William Voegeli: A response to Paul Rahe

Professor Paul Rahe’s recent book (linked below) has provided the grist for several posts by Professor Rahe on this site. William Voegeli’s thoughtful review of the book appeared in National Review. Mr. Voegeli now responds to Professor Rahe’s most recent post (also linked below):

I have enjoyed Paul Rahe’s recent contributions to Power Line, even as I profited from reading and was grateful for the chance to review his fine book Soft Despotism. In his Power Line post “Sobriety and hope,” Professor Rahe suggests that my own assessment of the conservative prospect is insufficiently hopeful, and sober to the point of being funereal.
It is an interesting and important contention, because it raises the question of what it means for conservatives — in the wake of the political defeats of 2006 and 2008, and the realization that so many of the hopes raised by the elections of 1980, 1984 and 1994 were not fulfilled — to calibrate their pessimism correctly.
That question, in turn, resolves itself into two questions, one analytical, the other political: What is the best assessment of conservatism’s chances in its long, twilight struggle to arrest and reverse the drift of American democracy into soft despotism? If we can arrive at an answer to that question, then we counter-revolutionaries must ask, “What is to be done?” It’s important to separate the two; the combative example of Mark Steyn shows that pessimism does not necessarily result in passivity.
I agree with most of what Professor Rahe writes and recommends. I am certainly closer to his inclination that the drift to soft despotism requires an adversarial response than to the pessimism voiced by such conservatives as John Derbyshire and Alain de Botton. In particular, I agree that the Democrats of 2009 have given conservatives an opening much larger and sooner than seemed possible in November 2008.
When conservatism was gathering force in the 1970s, Irving Kristol said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been mugged. In the wake of the 2008 election, it appeared that an Obama Republican was a Reagan Democrat who had been foreclosed. The Democratic victory of 2008 was sealed by the financial panic six weeks before election day. It fulfilled the trends begun with the election of 2006, when voters conveyed their misgivings about entrusting national affairs to President Bush and the Republicans who had nominated him twice, and reflected the popular perception that conservatism was played out, that it hadn’t offered a new or compelling idea since the government shutdowns of 1995.
By overinterpreting their 2008 mandate, Democrats have gone a long way in making it possible for conservatives to regain the ground they have lost. Americans were scared by the decline in their retirement accounts and home values — but not so scared that they were transformed in one election cycle into European social democrats. The distinctively American don’t-tread-on-me cussedness has not been replaced by the which-line-do-I-stand-in deference that Europe’s welfare states both presuppose and foster.
One of the dangers for conservatives standing athwart history is that we rarely rise above the level of our competition. Barack Obama has been, so far, a less interesting president than he was a presidential candidate. Despite the indications in 2008 that he had thought about how to move beyond old orthodoxies, there have been very few initiatives since Obama’s inauguration with which Tip O’Neill would not be entirely familiar and comfortable. Since liberals are recycling all their old mistakes, it’s likely conservatives will be content to recycle all their old critiques.
That, I think, would be unfortunate, and may be an area where Professor Rahe and I disagree. His advice for conservatives who want to roll back the administrative state is that “conservatives will not succeed at that which they do not try.” This entreaty is tautologically true, but nevertheless problematic. As an accomplished historian like Professor Rahe knows, conservatives have tried to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment,” as President Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address. It was the core of the Republican response to the New Deal, and at the heart of the domestic agenda advanced by National Review and Barry Goldwater. It was central to Reagan’s understanding of his political mission, and to the congressional majority secured by Newt Gingrich in 1994.
One response to conservatism’s long record of futility is to say that this century’s conservatives need to try even harder than last century’s. That may be, but before simply redoubling our efforts it would better to think rigorously about why so many conservatives accomplished so little, for so long. Prof. Rahe hopes that the administrative state is as ready to succumb to vigorous resistance as the Soviet Union was in the 1980s, and encourages us not to make Henry Kissinger’s mistake of settling for an accommodation with an adversary we can defeat.
As Steven Hayward argues in his new book on the Reagan presidency, however, “Reagan was more successful in rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire chiefly because the latter is a harder problem.” With considerable understatement, Hayward says that the scorecard from the Reagan-Gingrich era “suggests the public doesn’t support shrinking the government to the same extent as the conservative movement does.”
The economist Tyler Cowen is less circumspect. He says that the “fundamental paradox of libertarianism” is that “human beings have deeply rooted impulses to take newly acquired wealth and spend some of it on more government and especially on transfer payments.” Tyler calls greater prosperity and bigger government “a package deal,” and says that “libertarianism is in an intellectual crisis today” because, “[t]he major libertarian response to modernity is simply to wish that the package deal we face isn’t a package deal.”
Professor Rahe says that if conservatives are to succeed, finally, in reining in Big Government, they will need “strategic acumen, tactical skill, and resolve.” People who spend a good deal of time writing about politics, as Professor Rahe and I do, are more likely to contribute to the first of these than the other two.
Let me close with a request to Professor Rahe to help render the conservative movement more strategically acute: I’ll rephrase a question I formulated in the pages of National Review. In his most recent Power Line post, Professor Rahe says that the welfare state “erodes the underpinnings of the family, and in country after country it has contributed mightily to a demographic implosion.”
This assessment is in line with the analysis he offers in Soft Despotism: the cause-and-effect between the growth of the growth of the welfare state, on the one hand, and the decline of self-reliance, and strong families and communities, on the other, flows in one direction. The welfare state lures and coerces people into relying on its “immense, tutelary power,” rather than on themselves, their family members, and their neighbors.
I don’t think that argument is wrong, but I don’t think it’s the last word on the topic, either. In the 178 years since Tocqueville toured America, people here, as in other prosperous countries, have grown less attached to their families and communities. People marry later and have fewer children than they used to. A much larger portion of the population never gets around to having children at all. The birth of children to unmarried women, such as Bristol Palin, is more likely to be regarded as ill-advised than scandalous.
Young women and men both prepare for and pursue careers, and improvise ways to work marriage and child-rearing around those obligations, a commonplace approach to life today that would have been considered freakish for most of human history. Those careers lead millions of families to be geographically dispersed, weakening the connection between grandparents and grandchildren, and qualifying adults’ ability to care for their aging parents. That mobility also causes people to limit their civic involvement, in the expectation that they could be residing hundreds of miles away in a few years.
These social and economic changes cannot be ascribed solely or even primarily to the growth of the welfare state. How Americans want and expect to live today is very different from the lives they sought in 1831. A conservatism that liberates 21st century Americans to pursue 19th century lives is going to have a hard time winning electoral majorities, no matter how much tactical skill and resolve it brings to bear on the project.

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