Internet youths, a rather doctrinaire libertarianism already prevails. Precisely because these groups are in most ways so admirable, their influence is bound to grow. They will be a wholesome force toward smaller and more open government, lower taxes, faster economic growth, school vouchers, term limits, and a good many things I and most conservatives wholeheartedly endorse.
Yet it is also true that the most worrisome problems of society today revolve around the erosion of social controls that have traditionally enforced morality: I mean the weakening of families, the still-high rates of crime, the scourge of drugs, the coarseness of civil discourse. We seem to live in a society where drugs rule the slums while middle-class kids from the New Jersey suburbs fail to understand you do not throw a newborn out with the garbage.
A high-achieving Silicon Valley libertarian may in fact be able to keep his life integrated and deal responsibly with others while, say, supporting serial wives and live-in girlfriends, occasionally snorting coke, and voting a single-issue pro-choice ticket. But I very much doubt that any large society can be run without some level of social control, some means, one hopes, short of but including the force of law, to reinforce the better side of human nature.
In our times the effort of communities and neighborhoods to hold some control has been under systematic assault by a libertarianism of the Left, embodied in what the American Civil Liberties Union has become, and acting through the imperial judiciary. Court decisions have restricted the power of school principals as too arbitrary, and destroyed the possibility of exiling disruptive students to disciplinary schools. Against the sentiments of the population, school prayer and even a moment of silence have been made anathema. In pursuit of "civil rights," we now have a juvenile-justice system that teaches, until its clients have reached an incorrigible age, that there are no serious sanctions. Mainstream conservatives want to reverse this trend, changing the law to redress what the judiciary has done.
As free-market libertarians grow in influence, I hope they give some serious thought to finding a way to help. Mainstream conservatives, meanwhile, should not fall back on symbolic and ultimately silly palliatives. Understandably, libertarians see the V-chip on the Right as very much like gun control on the Left -- both annoy their victims without having any practical effect.
Yet there is a larger and more compelling case to be made. We are at a point in history, indeed, where the moral dimension is appearing from many directions. Even free-market economists, for example, are concluding from studies of third-world and post-Communist development that the most important factor is the rule of law, with its underlying moral foundation. As science works its way through more and more arcane causality, answers to the ultimate riddle recede farther and farther. Science is ever useful, but its religious pretenses fade before questions like, what came before the Big Bang? We may not be undergoing a full-scale Great Awakening, but we are experiencing an era of moral concern that reaches far beyond the fundamentalist Right.
THE GREAT frontier for the conservative tide is of course the culture. The media, the creative arts, and the universities are still dominated by the adversary culture cum establishment. Perhaps there is no answer except a flanking attack, as mainly conservative think tanks have supplanted the universities as centers of public policy, and right-wing radio hosts raised an audience in the midst of declining newspaper readership and network news ratings. But against liberal opponents who lacked the courage to stand against the radical Left in the 1960's, I would not rule out a more frontal attack; I suspect that the route to their heart runs through the pocketbook. We should also recognize, of course, that in all of these institutions there are some people sensitive to the merits of an argument.
The big temptation to conservatives, and especially conservative intellectuals, is self-realizing pessimism. As many rising movements have discovered, it is easier to tear down than build. Conservatism in particular, in its view of human nature and in its recent historical experience, has a strong pessimistic strain. Sometimes conservatives seem unhappy unless they are losing. They need to guard against seizing on a few receding waves as evidence that the tide has turned against them.
ROBERT L. BARTLEY is
the editor of the Wall Street Journal and the author of The Seven Fat Years:
And How to Do It Again.
Peter L. Berger
THE 1996 election did not reverse the conservative revolution of the 1994 election for the simple reason that there was no such revolution in the first place. I claim no great expertise in American politics, but it seems to me that both elections were primarily determined by fear. In 1994 many voters were scared that Hillary Clinton would push them, sooner or later, into some sort of Bolshevik health-care system; in 1996, they feared that Newt Gingrich would take away the health-care system they had. And, of course, there were other criss-crossing anxieties, none of which Bob Dole managed to allay.
Be that as it may, conservatives, of all people, should cringe at the word "revolution," no matter what adjective precedes it; and a "conservative revolution" is an oxymoron indeed. Rather, what can be observed over several elections and from other measures of American political life is a shift to the Right on a number of issues, notably on economic and welfare policies. This shift provides a chance for conservative politics. It is a sad commentary on the leadership of the Republican party that this chance has been consistently missed, at least since the end of the Reagan administration.
As for the alliance between "economic" and "social" or "values" conservatives, there were obvious tensions at work even in the heyday of that alliance, caused not least by class differences. On one side there were people who thought that being born-again was some sort of Hindu superstition, while people on the other side thought that Groton was a throat disease. As many observers have noted, the end of the cold war put further strain on the alliance. Nevertheless, given the continuing challenges from the Left, the alliance is still plausible.
The question is whether the "values" issues can be defined in such a way as to permit conservatives to expand into the middle ground of American politics. It seems to me that the answer to this will determine the future of conservatism.
The "radicalizing mood" referred to in the editors' statement is understandable in view of various disappointments, among which must certainly be included the role of the federal courts. If one is located in academia, as I am, the continuing domination of elite culture and some of its not-so-elite dependencies by various demented ideologies still sprouting from the decaying carcass of the late 60's is enough to make one think of moving to another country (an impulse quickly enough checked as one goes over the list of possible destinations). But any radicalizing mood should be held at bay, especially by those who think of themselves as conservatives. Otherwise, the real opportunities for conservative politics will be lost for a long time, and conservatism will be relegated to a sectarian subculture.
Since there is no credible vehicle for conservative politics in America other than the Republican party, the failure of its leadership to articulate "values" positions that will appeal to larger numbers of voters is deplorable. (They have done much better, of course, on economic and welfare policies, with the bizarre result that President Clinton ran in 1996 by employing a rhetoric that, on those issues, could be well described as moderate Republican.) The reasons for this failure are not very mysterious. Most leading Republicans are economic conservatives, equally ill at ease with the Left-leaning culture (with which they are often afflicted in their own homes by their wives and children) and with their discomfiting allies on the "values" Right. As a result, they alternate between an avoidance of positions that might give ammunition to the Left and a patently awkward endorsement of positions of the "values" Right.
A particularly shameful example of appeasement of the Left was the failure of the Dole campaign to support the California Civil Rights Initiative, a failure that was as distasteful morally as it was politically dumb.* On the other hand, the mouthing of evangelical religious sentiments and of vociferous anti-abortion rhetoric by upper-middle-class Republican politicians to whom both the sentiments and the rhetoric are clearly alien is unlikely to convince the groups thus being wooed. It takes the rare political skills of a Bill Clinton to be successfully insincere.
IT IS in this context that the episode involving First Things, referred to in the editors' statement, is more than a tempest in a teacup. I was one of those who resigned from the magazine's board over this matter and I address it here with reluctance, because I have great respect and affection for Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose sincerity is unquestionable and whose contributions to the conservative cause have been very great. But the questioning of the legitimacy of the American political system in the First Things symposium is a prime case of the counterproductive radicalizing mood mentioned earlier. If one decides that the system has become illegitimate, where does one go from there? Does one hole up with guns in the foothills of the Rockies? Engage in civil disobedience? Move abroad? Elect what Europeans call "inner emigration"?
Any of these options involves a withdrawal from meaningful politics. To consider such an option in the United States today strikes me as profoundly implausible as well as strangely parochial. If the American polity is illegitimate, where is legitimacy to be found? The allusions to Nazi Germany in this exercise are particularly offensive: are we back now to the "Amerika" language of the 60's, this time in a Right translation?
A key concern of First Things is a usurpation of power by the courts, described most forcefully (and, to me, persuasively) by Robert Bork's contribution to that magazine's November symposium. But is this enough reason to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the system? The American separation of powers has always been a creaky affair. Time and again, the other two branches of government have usurped power in constitutionally dubious ways. Congress has tried to run foreign policy. Agencies of the executive branch have legislated by way of regulations.
It seems to me, however, that for most of the First Things contributors, and for the magazine's editors, the driving concern has been not so much the power the courts have improperly assumed but rather what they have done with this power. And at the center of this concern is the issue of abortion.
A simple thought-experiment will serve to illuminate the problem here. Imagine that abortion in the United States had achieved its present legal status through an act of Congress rather than a Supreme Court decision. Imagine further that the Supreme Court had then ruled this act to be unconstitutional. I doubt very much that most of the First Things contributors would have viewed the latter action as a serious usurpation of power, let alone a reason to question the legitimacy of the American polity.
IN THE same November issue of First Things a reader, Fred Ainslie, responded in a letter to an earlier review by Neuhaus of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners. "Richard John Neuhaus suggests," this reader wrote, "that the Holocaust is 'our only culturally available icon of absolute evil.' What about the monstrosity of abortion?" He then went on to describe abortion as "the number-one problem in America today." Neuhaus replied to this letter as follows:
Abortion is certainly the moral enormity that Mr. Ainslie suggests. Because, unfortunately, so many are blind to its reality, it is not the "culturally available" icon of absolute evil that the Holocaust is. We must work and hope that this will change.
It is only with great difficulty that I can entertain the idea that abortion is an "icon of absolute evil" to be placed alongside the Holocaust. Indeed, that idea, even if taken as a theoretical exercise, strikes me as, precisely, a "moral enormity." Nevertheless, I must concede that to someone who sincerely believes that every abortion, no matter at what point it occurs in the development of a pregnancy, is an act of homicide, it must logically appear as absolutely evil and, given its frequency today, as America's number-one problem. It is also logical that, this being the case, one's position on abortion will become the most important litmus test of moral and political acceptability.
I myself do not hold this position on abortion (though, for good reasons, I am closer to a pro-life than to a pro-choice position, at least as these views are defined in America today). But, what is more germane to this discussion, most Americans do not hold such a position, either. Like me, they are somewhere in the middle. That being so, abortion as an "icon of absolute evil" is thoroughly implausible, as is the aforementioned litmus test. (Incidentally, if abortion is taken as the key test of political legitimacy, the only democracy that, to my knowledge, would pass this test is the Republic of Ireland -- though I understand that too is about to change. In any case, Ireland, undoubtedly a pleasant country, is hardly the last best hope of political legitimacy.)
The conservative mandate on the "values" issues is to spell out an authentically conservative position without falling into a radicalizing mood that proposes nonnegotiable absolutes. Such a position, I believe, could persuade a broad spectrum within the electorate. Most, but not all, of these issues belong in the political arena, and most can be dealt with by reversing the "long march through the institutions" which the Left began in the 1960's. Put differently, the conservative mandate is to build a politically viable social and cultural platform. I think I hear a reader's response to the preceding paragraph: put up or shut up! Fair enough. I hope to put up in the near future.
PETER L. BERGER, University
Professor at Boston University, is the author, among other books, of Pyramids of
Sacrifice, The Capitalist Revolution, and, most recently, A Far Glory.
YEARS AGO (how many, I do not remember) I was on a panel with the late Russell Kirk, the doyen of the paleoconservatives, and sitting behind him when, at the podium, he outlined his plan for a Christian commonwealth. Rather rudely, I must admit, I interrupted him by asking, in a voice audible throughout the room, "What are you going to do with us Jews?" The question obviously took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it had never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.
Having raised the question, I felt obliged to point out that the Constitution provides a better answer: by separating church and state, I said, the Founders intended to provide (in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) a haven "for all sorts and conditions of men," and the foundation of this haven -- safe for the Jews and safe for the rest of us -- was not Christianity, and certainly not the church of that prayerbook, but liberty of conscience, a liberal principle whose provenance was John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration.
