Despite last summer’s brassy pronouncements that the owl had sung her watchsong on the towers of Capitol Hill, the oligarchs of Congress bit the reins in their teeth and lashed their mounts full into the maelstrom of constituents disgusted with pay-raises, privileges, perversion, and pretension. Some 96 percent of the incumbents managed to ride out of the electoral cyclone of 1990 still tall in the stirrups, and only the most foppish fell off. But no one, least of all the oligarchs themselves, should think that their victory means that the storm is over. The high mysteries of public opinion research show that Americans are more distrustful of Congress than ever before, and only by exploiting every sinister trick known to political science were the congressmen able to wheedle and whine their way back to Washington. You can fool some of the people some of the time—and that’s enough.
Most voters—and only about 35 percent even bothered to show up at the hustings—may imagine that their own representative is somehow magically exempt from the inexorable laws’ that govern the degeneration of moral tissue once it hits the toxic atmosphere of political power. Hence, in the delusion that only their congressperson is a rock of rectitude in an ocean of sinful vacillation, citizens often were happy to send him back to the salons of Georgetown and the obscure pleasures of the congressional gymnasium. Then again, maybe they just didn’t want him back home at all and took the view that employing him in Washington is the modern equivalent of a request from an emperor of ancient Rome that a courtier inflict his presence on the eternal city no more and betake himself to Thither Bithynia.
Yet the Middle American Revolution is not so easily thwarted. Despite the victory of the oligarchy last year, the frustrations of the shrinking American middle class remain deep and obvious even to the victors. The success of David Duke’s underdog candidacy in Louisiana, the victory of Senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina, the defeat of a proposition for a holiday honoring Martin Luther King in Arizona, the renaming of “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the popularity of tax and term limitation measures in several states showed that in some corners of the land the wheels of revolution are beginning to churn and that the natural fear of economic and cultural dispossession is the oil that greases them.
But those wheels will never get out of the ditch if mainstream conservatives are in the driver’s seat. Never in recent history has the now largely defunct “conservative movement” produced a serious national political leader or accomplished much of anything on the national political scene. The most electrifying leaders of the American right—Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan—emerged into prominence not because of the Latinate magazines and recondite philosophizing of organized American conservatism, but due to their own innate ability to capture and express the aspirations of a repressed political class. Moreover, while the Middle American Revolution in some respects harbors sentiments that conservatives share, in others it is hostile or indifferent to much of what conservatives in the United States have represented.
Throughout American history, the mainstream of conservative thought, from the anti-Federalists through the Confederacy to the resistance against the New Deal and the Great Society, has centered on the defense of liberty: states’ rights, individual freedom, social and private as opposed to governmental responsibility, local as opposed to centralized policies. This was the theme of South Carolina’s Senator Robert Young Hayne’s reply to Daniel Webster, when the Southerner articulated one of the classic refutations of the northern Federalist-Whig vision of a united nation expanding economically under federal supervision. This also, as Shelby Foote argues in his three-volume Civil War series, was the rationale of Jefferson Davis in his inaugural address, declaiming that “all we ask is to be let alone,” and it was the basis of the defensive military strategy of the Confederacy, which ultimately led to its defeat.
This too has been the approach of American conservatism in the 20th century, which, despite the various philosophical costumes in which it has garbed itself, has taken its stand with strict constitutionalism, laissez-faire economics, traditional social morality, and the freedom of individuals to pursue happiness in their own way. The central project of 20th-century conservatism has been to resist the aggressive imperialism of Washington and its sisters in the bureaucratized corporate and union economy and cultural regime, all of which fused together in the New Deal and its later derivatives; and the core of the conservative resistance has been the preservation or restoration of republican liberty.
But the only means of resistance conservatives’ ideology permitted them was to engage in formal political contests within the framework of the constitutional system. The most popular and common path of conservative resistance has thus been purely and narrowly political; conservatives sought merely to hold up or reverse the leviathan’s march by winning elections to Congress and the White House and by weaving bureaucratic intrigues within the leviathan’s entrails. Eventually many of them became so enamored of politics, policy-cooking, and political responses that they evolved into the “Big Government conservatives” of today, centered exclusively in Washington, where they carefully plan how to arrange the deck chairs on the S.S. Titanic.
