Submitted by D.R. Tucker on Fri, 01/15/2010 - 04:20
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what the American right is for. However, it’s always easy to tell what the American right is against.
One of conservatism’s lingering problems—a problem that forestalls the expansion of the conservative philosophical franchise—is the right’s image as an entity excessively hostile to every social change that has taken place in this country since the 1950s. Too often, it seems to outsiders that the right is forever attempting to move the country back to a time before “activist” Supreme Courts, widespread racial and religious diversity and political outspokenness by younger Americans.
The left has often accused Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan of making appeals to a mythical past, but if you look closely at their speeches, both Nixon and Reagan embraced the past and the future. In their rhetoric, the 37th and 40th Presidents made clear that we should not reject every element of America’s past, but that the days ahead could be even better than the days before. The controversies of Vietnam and Watergate have allowed progressives to overlook the hopefulness of Nixon’s rhetoric in his 1968 and 1972 Presidential campaigns; in both battles, Nixon emphasized that he would both preserve what was great about our history and ensure as many Americans as possible enjoyed the country’s blessings going forward.
While Reagan clearly had a traditionalist take on cultural affairs, he was careful not to come across as a slouching-towards-Gomorrah culture-war curmudgeon; his speeches were profound in their patriotism and overt in their optimism, routinely communicating the point that America was born great and would only become greater over time. Reagan made Americans feel that they should never lose faith in their country, despite the tremendous cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s; in his view, America had certainly changed, but it had never declined.
Now, decline seems to be the central theme of conservative rhetoric. It’s as though too many folks on the right have taken their cues from a figure connected to the Nixon and Reagan administrations: Pat Buchanan.
I’ve never understood Buchanan’s appeal: from the time I first started paying serious attention to politics, he always struck me as someone who wanted to be an Al Sharpton figure for working-class whites, as opposed to someone who wanted to be a champion of conservative philosophy. The adulation Buchanan used to receive from some segments of the right always seemed strange; in my view, he was too obnoxious to warrant anything other than fringe support.
The left has long claimed that Buchanan’s infamous “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention doomed President George H. W. Bush’s chances for re-election. I profoundly disagree—because the speech was simply too boring to have any real effect on anybody. It was a compendium of gripes: all Buchanan did in the speech was whine and moan about liberal judges, feminists, gay activists, environmentalists and every other putative predator of conservative principles. There was virtually nothing in the speech about what President Bush would do to turn around the economy or, God forbid, actually limit the size, scope and power of the federal government. It was nothing more than the lamentation of a loser in the culture war. (The speech also featured this explicit lie: “George Bush is a defender of right-to-life, and lifelong champion of the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built.” Evidently, the Bush that was a pro-choice, rhetorically secular Rockefeller Republican never existed.)
The spirit of Buchanan-style grievance-based conservatism—the spirit of negativity, of pessimism, of resentment towards anything that can be construed as being borne of the “elites”—seems to have possessed a fair number of bodies on the right these days. Can you recall the last time a prominent figure on right-leaning radio or television expressed the view that America will remain great despite the current activities of President Obama and the Democratic Party? Can you recall the last time a Republican House or Senate member communicated the same optimism about this country’s future that Reagan and Nixon used to express? Do you remember the last time anyone affiliated with the right declared that America’s best days are yet to come?
There is a cult of grievance on the American right today. Members of this cult have a raging anger against legal, journalistic, academic and entertainment-based progressivism, coupled with a strong sense of pessimism that anything can be done about the left’s political and cultural gains. Somebody had better leave this cult and find some optimism somewhere—preferably, in ideas and proposals that represent a positive, conservative alternative to the Obama vision. Those who don’t leave this cult of grievance will inevitably find themselves in a political Jonestown—right before the Flavor-Aid is passed around.