Russell Kirk had become famous among paleoconservatives, in part, by arguing that John Locke had nothing to do with the Constitution; in effect, Kirk denied its liberal foundation. As he saw it, the Constitution was the work of men inspired by the "conservative" Edmund Burke. This paleoconservative misunderstanding has now been carried one step further by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister and now a Catholic priest.
As Neuhaus sees it, the Constitution is essentially a religious document, embodying the moral law, and specifically -- as some of his fellow essayists in the November 1996 First Things make explicit -- the natural law as espoused by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and enunciated in various papal encyclicals even today. From this religious perspective, and with the help of his colleagues, Neuhaus examines recent decisions of the courts, especially the abortion, assisted-suicide, and Colorado "gay-rights" decisions, and concludes that the "regime" has become "morally illegitimate," rather like Nazi Germany. From the same perspective, he then pronounces anathema on this regime, by which he means "the actual, existing system of [American] government." Finally, appealing to what he says is one of "the most elementary principles of Western civilization," he suggests that the time has come when "conscientious citizens" might properly engage in seditious activities "ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."
Of course, Neuhaus is right about the courts and the judges. Self-righteous zealots (not unlike Neuhaus in that respect), they have indeed usurped power that the Constitution assigns to other agencies of the government or to the states. Two years ago, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado constitutional amendment, denying special rights to homosexuals, violated the federal Constitution because, when adopting it, the voters had acted out of "animus." Then, even since Neuhaus wrote, a federal district court judge suspended the implementation of the California Civil Rights Initiative (which had received the support of 54 percent of the people), arguing that the provision, by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or sex, could be held to deny blacks and women the equal protection of the laws.
Playing ducks and drakes with legislative language is not unprecedented. The California initiative was modeled on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, beginning with the Weber case in 1979, has been knowingly and willfully misread by the Supreme Court. For proof of this assertion, consider the comment made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a 1987 case: "As Justice Scalia illuminates with excruciating clarity, [this section of the Act] has been interpreted by Weber and succeeding cases to permit what its language read literally would prohibit." She then proceeded to join not Scalia in dissent but the majority in its deliberate misreading of the Act. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet, "What is law to her or she to law that she should weep for it?"
As I said, Neuhaus is right about the judges, but he is wrong about almost everything else. Our Founders -- "the patriots of '76," as Lincoln called them -- did not justify their taking up of arms by claiming that George III had violated the principles of morality, "especially traditional morality, and most especially morality associated with religion" (to use Neuhaus's words). To have done so would have involved them (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest) in a dispute with a king who represented "traditional morality, and most especially morality associated with religion." After all, George claimed to rule by the grace of God (Dei gratia rex), and, in support of this claim, he (or his schoolmen supporters) referred to the Bible, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis. To have disputed him on religious grounds would have required the Founders to engage in the kind of scriptural exegesis that Locke employed against Sir Robert Filmer, the defender of divine right; and this, quite obviously, they did not do.
Traditional morality? On the contrary, immediately after adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee -- consisting again of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin -- to "prepare a device for a Seal of the United States of North America," and on that Great Seal appear these words (they are on every dollar bill), Novus Ordo Seclorum, meaning, a new order of the ages, new because it was the first to recognize the rights of man, and then to give them constitutional protection. In the words of James Madison, the Founders "accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society." It is the Constitution, the product of that revolution, and not a recondite "moral law," that the President swears to "protect and defend," the members of Congress to "support," and the judges to "support and defend."
THE FOUNDERS were proud of their work. The Constitution, they said, provided a remedy for the "diseases" most incident to democratic government, and The Federalist (written to persuade the people to give it their consent) leaves no doubt as to what they understood to be a disease: zealous opinions "concerning religion," "tyrannical majorities," "angry and malignant passions," "a factious spirit," the dangerous ambition that "often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people," and those who begin their careers "by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants."
To guard against these democratic diseases, or vices, the Constitution, in addition to consigning religion to the private sphere by separating church and state, withholds powers, separates powers, and excludes the people "in their collective capacity" from any share in the exercise of these powers. In a word, republican (or limited) government would be possible under a Constitution that excluded, or at least inhibited, the zealous, the angry, the morally indignant; and this, in turn, depended on confining the business of government to issues that did not give rise to zeal, anger, or moral indignation.
Throughout most of our history -- if we ignore the slavery issue and the Civil War -- the Constitution succeeded in doing this. Calvin Coolidge was not altogether wrong when he said the nation's business was business. James Madison said much the same thing in Federalist #10. The government's business, he said, or at least its "first object," is the protection of men's "different and unequal faculties," especially those "from which the rights of property originate." The result would be a variety of interests -- landed, manufacturing, mercantile, moneyed -- and regulating these various and interfering interests is "the principal task of modern legislation." Although Madison acknowledged that republican government especially requires a "sufficient virtue" in the people, he said nothing about the power to inculcate it.
On the other hand, the Constitution was adopted by a people whose character was formed by, and would continue to live under, the laws and institutions of an older order, an order that was, to some extent at least, preserved in and fostered by state constitutions and state law. Whether out of habit or as deliberate policy, the states continued to foster family life and moral education, and to prohibit practices (the publication of obscene material, for example) that threatened or jeopardized them. No longer; the Supreme Court put an end to that, and by doing so provoked Richard Neuhaus's angry and morally indignant discourse.
But no good will come of it. On the contrary, he has already caused a breach in conservative ranks that is not likely to be closed, and, even worse, his call for direct (and unconstitutional) action will confirm the opinion, held by many Americans, some of them Republicans, that religious conservatives are extremists and are not to be trusted.
WALTER BERNS is a resident scholar at
the American Enterprise Institute and professor emeritus of government at Georgetown
William F. Buckley, Jr.
TWO YEARS ago, after the Gingrich political upset, we heard from two sets of voices that what had happened should not be thought of as a revolution. One spoke for the ideologically threatened, who said that this was a freak election, that the upset was the result of clever machinations by Republican organizers who had succeeded in catalyzing a dramatic change in congressional personnel, but not one that registered true change in national political disposition. The other voices (I remember Charles Krauthammer's among them) were saying: "This is not a revolution in any acceptable sense of the word. Revolutions overthrow regimes and basic ideological structures. What happened is much less than that. Whatever the Gingrich people do, it will be meliorist, not revolutionary."
Somewhere in between is what November 1994 was: a genuine alteration in political direction and public attitudes. For some of us the single most propulsive catalyst in the collapse of Communism was Reagan's calling the Soviet Union an evil empire. So (we believe), the most important event brought on by the Gingrich election was President Clinton's declaration in January 1996 that the age of big government was over. That statement would not have been made if 1994 had gone differently.
How, then, should conservatives interpret the events of last November? They confirmed that what had happened two years before was not a revolution. Nor was the victory of Clinton a restoration. The rebuke of 1994 had been less than the king's removal, let alone his beheading.
Conservatives could take comfort, notwithstanding the reelection of Bill Clinton, that Congress remained in friendly hands, even if its spirit was dampened. Clinton's victory was less than a rejection of conservative advances. It was a validation of the relative strengths of an incumbent, in good times. What was greatly missed was that crisp satisfaction that losers sometimes walk away with when their spokesman clearly won the debate, never mind that the crowd, or the judges, went to the other man. Barry Goldwater gave us that in 1964. Dole did not. And not because he is witless or lacking in resources, but because the vision-thing never quite crystallized, and so his thoughts and prescriptions were never airborne.
Was Dole made mute by conflicts of interest among his constituents? That explanation is heard, and the editors of Commentary direct our attention to the disparate concerns of social and economic reformists, following the lead of Irwin M. Stelzer.
The late Herman Kahn, speaking on Firing Line fifteen years ago about democratic discourse, illustrated his position, which was that political affinities cannot hope to crash through too many frontiers, progressively attenuated. You have here (he said, drawing a circle with his right hand) the rigid pacifists. Imagine them inhabiting a circle tangential to a second circle, in which the unilateral-disarmament people dwell. Next are the joint-disarmament people; after that, the liberationists; and, finally, the preemptive-war advocates. The people in the first circle, said Kahn, simply cannot talk to inhabitants of the fifth. It is a waste of time to reach out, in political discourse, any further than to the people next door, or perhaps two doors down.
Is this a problem among contemporary conservatives in America? Kahn's law would seem to operate vividly in respect of abortion; yet something is left out. If the fetus is mere tissue (a "tomato," in the nice metaphor of a National Review correspondent), then the protection of it is, so to speak, merely the concern of vegetarians. Certainly the hard abortion-rights people have a problem talking to those who say an abortion is wrong even if the mother's life is threatened.
But the choice advocate has sentient membranes which, begging Herman Kahn's leave, do reach way over, in acknowledging the primacy-of-life question (the mother's; the child's), right across the circle chart. And the apparent impasse over fetal rights does not, and should not, proscribe coalitions. There are abortion-rights people who are attracted to other compass points in the conservative universe. Why? Well, why not?
A creative political portraitist can discern latent affinities. The utilitarian imperative is a magnet. Some (privately) value the utilitarian uses of abortion. They are attracted to other policies with utilitarian emphasis. The free-market people are whole-hearted utilitarians. Parse that: utilitarian criteria encourage individualism, and the individual's rights, and these bring to mind . . . Judeo-Christian postulates about human life. And lo, the sucking sound one hears is the whirl of thought and feeling that brings together those who value life even if they are not agreed on when life begins.
The interests of the community are not to be gainsaid, but the individual is at the core of things, and is not to be dealt with offhandedly, not at abortion clinics or euthanasia wards, not by disqualifications under affirmative action or by multiculturalist Procrusteanism of the kind that, twenty years ago, had some people saying there was no difference between George Washington and Ho Chi Minh.
The liaisons are there, I think, between the social and the economic reformers, and as for the matter of how to address the general public, one always learns. Election monitors tell us that the softly stated positions were found the most attractive in the general election. That should not surprise. In nonrevolutionary situations, most voters are not drawn to reductionist formulations, any more than, at first, Abraham Lincoln was. Most of those who believe in equal treatment under the law feel also a need to encourage measures aimed at accelerating upward mobility, provided they are not effected by racial or ethnic discrimination. Pro-lifers are substantially mollified by such meliorism as was attempted by Governor Casey of Pennsylvania, who asked not for repeal of Roe v. Wade, but for mitigation of the licenses it gave. Opponents of the welfare state do not call out for the abolition of Social Security.
The exasperation of the essayists who wrote for First Things reveals an impatience with democratic counsels that enjoin measured advance but tolerate what appears to be total acquiescence in a deteriorating situation, with the Supreme Court as supreme moral arbiter. Among the contributors, Judge Bork's exasperation with the reasoning of the Court leads him to radical proposals, including an end to the authority of the Court to invalidate laws. Hadley Arkes wonders what is left, in present circumstances, of that which binds the citizen, through loyalty, to a regime.
On the issue of a social safety net, compromise is easy to understand: this side of that far-off circle in which Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard moon with each other. Compromise on questions of racial discrimination is not easy and, for some, not possible. So with human life -- some say tomato, some say it's a human being.
The benumbing experience of the 1996 election, as noted, is the sense that the hard issues were not examined. That is why some wonder whether there are other means than conventional democratic politics to assert one's vital position. The conservatives' answer is, usually, No: we can only ask for more heat, and pray that it will bring illumination.
Yes, but we can also think out loud, as they did in First Things.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY,
JR. is editor-at-large of National Review and host of
Firing Line. His most recent book is The Right Word.
THE SORRY pundits of CNN to the contrary notwithstanding, Republicanism -- capital R -- has never been the name of conservative desire. It is just that for those who still pin at least some hopes on the outcomes of elections, the GOP is all there is. Of course, once in living memory there was a President, Ronald Reagan -- a Republican, to be sure -- who could at least comprehend what conservatives were talking about, and for that alone we were all grateful enough to come within a hair of deifying him. And again in 1994, some among us were sufficiently full of leftover longing to declare a new shift in the balance of congressional power our "revolution."
