Politics is like the weather: No matter how blue in the face we talk ourselves, no matter how many virgins we sacrifice to Odin, our leaders do not improve, and the drought continues. The fates who determine the destinies of nations are no more obedient to our words than the little gods of wind and rain that ruin crops and spoil picnics. Every two years, an election cycle rolls through our part of the continent, and, like a late-summer low-pressure system that kicks up tornadoes, disrupts communications, and sends pigs and chickens into conniptions, this politicking raises our blood pressure and sours relations with friends and family—but nothing else.
From late summer until Election Day, my serene study of Gregory the Great’s Magna Moralia or Commentary on the Blessed Job was interrupted by rumors of the political wars going on. Inevitably, I framed the issues in terms Saint Gregory might have understood. Poor Gregory (pope from 590 to 604) was caught between attacking barbarian Lombards and the unreliable Byzantine authorities who were supposed to protect Italy and the Church. What would Gregory think about the attacks we suffer from our own barbarians who threaten this ruined civilization (I mean, of course, the Democrats and other socialists) or, worse, the treachery of supposedly loyal allies, such as the emperor in Constantinople (or Washington, D.C.)? A Lombard is always a Lombard, I tell my friends, and a politician is always a politician. Our motto here is Nolite confidere in principibus, put not your trust in princes—particularly the princes who have to finance costly election campaigns.
One such interruption came from a wealthy caller who is still foolish enough to seek my advice. Though an octogenarian, he is still active in the business he founded; he is also a staunch conservative and, since the Goldwater campaign, a loyal Republican. The caller complained to me that George W. Bush has been an unmitigated disaster for the party and for the nation. Over the next two years, he insisted, our duty is to find a conservative third-party candidate to run against the evil Democrats and the just-as-evil leaders of the Stupid Party. In the midterm elections, however, he was voting straight-ticket Democrat just to teach the GOP a lesson.
Voting for the enemy is a foolish, maybe even a wicked, tactic—doing evil in the hopes that good may come of it—but I wonder, how many conservatives did something similar? My caller was not the only longtime Republican who told me he was voting for Democrats. Others took a more radical approach. My wife, from a staunch Republican background (I believe her parents voted for Herbert Hoover), picked whatever Green Party candidates were on the ballot. Here in Illinois, the Green Party gubernatorial candidate picked up 11 percent of the vote, mostly from frustrated members of the ruling parties. In Winnebago County, this socialist, as one Republican friend told me, got 24 percent.
The Democratic governor’s administration is plagued by scandal, but his Republican challenger, a cross between Hillary Clinton and a wolverine, was a close associate of former governor George Ryan, convicted not so long ago on 18 counts of corruption. Sending governors to prison is one of Illinois’ finest traditions, and the only one that connects us with the great state of Louisiana. The Land of Lincoln and Ryan and the Land of Long and Edwards are only outstanding examples of the American culture of political corruption. Corruption is the very lifeblood of party politics. In the best of times, the faction or party is, at best, “a conspiracy against the nation,” as the Marquis of Halifax observed; in America today, the parties have taken the next step. They are, for the most part, criminal conspiracies.
Illinois voters could not possibly think that the demotion of Denny Hastert and the consequent promotion of Dick Durbin will do any real good. How could they? The Democrats voted to give the President the power to wage a war that some (if not all) of them knew was unjustifiable, and, as the war was mismanaged from the beginning and top officers were sacked, demoted, or disciplined for telling the truth, the Democrats were content to snipe at the President and the Miles Gloriosus he put in charge of the Department of Defense. At this stage of the game, they can only speak of a phased withdrawal without any consideration for the country we have ruined, for the damage being done to our prestige, or for the added risks our troops will run once we have given the insurgents the game plan. Do not ask me what to do. We said, some time before the war, what would happen if we invaded Iraq, and the fact that it has happened just as we predicted gives us no pleasure. We should have got out soon after we staged the pictures of the Iraqi flag coming down. Now, it is not so simple.
It would be nice to believe in the scenario that is being sketched out by some conservative Republicans in the aftermath of their much-needed defeat: The party has learned its lesson and, with a little effort, the policies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan will be restored. Moderate voters, confronted each night by the scary faces of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Dick Durbin, will rally round the conservative flag. “First we take back the party; then we take back the country. All that is required is a return to basic Republican principles.” I sincerely hope they are right, but there are considerable roadblocks on the road to reform.
Some alcoholics, stricken with the remorse that only a hangover can cause, quit drinking every morning, but after two beers at lunch and a few cocktails before dinner, they postpone their reform to a more convenient occasion. There may be more, though perhaps not better, reasons for going to bed drunk than for going to bed sober, and the Republican Party has an infinite number of bad reasons for doing business as usual.
