Steven Hayward’s spot-on analysis of the challenges ahead
For a while now my favorite writer has been Power Line contributor Steven Hayward, scholar, energy and Reagan expert, and happy conservative warrior. Just before the election he hit the nail on the head with an impressive survey of the political crisis our nation and the Republicans face in a timely Weekly Standard piece.
Here Hayward gets the clever paragraph of the month award:
Win or lose, [Trump] has divided and may yet shatter the conservative movement, a fact that was evident before the Access Hollywood tape gave us a TMI moment barely suitable for TMZ. Who could have foreseen that the Great Pumpkin candidate would turn out to be a Black Swan event for conservatism?
Pro and con:
The main political arguments for him—his victory will be a rebuke to the media and political correctness; he’ll keep the Supreme Court nominally in Republican control; his economic policy is vastly preferable; he’s serious about immigration control; he isn’t Hillary Clinton, full stop—are all plausible. His doubtful character, uncertain ideology, inexperience, inconsistency, rhetorical deficiencies, short attention span, and the prospect that a Trump administration might destroy the GOP for a decade or more are considerable reasons to withhold a vote.
The Trump phenomenon “opens a window onto the failures of conservatism that made Trump’s candidacy possible and perhaps necessary. Even if you reject Trump, there are vital things to be learned from him if we are to confront the crisis of our time.” What is that crisis?
It’s not the litany of items that usually come to mind—the $20 trillion national debt, economic stagnation, runaway regulation, political correctness and identity politics run amok, unchecked immigration that threatens to work a demographic-political revolution, and confused or unserious policy toward radical Islamic terrorism. These are mere symptoms of a much deeper but poorly understood problem. It can be stated directly in one sentence: Elections no longer change the character of our government.
Who should rule?
The premise of the Constitution is that the people should rule. The premise of the administrative state, explicitly expressed by Woodrow Wilson and other Progressive-era theorists, is that experts should rule, in a new administrative form largely sealed off from political influence, i.e., sealed off from the people. At some point, it amounts to government without the consent of the governed, a simple fact that surprisingly few conservative politicians perceive. Ronald Reagan was, naturally, a conspicuous exception, noting in 1981 in his first Inaugural Address, “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.”
“Checklist conservatism” failing:
In opposition to the slow-motion Progressive assault on self-rule by the people, the conservative establishment has been offering mostly what can be called “checklist conservatism,” i.e., policy ideas with indirect or negligible political effect. What do Progressives stand for? Justice, equality, and the “right side of history”! What do conservatives stand for? More tax cuts, school choice, enterprise zones, a balanced-budget amendment, medical savings accounts, a statutory cost-benefit standard for regulation, and other policy wonkery. All worthy ideas, to be sure, but none of them reach very far to halt the steady unraveling of constitutional government.
“[I]n recent years the combination of administrative sovereignty and authoritative public opinion has taken a menacing turn with liberalism’s full embrace of political correctness. … During the Obama years the boundaries of acceptable opinion have shifted sharply to an identity politics rooted in radical grievance that rejects wholesale the justice of American democracy. [Prof. John] Marini summarizes it thus:
Post-modern intellectuals have pronounced their historical judgment on America’s past, finding it to be morally indefensible. Every great human achievement of the past—whether in philosophy, religion, literature, or the humanities—came to be understood as a kind of exploitation of the powerless. Rather than allowing the past to be viewed in terms of its aspirations and accomplishments, it has been judged by its failures. The living part of the past is understood in terms slavery, racism, and identity politics. Political correctness arose as the practical and necessary means of enforcing this historical judgment. No public defense of past greatness could be allowed to live in the present. Public morality and public policy would come to be understood in terms of the formerly oppressed.
This is no longer just a campus fetish. It has broken out, with examples including the federal government threatening to cut off funding to any public school district that wishes to keep its single-sex bathrooms, the social pressure to punish anyone who opposes same-sex marriage like former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, and the legal vise-grip being applied to religious institutions that resist various government mandates. Liberalism today goes beyond wanting to control your pocketbook; it now demands to control how you think.
What does a Trump victory mean?
More than just a rebuke to political correctness and identity politics, a Trump victory would be, in their eyes, a vehicle for reasserting the sovereignty of the people and withdrawal of consent for the administrative state and the suffocating boundaries of acceptable opinion backing it up. A large number of Americans have responded positively to Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” because they too see Trump as a forceful tribune against the slow-motion desiccation of the country under the steady advance of liberalism.
That Trump can be made out to be the only candidate since Reagan who has represented a fundamental challenge to the status quo puts in stark relief the attenuation of conservative political thought and action over the last 20 years and the near-complete failure of aspiring Republican presidents to marry their ambition to a serious understanding of why the republic is in danger.
Steven Hayward, a visiting scholar at Berkeley, adapted his Weekly Standard piece from his forthcoming book: Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism.