Post-election 1992: “The largest problem of all is that conservatism has utterly lost its focus, its sense of purpose, its mission. It has become too comfortable and too complacent.”
Michael S. Joyce, then president of the The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, spoke to The Heritage Foundation’s founders and board of trustees on December 1, 1992—less than one month after Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush for president. An incumbent had been turned away by the voters—in the wake of which the very definition of conservatism was going to be refined or perhaps even rewritten, the prospect of which may be facing us again.
A slightly edited version of Joyce’s remarks is below. All emphases are his.
The agenda for this session mailed out some time ago indicated that my assignment this evening is to lead a discussion on “What we can do to insure conservative victories in the future.” Insure, mind you. Now, that’s a tall order.
But that word “insure” is worth pondering for a moment, because I believe it helpfully reveals a hidden mindset—an implicit set of assumptions—about how we conservatives understand our place in the political order today. And I think that mindset goes a long way toward explaining why—unless there are some dramatic changes in the way we think and do business—we are more likely to “insure” defeat, rather than victory, in the future.
Consider again the phrase: to “insure” future conservative victories. It suggests that, barring occasional accidents like the presidency of George [H. W.] Bush, we conservatives can comfortably expect to govern in the future, if we just “keep doing that voodoo that we do so well.” It implies that all we really need to do for the foreseeable future is to finance a lot of studies and briefings that keep the heat on the new administration and Congress, giving the American people time to sober up and return to their naturally conservative senses. By 1996, this thinking goes, the levers of power will be returned to our skillful hands by a chastened and grateful electorate.
This thinking, I would suggest, is absolutely fatal. It points directly to the larger problem with conservatism today—and I mean a problem larger than the ones you’ve heard so much about—larger than the end of the Cold War, larger than the departure of Ronald Reagan from the national scene, larger than President Bush’s abandonment of Reaganite principles.
The largest problem of all is that conservatism has utterly lost its focus, its sense of purpose, its mission. It has become too comfortable and too complacent. After struggling for many years in the political Wilderness, it now assumes that its just and rightful place is in the banquet rooms and the seraglios of the Imperial City.
Only this sort of experience
What are the signs of this fatal complacency? First, far too many conservatives have fallen into a kind of petty ideological bickering that can only be compared to the court intrigues of the most corrupt and decadent imperial palaces. The assumption seems to be that the very fate of the Republic turns on which obscure sect of conservatism prevails, as various minuscule factions maneuver to settle old ideological scores. This sort of internecine guerilla warfare can only serve to marginalize conservatism—to make it irrelevant to the fate of the Republic.
Other conservatives profess to be profoundly disappointed in the American people and the choices they foolishly made this year. Some have even fallen into deep despair about the future of the Republic, and now pine for an orderly and peaceful retirement to various museums of virtue and piety. In other words, conservatism hasn’t failed—the American people have. Such an astonishingly arrogant and complacent point of view can only lead conservatism further down the path to marginalization, futility, and paralysis.
Finally, too many of our conservative think tanks, political action groups, and leaders have become obsessed with institutional aggrandizement. They’ve begun to put expansion of budget ahead of clarity of principle. They add programs merely to add programs, and raise money merely to raise money. Consequently, they’ve lost focus on their original mission, fall all over each other in wasteful duplicated efforts, and generally behave exactly as the bloated, corrupt institutions they had intended originally to reform. This is a sure sign that they’ve supped too long at the banquet tables of the Imperial City, after their long, dry sojourn in the Wilderness.
I conclude from all this that it might, indeed, be the best thing for us conservatives, along with our assorted institutions, groups, and leaders, genuinely to experience the Wilderness once again. Not just to “take a breather” for four years, but genuinely to experience the Wilderness. I, for one, am convinced that:
- Only this sort of experience will wring the imperial fat from our bodies and minds, and make us once again lean, mean, efficient, and focused.
- Only this sort of experience can compel us to drop pointless ideological bickering among petty factions, forego self-indulgent hand-wringing about America’s lost innocence, and aspire to something beyond mere expansion of budgets and aggrandizement of institutions.
- Only this sort of experience can bring us what the Wilderness, properly experienced, always brings—and that’s a new and reinvigorating vision—a new vision for conservatism, and a new vision for America.
It’s far too early to say with any certitude just what that vision might be. But I think we can begin to perceive the dim outlines of a future vision, in the messages buried in the election returns from this past November.