But there can be no reliably, steadfastly conservative White House in the United States of America, just as there can be no sudden conservative congressional revolution. The country does not work that way. And in truth, we should all be on our knees in gratitude that it does not. For, let us never forget, whatever is sauce for the goose can on some propitious day become sauce for the gander. Thirty years ago, after all, there were leftists in our midst who also proclaimed a "revolution" -- indeed, a variety of interlocking revolutions -- and the country was saved from them not so much by the countervailing force of conservatism as by the stolidity and, yes, basic contentment of the general populace.
When this stolidity works against us, as in so many ways it does today, we find the condition of the country infuriating and even dangerous. We are wrong to find it so. We must remember that it has taken 50 (some would say 60) years of creeping liberalism to bring us to the place where a whole group of intelligent and educated people can no longer define a family, or say with certainty what differentiates men and women, or muster a simple argument against teen-age sexual promiscuity or drug use, or discern a difference between heterosexual and homosexual lovemaking, or straightforwardly clarify their views on such subjects as incest, child pornography, or even -- God help us and the teachers' unions -- the abomination that currently travels under the name of "man-boy love." Small wonder, then, that they cannot find a decent way through the rather more clouded issues of abortion and assisted suicide. How many years may it take us to climb back up these slippery slopes?
Those whom Irwin M. Stelzer calls "economic conservatives" -- budget balancers, tax cutters, debt hawks, and, in general, opponents of the welfare state in the name of economic good sense -- have sometimes been known to stake a successful claim to the ear of Republican officialdom, especially of late. Until a minute ago, however, most of these same people have had virtually no thought for the slow poison that has for so long now been seeping into the national psyche. That is precisely why they were unable to field a serious contender in the 1996 presidential race.
Be that as it may, the word "revolution" and all its careless kindred expressions ought to be stricken from the conservative vocabulary. Rhetoric counts, and conservatives are anyway far too quick to disappointment these days: perhaps because they have had too many disappointments, perhaps because, sub specie aeternitatis, they have had too few. Whatever the reason, they have lately seemed to find it all too dangerously easy to beguile themselves with promises that they are about to defund this and wipe away that and reinvent the other. And then, up against the sluggishness and obduracy of democratic society -- that blessed sluggishness and obduracy which have enabled us to slog intact through crises and wars and unholy social novelties -- many of them have become all too quick to cry foul.
This is a gesture, bespeaking a state of mind, that once was and ought to remain alien to the conservative temperament. But it is what happened to my dear friends at First Things, who thought about the difficulty of overcoming the oligarchic arrogance of the Supreme Court and flew off the handle.
Today's Court, to be sure, is not what the Founders had in mind, and perhaps someone will find a decent and nondisruptive way to have it returned to its intended position above the fray. Perhaps, indeed, Robert Bork, who has written about these matters both in a book, The Tempting of America, and in the First Things symposium, knows how to bring this about. I tend to doubt it, because he seems to me too outraged by the Court's misbehavior and too unhappy with what he sees as the public's complaisance to be able to come up with a truly conservative prescription.
Something, nevertheless, is happening in that vast American community out there that lives beyond the reach of ideology and even to a great extent beyond politics. It is -- slowly and largely incoherently, as is its wont -- growing deeply unhappy with what liberalism hath wrought. One day, then, it will be our turn. And on that day even the Supreme Court, protected as it is from the popular intention, will change course. For it is important not to forget that the liberal (more properly called radical) "auras and penumbras" that the Court was pleased to find in the Constitution were placed there first by the attitudes of the culture, and the damage done thereby will in the end be redressed in the same way. Meanwhile, in the words of the poet, ours but to do and die.
Finally, Commentary asks about the various stumbling blocks to conservative unity represented by the disagreements among us over foreign policy, immigration, trade, etc. But what is there to say on the subject? Such disagreements, pursued with varying degrees of heat and civility, have in one form or another been endemic throughout American history. What holds us under one tent -- to use the current popular image -- is our common loathing for what liberalism has done to the American ethos. What will drive us apart, and has to some extent in very limited quarters already done so, are not differences over matters of policy but differences in bedrock attitudes toward the United States of America. There are those of us who still have the good sense -- the good conservative sense -- to regard it, sins and shortcomings and all, as a blessed place in which to live.
MIDGE DECTER was, until recently,
distinguished fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Her books include
Liberal Parents, Radical Children and The Liberated Woman & Other Americans.
THIS MAY sound flippant, but maybe the big mistake the editors of First Things made was publishing their symposium too late: so zealously was Bill Clinton mimicking cultural conservatism in 1996 that if the magazine had come out three months earlier, we might well have been treated to a few presidential musings on the legitimacy of the American regime.
Those of us, myself very much included, who cheered as the Republican Congress took on the Medicare problem in 1995 probably are not the best guides to what is and what is not politically responsible. It is almost something of a relief to hear some other faction of the conservative movement accused of irresponsibility. It turns out that there is, after all, something one can say that is more shocking than that senior citizens ought to pay an extra $6 a month toward their health-care bills.
There are large and continuing divisions among conservatives. In my view, the gravest and most intractable of them involve issues of nationality, such as immigration, trade, and America's overseas commitments. Compared to those splits, the disagreements between religious or cultural conservatives and economic conservatives loom small.
In fact, before engaging in any more expressions of mutual exasperation, it might be worthwhile to reflect how very much religious or cultural conservatives and economic conservatives still have in common. Look at the 1996 election returns. You hear it said again and again that Bob Dole lost the presidency because of the women's vote. But which women? Married women gave Clinton only a very modest preference: 48 percent of them voted for the President, 43 percent for Dole. Clinton owed his huge female landslide to the votes of unmarried women: he won 62 percent of their votes, a victory of FDR-like proportions.
Who are these women who -- Paula Jones or no Paula Jones -- seem so keen on the President? You probably know at least one of them yourself. She is the receptionist in your office, whose husband has just left home and who must now keep a car, dress for work, and raise two kids on $22,000 a year, plus what child support she can extract. She is the woman ahead of you at the grocery store who is paying for her purchases with food stamps. She is the unmarried thirty-eight-year-old account manager who sips her coffee at a desk surmounted by photographs of her four cats.
There are about 40 million of these women in America: 10 million widows, 10 million divorced women, 5 million unmarried mothers, 15 million single childless women. These 40 million women form a new American proletariat. They are more likely than most Americans to be poor. They are more likely to depend on government for help, either directly (welfare, Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid) or indirectly (government collection of child support, subsidized day-care). They are more hostile to or alienated from the institutions of American society than are their married sisters: while polls find that married women are very nearly as conservative in their politics as men, unmarried women veer sharply to the Left.
And American society seems to be producing more and more unmarried women all the time. In 1970, nearly 70 percent of adult American women were married. That proportion has since fallen dramatically: to 63 percent in 1980, 60 percent in 1990, and 59 percent today. And divorce is by far the most important cause of this social transformation.
Economic conservatives of a certain sort get all twitchy when social conservatives nag them about the break-up of the family. Sophisticated people want to talk about capital formation and the deficit; they imagine that it is only the Savonarolas who would fret about divorce, illegitimacy, and the dwindling vitality of marriage and family in America.
In fact, however, the cultural changes that worry social conservatives are likely to make it much more difficult for economic conservatives to win elections in the years ahead. What constituency can there be for Social Security reform and reductions in the welfare functions of government in a society where an ever-rising proportion of the female electorate -- which is 52 percent of the total electorate -- has come to depend on Social Security and welfare? It has been said that the Republicans are the "daddy" party and the Democrats are the "mommy" party. What are the chances for the "daddy" party in a country where more and more women are furious at the daddy they know best?
HISTORICALLY, the Democrats have been the party of national particularism. A century and a half ago, Democratic particularism took the form of sectionalism: championing the interests of some states against the interest of the whole country. From the 1930's until the 1970's, the Democratic party flourished by using the power of government to favor some economic classes over others. Today, that same tradition of particularism takes the form of "diversity": championing the particular interests of single women and favored ethnic groups. The more intensely ethnic groups resent one another, the worse the mistrust between women and men, the better the Democrats do.
Republicans, by contrast, have for 150 years vindicated the national interest. They stood for the Union against the states and for the common economic good against the New Deal. In today's context, the party's historic role as the champion of national unity requires it to defend the ideals of color-blindness before the law and the integrity of the family in public policy. You can call that social conservatism if you want to; the task remains essential under any name.
And if my fellow economic conservatives bristle in discomfort at the topics and problems that matter to social conservatives, well, a glance at the exit polls and a quick calculation of what the country's demographics will soon look like if family trends do not change should help them to understand this truth: if the social conservatives fail to win their argument, the economic conservatives will not be winning any more elections.
DAVID FRUM, a senior fellow at the
Manhattan Institute, is the author of What's Right.
I AM constantly struck by the extent to which the cultural tone of the country has shifted in a conservative direction from a generation ago, when I was in college. While I understand the anger of many of the contributors to the First Things symposium over the direction taken by the Supreme Court in recent years, the underlying social reality is very different: markets and private competition have never in my memory had the kind of pervasive legitimacy they do today, while concern over moral decline and traditional social issues has risen substantially. The agenda of the Left has crumbled: whereas a generation ago it was intent on completing the welfare state along European lines, today it is fighting a rearguard action to preserve what elements it can of the postwar social safety net. I take it as an interesting sign of the times that Michael J. Sandel, a man of the Left, could publish a book in 1996 called Democracy's Discontents, the first half of which contains a critique of the contemporary courts' "procedural liberalism" that might have been written by Father Richard John Neuhaus. Moreover, while President Clinton was reelected last November, we should bear in mind that in the second half of his first term he positioned himself as the most conservative Democratic president of the postwar period. In terms of underlying attitudes, then, things have not been better in a long time.
The problem is to translate this conservative social mood into a political coalition that can win power and implement an agenda. The present-day conservative movement is, of course, divided along the lines suggested by the editors of Commentary, the division between the economic and social conservatives being the most important. In broader perspective, however, these divisions are only to be expected in an American political movement, and would be inevitable in a governing party, given the underlying cleavages within the society itself. The current conservative coalition is no less diverse than the New Deal coalition of working-class Catholics, blacks, Southerners, and intellectuals that dominated American politics for two generations. In fact, the recent realignment of the South into the Republican camp, and the increasing concentration of Democratic support in the older industrial areas of the Northeast, has made both parties considerably more homogeneous than they once were. The task for conservatives is to unite the existing diverse elements within the Republican party around a coherent set of issues, and find a suitable leader who can articulate them.
MANY MAINSTREAM Republicans, including Bob Dole during last year's campaign, are uncomfortable with the conservative social agenda, or else feel that it is too divisive. The obvious way out seemed to be to concentrate on economic issues like tax cuts. This strategy proved disastrous, particularly in a year when the economy was extraordinarily strong in terms of inflation, employment, and general competitiveness. But the difficulty was not that Republican tax-cutting proposals were not radical enough, or that the Republicans should have pushed for a Forbes-like flat tax. This strategy works in Republican primaries but not in general elections, because most voters simply (and rightly) do not believe in the version of supply-side economics which says that tax cuts will be self-financing. Most people are closer to what used to be the old Republican orthodoxy that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
This is particularly true for two groups of voters who were critical in getting Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, and who will be essential to the creation of a governing Republican majority: working-class men, and women of all social classes. For many years now, the so-called "Reagan Democrats" have been out of sorts with the elites and interest groups running the Democratic party, largely because of what they perceive as the excesses of the cultural Left. They have no objective interest, however, in radical tax-cutting or other elements of the Right's economic agenda: they will not benefit nearly as much from such moves as the wealthy, and they stand to see important benefits like Medicare and Social Security cut more deeply than they would otherwise be, to finance the resulting revenue shortfall. The same applies to women, who tend to be less wealthy as a group and more dependent on a host of government programs.
