The Reagan Administration’s Baby Doe policy is finally being tested in the Supreme Court. Supporters see the law as a necessary guarantee of the rights of handicapped infants whose lives are threatened by selfish parents and amoral physicians. The Federal government has a positive obligation, they insist, to send investigation teams—Baby Doe Squads, as they are called—into hospitals whenever a baby with birth defects is reported to be suffering neglect. The American Medical Association sees the matter in a different light. Nearly every state has laws on the books leaving such difficult decisions up to parents and, to a lesser extent, physicians.
What exactly is going on? The arguments sound like a chorus of Humpty Dumptys whistling “The World Turned Upside Down.” The AMA has always stood up for the privileges of their order in questions of health care, often at the expense of the rights of ordinary citizens and families. Is a lobby of the rich and powerful suddenly going populist? Are their lawyers going to argue that state and local laws cannot be infringed by the Federal government in its relentless pursuit of equal rights? And the conservatives in the Reagan Administration and the right to life movement, have they suddenly discovered that government intrusion into private life is a good thing and that their compassion overrides the larger constitutional and ethical questions involved? Do they really believe that they have tamed the wild horses of the bureaucracy, that they can harness them to their wagon and make them trot like Tennessee pacers?
The Administration seems to believe that parents of deformed babies can’t wait to get rid of them. In some extreme cases, perhaps they are right, but if we actually are so far gone as a people that we are willing to kill infants with impunity, it is hard to see what good can be done by Baby Doe Squads. If anything, they will only serve to exacerbate the parent-child tensions of a society that has already stripped families of most of their traditional privileges. Whatever the Court decides, the Baby Doe policy raises a number of urgent questions about the direction of the conservative movement in the next few years. With the left in almost complete disarray, the time may soon be at hand (if it is not already here) for conservatives to lead America back to some kind of consensus on the great issues that have divided the country since Eisenhower left office. Conservatives saw Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 as the first step in a revolution. Many saw the President’s successes in 1980 and 1984 as a vindication of William Rusher’s and Kevin Phillips’ predictions of an emerging Republican majority. This majority, based on a coalition of businessmen and populists, would restore our pride, bind up the wounds inflicted in the 1960’s, and reunite us as one nation “from sea to shining sea.”
Conservatives lost no time in giving the President his instructions; he was to turn the clock back to 1956, the high tide of Eisenhower’s postwar restoration. When the President failed to live up to their expectations, the cry went up against the king’s evil counselors—Jim Baker, in particular. As time went on, the slogan switched to “Let Reagan be Reagan.” On the other hand, the President’s detractors, principally the left wing of the Democratic Party, saw his success in another light. His margin of victory did not constitute a mandate for anything more than a vague commitment to growth. Mr. Reagan’s popularity was strictly personal and had little or nothing to do with what an earlier Republican President had termed “a return to normalcy.”
What both sides are wondering about is: Where do we go from here? Will the Republican Party continue to have a strong conservative flavor, and if it does, who will lead it? Whatever he may be saying these days, George Bush has never and will never share the social concerns of the hard hats and rednecks that put the Republicans in the White House. It is hard to conceive of Bush as a Knute Rockne in the locker room rallying the squad at halftime with his reminiscences of the Gipper. Congressman Kemp, on the other hand, is still only a congressman, almost entirely unknown to the unsanctified hordes who do not subscribe to conservative publications. Many think he ought to try his act out on the road—in the governor’s mansion in Albany—before taking it to the White House.
Then there are the Democrats. Will they snap back, and reclaim their lost soul by calling up the ghost of Henry Jackson? Bert Lance and Ham Jordan were warning them long before the 1984 debacle that no candidate could win unless he was acceptable to Southern voters. Is the party smart enough to listen? Such questions seem to trouble the editorial staff of The New Republic and National Review alike.
In the long run, the fate of political parties does not amount to much. Most of them are far more successful than they deserve. In general, they manage to retain a hold on electoral processes only by betraying every principle they are supposed to represent. In 1948 the Democrats turned on party stalwarts in the South and endorsed the progressive Republican position on civil rights. In ’64 Lyndon Johnson was the candidate of the party that was going to keep us out of war. A party’s greatest victories are always over a significant portion of the nation, and in most cases it is a question of “dishing” the opposition, in Disraeli’s phrase, by adopting their views. The Administration’s rhetoric on the rights of handicapped infants is only the most recent example of a conservative adopting liberal slogans. It is hard not to endorse Halifax’s assessment of the best political party as “but a kind of conspiracy against the nation.”
