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On Reagan's Paradise Drive Taking the Cultural Temperature

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Why America is Different

by Christopher Chantrill
June 19, 2004 at 8:00 pm


ONE OF THE enduring genres of political writing is the conservative freak show, the book titled: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” or “Thunder on the Right.”  It feeds a aching need among the world’s Pharisees to remind themselves that they are not as other men are: bigots, businessmen, and boobs.  So The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by Economist writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, spends almost three hundred pages peering into the cages at the zoo, describing the “vixens” and other “ferocious” animals they encounter.  Only in the final 25-page conclusion do they get around to admitting that “Hastertland,” the sprawling Congressional district represented by Speaker Denny Hastert, is a much better place than “Pelosiville,” the district represented by San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi.  Hastertland is a suburban and egalitarian world of middle-class families where the schools are decent and government works; Pelosiville is a mean-spirited world of rich singles and homelessness where the schools are lousy and government is dysfunctional. 

Hastertland is where the “Right Nation” lives and Pelosiville is where liberals live.  But they have just spent three quarters of the book looking down their noses at the freaks in Hastertland.  What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that our bien pensant elites cannot begin to face the fact that their rule-of-the-experts welfare state, the one they have been congratulating themselves about for the last century, is a hole-in-the-corner affair that pales next to the self-governing city of a hill of capitalism, patriotism, and religion.  Anybody could tell that North Americans learned self-government early on, and never could be talked out of it, except after the perfect storm we call the Great Depression.  But anybody couldn’t tell our western elites, so Micklethwait and Wooldridge are forced into writing a “Straussian text,” where the real message is hidden between the lines, understandable only to those that know the code.

Still, underneath the epithets and the condescension, the authors have written a journeyman description of the conservative movement since 1945 with all the usual characters given their due: Buckley and National Review, Hayek and Mises, neocons ancient and modern, the foundations and the think tanks, Goldwater and Reagan, anti-communism, supply-side economics, the social issues and the rise of the Christian Right.  What really got it going was the leftward lurch of the Great Society.  Americans are different from lefty Europeans, and the “Right Nation” rose up against an alien creed.

The bottom line is that conservatism in the United States is a kind of reformation, “combin[ing] renewal with heresy.”  It has renewed Burke’s conservatism, particularly in a “deep suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; love of country.” But by embracing classical liberalism it has subverted his “belief in established institutions and hierarchies; skepticism about progress; and elitism.”  Thus American conservatism is a meeting of opposites. Even though “classical liberalism has traditionally been the sworn enemy of conservatism,” American conservatives behave as though it was a marriage made in heaven.  And the man that married them was Hayek who wrote “’Why I am not a conservative,’ cursing the creed for worshiping the state and trying to constrain individuals.”  Conservatism, the authors admit, is merely returning the United States to its roots, capitalistic, patriotic, and religious, from the aberration that began in 1933 and peaked in 1965 with the “overreaching” of the Great Society.

With that off their chests, there’s not much left to do except explain the Bush-haters, foreign and domestic.  Micklethwait and Wooldridge are rather shy about this.  But I’m not shy at all.  The fundamental thing to know about Bush hatred is that it is not spontaneous.  It was ginned up by political actors that needed an enemy.  Al Gore could have folded his tents after the Florida squeaker, as Richard Nixon had done forty years before, but he contested the result and riled up the Democratic faithful.  “Old Europe” could have done a deal on Iraq, but Chancellor Schröder needed a spot of America bashing to put him over the top in the German 2002 elections.  And President Chirac much preferred filling the streets of Paris with anti-American demonstrators than dealing with bloody-minded government employees striking over pensions.

As usual, the bien pensants have got it backwards.  Bush didn’t get it wrong, but stunningly right.  It took three world wars, but now the United States has successfully bullied the three bad boys of Europe—France, Germany, and Russia—into a sulk.  This is a world-historical achievement.  It has a created a window of opportunity in which to clean out the Middle East before confronting the great challenge of the millennium: house-breaking a resurgent China.   Anybody around here know how to train a dragon?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

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Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.

Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050

Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust

What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican

Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State

Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self

US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008

Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006

Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”

Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph

Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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