On the other hand, the conservative social agenda, if handled properly, could have been a much more powerful issue in the election campaign. Despite recent declines in violent crime, William J. Bennett's index of leading cultural indicators is much more solidly negative, and speaks much more directly to what troubles many Americans, than are the nation's economic indicators. Both the Reagan Democrats and women raising families understand that bad things have been happening to their children, that the public-education system has failed them, and that there is something morally troubling about the smug self-satisfaction of baby-boom generation leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton. Had the Dole campaign focused on the broad issue of moral decline, it could have framed the "character" issue properly and created a context in which to attack an otherwise vulnerable President in a way that would not have looked mean-spirited or desperate.
THE PROBLEM, then, to repeat, is how to frame the conservative social agenda. This is where the First Things debate becomes relevant. It is very hard to address the issue of moral decline without addressing the issue of religion, and conservatives have to proceed carefully here if they are to build a governing coalition.
Over the past couple of generations there has been a monumental cultural disestablishment in the United States, the effect of which is that the country's earlier Protestant-Christian foundations can no longer be taken for granted. One of the staples of the scholarly literature on American exceptionalism used to be that American conservatives were different from conservatives anywhere else in the world because they were actually Lockean liberals -- that is, believers in limited government and laissez-faire, and reconciled to the creative-destructive energies of a capitalism that was constantly remaking the social order. This could be the case only because there was a substantial degree of cultural consensus among political elites, Right and Left, on matters like religion and values. There was no tension, in other words, between the country's Lockean liberal political order and its sectarian Protestant cultural inheritance, because the latter could be taken for granted.
The cultural disestablishment of that earlier elite is now a fact of life. One consequence is that many religious conservatives see the Lockean liberal order, shorn of its cultural context, as a threat to their core interests. And indeed, there is relatively little in classical liberalism that can help one make principled arguments against gay marriage or abortion, or to defend traditional family values.
Can a conservative social agenda be formulated that will remain respectful of religious practice, while not seeming to be driven by primarily religious forces or concerns? The problem with the First Things symposium is that it simply confirms the view of many nonreligious people that Christian conservatives are a somewhat nutty and out-of-touch interest group. While I do not expect to see Richard John Neuhaus holed up in a farmhouse shooting it out with ATF officers anytime soon, it is hard to understand what other course of action is logically implied by his raising the question as to whether the American "regime" is fundamentally illegitimate and may even have to be opposed by force.
Framing issues properly means, among other things, making a broad-based case against an undemocratic and imperial judiciary -- a case that does not reduce to a desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. The opportunity to make such a case may emerge if the lower courts succeed in legalizing gay marriage, since this is an issue where a large majority of Americans would clearly find their wishes being overturned. Moreover, as Joseph P. Viteritti recently noted in Commentary ("The Last Freedom," November 1996), the First Amendment prohibits laws constraining the "free exercise" of religion, and there are clear constitutional grounds for public authorities to take a more tolerant view of religion.
The American political system is clearly reformable. The social consensus for change exists, and the proper political tools are available to bring it about. As Dennis Teti remarked in a reply to the First Things symposium (in that magazine's January 1997 issue), the country has faced and surmounted much more serious political and moral problems before, such as when the Court handed down the Dred Scott decision. It is particularly ironic that any conservative should choose this particular moment to decide that things are hopeless, or that the only principled alternative is to drop out altogether.
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is Omer L. and Nancy
Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and the author of The End
of History and the Last Man and Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of
ONCE AGAIN the Republican party has failed to win the presidency for want of consistency and valor. Refusing to fight for principle and deathly afraid of loss, it lost without principle and died a fearful death. As if moved by the capitulationist impulse of his opponent's foreign policy, the Republican nominee, a valorous man too steeped in calculation, would neither attack his opposition nor vigorously promote his own program.
I admit to a certain responsibility in the outcome, having stood publicly very early for Senator Dole and having written speeches for him. Though I believed that, put to the test, he would be direct and decisive, he was neither. But I comfort myself in thinking that had I never written newspaper columns, had I never spoken on his behalf, had I never been born, Bob Dole would have captured the Republican nomination and gone on to lose the election. Of course, had he won I might not have been so dismissive of my own effect, but there is no doubt that he would have been.
The fact remains that in 1996 the Republican party spoke in the soft and unduly dainty language of its opponents, thinking that this was the way to win. Needless to say, it was not, for although it was appropriate to the message of the Democrats it was at variance with that of the Republicans. The former are proponents of a revolution in American life in which the tough talk came in the 60's and the sweet talk comes now. But though their revolution may be swathed in positiveness and pleasantries it is a revolution nonetheless.
It is a revolution in which individual rights have become group rights, in which responsibility has become entitlement, marriage has become divorce, birth has become abortion, medicine has become euthanasia, homosexuality is a norm, murder is neither a surprise nor necessarily punishable, pornography is piped into almost every home, gambling is legal, drugs are rife, students think Alaska is an island south of Los Angeles, and mothers of small children are sent off to war with great fanfare and pride. The catalogue of this revolution is a record of modern life, too vast to be printed here, that every day becomes more voluminous, to the wonder and dismay of a large and seemingly powerless proportion of the population, perhaps even a majority, shouldered aside by lesser numbers of more agile true believers.
True believers who, it is important to note, speak so dishonestly as to transform abortion and euthanasia, for example, into "reproductive health," "choice," and a "right to die." When faced with these and similar distortions, conservatives have generally tried to correct them, but that, being laborious and unexciting, is not a forceful attraction in the frenetic politics of the day, or to audiences used to one-second cutaways and uninterested in the difficulties of distinction.
Nor does retaliation suffice. I used to say, at dinner parties, "If you persist in calling the Strategic Defense Initiative 'Star Wars,' I will have to call Aid to Families with Dependent Children 'Welfare Cadillacs.'" This was ineffective because, while my interlocutors understood that AFDC is not "Welfare Cadillacs" (it is not), they also "understood" that SDI was "Star Wars."
Thus armored, they win, and the revolution that is the real revolution continues. Sixteen years after the beginning of the Reagan "revolution," and in the second term of a Republican congressional "revolution," what signs, indications, evidences, or demonstrations of "a great change in affairs or in some particular thing" (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) have we? None, other than those of the revolution that in the 60's burst out like a fire that had been building beneath a floor, and now smolders efficiently with Hillary Clinton sitting uncomfortably unemphasized at its head.
IT IS hardly surprising that Republicans, making little or no headway against hundreds of thousands of Ira Magaziners,** might want to imitate them. After all, for politicians raw unqualified success is as light to a plant, and they will always find ways to bend toward its direction.
But if you are going to lose, you might as well lose with honor, rather than being a pallid imitation of Ira Magaziner. What mooncalf pronounced in 1994 that Republicans were revolutionaries? Conservatism by nature distrusts revolution. The authors of American independence were too attentive to the balance of natural forces, too wise, too experienced, and too kind to have made a revolution. Had they overturned the political system of the British Isles they might have made a revolution, but this is not what they did. They set out in a fresh direction, and the expanses of the ocean without which they could not have had their rebellion allowed them to honor the past rather than to torture and torment it in the manner of revolutionaries.
Conservatives are counterrevolutionaries by right, and this is an honorable thing if it is carefully restrained, if the counterrevolution keeps clear of those with too much fire and too little judgment, with passion that seems hateful, with a taste for combat and assertion inappropriate to questions that depend for their resolution on an appeal to the American people in the language of what is self-evident.
The revolution of the 60's has led the country halfway to ruin and has more than enough momentum to finish the job. It cannot be stopped, it will not be stopped, without direct, patient, imaginative argument. And politicians who are magnetized by success rather than honor will not turn it back except occasionally by accident.
The sinews of state are rotten, America's moral life a shambles, its defense neglected almost as much as its children. The notions of right and wrong that have contributed to the slow progress of mankind over 5,000 years have been, as happens now and then, turned on their head. No party can stand in the face of this that is afraid of the wilderness, afraid of defeat, and afraid of rejection. No party can stand in the face of this that does not trust in God, that does not trust in the people to apprehend the presence and justice of God, in precisely the questions that Senator Dole was afraid to face directly in this past election.
CONSERVATIVES AND, therefore, the Republican party, must make a number of steadfast arguments for the tenets to which they naturally gravitate. Rights must accrue neither to tribe nor to group but to the individual. The state must not usurp out of good intentions or otherwise the duty and privileges of the family. The government must have a weak hand at home and a strong hand abroad. Power must flow back to state, city, and citizen. Individuals, rather than being always directed and always excused, must be free and accountable. The weak must be protected, whether they be on the brink of birth or at the door of death.
Conservatives and, therefore, the Republican party, must argue steadfastly against the idea that man can engineer man's happiness, or that it is owed to him by his government, or that it is primarily material. They must reassert that work and genius deserve not penalty but reward, and that luck is not an affront to those who do not have it but a gift to those who do. They must argue, and emphasize, that man is not his own creator, and that the first requirement of good government is restraint. They must confront and resist at every level the love of coercion and passion for decree that are so fascinating to the rigidly unimaginative mind, the sense that all flows from the proclamation of human authorities.
And they must be unafraid to do all these things, and more, with the kind of honesty and plain speaking that have eluded them of late in their quest not for right but for victory. The sectors of the party that live by the threat to fall away should by all means be encouraged to make good on what they promise. Let them form their own parties or join another. In their actions and beliefs they have done so anyway already. The platform planks against abortion on demand and for free trade have proved no hindrance to Republican presidential victories except when the nominee agonizes over them. Four years hence, lines should be drawn more distinctly and at greater risk, if only to test the proposition that clarity and honesty are still rewarded by a democratic electorate. I believe that, given clarity and honesty, the American people will choose them, not only decisively but in great number. In 1996 they did not have that choice, and in a race of nipping and tucking they went with the candidate who nipped and tucked the best.
Is it such a difficult thing, then, to speak forthrightly, to contest fundamental principles, to risk defeat, to be concerned primarily with right and honor? Of course not. These things are the best rewards. They are like light and air. They are what we need, and all we need. And they are there for the taking.
MARK HELPRIN, a novelist,
contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and senior fellow at the Hudson
Institute, was an adviser on defense and foreign relations to Senator Dole during the 1996
REVOLUTION, LIKE death, concentrates the mind wonderfully. Two years ago it was the "Gingrich revolution" that galvanized conservatives. Today it is the specter of revolution that hovers behind the symposium in First Things, raising the issue of the "legitimacy" of the American "regime."
The two "revolutions" -- or near-revolutions, or visions of revolution -- tell us a good deal about the course of American conservatism and the mood of conservatives in these two eventful years.
Two years ago, the more prudent spirits among us (Owen Harries, most notably) warned conservatives against indulging in the rhetoric, to say nothing of the reality, of revolution. That is not, we were reminded, a proper mode of conservative discourse or politics. Others, including myself, were so elated by the 1994 congressional elections and the spirited temper of our new representatives that we defended the idea (oxymoron though it is) of a "conservative revolution" -- a revolution, we argued, that was really a counterrevolution, reversing some of the baneful effects of a long-entrenched welfare state.
A funny thing happened to that revolution on the way to the more recent elections. The revolutionary rhetoric was abandoned -- was, in fact, discredited -- while some of the reality was (or is in the process of being) fulfilled. By now the spectrum of political discourse and social policy has moved so far to the Right that liberals find themselves at the Left while conservatives approach the center. President Clinton's "vital center" is not the old liberal center described by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; it is (to Schlesinger's dismay, I suspect) a more conservative center. Today it is liberalism that is on the defensive; indeed the very word is in disrepute.