In response to the not-so-far leftists who run the GOP, self-described conservatives call for a restoration of conservative principles. This is one of the besetting follies of American conservatives, the delusion that “ideas have consequences,” a pretentious phrase foisted on Richard Weaver by his publisher and inevitably picked up by the same Trotskyists who think that arguments between the kids at two City College cafeterias constituted a world-historical event. In Washington, think tankers who may behave as complete cynics still profess to believe in conservative principles, and even a Republican Party waterboy like Rush Limbaugh, improbable as it may seem, thinks he is engaged in a battle of ideas. If they are to accomplish anything, conservatives have to face the unpleasant truth that ideas mean very little to politicians in the postmodern political arena and even less to voters, who think of government the way children think of Santa Claus.
In a trivial way, we all know this: Money and media access win elections, while lofty principles, if a politician is unwise enough to articulate them, are so many weapons in the hands of the enemy. Defenders of “family values” are homophobes; believers in a moral order are fascists; critics of imperialism are traitors and cowards; and supporters of states’ rights and the Old Republic are racists and bigots.
Conservatives concede the point and advise cowardice or, what is the same thing in such cases, caution, perhaps because they know intuitively that the real struggle is not over principles but over the interests of constituencies. In a simple way, we know that the oilmen who back the Republican Party have certain interests, as do Jewish and Christian Zionists who want to exterminate the enemies of Israel, agribusinessmen who want price supports and a guest-worker program for Mexicans, to say nothing of the ethnic, religious, sexual, and erotic minorities who all demand special privileges for their identity, sect, or perversity.
Even conflicts over principle are played out by parties that act as interest groups. Abortion, as a legal and political issue, is not the center of a moral contest over principle so much as it is a conflict among voting blocks and funding sources: Committed Christians and religious Jews oppose a woman’s right to kill her babies, while organized feminism, Hollywood, and secularized Jews are in favor. If the former group has numerical superiority, the latter is richer in the stuff that dreams are made of, which is why abortion is unlikely to be recriminalized in the lifetime of anyone alive today.
There is no one who takes the most passing interest in politics who does not understand this fact. The men who have got rich and famous as political advisors have not been studying moral philosophy: They have been counting votes and laundering money.
A cynic would be tempted to say: “Thus it has ever been.” Perhaps, but, while there is always a grain of truth in blanket condemnations of the human character, such condemnations tend to obscure the details in which the Devil is said to lurk. Modern states have elevated the political to a plane that supersedes all other loyalties. In premodern societies, economic interests naturally play a part in political disputes, faction fights, and civil wars, but family connections, religious differences, and territorial divisions may often be more important. Ancient Athens or Rome would provide good examples, but one might as easily take the Venetian republic, 17th-century England and France, or the United States of 200 years ago. In America, the states used to play a major role in politics, giving identity to the citizens and sending politicians to Congress who represented the states’ interests. To a limited extent, this goes on today. As states lost sovereign power and mass politicking became the norm, however, other identities—socioeconomic class, union membership, minority status, ideology—began to take precedence.
So-called democracies, while they may continue the pattern of clan wars or religious struggles, tend to diminish the authority of Church and clan and focus ever more narrowly on the interests of individuals or abstract groups, such as classes and minorities. Since everyone thinks he has a stake in getting something from the treasury, his political identity (if he has one) tends to be defined by the noisy groups he is identified with. Machiavelli pointed out (in his Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) that ordinary people have no interest in the state beyond personal security and a decent system of justice. In consequence, they spend very little time on political activities, because the rewards are comparatively slim in proportion to the time they would have to spend. However, interested minorities, such as aristocrats, know that a modest amount of effort can be rewarded with contracts, monopolies, lucrative positions, and the irresponsible power they are itching to abuse.
The political economist Mancur Olson reached a parallel conclusion about citizens in a modern democracy. They pay scant attention to the state, whose policies and politics are controlled by small cliques with large appetites, and they are content if the laws are enforced, taxes kept moderate, and benefit checks sent out on time. Ultimately, the increase of the number and influence of interest groups leads to national impotence. What kind of practical strategy on the environment, for example, can be adopted, when the debate is entirely controlled by radical environmentalists and industrial polluters?
In the realm of “ideas,” the politics of special interests are supported by an ideology of acquisitive individualism. Each individual, according to this theory, has the “right” to get as much of what he wants out of life as he can by any legal or nonaggressive means. Although this view is traditionally associated with classical liberals, and, thus, with Americans who have misappropriated the term conservative, it has also been adopted by the soft-Marxist European left that wants to give every male, female, and shemale the right to be as swinish as any old-school capitalist pig.
The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from my rather elementary analysis is this: In democratic politics, principles and ideas play a very limited role as slogans in a propaganda war. The real contest is the struggle among vigorous and pushing swine for access to the trough. Recognizing this fact, conservatives might give up their language of social and economic revolution and drop the “morning again in America” rhetoric that has made them the slaves of the Republican Party apparatus. With less rhetoric and more practical effort, they might do a better job of crafting a coalition to support, for example, a gradualist approach to unraveling the evil system in which we are enmeshed: 75 years of socialist experimentation that saps our independence; government schooling that keeps the mind empty of learning and filled with hatred of all things decent and true; and a revolutionary judicial system, whose dictatorial powers are unparalleled in the Western world. In or out of the Republican Party, conservatives have to make the best deals they can make and then punish the politicos who default (as up till now they have always done) on their promises.
