LECTURE 4: THE CURRENT SITUATION
By Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind (source)
A thoughtful reader of these columns suggested to me that we
need to address one simple question: where are we as a nation? Are we, as some
people suggest, at the beginning of a "New American Century" that will be marked
by endless triumphs at home and abroad? Or is the picture perhaps not quite so
I recently ran across a prophecy that struck me for its timeliness. It reads, "They will sink into a swamp of decadence: men will sleep with men, and boys will be pimped in brothels; civil tumults will engulf them, and everything will fall into confusion and disorder." Scholars have dated this prophecy to around 140BC, and it referred to Rome, not America. Importantly, it was talking not about the later Roman Empire, but about the Roman Republic - - just on the verge of its fall and Romans' loss of their liberties. I think it is timely because it reminds us of one of history's basic facts: those who abuse their liberties lose them.
Decadence is an abuse of liberty. Our country's Founding Fathers understood this. They said over and over again that our republic can endure only so long as its citizens are virtuous. Virtue means that people use their liberty to do good, not evil. Sadly, that is not what we see when we look around America today.
Of course, there are many good people, people of faith, who still use their liberty to do good. But they are not setting our country's direction. Our direction is being set by elites that despise everything we have always defined as good. They have in effect said, "Evil, be thou my good."
It is not surprising that the prophecy I quoted earlier (I don't take it seriously as a prophecy, because the source was not Christian or Jewish, but it was a signpost) pointed to homosexuality as the number one sign of decadence. I think that has always been true. Now, we find pro-homosexual psychological conditioning in the public schools, "gay marriage" being ruled legal by courts and a supposedly Christian church with an openly homosexual bishop. Other denominations are considering or adopting rites for "same-sex marriage," as if there could be any such thing.
What does all this mean for the next conservatism? It means that we have to start with a realistic understanding of where our country is. Yes, it sells better politically to say, "It's morning in America." Unfortunately, that just isn't true. It is not a new American century that lies before us, but a long descent into what Russell Kirk called "old Night." The immense task facing the next conservatism is turning that around.
In my next column, I will take a look at where I think we as
conservatives are today in Washington, in politics. That picture, too, is
perhaps not quite as rosy as some people tell us it is.
In one of the early columns in this series, I pointed out that, if we look back over the last thirty or forty years, we see that the Left won the culture war while we conservatives won politically. It is true that we won politically, in the sense of winning elections. Republicans now control the White House and both Houses of Congress, something we could not have even dreamed about forty years ago. But to assess where conservatives are in politics today, we have to look beyond just winning elections.
The question is do we have power? Not power for ourselves but power for the common good. I would venture that while we have influence, we often lack power. And as my old colleague Howard Phillips used to teach there is a profound difference.
I have been here while the Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). I have also seen Republicans in the White House but Democrats controlling the Congress. (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43. In his case the Democrats controlled the Senate for a year and a half.) and I have seen a Democrat in the White House with Republicans controlling the Congress (Clinton) and now for the past several years Republicans controlled not only the White House but the Congress.
We should be in political heaven with this development. The first time this has happened in more than 50 years. If we really had power, then, our ideas and programs would be front and center. We should be well into a period of having adopted them and now we should be concerned with their implementation. The fact is most of our programs and ideas are dead on arrival. In some cases the President has proposed good ideas only to see them sink in the Congressional cesspool. In other cases, the President won't buy into our ideas. We plead them in the Congress but we often don't get very far.
Yes, we have influence. In some cases the White House worries about offending their base. The same with Congress. So often we are able to stop bad ideas.
Why is this the case? The fact is we have no horse. To the extent our ideas advanced in the past it was because we first had Senator Barry Goldwater. Granted, Goldwater later turned out to be something other than a conservative on a lot of issues. But his initial "Conscience of a Conservative" advanced our ideas and made our views legitimate. The Goldwater campaign involved then actor Ronald Reagan. His speech on national television again advanced our views. Then he ran and was elected Governor of California. After he served two terms, during which he continued to advance our views, he ran for President. Although he failed to defeat President Gerald Ford in 1976, that run set him up to be the heir apparent in 1980.