In these few years, we have begun to think the unthinkable -- about welfare, Medicare, even that "third rail" of American politics, Social Security. We have even begun to do the undoable. The welfare bill is more momentous than Bill Clinton likes to make it appear, or even than some conservatives seem to think. The "devolution" of relief to the states is not merely a considerable move toward federalism (which in itself is significant). It is a considerable step toward the abolition of relief as an entitlement, a right that has been hallowed for some 60 years and that has been the linchpin of the welfare state.
Perhaps even more important, it has begun to change the ethos of society. The press now touts stories celebrating the work ethic (single mothers gamely working for a living even though welfare provides greater financial rewards). The words virtue, shame, and responsibility can now be heard, without audible quotation marks around them.
We have, in this respect at least, accomplished something like a major reform, if not a revolution. It has been confined largely to the arena of social policy and achieved through the normal workings of the political process. It has not even required any constitutional amendment, which makes it all the more commendable.
Other areas, however -- the culture, the media, academia, and, most notably, the judiciary -- have resisted the conservative trend. Indeed, here the situation may be getting worse rather than better. It is this, and particularly the condition of the judiciary, that is prompting a new call for revolution. And it is now that a counsel of caution is in order.
THIS NEW revolution, as the editors of First Things conceive it, differs from the old not only in its objective -- the judiciary rather than the welfare state -- but in its nature and scope. This is a revolution truly worthy of the name.
The question posed in the title of the First Things symposium, "The End of Democracy?," is "in no way hyperbolic," the editors assure us. "In full awareness of its far-reaching consequences," they propose to determine "whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." The "regime" -- not merely the judiciary, not even the administration of the day, but the "regime," embracing the entire system of government.
That the editors believe the regime to be actually or imminently illegitimate is suggested again and again in the introduction to the symposium. We are told that "many millions of children" have come to believe that "the government that rules them is morally illegitimate," and that "perhaps even a majority" of Americans feel that they have to choose between "God or country." We are reminded of the "venerable precedent" of the American Revolution, and, most ominously, of Nazi Germany: "America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here."
The gravamen of the charge is the "judicial usurpation of power." It is this that accounts for the "crisis of legitimacy" and the "end of democracy." But the editors of First Things also invoke the principle -- for which they cite the authority of Western civilization and two papal encyclicals -- that "laws which violate the moral law are null and void and must in conscience be disobeyed."
At this point the argument becomes confused, for it is surely not the judicial usurpation of power that either Western civilization or the papacy takes to be a violation of the moral law; the division of powers in the American system of government hardly has so exalted a status in the moral order. The real issue, as some of the symposium's contributors (but not the editors) make clear, is abortion and euthanasia. It is this that is the affront to moral law. And it is this that conjures up the specter of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. (A judicial usurpation of power was not one of Nazism's evils.)
It is quite true that in the United States the "oligarchic judiciary," as Robert Bork describes it, has been the worst offender in legalizing abortion and euthanasia, as well as in violating the Constitution in myriad other ways. (Although one of the most appalling cases in recent years puts the President, not the courts, in that role. It was Clinton who vetoed the congressional ban on partial-birth abortions.) But what if the legalization of abortion were the product not of the judiciary but of the legislature -- if it betokened not the "end of democracy" but the very exercise of democracy? This is, in fact, the case in most Western countries, where duly elected representatives have enacted the statutes legalizing abortion (and, in some countries, euthanasia as well). Does this mean that all these regimes -- democratic regimes like Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden -- are also in violation of the moral law and hence illegitimate?
In America we are confronting two separate and urgent problems, the judiciary and abortion, which happen at present to coincide but which may well diverge in the future. It is the conflation of the two that gives this controversy the apocalyptic tone that it has.
If conservatives do take democracy and the Constitution seriously, if we are truly exercised by the usurpation of judicial power, we must also be prepared for the possibility that vox populi might differ from many of us on the subject of abortion. The polls suggest that the majority of the American people want to restrict abortion in various ways but not to criminalize it. If this is so, the conservative tone in this debate should be moral and exhortatory, to be sure, but also pragmatic, prudential, and incremental, seeking as many restrictions on abortion as the American people can be persuaded to accept, while at the same time denouncing the judiciary for flouting both the democratic will and the Constitution by prohibiting such restrictions.
Those who cannot, in good conscience, condone legal abortions have the moral as well as legal right to press their case and, if it goes against them in a properly democratic manner, they may, subject to the penalty of the law, have recourse to the alternatives mentioned in First Things, "ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution." But they have neither the moral nor the legal right, in the name of democracy, to impose their view upon the polity, any more than the judiciary today has that right.
IN POSING the issue in apocalyptic, revolutionary terms, First Things has opened a rift among conservatives that threatens to become a major fault line. American conservatism has always been a coalition of diverse groups marching under separate banners while fighting a common enemy. In the last few years that improbable alliance -- of economic conservatives and social conservatives, evangelicals and secularists, federalists, pro-lifers, flat-taxers, and a variety of one-issue partisans -- has succeeded in bringing about important changes in the polity and social policy.
That alliance is now in peril. With undisguised Schadenfreude, a liberal commentator on the controversy (perhaps misreading the names of some of the critics) describes it as a falling-out between Jews and Christians, while a Jewish publication sees it as driving "a wedge into the 'Reagan coalition.'" One conservative (or paleoconservative) reporter is pleased to find in it a repudiation of neoconservatism, while another conservative reluctantly concludes that "the Right" has succumbed to the "anti-American temptation."
What has been accomplished by all this, except to provide fodder for journalists and promote dissension among conservatives? Have any problems been raised with regard to the judiciary that were not raised before (by Judge Bork, most notably)? Have any new practical remedies, reforms, or strategies been proposed, as distinct from the ultimate recourse to civil disobedience or revolution?
Amid all this high moral posturing, it may be useful to be reminded of the old distinction between an "ethic of ultimate ends" and an "ethic of responsibility" -- a distinction all the more pertinent in a democracy, where there is less than total agreement about the ultimate principles or grounds of morality, but substantial agreement about mediate, practical principles. An "ethic of responsibility" is not as elevated as an "ethic of ultimate ends." But it is all that can be achieved -- and the best that can be achieved -- in a democracy, where the political process makes it morally, as well as practically, incumbent upon us to be patient, prudent, and responsible.
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, whose most
recent book is The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern
Values, is professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York.
WE WERE arguing on TV about abortion -- partial-birth abortion, to be precise. A fellow panelist, exasperated by my simple-mindedness, tried to explain that the issue was complicated. It involved, you see, a "clash between two of America's most cherished values, life and choice."
So this is what it has come to: life has been reduced to a value; choice has been elevated to a value; and they have the same status. Or do they? In a world of "values," there is, according to Justice Anthony Kennedy in Romer v. Evans, something questionable about laws based on "an ethic and a morality which transcend human invention." In such a world, choice is in fact the value that reigns supreme. Choice is the value of values. It is the core -- the hollow core -- of contemporary liberalism.
It was not ever thus. In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton suggested that Americans had the chance to establish "good government from reflection and choice." The American Founders were concerned to vindicate the dignity of human choice. But they knew they could do so only by grounding our choices in reflection about standards of good government. The task of conservatism today is to restore to our public life an understanding of such standards -- of good government, of justice, of morality -- that are not simply of human invention. Conservatives have not succeeded in this formidable endeavor; indeed, we have barely begun.
Beginnings are hard, as Republicans learned after their congressional victory in 1994. The American people were soon put off by the easy talk of a "Republican revolution." And who can blame them? The typical American attitude is a sensible one. We had a revolution 220 years ago; unlike almost all other revolutions, it worked out well; but most political leaders who promise revolution bring their countries to grief. Talk of a Republican revolution seemed at once misleadingly easy and dangerously extreme. Most Americans know that the task ahead is both too delicate and too fundamental for mere "revolution." What is needed is a reformation.
As it happened, the Republican revolution petered out within the year, though not before giving Bill Clinton an opportunity to stage a remarkable political recovery. His subsequent reelection stalled the conservative political realignment many of us had hoped for; but 1996 saw no resurgence of liberalism, either. The Left is, therefore, today more dependent than ever on advancing its agenda by stealth and indirection. Its preferred instruments of action are the least responsible and accountable institutions of our society. These include the courts. The contributors to the November 1996 First Things symposium were right to be indignant about this attempt to circumvent self-government. The editors of the journal were wrong, I think, to indulge in loose talk about the end of democracy, the moral illegitimacy of the regime, or Nazi Germany.
CONSERVATISM'S MANDATE in the years ahead is to repulse the last surges of liberal nihilism wherever they manifest themselves, including in the judiciary. But conservatism's more fundamental mandate is to take on the sacred cow of contemporary liberalism -- choice. And the "choice" issue presents itself most directly, of course, in the area of abortion.
Now, all sophisticated people are supposed to wish that the abortion issue would somehow go away. At least we are supposed to urge that voices be lowered and that more moderate positions come to the fore. As a strategic matter, there is a strong case for the pro-life movement to focus more on incremental advances than on, say, a human-life amendment to the Constitution. But the truth is that abortion is today the bloody crossroads of American politics. It is where judicial liberation (from the Constitution), sexual liberation (from traditional mores), and women's liberation (from natural distinctions) come together. It is the focal point for liberalism's simultaneous assault on self-government, morals, and nature. So, challenging the judicially-imposed regime of abortion-on-demand is key to a conservative reformation in politics, in morals, and in beliefs.
If this reformation is to have any chance of success, it will have to proceed more in the spirit of Lincoln than of William Lloyd Garrison, whose fiery rhetoric was reprinted prominently in the November 1996 First Things. It will have to persuade as well as to hector. It will have to be serious about intermediate means as well as ultimate ends. And it will have to demonstrate sober understanding as well as burning concern. For at the end of the day, a conservative future requires a conservative political majority. Such a majority does not yet exist. One can assemble an anti-liberal majority, as we saw in 1994; one can produce an ambivalent majority, as we have seen in 1996. But there is as yet no conservative governing majority in this country. Creating such a majority is the radical task before us. The problem with the First Things symposium is that its "radicalizing mood" distracts from this truly radical task.
About a century and a half ago, John Stuart Mill famously described conservatives as the stupid party. Can they now become the intelligent party? Can they persuade Americans that choice and life cannot be equally "cherished values"? Can they restore the force of the traditional imperatives that contemporary liberalism scorns as politically incorrect? These imperatives are not complicated. They include: honor your father and your mother; be a man; choose life. It is fair to judge our social well-being by the resonance and authority of these simple commands. All, of course, are based on "an ethic and a morality which transcend human invention."
WILLIAM KRISTOL is editor and
publisher of the Weekly Standard.
IN THE nature of the case, conservatives are di- verse and hard to unite. It is good that they should be so. On the other hand, under threat as they are from those who love to use the power of the state to coerce them -- even in the smallest details of their lives, from their smoking habits to their seat belts -- conservatives must also be open to one another, cooperative, and alert to moves or utterances that are unnecessarily divisive. They need to know how to unite, as they often have done in the past.
Irwin M. Stelzer is a wonderfully shrewd commentator, but he draws too sharply the contrast between economic and social conservatives -- or, rather, draws the point of division too close to the libertarian axis, so that all the compromise, it seems, must be made on the social-conservative side. As a matter of principle, libertarians want to concede no (or only a teensy bit of) scope for state action. Historically and in the real world, theirs is a state so principled that it has never existed.
This also means that the libertarian formulation misstates the aims and temper of social conservatives, exaggerating the supposed gap between them and conservatives of other sorts. It is true that one long-range aim of many (not all) social conservatives is a constitutional amendment to prohibit acts of private violence against children in the womb. This, they believe, is part of the original Lockean social contract, and also in accord with our long national tradition of jurisprudence, interrupted not by the popular will as expressed in laws democratically arrived at but by judicial usurpations of power, abetted by powerful elites. Most social conservatives say that this issue should be put, locality by locality, to the political test of democratic will.