Sick and tired
Reflect for a moment on the palpable and massive discontent with all major governing institutions; the immense popularity of Ross Perot’s radical, populist call to return government directly to the people; the success of term limits and tax-and-spending limits in referendums across the nation. The message, I believe, was clear: Americans are sick and tired of being told they’re incompetent to run their own affairs.
They’re sick and tired of being treated as helpless, pathetic victims of social forces that are beyond their understanding or control.
They’re sick and tired of being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social scientists, therapists, professionals, and bureaucrats, who claim exclusive right to minister to the hurts inflicted by hostile social forces.
They’re sick and tired of supporting the bloated, corrupt, centralized bureaucracies into which our social therapists are organized to insure that power and accountability flows to them, rather than to the citizens of the United States.
Americans are clearly willing and eager to seize control of their daily lives again—to make critical life choices for themselves, based on their own common sense and folk wisdom—to assume once again the status of proud, independent, self-governing citizensintended for them by the Founders, and denied them by today’s social-service providers and bureaucracies. In short, Americans are ready for what might be called “a new citizenship,” which will liberate and empower them.
Self-governing common sense, on the local level
What might be the dimensions of such a “new citizenship”? At the heart of this approach must be the determination to treat Americans as self-governing citizens, willing and able to seize control of their daily lives once again and to make critical choices for themselves. Consequently, Americans must not be dismissed as helpless victims or passive clients.
Second, we must seek to restore the intellectual and cultural legitimacy of citizenly common sense as a way of understanding and solving problems. This suggests an effort to re-establish the dignity of traditional folk wisdom and everyday morality, with renewed emphasis on teaching and nurturing personal character—the customary guideposts of everyday life. This will mean taking on intellectually the radical skepticism about such “unscientific” approaches propagated by professional pseudo-scientists eager to preserve their intellectual hegemony.
Third, we must reinvigorate and re-empower the traditional, local institutions—families, schools, churches, neighborhoods—that provide training in and room for the exercise of genuine citizenship, that pass on folk wisdom and everyday morality to the next generation, and that cultivate and reinforce personal character. This will require efforts to reform such local institutions, for often today’s churches, schools, and related “mediating structures” have themselves succumbed to the view that Americans are mere clients or consumers of therapeutic social services.
Fourth, we must encourage the dramatic decentralization of power and accountability away from the centralized, bureaucratic, “Nanny state” in Washington, back to the states, localities, and revitalized “mediating structures.” We should also strive to refocus moral authority back to such structures, and away from corrupt intellectual and cultural elites in the universities, the media, and elsewhere, who regard traditional mediating structures as benighted purveyors of reactionary prejudices.
Finally, we must be willing to challenge on all fronts the political hegemony of the “helping” and “caring” professionals and bureaucrats who have penetrated so many aspects of our daily lives, and who profit so handsomely from the “Nanny state.” We will need to dramatize their status as entrenched, corrupt special interests, more concerned about advancing narrow ideological agendas and protecting political prerogatives than about serving the public. This will require not only traditional approaches like policy research, but more innovative approaches as well—for instance, media and writing projects that capture the vivid, compelling human stories of those who suffer at the hands of paternalistic, arrogant bureaucrats and professionals, and the equally compelling human stories of those who have launched successful grassroots, citizen-empowerment projects.
A decent, dignified, and worthy way of life
What I’ve described as “the new citizenship” is intended to be a very broad, expansive, and inclusive general agenda for American conservatism.
It isn’t meant to suggest that one particular brand of conservatism should be preferred over another.
It doesn’t imply that any one area of American life—the economy, the culture, the political system, or foreign affairs—necessarily should receive more attention than another.
It certainly doesn’t automatically include or exclude the best thinking of any particular conservative institution.
What the “new citizenship” does provide, however, is a general image of what we consider a decent, dignified, and worthy way of life—a broad understanding of the way we believe human beings as human beings deserve to be treated, whether by our economic, cultural, or political systems, whether at home or abroad.
If we put something like “the new citizenship” at the heart of the vision we develop in our sojourn in the Wilderness, I cannot say that it will “insure” conservative victories—to return to my assignment for this evening. It would, however, mean that our time in the Wilderness will have been well and nobly spent. And it would also, I suspect, mean that our time in the Wilderness will be brief.