BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
The degeneration of public discourse seems to have accelerated since President Barack Obama ’91 defeated John McCain and Sarah Palin, and the present debate over health care reform has brought us to a new pinnacle of obscurantism and misinformation. Perhaps the greatest mistake committed by President Obama so far has been his underestimation of the extent to which the popular consciousness is moved by the mass media’s propagation of the inflammatory rhetoric of anti-government demogogues.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are the standard fare in many Americans’ homes, and while they themselves are merely media mouthpieces, they embrace a brand of conservatism that is being formulated by individuals who are so virulently opposed to Obama’s very existence that they will analogize his administration and policies to whatever abhorent ideology they find most likely to inspire fear and anger.
In short, the Republican Party has become a refuge for disaffected radicals whose most distinct political sentiment is rage. On National Public Radio to discuss his book, “The Death of Conservatism”, Sam Tannenhaus said that today’s conservatives have become a party of radical “revanchists” who are driven by a desire to attack Democrats and the Left, blaming them for the loss of their values. Ironically, just this past week the so-called “Godfather of Conservatism”, Irving Kristol, died at the age of 92. As a man who began his intellectual life as a self-avowed liberal and Marxist, only later to become a leader of conservative thought, Kristol brought rigorous analysis to his advocacy in favor of capitalism and the free market. His passing, like the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., is a sign that the core figures of the conservative movement’s success in the twentieth century are no longer present to carry it forward. But looking deeper than that, Kristol’s passing is in many ways foreboding for those who would hope to see an intellectual renaissance on the Right.
Looking back to the latter half of the twentieth century, the staunchest advocates of conservatism were strident defenders of capitalism as a counterpoint to the Soviet version of communism or European socialism. With the Reagan era, these advocates had their greatest vindication. Taxes fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and a rising tide of prosperity carried America into the nineties. But the political landscape today is utterly different from that which faced conservative thinkers of the last era. Taxes have now been at historically low levels for more than two decades. Europeans and developing nations have all recognized the value of strong capital markets. America’s military may still be the dominant force in the world, but wars today are fought over cultural, not economic differences, and are waged through guerrilla insurgencies, not nuclear face-offs. And now the conservative advocates of a free market are left to scratch their heads by a series of investment bubbles, brought on by laissez-faire deregulation, that have nearly dealt capitalism a fatal blow and forced the largest entities in the private markets to rush to national governments around the world for public assistance.
It is perhaps the unfamiliarity of the present political landscape which leads some arch-conservatives to conclude that President Obama represents the overthrow of our federal government by a Marxist conspiracy of left-wingers. In a recent article titled “The Left Still Doesn’t Get It” on the conservative website “American Thinker”, Geoffrey P. Hunt argued that the current campaign for health reform is nothing but a massive hand-out designed by “lefties” to benefit a “permanently aggreived, take but never pay class who pay no taxes, convinced they are victims of racist and capitalist exploitation.” He portrays the “regular American” as someone who is frustrated with the expansion of the national government and who will be moved to action to fight socialist government and defend capitalism by the continued affront to traditional values. It is an argument that presumes that everything that occurs in our national government is corrupting a utopian vision of America, and it is a method of discourse that has become typical in both print and mass media.
The proliferation of the presumption that everything the President says is a lie will almost certainly result in confusion and suspicion in the general population with regard to the entire federal government, but ironically this is exactly the reason that the unspoken compact that once held together Wall Street and Main Street is irrevocably broken. As long as the central architecture of capitalism depends on the federal government for its vital liquidity, the Democrats that control Congress and the White House will also be acting as the custodians of American capitalism. And because the Democrats are planning to rebuild, not deconstruct, capitalism, the political center endorses their general program. This puts Democrats in the awkward position of representing both the center-right and the far left, all the while trying to man the levers of the national economy through dire economic straits.
Given the nihilism and erstwhile utopianism of the far right, it seems unlikely that Democrats have much to fear. As distasteful as expansionary economic reform is to conservative firebrands, the opportunity to achieve both social justice and pragmatic, far-sighted reforms should not be squandered just because of a vocal class of hecklers. And while the tea-party staging revanchist radical Republicans are stocking up on canned goods and ammo, waiting for the second rising of the states against federal oppression, the rest of us will be getting on with the important business of figuring out how to best make use of the national government for the betterment of all Americans.