Most conservatives prefer Edmund Burke’s more generous view of the party system as an instrument of good government that transcends the level of personalities. But, in Burke’s view, parties represented the great constituencies of the nation: they were neither an ideological faction—like Communists or Jacobins—nor a mere historical accident like the 20th-century Democrats in America—Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion, as their opponents were fond of saying. What the two parties represent now, it would be difficult to say, when Lowell Weicker is a Republican and Sam Nunn a Democrat. Many Southern conservatives retain their loyalty to the party of Jefferson Davis—Tip O’Neill had to drive Phil Gramm out of his own party and tum him almost overnight into a powerful Republican senator. But if the Democrats drift inexorably to the Center, it will become even more difficult to make a clear distinction on the basis of ADA or ACU ratings.
If there is a powerful “party” with a shared set of commitments, it is probably the conservative movement. But good conservatives have not liked to regard themselves as a party. They prefer to remain a part of “the silent majority.” Outside of Washington, most conservatives pride themselves on their lack of ideology and their hostility to abstractions. They would rather be good Americans than good conservatives.
This naive variety of conservatism had limited influence before the days of direct mail. Leaders of both parties knew how to touch the right strings to play the patriotic medley of God, flag, and family. At the national level, there has never been a powerful Conservative Party as such in American history—not the Federalists, not the Whigs, not the Re publicans. As a result, the reactionary sentiments of ordinary Americans were never fairly represented in the Federal government. On issue after issue—environmentalism, family versus the welfare slate, abortion, court-ordered busing—popular sentiments have not been taken into account by policymakers.
Increasingly, conservative journalists and politicians have seized upon this disparity and have attempted to form a mass movement on the advice of Burke:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
There is no denying the movement’s success: Mr. Reagan in the White House; two hard-core rightists from North Carolina in the Senate; Phil Gramm in Texas; a significant number of young yuppie congressmen; and just outside the political arena, powerful institutions like National Review, The American Spectator, and The Heritage Foundation compete with their opposite numbers for prestige and leverage on Capitol Hill. There are countless splits and rifts in the movement-neoconservative versus old right; populists versus elitist Straussians; and among the Straussians themselves, the sect is splintered into fragments that follow Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and Strauss only knows who else.
If the splintering sounds a little like the history of the Presbyterian Church, it may be because of an almost religious zeal to save the soul of America. If there is a binding philosophy, it is probably a vague form of the fusionism taught by Frank Meyer to the readers of National Review: the uneasy yoking of social conservatives with the supporters of business interests. Despite the haziness of its identity, the movement shows signs of becoming radicalized, and the right sometimes defends its positions almost as predictably as the left.
Consider the abortion debate in the 1980’s. There is a rough American consensus: most people favor legalized abortion only when the mother’s life is in danger or in the case of rape (or incest, which usually amounts to the same thing). It is not a logically consistent position. If it is wrong to take an innocent life, why is the wrongness mitigated by peculiar circumstances? This consensus—even firmer in the past—was able to function relatively smoothly until the Supreme Court took the law into its own hands and made it illegal to prevent abortions. On this issue, conservatives run the gamut, but the extremists usually have their way. The Hatch Amendment would have taken abortion out of the Federal courts and given back the power to the states, but it was—according to reliable sources—torpedoed by a conservative Southern senator with the support of antiabortion purists. Nothing short of an abortion amendment would do.
A number of things ought to be said on behalf of the right-lo-life movement. First and most important, abortion is a fundamental moral question that can evoke the strongest feelings. If it is murder, then acquiescence in the status quo post-Roe v. Wade is tantamount to complicity in the Holocaust. Second, it is an issue forced upon the American people by a tyrannical Supreme Court. Third, many antiabortionists are not at all conservative and see no contradiction at all in their efforts to use the Federal government as a weapon in a holy crusade.
Granting all that, there remains the question of what is the best way to stop the killing. Little headway has been made in Congress. More direct action, on the other hand, is headline news: picketing, rallies, and bombing. All of them may be, under the right circumstances1 a more appropriate expression of moral outrage than any attempt to impose the will of the minority upon the American people. Actions of the Federal government are at the root of many of our most serious social problems, In the long run, it does not matter who wields the power, because it is inevitably over us and eventually against us. I am probably as opposed to abortion as anyone I know. I also don’t know of a dictatorship that does not express noble ideas. But mere men are not strong enough to bear the moral burden of deciding what is best for other men.
If there is one point of consensus among the Founding Fathers, it was a healthy distrust of power and those who seek to possess it. If we fail to return abortion to the slates, it may even be time for confrontational tactics, but violent rhetoric will only alienate the soft support the movement enjoys. I also am against murder, but still oppose a Federal law against it (and the national police it would require).
While conservatives continue to speak of “Federalism” and call for the dismantlement of entitlement programs, some of them seem perfectly willing to push their own agenda at the Federal level. Some think the government should provide a nondenominational school prayer. Others want an anti-gun-control amendment. Still others want to use the NEH or Department of Education to support conservative ideology. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Martin Morse Wooster quite rightly ridicules NEH grants to promote conservative ideology. Many of the programs receiving support are estimable in themselves, but humanities money which could be supporting scholarship is now being diverted to 900-word editorials.