Say what you like about this position -- dispute it, oppose it -- but do not say that it violates conservative principles. Libertarians on the Left and the Right may be in favor of current court rulings on abortion, but they cannot argue that our nation is now living, in this respect, under laws democratically arrived at and with the consent of the governed.
This brings us to the First Things imbroglio. In the wake of that magazine's November 1996 issue, a concerted effort is being made to split the ranks of conservatives, and also to split conservative Jews from conservative Christians. Serious disagreements are certainly in order. To bring those disagreements to the surface, in order to confront them, is well worth the best efforts of all of us.
My first thought was that the editors of First Things, moved by the tide of court decisions on abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality, had surrendered to the eros of passionate conviction and been swept into three rhetorical excesses. The first was their use of the inherently mischievous term "regime"; the second was an imprudent use of the term "illegitimate" in a purely analytic, academic sense when it is inherently a passionate call for political action of an extreme sort; and the third was a needlessly offensive use of the cautionary example of Nazi Germany for the American case.
One must grant the justified anguish of the editors of First Things at recent actions of the courts. That anguish is widely shared, and is likely to grow as the courts continue to overreach; also, it is always good advice -- anyway, for those of us of Eastern European heritage -- to prepare for the worst. Nonetheless, the excesses of the editors constituted a serious breach of the first virtue of moral discourse: practical wisdom (phronesis). More to the point, they were not merely flaws in an otherwise sound argument; they were symptomatic of a seriously misconceived proposition.
ALTHOUGH THERE were many good points in each of the five essays that constituted the body of the November symposium, and intellectual difficulties in some, the main problem lay in the introduction. Indeed, it was found in the title given to the symposium as a whole -- "The End of Democracy?" -- and in the very first three paragraphs of the introduction.
The editors began this way: "Articles on 'judicial arrogance' and the 'judicial usurpation of power' are not new. The following symposium addresses those questions, often in fresh ways, but also moves beyond them." The editors then arrested our attention with a frightful burst of lightning: "The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." And then a thunderclap: "The question that is the title of this symposium is in no way hyperbolic. The subject before us is the end of democracy."
Now this, I regret to write, was ill-advised; it would have been far better had the title been "hyperbolic." The editors, temporarily and uncharacteristically, allowed moral passion to overpower political reason.
In fact, the symposium itself offered no credible evidence -- credible even to the participants -- that the end of democracy is actually upon us. While editors and symposiasts pile up gut-wrenching evidence of abuses of power and the iron reign of anti-religious ideology in law firms, the media, and above all in the courts, and while this evidence reaches indeed to judicial usurpation, it falls short of proving the end of democracy.
In living memory, all of us have worried about an "imperial congress" and an "imperial presidency." It is in the nature of a system of separated powers, amid checks and balances, to be always, or in any case regularly, out of balance. And so it now is, in the undisciplined arrogance of the courts. "It Is Time to Take on the Judges," announced a recent lead editorial in the conservative Weekly Standard (December 18, 1996), and even some liberals agree. The point of a system of balances, however, is not to be in balance, but to seek it.
Two other features of the symposium were misconceived. Scattered throughout the pages of the November First Things, in specially set-off boxes, were texts expressing a law-overturning passion -- from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. to William Lloyd Garrison. These were presumably intended to pump up morale. But many counterbalancing texts from the tradition, calling for restraint, prudence, and patience might also have been cited, thus enlarging the context of calm deliberation.
Then, too, ominous threats were made in the symposium about the alleged scope of popular discontent in the country, and in fact much of the mail to First Things -- and also to the Weekly Standard, which published a critical article on the symposium -- was favorable to First Things. None-theless, in a season in which President Clinton felt able to protect partial-birth abortions over the votes of both houses of Congress and the protests of the Catholic bishops, and still came away with 54 percent of the Catholic vote and 379 electoral ballots, a highly sophisticated discussion among intellectuals is not a reliable predictor of wide popular resonance.
The gap between intellectual analysis and practical politics in human affairs is very large. This is a maxim, I am afraid, that the editors temporarily forgot, mixing up two different idioms. One of the pervasive temptations of the prophetic-minded is to overdramatize the presence of the transcendent in the issues they face, and to create a narrative structure in which they get to play witnesses, heroes, and martyrs. In T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, this is the last and most difficult temptation that Thomas a Becket has to overcome.
In a world in which too little is made of the daily presence of the transcendent in our lives, a little prophecy is much-needed salt. But a bad sauce can ruin a good dish. Many propositions in the First Things symposium could have won vigorous support from almost all branches of conservatism. They could, as I say, have made a nourishing dish; instead, some readers got severe indigestion, and enemies of conservatism have rejoiced.
IT IS important to do what we can to remind one another of the "first things" we share. Even some who are not religious agree that there are two founts of the American sense of morality and law: Athens and Jerusalem or, otherwise put, the Lockean Enlightenment and the biblical ethic. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." So ardently did Jefferson believe that these laws were known to and shared by believers and unbelievers alike that he even wrote, for circulation among Indians in the Louisiana Purchase and elsewhere (at government expense), a stripped-down version of the moral code of Jesus, taken straight from the philosophical rather than the religious texts of the Gospels.
The point is not whether Jefferson's painstaking list of precepts would satisfy secularists -- or, for that matter, believing Christians or Jews today; the point is the ease with which Jefferson worked with two traditions. And why not? It was from both of these traditions that British institutions and the common law had sprung. Blackstone, the great student of British law cited by virtually all our Founders, wrote: "Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human law should be suffered to contradict these." Observed John Adams, President after Washington: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other."
In particular cases, a nation that respects the inviolability of individual consciences will and should argue publicly about rival derivations from such sources. Only after that, out of civil argument and due process, ought to come common political decisions about how we will order our lives together, in the light of our common agreements and disagreements. This is an untidy but, in its own way, beautiful process. What we may not do is bar anyone from the common discussion because he argues only from reason or only from revelation. Both these founts are part of our inheritance; each in its own way adds solemnity, weight, and dignity to the law.
MICHAEL NOVAK, winner of the 1994
Templeton Prize, is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion and Public Policy at
the American Enterprise Institute. His many books include Business as a Calling, The
Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and Belief and Unbelief.
I AM AMONG those who interpret last November's elections as a victory for conservatism. This is obviously the case with Congress, where the Republicans held onto their control of both houses. Moreover, most of the highly conservative members of the freshman class of 1994 were reelected to the House (despite the massive amounts of money spent by the AFL-CIO to dislodge them), and in the Senate the Republicans not only increased their margin but did so in a way that on balance left it even more conservative than before.
But of course what was perhaps even more significant was the fact that Bill Clinton won the presidency by running not as a liberal but as a conservative. To rehearse what has by now become a familiar litany: Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over"; he endorsed the conservative approaches both to welfare and crime; he came out for a balanced budget; and he signed a bill designed to head off the prospect of same-sex marriages. The great exceptions (payoffs to his two most loyal constituencies, women and blacks) were his veto of legislation banning partial-birth abortions and his intransigent support of affirmative action. Yet on neither of these issues did Bob Dole, and still less Jack Kemp, take him on, and so for all practical electoral purposes, they hardly affected his newly conservative image. On another cluster of issues that might have compromised that image -- Clinton's drastic cuts in the defense budget and his opposition to missile defense -- the Republicans also chose to remain silent, as they did too on questions of foreign policy in general, and especially his kowtowing to China (not that they would have had anything much to say if they had spoken up).
Many conservatives predicted that Clinton, having paraded around in stolen conservative clothes in order to appeal to an electorate that he knew had moved to the Right, would discard them after winning and, with no future elections to worry about, would execute a sharp turn to the Left. Thus far, however, they have been proved wrong. The leading liberals in the White House (Harold Ickes and George Stephanopoulos) are gone and Leon Panetta has been replaced as chief of staff by Erskine Bowles, who is markedly to his Right. So too, though possibly to a lesser extent, with Clinton's new cabinet, which seems rather less liberal than the old.
The upshot is that conservatism showed itself alive and well in the elections of 1996. But does this mean that those who hailed the 1994 elections as a "revolution" were right? Well, I for one have always thought that "counterrevolution" was a more precise term. The demand of the voters in 1994 was for a rollback of the liberal policies and institutions that had been shaping the country for more than half a century, and that counterrevolutionary demand clearly remains in force. On the other hand, there is no comparably clear revolutionary idea of what the new shaping policies and institutions should be, and defining these will be the work of the next phase of American political life.
IN THIS context the splits in conservatism become very troubling indeed. A unified conservative movement would have played a greater role in the work ahead than the currently fractious state of conservatism will permit it to do. Yet here I disagree with the generally accepted description of the crucial fault line.
In my judgment, the really dangerous division is not the one between the "economic" and "social" conservatives, who have after all managed against all expectations to cooperate politically for quite a long time now. Nor does the real problem lie in the disagreements within the conservative community over immigration, where the two sides are beginning to find more and more common ground. The divisions on foreign policy are harder to bridge, but the debate among the interventionists, the isolationists, and the realists has thus far proceeded without generating excessive rancor. Not so the split among the "social" conservatives that has been opened up by Father Richard John Neuhaus through the 'First Things symposium and that I consider the most consequential of all.
An effort has been made by Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in the New Republic, to represent this split as one between Jews ("neocons" or Straussians, as he alternately describes them) and Catholics ("theocons" and Thomists). This is not the first time Heilbrunn has attacked the neoconservatives for the heinous crime of associating with Christians. A couple of years ago he laced into us for allying ourselves politically with Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition; now we are placed in the dock for having gotten mixed up with Catholics as well (in both cases for the same politically "cynical" reasons). To Heilbrunn, Christians are evidently either anti-Semitic or anti-American or both, and as such they are the "natural enemies" of Jews.
The bigotry here is as morally repulsive as Heilbrunn's incitement to a war between Christians and Jews is politically and socially pernicious. Like most other forms of bigotry, it is also based on ignorance and intellectual shoddiness.
Thus (as one grows weary of pointing out), neoconservatism is not and never has been an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. From the very beginning it included among its leading figures Protestants like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Peter L. Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, and James A. Nuechterlein, and Catholics like James Q. Wilson, Michael Novak, William J. Bennett, and George Weigel. Nor (until the First Things symposium) did Neuhaus's conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism affect his identification with neoconservatism.
As for the Straussian-Thomist labels, they are equally ignorant. Very few neoconservatives were or are followers of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, and very few of the "theocons" involved in the dispute in question -- including Neuhaus himself -- were or are Thomists. Indeed, to the extent that the Thomists are distinguished by their belief in natural law, I myself am closer to them than I am to the Straussians. And as another prominent Catholic neoconservative, Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation, points out, St. Thomas Aquinas "in no way stood, as Heilbrunn charges, for a quick and impulsive resort to revolutionary violence in the face of non-Christian government conduct." In other words, whatever else may be animating the more heated participants in the First Things symposium, it is not the true spirit of Thomas Aquinas.
No, the split that has been created by the First Things symposium is not between Jews and Catholics, or between "neocons" and "theocons," or between Straussians and Thomists. Nor is it, as certain defenders of Neuhaus have in their own ignorance taken to declaring, between conservatives who are concerned about judicial usurpation of legislative prerogatives and those who are insensitive to the threat it poses to democracy. Far from having discovered this threat, First Things has merely joined in a clamor over the imperial judiciary that some of us have been raising for over 25 years. The only new contribution First Things makes is to suggest that this development has finally brought us to "the end of democracy" and that it has drained the American "regime" of "legitimacy," from which it follows all but explicitly that civil disobedience and even outright rebellion are warranted and even morally required.
