Reading Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Barak Obama reminded me that there was a certain kind of conservatism that used to appeal to me, before the culture wars made it possible for conservatives, formerly the most francophilic of all, to even hate France.
It seems as if the prevailing image of conservatism in America at the moment is the loud and brash Fox News/Little Green Footballs/Rush Limbaugh hate mongering. It is a fear based conservatism, appealing to masses of terrified voters who are convinced that their way of life is threatened by Muslims and Mexicans. They are embodied in the screaming anti-ethos of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, and they have come to roost in the person of Sarah Palin, chosen to do the bidding of “the base:” a large demographic of middle class, middle American Christian fundamentalists with a taste for blood and war and a short leash on their tempers.
The rise of this populist mob mentality had it’s basis in the attack dog years of the Clinton Presidency when only sleeze would dethrone the adminstration that had balanced the budget and provided a great business climate, thereby out Republicaning the Republicans themselves. It has come of age in the twin contexts of popular media (blogging and YouTube and Facebook) and fear based war mongering. And what it has done is to have displaced the intelligent, thoughtful and witty conservatives of another time.
When the loud mouths rail against the arugula eating elites of the east coast, it seems to be wholly without the irony of the fact that until recently those arugula eating elites were almost entirely conservatives. You would be hard pressed in the old days to find upstanding working class families that made arugula a part of their regular salad mix. But class is a funny thing in America: Democrats and Republicans court the elites for their money and power but the working classes for their authenticity and sheer numbers.
I grew up in a pretty conservative part of Toronto, the son of a big city elite business family on my dad’s side and a working class farm to suburb family on my mother’s side. Both families held conservative beliefs, and both were largely supporters of the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada, seeing populism as a tad unseemly, and providing rational arguments in their defense of things like free markets, apartheid and traditional family values. As I was never in their camp, we had heated arguments about these things, but they never descended to name calling, and we always seemed to remain civil in our political differences.
Moreover we enjoyed the same culture, being fond of classical music, theatre and poetry. I watched more independant cinema and listened to more jazz, but we substantially shared the urban middle class cultural landscape without grief. We disagreed on society, economics and politics, but we saw eye to eye on plenty of other things.
And so I come to Buckley’s column and note with some alarm that things have shifted for the worse in the United States. When Christoper Buckley (and David Frum and Christopher Hitchens) have endorsed a Democrat, it means that the Republicans have gone so far right that they are verging on popular fascism. Hearing some of the comments from the mobs of supporters at McCain/Palin rallies certainly bears that out. Voters are angry, not at the economy or the loss of their manufacturing sector or the nine trillion dollar debt their government has racked up, but for the way “the scialists are taking over.” The moral compass is broken.
The level of rhetorical screed in the United States coming from the Republicans is alarming, beacuse it is tapping a mob mentality and verging on violent difference making. It posits the election of Barack Obama as the end of America and provides a narrative in the culture that makes it frighteningly possible that outright violence will erupt. McCain and Palin have taken to lowering this emotional tone in their campaign just to provide some plausibility for a denial of responsibility if anything should happen. How did it come to this?
Republicans have abandonned the intellectual centre of their party, and have set loose the rabid margins. In doing so, they have lost the capacity they need to reinvent the intellectual backbone of their party. It seems clear at this point that they will be out of power for a while, and they face a choice to reinvent American conservatism from a considered and reasonable bassis or to let the attack dogs run loose and fire negative volleys at the Democrats in power for the next four years or more.
Republicans need to overcome the anger, and get back to the real business of providing an alternative political vision for America because so far only one guy is doing that, and he’s about to make history as America’s first black President.