We on the right who are too young to have fought the Germans in WWII or Roosevelt's New Deal, but old enough to remember Governor Reagan and William F. Buckley on "Laugh In," feel a twinge of guilt reflecting on the dark days of conservatism--guilt for benefiting from the hard work of our predecessors. From 1932 until 1976, conservatism was as dead as Lincoln.
"I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith," writes Martin Peretz in the current New Republic, "speaking in the early 1960s, the high point of post-New Deal liberalism, who pronounced conservatism dead. Conservatism, he said, was 'bookless.'"
But tables turned. Perhaps it was Nixon's downfall. After all, Goldwater and Reagan warned us about "moderate" Republicans. Maybe it was Buckley's relentless advance of conservatism on television, magazines, books, radio, college campuses, and debate halls. Perhaps it was just the excesses of liberalism that drove people to take a look for other ideas.
About that time--the mid 1970s--a tidal wave of conservatism cleared its throat. Books began to come forth suggesting, not just that liberalism was another form of communist collectivism, but that a just society could be achieved only through the application of priniples generally known as "conservatism." Adam Smith, John Locke, the Founders came into the common lexicon.
Peretz goes on:
At this point in history, it is liberalism upon which such judgments are rendered. And understandably so. It is liberalism that is now bookless and principlesdying. The most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened, perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature. However gripping his illuminations, however much they may have been validated by history, liberals have no patience for such pessimism. So who has replaced Niebuhr, the once-commanding tribune to both town and gown? It's as if no one even tries to fill the vacuum. Here and there, of course, a university personage appears to assert a small didactic point and proves it with a vast and intricate academic apparatus. In any case, it is the apparatus that is designed to persuade, not the idea.
The last point is brilliantly true, but it has been for half a century.
In Up From Liberalism, Buckley talked about liberalism's penchant for placing form above substance. To the liberal mind--or "mania"--the means justify the end. If the Good Society transfers wealth from the Rockefellers of the world to the Bunkers, then the fact Archie used his newfound, unearned riches to feed a newfound, unexpected heroin addiction is fine and dandy. The liberals who transferred the wealth had the best of intentions, even if they had no rational moral justification for stealing Mr. Rockefeller's property.
No example serves as beautifully as the NEA's fits when a politician wants to pay teachers based upon how effectively they teach. The NEA would rather 99% of students remain ignorant of basic reading, writing, and math skills so long the students can recite their liberal creed. To the NEA, it's the intention, not the result.
Liberalism's undoing has been that idea of accepting any disastrous outcome--drug addiction, welfare dependency, single female head of households, poverty, death, disease, ignorance. Adding insult to injury, liberals try to convince us that we must tolerate the misery their programs create because they resulted from a liberal's misguided attempt to assuage guilt over being born middle class and white.
Just look at environmentalism. Liberals banned DDT knowing full well that DDT posed no human danger. They lied about that fact to convince populations to support the ban. The result has been millions of avoidable deaths from malaria in the poorest countries. But liberals defend the DDT ban to this day and gloat about the dead babies because they did it in the name of saving the planet.
Mr. Peretz documents the absence of liberliberalsal ideas these days. Where once stood books whose titles contained progressive phrases--"Towards . . ., Better . . ., New . . . --liberalism's library's shelves now carry purely negative, anti-, destructive titles, like I Hate Bush and I Hate Rumsfeld. Even the DNC Chairman, Howard Dean, has gotten into the business of coining negative party mottos with his declaration this week: "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for." When it came to share his ideas in debate against uber-hawk Richard Perle, Dean demanded that no recording devices or journalists attend. (He later reversed himself.)
Why would a man with worthy ideas hide them in a college auditorium? He wouldn't. Only a man who understands he has nothing to say would demand the microphones be turned off and the pens capped.
For months, liberals have been peddling one disaster scenario after another, one contradictory fact somehow reinforcing another, hoping now against hope that their gloomy visions will come true.
I happen to believe that they won't.
Mr. Peretz's prelude to the mottoesconclusion of his fine piece sounds a lot like Rush Limbaugh. Liberalism as descended into something horrible and sickening. It prays, not for relief from suffering, but for massive suffering that can be blamed on political enemies. Liberalism has lost all pretense of moral superiority, essentially signing a pact with the devil in whom they don't believe.
We know, now, that Galbraith was wrong when pronounce conservatism dead. We would be mistaken to do the same for liberalism 40 years later. But liberalism is in very bad shape. George Will likes to say that ideas have consequences. Reagan's ideas, after all, brought down the Berlin Wall. What, then, has the absence of ideas?
Ultimately, that's the question for liberals to answer for themselves. Their answers will emerge in books, or not, and the movement's future will depend upon them.
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