The main fact of American politics in the 1990’s is that the elites of both major parties have moved so far from the values and interests of the middle class that a third party has begun to rise almost spontaneously to fill the void. In Colorado, this third-party-to-be-named-later passed an amendment denying special rights to homosexuals. In New York, it worked in Queens to reject a multiculturalist grade school curriculum and in Staten Island to secede from Manhattan. It has passed term limits in 14 states. In 1992, the third party cut George Bush’s Republican “base” to 38 percent of the vote, less than Herbert Hoover managed in 1932 even with the albatross of the Great Depression. It also held “victorious” Democrat Bill Clinton to two points short of Michael Dukakis’s 1988 standard. Ross Perot, who vacillated in and out of the campaign and in and out of popular favor, in the end won 19 percent nationwide—and significantly more than that in some regions of the Sunbelt formerly perceived as Republican presidential strongholds. Still, the professional Democrats and Republicans in Washington act as if they have heard nothing new murmuring from Middle America.
Rather than cut middle-class taxes and end welfare as we know it, President Clinton has pushed through the biggest tax increase in history and unveiled a scheme for socialized medicine. He has opened the Armed Forces to homosexuals and the Treasury to Planned Parenthood. He has lost 18 soldiers (denied armor by our own Pentagon) in a futile manhunt for a Somali strongman who was later offered an American armored car, and an American escort, to catch an American plane to a warlord convention in Ethiopia. Some Republicans, meanwhile, have looked for opportunities to engage President Clinton in a “centrist coalition” that knows how to “govern.” The defining moment of this new bipartisanship was the passage of NAFTA, the so-called free-trade agreement that includes $8 billion in foreign aid, investment guarantees to help move American jobs to Mexico, and tri-national bureaucracies staffed by labor and environmental “experts” with the power to fine and sanction the U.S. government.
Samuel Francis has been predicting this impasse for a decade. In the well-reasoned pieces collected in Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism, he sets the historical stage upon which this farce is played. As a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and regular essayist in Chronicles, Francis has popularized the concept of the Middle American Radical and forecast the rising populist tide that is just now beginning to hit the beach.
Who are the Middle American Radicals? They are working- and middle-class Americans who ascribe to the traditional values of work, family, faith, and community and who believe their economic security, the safety of their neighborhoods, and even the freedom and independence of their country are being sold out by “an entrenched elite.” Though he is clearly sympathetic to—or, rather, enthusiastic about—their cause, Francis maintains the intellectual discipline needed to turn the keen eye of a student of Machiavelli on this sociological grouping. In an essay written in the early 80’s entitled “Message from MARs,” he concludes that Middle American Radicals may form the heart of a new political coalition. “As a rising political class,” he wrote, “the MARs have their own interests, aspirations, and values, and these are not intended to benefit the nation, society as a whole, or humanity. Nevertheless, the structural interests of the MARs—what is of benefit to them because of their position and functions in American society—may be beneficial to America as well.” In Francis’s view, MARs are no more libertarian than they are altruistic. If a MAR “elite” were to gain power, he argues, it “would make use of the state for its own interests as willingly as the managerial elite does. MAR resentment of welfare paternalism and regulation is not based on a profound faith in the market but simply on the sense of injustice that unfair welfare programs, taxes, and the stifling of regulation have bred.”
Looking through the prism of the Cold War, Francis postulated that a new conservative government, “reflecting the interests and values of its MARs-Sunbelt-neo-entrepreneurial base, is likely to endorse a new nationalism that insists on the military and economic preeminence of the United States, on international activism (and even expansionism) in world affairs, on at least some measure of protection for domestic producers, and for more resistance to Third World arrogance and barbarism.” It would replace the “cosmopolitanism” of the current elite with cultural traditionalism. “[T] he rising MAR-Sunbelt elite is likely to form around what may be called a domestic ethic that centers on the family, the neighborhood, the local community, the church, and the nation as the basic framework of values,” Francis argues. “The values associated with the domestic ethic will contrast sharply with those of cosmopolitanism; the duty of work rather than the right of welfare; the value of loyalty to concrete persons, symbols, and institutions rather than the cosmopolitan dispersion of loyalties; and the social and human necessity of sacrifice and deferral of gratification rather than the cosmopolitan-managerial demand for immediate gratification, indulgence, and consumption.”
At a time when Congress is populated by $135,000-per-year check-bouncers, how can a counter-elite based on old-time republican values come to power? “The primary justification of its quest for power,” Francis believes, “must be the corruption, decadence, incompetence, oppressiveness, and alienation of the old elite that it is seeking to replace.” In the struggle with this “old elite,” he offers a realpolitik for the right, focused less on what liberals profess as on how they hold power.
His model is derived from James Burnham, the founding editor of National Review, who pioneered the theory of the Managerial Revolution. Francis writes:
The twentieth century, for the United States as well as for the rest of the world, has been an age of revolution of far more profound transformational effect than any the modern world has ever experienced. Perhaps not since neolithic times has mankind undergone simultaneous changes in economic, social, political, and intellectual relationships of such far-reaching consequences. . . . The characteristic feature of twentieth-century history has been the vast expansion in the size, scale of transactions, and complexity and technicality of functions that political, social, and economic organizations exhibit. This expansion . . . was itself made possible by the growth of mass populations and by the development of technologies that could sustain the colossal scale of organization. Just as business firms expanded far beyond the point at which they could be operated, directed, and controlled effectively by individual owners and their families, who generally lacked the technical skills to manage them, so the state also underwent a transformation in scale that removed it from the control of traditional elites, citizens, and their legal representatives. Just as in the mass corporations a new elite of professional managers emerged that replaced the traditional entrepreneurial or bourgeois elite of businessmen, so in the state also a new elite of professionally trained managers or bureaucrats developed that challenged and generally became dominant over the older political elites of aristocrats and amateur politicians who occupied formal offices of government. . . . A similar process occurred in labor unions, professional associations, churches, educational institutions, military organizations and the organs of mass communication and cultural expression.
Even for conservatives unversed in Burnham, this analysis should strike chords, reminding them of how the old hardware store their dad used to patronize was bulldozed to make way for a five-acre strip mall. Or maybe of their own family’s business, bought out a generation ago by a corporate conglomerate that was itself soon swallowed by off-shore investors.
Even if some political liberals object—as many did in the NAFTA debate—to certain consequences of this “managerial revolution,” they have already abandoned the key to countering it successfully. As Francis writes in “As We Go Marching,” an essay critical of making American foreign policy a crusade for democracy:
Like the man who believes that milk comes from supermarkets rather than from the careful cultivation of cows, liberals and democrats believe that freedom comes from the procedures themselves, and they ignore or take for granted the underlying and largely invisible social and cultural substratum that allows procedural liberalism and democracy to flourish. Unlike Hayek, they fail to recognize that “freedom is not a state of nature but an artifact of civilization.”
In Beautiful Losers, Samuel Francis stakes his claim as one of the most important conservative thinkers of our time. His work compliments the efforts of an earlier generation of American conservatives who focused on defining and celebrating the “social and cultural substratum” on which our freedom rests. His unique and valuable contribution has been to define the forces that threaten that freedom, while offering a framework within which we can fight to preserve it.
[Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism, by Samuel P. Francis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 256 pp., $37.50]