Because political conservatives have decided to play by their rivals’ rules in their rivals’ game, it shouldn’t be surprising that conservatives wound up with pretty much their rivals’ thoughts and values. In recent years, conservative political leaders have increasingly regurgitated the basic premises of the liberal ideology they claim to be opposing and have quietly ceased to resist the left on much of anything except means. The government ought to promote equality, they say, but affirmative action just isn’t the way to achieve it. Civil liberties are what we want too, and the only thing wrong with pornography and drugs is that they might hurt children under 12. Fraternity is terrific, and global democratic capitalism, spreading human rights and democracy, and presidential supremacy in foreign affairs are the right instruments by which isolation can be overcome and planetary cosmopolitanism made to triumph forever. Some—not just paleoconservative dinosaurs—have begun to notice that the contemporary right seems to have turned into an ideological Xerox of liberalism.
Some others concluded that there was no point in resisting anyway. Whittaker Chambers came to believe that, and he ended his life in intense and private religious withdrawal, prophesying the apocalypse. At another extreme, H.L. Mencken also came to think that resistance to the New Deal regime was futile, and he withdrew into a passive Nietzschean cynicism. “At the moment,” he wrote in his diary on June 1, 1942, “with the Roosevelt crusade to save humanity in full blast, my ideas are so unpopular that it is impossible, as it was from 1915 to.1920, for me to print them.” Nor did it become possible again in his lifetime.
But if conservative activism was corruptive, conservative escapism has proved to be no less ineffective. Leviathan is relentless. By its very nature, it is never defensive but always aggressive. The millenarian dogmas that animate it, the vested interests that it serves, and the emotional resentments from which it breeds impel it forever to trample out the vineyards wherever they are found. Leviathan decides to spread democracy and human rights throughout the world and plans wars in which you and your sons (and daughters) will have to fight and die—but never win—for principles and peoples you’ve never heard of It blathers about “collective security,” “disarmament,” the “international rule of law,” “interdependence,” “global democracy,” and “the New World Order,” all of which are simply global versions of the same therapeutic managerial welfare state it has constructed domestically. It takes your money to pay for all the pathologies and neuroticisms that social managers imagine are the Higher Civilization. Leviathan won’t stop at the city limits and leave the suburbs alone. There’s nowhere to run anymore, and now that the country is facing recession, you couldn’t afford to run even if you could.
What this means is that the traditional American conservative defensive strategy is no longer practicable and that those who want to defend themselves against leviathan must go on the offensive. They must seek not just to restrain power but to gain power for themselves.
This does not mean, as neoconservatives, the New Right, and Big Government conservatives believe, that the goal should be the mere capture of the existing governmental apparatus through winning elections and getting jobs in the bureaucracy. Control of the formal, legal apparatus of political power will not yield social and cultural power, what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “cultural hegemony.” In 1980, conservative Republicans won control of the White House and the Senate and for six years accomplished virtually nothing substantial in arresting the growth of leviathan or reversing its course. The reason for their failure had to do partly with the personal weaknesses of many of those who won but also with their neglect of aspiring to the cultural dominance that is the effective prerequisite for effective political power. The most radical of the conservatives of the 1980’s, the New Right, was either oblivious to or utterly incompetent to deal with culture, not just in the sense of the higher arts, but also in the sense of using social and cultural institutions at the lower levels of family, neighborhood, schools, colleges, local communities, clubs, and workplaces to build a Middle American counterculture within the belly of the beast.
The dynamic of the Middle American Revolution is captured at the end of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, when the flabby yuppy protagonist Sherman McCoy has been stripped of wealth, his status, his wife, his mistress, his children, his friends, his class, his privacy, and his freedom. At last dispossessed of every external garment of his social identity, he turns to fight. Explaining what happened to him, he draws an analogy with a house pet that’s been turned into a vicious watchdog. “They don’t alter that dog’s personality with dog biscuits or pills,” he says. “They chain it up, and they beat it, and they bait it, and they taunt it, and they beat it some more, until it turns and bares its fangs and is ready for the final fight every time it hears a sound. . . . The dog doesn’t cling to the noHon that he’s a fabulous house pet in some terrific dog show, the way the man does. The dog gets the idea. The dog knows when it’s time to turn into an animal and fight.”
Or, as another fighter once said, you have nothing to lose but your chains of slavery.