Part of this new-found enthusiasm for benevolent despotism is understandable as the predictable response of an outsider who finds himself a member of the club. Washing ton is swarming with conservative groupies-on the make, all eager to prove Stanton Evans’ law of politics: whenever one of our people gets in power, he becomes one of their people. But there is a nastier side to this: self-serving greed is one ,of those human weaknesses conservatives are supposed to understand and take precautions against, but a passion for ideology is more dangerous.
In what sense are conservatives becoming ideological? The moral absolutism of some right-to-life extremists is only one example. Another more pervasive ideological stand can be traced to fusionism itself: the idealization of big business. Once again, the defense of free market capitalism was forced upon us by Marxists and social democrats, but while most Americans endorse the common sense of Calvin Coolidge (“the business of America is business”), the fanaticism of libertarians is another. It has had disastrous consequences for environmental politics. In the past 10 years, the stock response to air and water pollution from the right has been: (1) there is no problem; and (2) government caused it; but (3) it is the necessary price we pay for economic growth; besides (4) in a democratic society, there are trade—offs-more jobs/more smog—and we are free to choose the ratios.
These arguments are essentially correct. Pollution levels are hysterically overestimated by the left; government was the villain at Love Canal; free market solutions do work better than government regulations. But toxic wastes—chemical or nuclear—are not a laughing matter for the victims whose freedom to choose is more than a little impaired by leukemia and stomach cancer. There is a strange reluctance to admit that any businessman can ever do wrong or that the hazards of environmental pollution are more serious than the stink of SO2 from a paper mill.
On some issues, the blanket support for business interests puts conservatives against the conservative instincts of most Americans. Many people are concerned about the rate of illegal immigration from Latin America-what it will do to our sense of unity, our culture, and our language. It is easy to understand why the left opposes stricter controls anything to destroy the common enemy of mankind, the U.S. But not a few conservatives are discovering how our culture is being enriched by the newcomers. “Enriched” is the operative word, since the principal concern is for the steady supply of illegals willing to work for less than minimum wage. Such cynicism is too much for the businessmen, even in the Southwest, who have mounted a principled opposition to the sanctuary movement and are in favor of regaining control of our southern border. The problem is, therefore, not so much pursuit of self-interest as a blind commitment to the bottom line as something good in itself.
The sad truth is that some conservatives are only anti-leftists, their agenda nothing more than a contrarian strategy. Whatever the left has done, conservatives want to undo and are willing to use any means at their disposal. They have stared too long at the face on the other side of the glass and have come to see themselves as a reverse reflection. In The Lord of the Rings, the High Steward Denethor possesses a crystal that allows him to observe the plans of the enemy. But the enemy has a stronger mind and will and allows him to see so much of his strength that it unhinges Denethor’s mind. It is possible for conservatives to make the same mistake. By seizing power and using the vast bureaucracy for “good,” they will be—to use another illustration from Tolkien—using the great ring of power to defeat its master, but in the end becoming the servants, not the lord, of the ring.
When Satan tempted Christ, his best offer was power:
The devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the Kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou will fall down and worship me.
We cannot understand from the gospels that Christ was tempted by power itself, but by the opportunity to do good-as Milton depicted the scene in Paradise Regained. The only drawback was the price we have to pay for pursuing power. It is possibly too much to ask of a politician to answer, “Get thee hence, Satan.”
The most courageous act conservatives can perform will be to begin dismantling the power of government, depoliticize America, cast away the “ring” into the cracks of doom. Since the days of Hoover, we have suffered at the hands of boy wonders, whiz kids, and brain trusts—all of them with bright ideas of how to reconstruct a new America. Some of their ideas, we are probably stuck with for a while: attempts to obliterate Social Security entirely or dismantle all of the welfare state will probably serve only to polarize the nation.
The great success of American politics has been the refusal to take most questions to the extreme. We have never had a successful conservative party or a major radical party, either. Instinctively, our politicians seem to realize that the game they are playing is a little like checkers or chess: Control the center of the board and you win everything; run to the edge or the corners, and you may survive for a while, but eventually even a weaker opponent will trap and destroy you. The conservative role must be to unite us-not around a rightist ideology, but around the common principles on which we can agree.
One such principle is our historic commitment to “the government that governs least.” Most Americans still seem to feel the government spends too much and interferes too much with private life. If conservatives are going to provide the leadership for our escape from the wilderness, they will have to recognize that people don’t want them sticking their noses into decisions which only families and communities can make. They didn’t like Lyndon Johnson interfering in their business, and they don’t want Ronald Reagan looking under their beds. If we start legislating for other people’s own good and impose our views on abortion, pornography, and free enterprise by executive fiat working in tandem with a packed Supreme Court, then the dime’s worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans will have been devalued to one red cent.