A conservative coalition would naturally expect to attract conservative voters, who are, so far as I can tell, predominantly straight white males and their faithful wives. They do not kill their babies, they go to church more than twice a year, and they pay more taxes than they consume. If they can afford it, they put their children in private or religious schools or, at least, live in rich neighborhoods where private education is not so urgent a necessity. Conservatives tend to be found in the suburbs, small towns, and rural areas rather than big cities. None of them works in Washington, D.C., for more than a year or two.
Their “principles” are usually an ill-assorted jumble derived from the Ten Commandments, the Boy Scout Oath, and “a set of the more practical Alger books.” Innocent of all historical knowledge, they persist in believing, in the teeth of all the evidence presented to them by teachers and pundits, that the United States is the greatest country in the history of the world. They also believe in honesty, integrity, and fair play, and they think that men should be faithful to their wives (or at least pretend to be). They regard religion as basically a good thing, though only a minority are convinced that Messrs. Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson should be running the country on what they pretend to be Christian principles.
Unfortunately, conservatives are frequently divided on the great issues of the day. That is because issues are principles where money is involved. It is hard to persuade a combat veteran or a Boeing employee that the government of the United States is not entitled to invade any country she likes, much less to convince a schoolteacher’s husband not to vote for the next school-district bond issue. Despite such divisions, eagerly promoted by Democrats and Republicans alike, conservatives are more likely to favor the Second Amendment and oppose Roe v. Wade—at the extreme they would rather shoot an abortionist than kill a baby. Because they own property and pay taxes, they dislike high taxes and eminent domain, but, after paying in to Social Security and Medicare for years, they are unlikely to challenge the basic assumptions of Great Society socialism.
No broadly popular coalition is going to be built on absolutist principles such as the “right to life” or opposition to foreign wars. As Sam Francis explained to me, when we first discussed putting out a conservative magazine (over 25 years ago), successful conservative movements are based either on greed or hate, preferably both. As for greed, we have more than enough issues: lower taxes, trim the budgets, and cut welfare. Hate (or resentment or righteous indignation) is even easier: Cut welfare, limit immigration, crack down on Muslims. The voters for such a coalition exist. The only problem is to find the well-heeled interest groups that will go along. There is only one way, and that is, first, to deliver the votes, and, second, to allow the big-money mobsters (in and out of office) to wet their beaks, so long as they deliver on the basic agenda.
Obviously, political advisors have been thinking along these lines for some time. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and George W. Bush’s outreach to conservative evangelicals are successful examples of an ad hoc application of the elementary principle. But from the conservative point of view, both Nixon and Bush were complete failures, not because Nixon had to leave office under threat of impeachment and Bush has bankrupted the country and destroyed her prestige. No, Nixon and Bush actually succeeded in doing much of what they wanted to do, but, since neither had a conservative bone in his body, both looked at their conservative supporters as so much cannon fodder in a battle in which only the generals know what the fighting was all about. Nixon was intelligent enough to know what he was doing, and he told people (me among them) that he made conscious use of conservatives who had always disliked him. Karl Rove knows, too, though it may not matter too much whether he has told his boss.
Conservatives themselves were playing this game before Mr. Nixon ran for the presidency. Their tactic, during the 1950’s, was to use traditionalist conservatives as window dressing for a program of individualist liberalism. Poor Ayn Rand, who really and truly represented the deepest “philosophy” of National Review, had to be expelled for her rabid insistence on speaking the truth as she saw it. To this day, Christians and Southerners have not wised up. Every four years, they get out the vote for a party that betrays and insults them as soon as its members are in office.
There is no point in talking about a politician’s principles. The pressing political need is to construct a coalition of interest groups that will want to feed at our kind of trough. There are few political idealists in Congress, and those who claim to be—a John McCain or a Rick Santorum—are less reliable than the party hacks who would never ask us to trust them. Far better to support a died-in-the-Italian-wool Machiavel such as Rudy Giuliani than virtually any candidate who has ever courted Ralph Reed or Pat Robertson. Yes, Giuliani says he favors abortion rights and Santorum says he opposes them, but politicians never mean what they say. Santorum did little in Congress to eliminate infanticide, and he backed the pro-abortion Arlen Specter for political reasons. Santorum lost his reelection bid because he deserved to lose.
If there were something in it for Rudy, a President Giuliani would outlaw abortion and restore the Constitution, and if there were enough in it for Santorum or Keyes, he would find a Christian argument for homosexual “marriage”—excuse me, for “civil unions,” as Republicans like to say when they are pandering to the Christian Right, though there is no difference between a state-licensed marriage and a civil union. The evangelicals have shown that they know how to get out the vote, but they have never accomplished a significant objective, because the politicians who deceive them count on their loyalty to the party, which, for all too many, takes precedence over their professed religion. The same is true of conservatives, who will justify deficit spending, big government, and reckless globalism so long as these policies are in the hands of self-described conservatives. Until they learn to play hardball, the way George Wallace played hardball, conservatives may as well forget about the principles they pretend to espouse and sell their souls to the GOP.