My own reaction to all this was a letter to Neuhaus in which I stated that his position was reminiscent of "the extremist hysteria of the old counterculture of the 60's" which had driven both of us out of the Left in the first place. "Speaking of the 60's," I went on,
back then a professor of philosophy at Columbia named Robert Paul Wolff (remember him?) said that anyone who still believed that America was a democracy belonged in an insane asylum. I responded by charging him with implicitly inciting and justifying the violent tactics of the Weathermen. Now I have to tell you in all candor that I see no significant difference between Wolff's position and the one espoused by you. . . . I am appalled by the language . . . you use to describe this country, especially your own reference to Nazi Germany; by the seditious measures you contemplate and all but advocate; and by the aid and comfort you for all practical purposes offer to the bomb-throwers among us.
In short, if you ask me (and you have), it is not this "regime" (horrid term) that is illegitimate; it is your position.
To be sure, in another tactic reminiscent of the 60's, when incendiary anti-American declarations were invariably given a liberal spin to make them more palatable (the radicals were only "criticizing the government," or they were usefully "calling attention to a problem"), Neuhaus now denies (in his answer to his critics in the January 1997 First Things) that the symposium said what so many of us understood it as saying.
Perhaps, like some of my more irenic conservative friends, I ought to take this denial as a prudential retreat under fire from an extremist position that Neuhaus finds himself unable to continue defending; perhaps I ought to welcome it as an attempt to undo the damage the symposium did to the conservative cause. But in my unreconstructed opinion, it will take much more than a 60's-style spin to repair that damage. Nothing less than a frank and forthright recognition of error (or should I say an act of contrition?) will suffice, and of that, alas, I see no sign so far.
I HAVE ALREADY suggested that the mandate of conservatism in the years ahead is to pursue its counterrevolutionary project (which includes, as it always has done, the fight to roll back the imperial judiciary) while striving to work out the details of a more self-respecting and a more humane alternative to the social and political depredations of the liberal ethos. The anti-Americanism of the First Things symposium has served to undermine and besmirch this project, just as the anti-Americanism of the Left ultimately did to the ambitions of liberalism in the post-60's political wars. It is a wonder to me that my old friend Richard Neuhaus has forgotten what we learned while fighting those wars as comrades-in-arms against the radicalism we had both formerly espoused, and I can only hope and pray that he will (to wrap him ecumenically in a phrase from Jewish liturgy) "speedily and in our day" once more undergo a process of deradicalization and reemerge as a born-again neoconservative.
NORMAN PODHORETZ, a senior fellow at
the Hudson Institute, was the editor-in-chief of Commentary for 35 years and is
now its editor-at-large.
Irwin M. Stelzer
THAT THE center of gravity of American politics has shifted to the Right, the November elections leave no doubt. Republicans held the Congress; more important, they captured the President, if not the presidency. To say that Clinton moved Right less out of conviction than of necessity is merely to prove the point: he had to move Right, undoubtedly taking flak in the cabinet room and in the bedroom, in order to survive. His finely attuned political antennae told him to get with the conservative program or contemplate an early return to Arkansas.
So conservatism is alive and well -- or perhaps merely alive. For it is threatened from without with death by 1,000 cuts, and from within by the willingness of some -- how many, and what proportion of all conservatives, no one knows -- to expand the reach of the government they profess to distrust.
The threat from without stems from the President's proclivity to practice liberalism by stealth. Unable to raise taxes lest he give the lie to his calls for the end of welfare as we know it and to the era of big government, the President proceeds with social engineering in a barely noticeable way -- by imposing on business the costs once borne directly by taxpayers, in the knowledge that businesses will pass those costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Thus, while espousing both tax cuts and a balanced budget, the President retains within his gift such favors as time off for child-rearing or to take the cat to the vet. He need simply order businesses to extend these benefits. Meanwhile, regulation can proceed apace, unhindered by the newly conservative mood of the voters: within days of his reelection, the President had the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issue expensive new regulations on air quality, and the Corps of Engineers tighten restrictions on the use of so-called "wetlands." No legislation required; no new taxes required; no fear that too many voters will wonder where the money will come from to pay for the government's new largesse.
It is this expansion-by-stealth that concerns economic conservatives. They know that there is no free home leave, no free improvement in environmental quality. The bill will be paid in the form of higher prices or of reduced profit margins, which in turn will reduce investment in productive assets. They know, too, that any hope for shrinking the government goes a-glimmerin' when agencies like the EPA effortlessly expand, or when the government increasingly sets working conditions that were once the subject of private negotiation between employer and employee, or when the Corps of Engineers can decide what a citizen can and cannot build in his back yard if he is afflicted with a small puddle that might lead his plot to be classified as a wetland.
But the moral authority of economic conservative to resist such an expansion of government power is undermined by social conservatives who would transfer government intrusions from the boardroom into the bedroom. How to argue that the government should not be telling people what they may or may not build on their private property while at the same time arguing that it has every right to tell them what they may or may not watch on their television sets in the privacy of their homes? How to argue that the Democrats should not use the tax system as an instrument of social engineering, while at the same time demanding a child tax credit to reward parents for having children?
In short, the social conservatives, with their grand view of the role of government, drain the moral legitimacy of the program of economic conservatives who pursue the more limited goal of reducing the size and reach of government, thereby reducing the tax burden and unleashing new energies to stimulate economic growth.
THERE IS some hope, of course, that these two camps, with such opposite views of the proper level of government intrusion in daily life, still have enough in common to forge an alliance that would be to the benefit of both factions. After all, nothing unites groups so much as a common adversary. And the President and his party represent just such a unifying force. Economic conservatives know in their hearts that the President will employ every stratagem he and his team can devise to preserve activist government, to prevent further shrinkage in the welfare state, and to keep revenues flowing into the federal coffers. And they know, too, what is in store for their dreams of rolling back the regulatory state if Messrs. Bonior, Rangel, Dingell, Waxman, and their friends in the U.S. Congress regain the committee chairs they so effectively used to pile regulation on regulation, and to urge administrators on to more and more intense paroxysms of enforcement.
Social conservatives, for their part, share their economic brethren's fear and loathing of the Clintonites. They view with more than skepticism the call of a noninhaling pot user and MTV aficionado for a return to family values and school uniforms. Besides, for them the litmus test is abortion, and the President is so far out of line with mainstream thinking on this subject that even the most tolerant anti-abortionist has no way of cutting him any slack on this issue.
But alas, even if a working alliance can be brokered between the social and economic conservatives -- and that is far from certain, as witness the former's desire to channel available funds into a child tax credit and the latter's desire to use those same monies for supply-side tax cuts -- it will not permit the conservative revolution (or evolution, if you prefer; I will come to the real line-'em-up-against-the-wall revolutionaries in a moment) to proceed. For deference by economic conservatives to a group with so opposite a view of the degree to which government can properly intrude into our lives will inevitably scare off the great mass of voters who spend less time than the true believers in thinking about how they want to be governed.
Most people, instead of eagerly awaiting reports on the doings at weekend retreats for the liberal or conservative elite, examining the latest effusions of the myriad think tanks, or studying the Federal Register to learn the latest news from the regulation-writers, go about their daily lives and rely on what generally proves to be a rather shrewd appraisal of who will more or less give them what they want from government. They want to keep more of the money they earn, but not if they have to elect a movie censor to do it; they want to "get the government off of my land" (remember the old Westerns?), but not if they have to elect someone who will decide on the design of record covers; most of all, they want to be left alone, not badgered by a well-intentioned big brother to accept his notion of what separates the merely raunchy (if, indeed, merely raunchy is acceptable to the social Right) from the unacceptably obscene.
SO THE outlook for the conservative movement is not as bright as it might be. But it is brightened considerably by the decision of the denizens of First Things to come out of the closet and 'fess up to their immortal longings for a society that derives its legitimacy solely from their divinely informed approval. It has always seemed strange to me that neoconservatives, long aware that intimate relations with the totalitarian Left could only end in tears, should think they could live easily in close proximity to First Things conservatives who, in the end, share their hard-Left brethren's contempt for the democratic process. It is even stranger that Jewish neoconservatives should have thought they could pitch an intellectual tent broad enough to attract the prototypical former Jewish liberal "mugged by reality" and many Catholics brought up in a tradition that does not welcome dissent from its revealed truths. Jewish intellectuals may be useful exponents of some of the positions of First Things Catholics, but they should not expect to be partners in a governing theocracy.
Perhaps -- and it is only a perhaps -- the unraveling of the alliance between the neoconservatives and the First Things crowd will liberate the former to seek the support of more natural allies. If so, conservatism has a bright future. If not, we may be in for a Gore-y 2000.
IRWIN M. STELZER is director of
regulatory policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
CONFRONTED YET again by a weak and vacillating liberal mistrusted by the electorate, economic conservatism in 1996 managed to garner less than 40 percent of the presidential vote for the second election in a row -- in no small part because the Republican nominee failed to ignite the enthusiasm of social conservatives and exploit the liberal candidate's most glaring vulnerability. In the wake of this political failure, might we revisit in a less wooden way the question of the relationship between conservatives whose primary concern is governmental intrusion into the market and conservatives who are chiefly motivated by questions of culture? Tensions between these groups are to be expected, especially in matters of tactical politics. But they need not be mortal enemies.
The reason has to do with the relationship between free economies and the moral culture of the societies in which those economies function. The market is not an independent variable in the free society, as we have been reminded by Michael Novak, Francis Fukuyama, and other analysts of the cultural preconditions essential for the flourishing of a free economy. Absent a public moral culture capable of disciplining and channeling the explosive human energies set free by the market, the virtues -- the moral habits -- essential to making the market work will wither and die. But the idea that a people's capacity for self-command has a lot to do with their ability to make the market work did not originate with contemporary social conservatives (although these conservatives have deepened and broadened our understanding of that nexus). Adam Smith, the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations, was no intellectual schizophrenic.
What happens when the state legitimates behaviors that erode the moral foundations of civil society, and then declares those behaviors and that legitimation beyond the reach of democratic process? When the state attempts to establish, as the official national creed, a crudely utilitarian ethic based on a distorted notion of freedom as radical individual autonomy, the free economy is in serious trouble. So is the democratic polity. Does anyone deny this? If so, to what historical warrants would they appeal in arguing for the possibility of sustaining democratic capitalism on a foundation of decadence?
Contemporary American conservatism seems less a "movement" to me than a complex community of conversation built around certain commonly shared premises. Principled anti-Communism, which regarded Marxism-Leninism not only as a political and military threat but as a moral perversion, was one of those binding premises during the cold war. Then, sharply chiseled moral judgments were not regarded as inimical to conservative political effectiveness. On the contrary, they were regarded as essential: first, because the judgments were true in themselves; and second, because they were crucial in combating a soft liberalism and a radicalism of "moral equivalence" which could not comprehend, much less withstand, the Communist threat. So within the living memory of this symposium's participants, conservatives seem not to have been indisposed to moral argument as a part of the core, not the periphery, of public affairs.
A second premise I had assumed to be part of the conservative intellectual patrimony also had thick moral content: the premise that neither democracy nor the market was a machine that could run of itself. Put positively, the premise was that, in addition to a market economy and a democratic polity, the free society included a public moral culture that was crucial to the proper functioning of both free economics and free politics. I trust that that premise is not now being denied in some conservative quarters. If it is, then we really do face a parting of the ways. There is room for reasonable debate about the state's role in fostering that public morality; we can also debate which specific bricks are necessary to the free society's moral foundation. But the premise itself seems to me essential, and its recognition in the way we conduct our politics is crucial for American democracy. The American people have historically believed themselves to be engaged in a moral enterprise when they did their public business and when they defended their country from its enemies. To deny them the capacity to act publicly on that conviction is undemocratic.
