06 April 2009

The Confidence Party and the Conservative Opposition

Another intriguing issue of The American Conservative magazine arrived in my mailbox today. Along with an analysis of efforts by progressive Democrats to convert Senator Gillibrand from her "blue dog" moderate-conservative stance, the most interesting item is Sean Scallon's article in praise of Jimmy Carter. You don't expect to see that sort of story in a "conservative" magazine, but it's actually a sign of a self-styled conservatism's struggle to define itself in opposition to the allegedly conservative Republican party. Carter has actually received some positive reappraisals from the Conservative in the past, particularly for his foreign policy. Defending Carter is pretty daring for any conservative, since doing so is an implicit slap at Carter's nemesis and conservatism's supposed saint, Ronald Reagan. Scallon's piece is evidence that some conservatives have begun to question Reagan's legacy.

The author's real subject is Carter's so-called "Crisis of Confidence" speech from July 1978 -- also known (unfairly, Scallon notes) as the "Malaise" speech. This was the moment when Carter supposedly cut his own throat by daring to tell Americans to lower their expectations and live more modestly in order to conserve resources. In Scallon's view, it was an eminently conservative statement. He quotes Carter:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Scallon comments: "Self-sufficiency, discipline, sacrifice, conservation, independence, the striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth. All of these characteristics were once associated with conservatism." He seems to think they aren't any more. For this he blames Reagan.

Reagan is the face of modern "conservatism," the model Republicans are urged to emulate. According to Scallon, however, the victorious Reagan movement was "a synthesis between New Deal liberalism and nationalistic Cold War conservatism. Reagan never repudiated his four votes for Franklin Roosevelt and soon began gathering elements of the traditional New Deal coalition into his fold -- neo-conservatives; socially conservative Democrats of the Midwest, urban Catholic Northeast, and the Protestant South; and idealistic Kennedy Democrats who could not stomach the notion that a country that put a man on the moon should turn down the thermostat."

Note the sting in Scallon's analysis. The Reagan coalition "agreed on a nationalism that regarded an America with any kind of limits as a place that could never be American in any meaningful sense." Reagan himself "transform[ed] conservatism from a traditional doctrine of prudence, caution, and sustainability -- a tough sell politically -- into a highly marketable brand of American exceptionalism." The icon of so-called conservatism actually pandered to a "you can have it all" mentality inimical to real conservatism. As a result, under Reagan, "government grew, in part through a neat trick called supply-side economics in which the New Deal, the New Frontier and even the Great Society could be offered at low cost to taxpayers through massive levels of borrowing."

In effect, Scallon has committed heresy (from a Republican perspective) by calling Reagan (in effect) a heretic.The quality he denounces in Reaganism, however, is the "optimism" that Reagan's acolytes and imitators insist is essential to the success of both the Republican party and the conservative movement. It is the predictable attitude of the grasping entrepreneurs who patronized Reagan and his predecessor Barry Goldwater. Their ambition and greed didn't sit well with traditional conservative notions, nor with the Founders' classical tradition of hostility toward luxury and great disparities of wealth. Yet the Goldwaterites and Reaganites took over the "conservative" label because free enterprise -- entrepreneurial ambition -- was what America had to conserve against the menace of Communism. To question the values of entrepreneurs was to hate freedom; it was presumed to be un-conservative. Only now, it seems, are some conservatives waking from their stupor -- and even Scallon is careful to praise Goldwater while denouncing Reagan, as if the two men didn't come from the same source.

It's unclear what The American Conservative can do about the situation, but without endorsing their own agenda, which is often too traditionalist, religious and selfish for my taste, I'd advise them to find some way to label the post-Reagan Republicans and apparent pseudo-conservatives that would define them as not conservative. My suggestion is at the top of this post: Call the Reaganites, or the Republicans as a whole if necessary, the "Confidence Party." Confidence is a synonym for the optimism that defines Reaganism, but it also has older, almost hidden meanings. The 19th century "confidence game" is the source for the modern abbreviation, "con game." Conservatives like Scallon may have already drawn the conclusion that Reagan's optimism was a kind of confidence game played on the entire nation. They should say so more forcefully, drawing sharper distinctions between conservatives and confidence men while shaking themselves loose of the shackles of Reagan's entrepreneurial ideology. By defining themselves in definite opposition to the Reaganite con men, they might find themselves in a position to cooperate more with people from the left who have thrown aside their own crippling ideologies. "Left" and "Right" have been frozen in place since the Cold War, but writers like Scallon make me think that the thaw may have begun.

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