Liberals Are Dressing Up In Conservative Clothes

October 13, 1997 • Commentary

The collapse of the supposed Republican Revolution demonstrates the truth of George Wallace’s taunt three decades ago: There ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the major parties. Today, both Democrats and Republicans support a high‐​spending, high‐​taxing status quo.

But the demise of the conservative revolution extends beyond Capitol Hill. Some conservative intellectuals have also abandoned any pretense of reform.

This statist impulse is not new. For years, Kevin Phillips has distinguished himself as the quintessential big government Republican. American Enterprise Institute economist Herbert Stein has long advocated more spending on education, foreign aid and other failed government programs.

More recently, Howard Wiarda of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested that the GOP give up trying to cut entitlements and, instead, make the case that it can “manage, streamline and administer the programs better than the Democrats.”

Now some conservative journalists are pushing for increased government activism to promote “national greatness.” For instance, William Kristol and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard argue that selfish Americans who want to engage in the mundane things of life — family, career, friends, hobbies — must be drafted into some grand crusade (any one will do) by their betters.

What is this, but 20th century liberalism? Democratic presidents have routinely deployed Americans in big campaigns. The pitch was always national greatness: alphabet soup agencies to transform the economy, expansive programs to clothe, feed and nurture the needy, massive militaries to fight around the globe, and domestic “wars” to end poverty and achieve energy independence. Bill Clinton merely followed his predecessors in proposing to nationalize the health care system.

Kristol and Brooks formally reject such left‐​wing statism, but as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. notes, “Using government on behalf of ‘national greatness’ could get you right back to the New Deal.” After all, overcoming the Depression, ending poverty, and providing universal health care all entail “a national goal,” to use Brooks’ words.

How does the conservative vision differ?

“It would be silly to lay out some sort of 10‐​point program for American greatness,” write Kristol and Brooks. But Brooks cites the Library of Congress, national parks and antitrust enforcement as examples of “grand American projects.” This is a strategy for national renewal? At least liberals emphasize important issues; conservatives apparently believe they can achieve greatness on the cheap.

In fact, the latter have an impossible task. Kristol and Brooks, for instance, denounce “the complacent mediocrity and petty meddling of the nanny state,” urging instead what Brooks terms a “limited but energetic government.” Alas, the American (and, indeed, human) experience demonstrates that no such thing is possible: the state is the ultimate imperialistic institution, constantly seeking to expand. If it is limited, it cannot drag the population into grand national crusades. If it can conscript money and manpower for grand national crusades, it is not limited.

Which value, then, is to be jettisoned? Kristol explained to Dionne: “Are we willing to say that the country is worse off because of FDR or JFK or LBJ? I’m not willing to say that.” So much for limited government. National greatness obviously trumps liberty. Kristol opposed (heroically, it seemed at the time) Clintoncare, but he apparently did so for partisan rather than philosophical reasons, since it was merely an outgrowth of earlier Democratic initiatives, which he today refuses to criticize.

Brooks worries that “democracy has a tendency to slide into nihilistic mediocrity if its citizens are not inspired by some larger national goal.” And that people lose “a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose” when “they think of nothing but their narrow self‐​interest, of their commercial activities.”

Unfortunately, he is looking for answers in the wrong place. Democracy is almost inevitably mediocre, if not nihilistic. Voters normally act on their narrow self‐​interest; even the grandest government initiatives (like the Civil War and New Deal) routinely degenerate into squabbling over the spoils. There certainly was nothing virtuous about American politics a century ago, when Congress built Brooks’ beloved Library of Congress.

The effect of such political self‐​interest is far worse than that of commercial self‐​interest. Moreover, overcoming both forms of selfishness requires a regeneration of the soul, one that is more likely to occur when people recognize that the responsibility for change lies with them, not government.

Still, Washington should inform its citizens’ hopes rather than organize their resentments, as Kristol and Brooks advocate. But that means leaving them alone to pursue their own dreams, not compelling them to support the latest intellectual or political fad. People acting together in community with one another, pursuing their shared goals — not the plans of social engineers, whether of right or left — is what really makes America great.

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