AS SOMEONE "present at the creation" of the discussion that led to the First Things symposium in that journal's November 1996 issue, I can speak with some authority about its intentions. The intention, briefly, was to sharpen our sense of urgency about the present establishment of three interrelated ideas as a government-sanctioned ideology in the United States -- ideas which one had assumed to be repugnant to conservatives. The first of these ideas is philosophical-anthropological: that the human person is an autonomous, self-constituting Self. The second idea is ethical: that freedom is a matter of doing what I choose precisely because I choose it. The third idea is political: that democracies must protect the exercise of freedom-as-license by autonomous selves so long as nobody in whom the state declares a "compelling interest" gets hurt.
None of these ideas has any tether to the American Founding and the Founders' understanding of republican virtue. Mixed together, they form a lethal ideological cocktail. For on this account of democracy, the only relevant actors in society are the autonomous individual and the state. Conservatives used to have a word for what lay at the end of that particular road: we called it "totalitarianism." The totalitarian temptation seems built into modernity. Democracies are not preternaturally immune to it. Our immunization comes from the moral culture that makes democracy possible.
There is a lesson to be learned here from contemporary American conservatism's most notable achievement: the collapse of Communism. Communism failed for many reasons; stupid economics was married to brutal politics and legitimated by philosophical nonsense. But the latter, the philosophical absurdities, were the key to the rest. Yes, the Communist project collapsed because of Western grit and Western military capacities and the heroism of the human-rights resistance in East Central Europe. But, at bottom, Communism failed because it was wrong: because it was based on a defective concept of the human person and human community -- including political community and economic interaction.
A similar failure in the public philosophy of the democracies, eroding public moral culture and the virtues essential to transforming raw plurality into genuine pluralism, would have the gravest results. Autonomous selves cannot be democrats indefinitely. Autonomous selves can give no compelling account of their commitment to democratic civility, religious tolerance, or the procedures of democratic self-governance. Autonomous selves cannot imagine making the sacrifices necessary to defend freedom from its enemies.
THE LANGUAGE of "regimes" and "regime legitimacy" is not well-fitted for getting at these issues, for this vocabulary takes insufficient account of America as a "proposition country," a distinctive democratic experiment conceived as the working-out of a set of truth-claims. But disagreements over the vocabulary for accurately describing our circumstances ought not mask this fact: the First Things symposium raised questions that are unavoidable for the future of conservative politics.
Has the Supreme Court, in its increasingly bizarre attempts to justify its policy preferences in the matters of abortion and homosexuality, "established" by fiat a national creed incompatible with the religious and moral convictions of biblically formed Americans? Is that creed now being imposed on individual citizens and local communities by the federal regulatory apparatus and the educational bureaucracies of the federal and state governments? Does the fact of that establishment -- does the content of that ersatz creed -- attack the moral-cultural foundations of American democracy? Is America merely a republic of procedures -- increasingly, procedures of litigation and judicial legislation -- by which autonomous selves regulate their conflicts? Or is America a substantive moral experiment in a people's capacity for self-governance? These are "radical" questions, not in some debased 60's sense of "radicalism" but because they force us to think through, once again, the basic ("root," radix) truths to which the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in creating this Novus Ordo Seclorum called the United States of America.
Speaking in Baltimore on October 8, 1995, Pope John Paul II suggested that Lincoln's question at Gettysburg -- whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure -- was a question for every generation of Americans. I think that is exactly right. To press that Lincolnian question into public debate today does not demean the many virtues of the American people, manifest in millions of individual lives and in what the legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon has called "communities of memory and mutual aid." Nor is it to hold the United States accountable to an abstract moral standard that no real-world polity could possibly achieve. Nor is it to declare oneself ready to engage in insurrection (which the editors of First Things have explicitly denied was their intention). It is, however, to acknowledge that there is nothing "given" about the success of American democracy, and that securing the future of democratic politics and free economics requires us to strengthen, steadily, the nation's moral-cultural foundations. Because democracy is not, and cannot be, an infinite series of pragmatic accommodations, made on vulgarized utilitarian grounds.
This is reminiscent of Burke's conservatism in his critique of Jacobinism and his defense of the small platoons and their essential social function. Those functions, when they are not being declared illegitimate by the Supreme Court, are increasingly usurped by a Court-driven federal government which imagines itself the defender of enlightened opinion against the unwashed masses and their stubborn adherence to traditional virtues and values. That kind of conservative critique of the functioning of our democracy, rooted as it is in an affirmation of the moral value of the American experiment, has about as much to do with Tom Hayden and Stokely Carmichael as it does with the public philosophy of Genghis Khan.
GEORGE WEIGEL is a senior fellow at
the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His books include Soul of the World: Notes on
the Future of Public Catholicism and The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church
and the Collapse of Communism.
Ruth R. Wisse
ONLY AFTER the war is won do you begin to see how much was lost -- the scorched landscape, the fatherless children. As long as the Soviet Union stood, one could imagine the bounty of freedom that would come with its collapse; the full extent and legacy of Communist devastation surfaced only after its defeat.
I think the same holds true for the conservatives who triumphed at the polls under the Republican banner in 1994. Not until Republicans assumed control of the House and Senate with the intention of curbing the welfare state, restoring family values, returning power to the people, did conservatives realize what America had really forfeited. Progressivism and liberalism have this advantage over conservatism in all its varieties -- being directed toward the promise of the future, they do not keep track of what is sacrificed on the way. Being liberal means never having to say you're sorry. But conservatives with visions of a "re-moralized America" had to confront the scorched moral landscape and the fatherless children, and the prospect made some people desperate. The question posed by the First Things symposium -- "The End of Democracy?" -- seems to me a sign of desperation.
The desperation is fueled by the realization that in some spheres there is really not very much left for conservatives to conserve. I recall a letter to the editor in response to the November 1995 Commentary symposium on "The National Prospect," expressing surprise that respondents had not addressed the women's movement. And since I was struck by the justice of this comment, let me begin with that issue.
Women's liberation, if not the most extreme then certainly the most influential neo-Marxist movement in America, has done to the American home what Communism did to the Russian economy, and much of the ruin is irreversible. By defining relations between men and women in terms of power and competition instead of reciprocity and cooperation, the movement tore apart the most basic and fragile contract in human society, the unit from which all other social institutions draw their strength.
Cooperation between men and women is enormously painful and difficult, depending as it does on the ability of unlike individuals to accept lifelong responsibility for one another and for the children that will issue from their union. Of the two sexes, women may stand to gain more from domestication and have more to fear from its erosion, which is why our culture -- and Jewish culture, certainly -- has tried so strenuously to define what husbands owe their wives. But like all revolutionaries, the ideologues of the women's movement did not calculate the value of what they wanted to destroy when they sought the liberation of their gender from the domestic "mystique." They may not be solely responsible for the collapse of the American family, the rise in domestic violence, the proliferation of undisciplined young men, and such related items as the decline in education, but none of these conditions can be improved unless and until women reinvest their energies in nurturing and sustaining families as their most cherished and vital preserve.
Given the still-powerful influence of women's liberation, how much can conservatives do to recover the family? Suppose the Republican Congress retroactively declared Dan Quayle the winner over Murphy Brown in the debate over single motherhood. No one can compensate the children who were conceived out of wedlock -- most of them without the benefit of television-star salaries. Religious conservatives can, of course, try to persuade the young that monogamous unions between a man and a woman are the preferred basis of a healthful civilization, or that only by observing religious imperatives will they be able to withstand the seduction of libertinism and secular ideologies. Indeed, I know several young people who have studied and voluntarily assumed the discipline of Orthodox Judaism as the best means of achieving such a life. They have found a conservative way out of their private dilemma.
But when it comes to the larger political struggle, religion is enjoined by the Constitution from trying to impose its particular discipline on others, and the kind of personal persuasion needed to attract youngsters to religious practice is not readily communicated in the public domain. Conservatives cannot refer back to a tradition of values that no longer exists. Swamped by progressivist revolutions of the past three decades, conservatives find themselves, instead, proposing "solutions" in order to rescue the future, sounding for all the world like reformers and revolutionaries themselves.
OR CONSIDER another legacy of the 60's, the erosion of legislative authority by the judiciary and liberal elites. I offer an example from the university, the sphere with which I am most familiar. In 1969, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to withdraw all curricular and academic status from the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) of the various military services. The original basis for this was opposition to the war in Vietnam. But at the conclusion of the war, rather than reinstituting ROTC, the faculty redirected its indignation at a newer cause: "discrimination against homosexuals." On some other occasion it would be worth describing the stratagems invented by the Harvard faculty in order to express its contempt for the American government without sacrificing a cent of government funding either for itself or for its students. My subject here is the encroachment of the university upon the political realm.
ROTC is a feeder of the armed forces that are charged with the protection of all our freedoms and, increasingly, freedom around the world. The debate over those freedoms and how to protect them is part of the political process. Instead of joining that debate in the public arena, elite institutions (Harvard was hardly alone here) discovered ways of satisfying what they called their consciences without exerting themselves in political engagement. They invented a boutique politics in order to influence from above what would have been much more arduous and inconvenient to attempt to effect from below. A small group, by swinging the vote of a faculty that is more monolithic and more politically conformist than the American public, could claim that universities were henceforth to be considered, in the words of the Harvard statement, "an agent for changing what we think to be an antiquated and damaging public policy." Students, too, were encouraged by this example to skirt the democratic process, and to appoint themselves the moral superiors of their government. The politicization of the university, the demoralization of politics, were effected by one and the same process, and by upstanding people with otherwise stellar accomplishments whose moral hubris exceeded their democratic discipline.
THE DEBATE in First Things over the judiciary's usurpation of legislative powers deals with attempts to govern directly from above. Once a minority has learned to use nonelective institutions as agents of social change, why should its members return to the slower and clumsier procedures of electoral politics? Even if a more "conservative" spirit now prevails, liberal elites look to the media, the universities, and, above all, the judiciary to press their agenda, even as they decry a "crisis of confidence in government." This crisis of confidence was not created by politicians -- who are no worse than they ever were -- but by supererogatory procedures like the one I have described.
Religious Americans, even Christians who are in the majority, are prevented as a matter of state policy from imposing their beliefs on others. Yet if another minority has found a way of imposing its beliefs as state policy, how are people of genuine religious conscience to react? It now seems clear that those who worked so strenuously over the past few decades to remove religion from public life were not protecting the democratic process, as they claimed, so much as they were elevating their own convictions to the status of moral certainties: the pieties of the Left instead of religious piety; the self-righteousness of political reformers instead of God's righteous law; I own my body instead of God granted me life. When Father Richard John Neuhaus asks "whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime," I do not credit his question, much less agree with the implied answer. But he is right to feel that religion has been "had." The same holds true for the democratic process.
While I share with many conservatives a sense of great urgency, I think that confidence and dignity can only be restored to the family and to the government through cogent argument for self-discipline, by personal example, and through incremental political change. Even so, I worry much more, as a Jew, over the effects of women's lib and the shortcuts around democracy than I do about excesses of Christian zeal. I did not turn conservative because I was mugged by reality but because liberalism betrayed its principles when it yielded to leftist insurgencies and tactics. Those principles and the way of life they sustained, no conservative tide can restore, alas, until those who caused the damage take responsibility for what they did or until a new generation does it for them.
RUTH R. WISSE is professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard.
* On this issue, to which a number of contributors also refer, see Richard E. Morgan's article, "Republicans for Quotas," beginning on page 51. -- Ed.
** Magaziner, the guru of the Clinton health-care plan, is a man whose desire to redesign the world as we know it is inversely proportional to his charisma.
This symposium is sponsored by the Harry Elson Commentary Fund.