Reagan's election, and with him a Republican Senate and enough Republicans to form a conservative coalition in the House, advanced our ideas. Tax cuts worked. So did the President's objective of bringing down the Soviet Union. Most conservatives never believed that was possible. While the Reagan Administration did not see all of our ideas enacted into law, still he made issues such as vouchers popular and these issues have lived far beyond his Administration. He also made legitimate our view that federal courts have to be reigned in.
While George Herbert Walker Bush continued some ideas advanced by President Reagan, his advocacy of the largest tax increase in US history, after he had pledged "Read my lips. No new taxes." ruined his Presidency. Now Bush '41 has been more open to some of our ideas, but his unwillingness to veto spending bills, the immigration issue which he has not tackled and for some the war in Iraq has meant that he is not the standard bearer of the conservative movement.
We have a number of able Senators, at least a couple of whom could become the standard bearer of the conservative movement. Right now, however they have not stood out among their colleagues. For the most part they have not exercised leadership. We do have a couple of promising Governors. Again, while they have done well in their states, they have not exercised national leadership.
I used to believe that the movement could advance on the basis of ideas alone. We were the first to come up with cultural conservatism. We pushed the idea that political correctness was ruining the nation. Yes, these ideas did catch on in the conservative movement. But we failed to go beyond the movement because we have no standard bearer who openly advances our ideas.
Our movement in some ways is much stronger now than it was even in 1980. At least the social issues part of our movement is much larger than it was when Ronald Reagan became President. The economic part of our movement, however, is not as strong. And the defense/foreign policy part of our movement all but disappeared after the end of the Cold War. It is being reinvigorated now as conservatives realize the threat from the radical Muslims. While ideas are powerful and sometimes they generate action, there is
For the first time in 2008 we do not have a logical heir to our
movement. There are plenty of candidates who plan to run but so far none has
caught fire. We run the danger of splitting our support between candidates and
thus permitting a liberal to win. If we expect to have power to advance our
ideas then we need to get behind a single candidate provided that candidate
promises in blood that our people will be appointed by him. Otherwise we will
just continue to have influence, but most likely not enough influence to
actually see our ideas become law. Can we find a suitable standard bearer for
2008? It will prove difficult but if we don't this movement may find itself
completely on the outside looking in.
Paul Weyrich asked me to turn my historian's eye on the question of "Where are we?", which he has considered from several aspects in his last two columns. I am afraid my answer to that question cannot be an encouraging one. From an historical perspective we are living in a house of cards.
Internationally, we have committed the classic error of dominant powers: overextension. By adopting an offensive grand strategy that demands everyone else in the world accept the values of "democratic capitalism" - - the neo cons' little present to the rest of us - - we have overreached. We are now bogged down in two wars, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Every indication I see, as a military historian, tells me we are not winning and will not win either one.
While most Americans, not just conservatives, would be happy to
take care of ourselves and let the rest of the world take care of itself, the
Washington Establishment lives off the "Great Power" game. Will the loss of two
wars force that Establishment to face reality? Probably not, at least until, in
classic Great Power fashion, it bankrupts the country. The U.S. defense budget
already equals what all the rest of the countries in the world spend for
defense. No nation can sustain that burden without financial collapse.
Already, America's middle class is being eroded by the export of manufacturing jobs under the rubric of "free trade," to which both political parties seem to have sworn blood oaths. People cannot sustain middle class standards of living with "service industry" jobs, as is evident in any Third World country. In fact, America's economy already shows a classic Third World pattern, exporting commodities and importing manufactured goods.
Added to imperial overreach, financial imprudence and voluntary de-industrialization is the fact that we are being invaded. Both parties see no evil as millions of immigrants from very different cultures pour into our country through what are effectively open borders. Not only does this further undermine the American middle class by lowering wages, it sets us up for Fourth Generation war on our own soil. Internal wars are yet another classic element in the fall of a Great Power.
Of course, to all of this we have to add the collapse of our culture, a phenomenon which was no accident. It is the product of a small group of cultural Marxists, the Frankfurt School, whose purpose was to destroy Western culture and who have made remarkable strides to that end. Once a country's culture goes, everything else goes too, sooner or later.
People often ask me if we are seeing a reenactment of the fall of Rome, and there are certainly some parallels. One could argue that Rome's situation was actually better, in that Christianity was a rising force instead of a declining one (Western culture survived the Dark Ages by hiding out in the monasteries).
