Perhaps some sort of congratulations are in order for guest poster Edward Sisson, who managed to garner quite a number of comments and votes (although most of them were negative) with this post. Although much of what Mr. Sisson said is debatable, his piece was very well written, and contains many things that conservatives should consider, particularly the importance of an appealing vision for our future. I believe that such a vision is essential for political victories, particularly over progressive candidates and ideals.
In order to understand why vision is important, we should first begin by familiarizing ourselves with the most fundamental axiom of progressivism, which is this – there are two kinds of people in the world: the oppressed, and their oppressors. This simple binary worldview underpins virtually the entire social teaching of progressivism: rich versus poor, black versus white, bourgeois versus proletariat, etc. Throughout the last century, progressivism has positioned itself as the lone answer to the problem of oppression. If you are suffering, then you are oppressed, and the progressive individual understands your plight, cares about you, and is ready to help.
This is an enormously appealing message. It can be easily expanded into a prophetic vision for a brave new world, free from poverty, destruction, and oppression. And virtually all of the gifted and talented individuals who are the creators and caretakers of our mythos and our popular culture – authors, poets, songwriters, actors, journalists, theologians, sociologists, historians, philosophers, etc. — are devoted followers of progressivism and its utopian vision of an end to human suffering. In fact, they have infused it so completely into contemporary thought that we often do not recognize its more subtle manifestations.
Second, we should accept the fact that progressivism is now the default solution to the problems of the human condition as reflected in our films, television programming, newspaper editorials, and classroom curricula. For this reason alone, progressivism will always be extremely difficult to defeat. In order for that to happen, progressivism must be tied at a foundational level to strife and discomfort. And people must be given a viable option based on an inspired vision of recovery and prosperity.
Third, we must understand that people are continually hungry for change, particularly when they are concerned about their future. A new face with a different set of ideas always carries with it a certain amount of native appeal, even if those ideas are not “new.” If one candidate is able to define himself as the candidate of “change,” he then puts his opponent in the unenviable position of having to defend the status quo. Democrats seem to have an easier time defending the status quo than Republicans, simply because those who shape our culture want to see progressivism succeed. But occasionally Republicans have been able to overcome this significant barrier and win some astounding victories.
It seems odd today that the public would actually trust the Republican party with ending a war, but in 1968 Richard Nixon was able to convince a majority of Americans that a Hubert Humphrey presidency would be nothing more than a continuation of the policies of Lyndon Johnson, particularly his unpopular expansion of the Vietnam war. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 because he assured America that he had plans to win the Vietnam war quickly and to solve the looming economic problem of inflation.
By 1976, Republicans had occupied the White House for eight years. They were deeply associated with America’s embarrassing withdrawal from Vietnam which left 58,000 Americans dead and a Communist regime in power. America had also endured the “energy crisis” of 1973 – 1974, and was left spiritually broken in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Any Democrat would have had a better-than-average chance of winning simply by telling the American people, “I’m not one of them.”
But by 1980, Americans were ready to listen to Republicans again. The reasons were simple – the economy was a shambles, and America’s rapidly-diminishing prestige as a superpower had been all but destroyed by the disastrous foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. But Carter was the progressive candidate, and he still had the full support of America’s intellectual class. And in their opinion the failures of the Carter Administration were nothing more than symptoms of the the overall failure of America. We were told that we were finished as a nation with a free market economy. We had danced during the 1950’s and 1960’s while the rest of the world suffered, and now it was time to pay the fiddler. Fighting Soviet expansion was pointless, because it was too expensive and it forced us to ally ourselves with despotic Third World dictators. Plus, our military was no longer capable of enforcing American foreign policy around the globe. So we had better resign ourselves to the fact that America’s days as a political and economic superpower were over.
Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 simply because he offered Americans a desperately-needed alternative vision of an America with a revitalized economy and the ability to once again defend liberty and democracy around the world. At that time, most of America’s business and civic leaders and decision makers were members of the World War II generation, and they were not about to abandon the free and prosperous America that they had fought so hard to defend thirty five years earlier. Reagan’s message also appealed strongly to the American heartland and to the South, regions that have always been very patriotic. Reagan won a landslide victory, and intellectuals were left scratching their heads. Similarly, Newt Gingrich was able to use the clearly written Contract With America to engineer the incredible Republican congressional victory of 1994.
After riding Reagan’s coat-tails to victory in 1988, George H. W. Bush lost his bid for re-election in 1992 because the economy was wobbly and he had trouble convincing Americans that he really understood the whole “vision thing.” Likewise, Al Gore lost his 2000 presidential bid (which, given the strong economy of the late 1990s should have been a landslide victory) because he largely failed to distinguish himself in any meaningful way from the Clinton administration, whose endless scandals and blatant political maneuvering had become tiresome. Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 after they became practically indistinguishable from the Democrats. And what can we say about this year’s presidential election? Compared to Barack Obama, John McCain undoubtedly looked like “John McSame” to a majority of Americans who were fed up with a Republican-run White House and eager for something different. We should also consider the fact that the candidacy of Barack Obama presented an opportunity to at least symbolically address the injustice that has plagued African-Americans for the past three centuries.
So how can Republicans win back the White House in the wake of Barack Obama’s broad, visionary “hope and change” message that was so blatantly support by the mainstream press, along with the entertainment industry, and the intellectual class?
We must continue to remind Americans that progressivism is not new, nor is it innovative. It is based upon theoretical economics, social studies, and pseudo-science that is over a century old. It retains its “freshness” simply because it is taught by its disciples to generation after generation of young students, who are led to believe that progressivism epitomizes the apex of human reasoning and presents the only realistic solutions to the eternal problems of mankind.
We must continue to show Americans than the binary worldview of progressivism is deeply flawed. One man is not always forced to suffer because another man prospers. Economic growth in America or the West does not automatically result in the impoverishment of those living elsewhere. This is perhaps the most egregiously false dichotomy in contemporary politics and economics. However, when disproving this theory we should be careful not to dismiss the plight of those who truly are suffering, particularly those trapped in the dismal economies of Third World nations, or in the perpetual dysfunction of America’s welfare state.
We must continue to contrast the voluntary community advocated by conservatives with the mandatory collective demanded by progressives. Even though people often seem willing to trade freedom for security, there eventually comes a point where people become reluctant to surrender more and more of their individual liberties. We must demonstrate the difference between a democratic government limited by guaranteed individual rights, and a totalitarian (though supposedly benevolent) welfare state in which an individual has little free choice. We must explain that justice is much more likely to be achieved by a free society than by a collective whose primary function is the empowerment the state.
And we must develop an appealing alternative vision of the future, grounded in hope and common sense, and clearly articulated by inspirational leaders. Ronald Reagan’s economic and foreign policy initiatives, and Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, are two good examples of how conservative principles can be used to win elections, and then transformed into effective public policies.
Dislodging the stranglehold of progressivism won’t be easy, but it can be done. And if we are to preserve our Republic as it is outlined in our Constitution, it must be done.
– Michael Laprarie