But there is a parallel I like better, and that is Spain in the 17th century. Spain was the first true world power, with a globe-circling empire. She was enormously rich (when the Spanish Armada was destroyed, King Philip II just built another one). By the first half of the 17th century, when Spain's power was beginning to totter (thanks once again to imperial overextension and financial imprudence), many leading Spaniards saw that reform and retrenchment were needed. They put forward well-considered plans for such reform, some of which would probably have worked. But none of the reform programs could cut through the power of the interests at court that lived off Spain's decay - - just as powerful interests in Washington live off our decay. I think that if Spain's equivalent of a prime minister at that time, the Count-Duke of Olivares, were to find himself in today's Washington, it would all feel very familiar (if you want to read a good book on Spain's decline and fall, I recommend J.H. Elliott's biography of Olivares).
America may be luckier than Spain, and perhaps we will be able to deal with our foreign policy, military, financial, trade and cultural crises separately, over time. But I think the greater probability is that they will come in close enough succession that they will feed on and magnify each other, until they become a single vast, systemic crisis - - the fall of the house of cards. That creates a vacuum which, in the old days, usually resulted in a change of dynasties (from the Hapsburgs to the Bourbons, in Spain's case). What does that mean for the next conservatism? It means conservatives should get ready now in order to fill that vacuum when it comes.
In the last three columns, we have tried to look at where we are as a country. The picture is not very bright. The question facing the next conservatism is, how can we turn the situation around? I want to try to address that question in this column and the next.
The answer has to start not with politics but with culture. As I have said over and over, culture is more powerful than politics. We cannot keep winning politically while the Left wins culturally. Somehow, we have to win the culture war ourselves.
That in turn requires a new movement. I hate to have to say so, but I think the old conservative movement has somewhat played itself out. There are still some courageous and effective fighters in it, people like Phyllis Schlafly and Senator James M. Inhofe, but much of it has been co-opted by the Republican Party, and much that has not been co-opted seems to be out of new ideas.
To create a new movement, we have to have a new idea to build it around. That idea has to speak directly to our national decadence and offer a chance of changing the culture. It has to offer a real potential of reviving the America many of us remember, up through the 1950s. If it cannot do that, it cannot serve as the basis of a new movement, because anything less will not reverse the country's decadence. We will just be papering over the cracks.
Is there such a new idea somewhere out there? I think there may be. Bill Lind calls it Retroculture. What it means is that, in our own lives and the lives of our families, and eventually our communities, we would deliberately revive old ways of doing things. Of course, we could not exactly re-create the past, but we would use the past as a guide and a benchmark.
I know America has always been a future-focused country. But that may be changing. As early as 1990, the Free Congress Foundation did a national survey about Americans' attitude toward the past, present and future. The results were a big surprise.
A good example is public education. Everyone knows today's public schools are much worse than those we had in the late 1950s. That is true in rich areas and in poor. The education lobby says the answer is even more "new math" and other modernist rubbish, plus of course oceans of Political Correctness and money.
What if instead our new movement called for "Schools 1950?" We still know how those schools worked. We would go back to teaching the facts, reasoning, and skills like adding and multiplying without a calculator, instead of worrying about pupils' "self-esteem." Of course we would teach some newer things as well, such as computer skills. But the basic rule would be, "What worked then can work again."
In fact, that might not be a bad slogan for our new movement. It is true in so many areas of our lives. It is true about families, marriage and sexual morals; finance, both family and national (everybody used to know that debt was dangerous); entertainment (it used to be both good and decent); even in areas like public transportation, where streetcars were better than buses. The old America, America before the cultural revolution of the 1960s, was a pretty good place. Even a lot of young people know that is true.
This movement would seek to re-build our old culture from the bottom up, one individual or family at a time. That is slow, I know. But I don't think there is any other way to win the culture war. We have lost so much that we almost have to start over again. It is too late, when it comes to our culture, to conserve. We have to restore.
The restoration movement in architecture points to where Retroculture might go. In the 1960s, it was fashionable among architects and urban planners to rip down Victorian and even federal and colonial buildings and put up new ones. The new ones were usually awful. Now, most people agree that older buildings can and should be restored rather than replaced.
I really think that a next conservatism that included a movement to recover our old ways of thinking and living could win the culture war, which so far we have lost. Still, politics remains important. In my next column, I intend to talk about what we need to do in politics.
READING FOR THE NEXT LECTURE