A (very small) case for (very small) conservative optimism

One of my favorite writers is John Derbyshire, the curmudgeonly author of one of my favorite books of political commentary, “We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.” For several years now, I have made it a weekly ritual to begin every Sunday reading his latest offerings while enjoying a delicious breakfast made by my angel of a wife. There’s no better way to kick off the week than with a stirring tonic designed to fortify oneself against the tide of lies and perfidy, joined with a reminder of what’s truly important in life — the comforts of family and friends.

Like Derbyshire, I’m a confirmed pessimist, especially when it comes to politics. (Ask my long-suffering angel of a wife.) The passing years have simultaneously hardened my pessimism while also tempering it with realism — to put it in simple terms, I’ve become more and more convinced that we are headed straight to hell. I’m no longer convinced, though, that it will all end in a sudden deluge of fire and blood — at least not within any foreseeable timeframe. For people who think that the cleansing flame of the revolution (however they conceive it) is nigh, Gibbons’ “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is sobering reading. A well-built civilization like ours is fearsomely sturdy. The facade can be stripped off fairly easily, but the frame and the foundation can withstand a truly awesome amount of abuse, up to and including deliberate demolition efforts conducted with the full backing of the authorities. Things can get worse and worse for a verrrrrrry long time before the whole thing finally crumbles into the dirt.

That being said, it occurred to me that perhaps we right-wingers shouldn’t be too pessimistic. The long decline of Rome was not a straight downward trajectory; it was interrupted by hopeful stretches where everything seemed to be in recovery. My faint glimmer of hope was sparked by this little tidbit which has been bouncing around the rightward-leaning parts of the Web. It’s from a Vox.com interview with Bernie Sanders:

Ezra Klein: You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …

Bernie Sanders: Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein: Really?

Let us pause here to note with amusement that a sophisticated thinker like Klein seems to be surprised to discover that big business-types love them some immigration because of all that cheap labor.

Bernie Sanders: Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …

Ezra Klein: But it would make …

Bernie Sanders: Excuse me …

Ezra Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?

Bernie Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer — you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.
You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I found this to be mildly cheerful because it reminded me that, whoever the next president is, that person will almost certainly be a better president than Barack Obama. Of all the plausible candidates for president in 2016, Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, is the one I would least like to see end up in the Oval Office. And yet here, the very worst guy America could conceivably elect in 2016 talks more sense in a few paragraphs than Barack Obama has managed over the entire course of his political career, going all the way back to his time as a state Senator in Illinois.

Other than killing Osama bin Laden, it’s hard for me to think of a single good thing Obama has done — and even that was something he only did after hemming and hawing over it for, what, half a damn year? I was going to credit him with more or less keeping us out of any more Middle Eastern entanglements, but it occurred to me that Obama’s fecklessness has arguably given us the worst of both worlds: He generally shies away from military engagement, yet he seems to have an unerring instinct for sticking his nose in right at the precise time when doing so will create the maximum amount of collateral damage with the minimum amount of benefit to America’s interests. Libya was a case in point — Obama stepped in to help destroy an admittedly bad regime, but almost everything that has flowed from that minor flexing of muscle has turned out to be far worse.

Obama is sometimes described as the liberal Ronald Reagan. In a certain sense, the comparison is apt: Judged purely on how successful he has been at steering the nation towards his vision, he’s certainly in the Gipper’s league. For conservatives, of course, this has all been terrible for America. But the bright side is: It probably won’t get worse, no matter who is elected in 2016.

Partly, this is just due to regression to the mean. In a properly functioning democratic system, the pendulum eventually swings back towards the center. Ideologues get replaced by squishy centrists; Reagan himself was succeeded by the comparatively milquetoast George H. W. Bush.

The reader might sensibly object at this point that neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton look much like squishy centrists.

Well, that’s the other thing: Barack Obama is a rara avis in American politics, in terms of how he views his own country and its inhabitants. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani got in trouble for saying that he didn’t think Obama “loved America.” I wouldn’t have put it in exactly those words, but he was on to something: Obama’s “love” for America isn’t the spontaneous warmth that most Americans feel, like the love one feels for one’s parents or children. It’s more like the “love” one feels for, say, a fellow parishioner at church. I don’t think such love is feigned or counterfeit, but neither is it the reflexive, instinctual love that most Americans feel for their country. It’s an intellectual love, one that requires a degree of mental effort.

I think this explains why Obama comes across as so alien to conservatives. It’s what fuels stuff like the birther movement, or the suggestion that Obama is some sort of secret Muslim plotting to destroy America. Obama’s behavior and decisions strike right-wingers as deeply weird — and no, it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s black. Rather, it’s because while Obama seems to love an abstract ideal of America, he’s possibly the first president in American history who doesn’t much like Americans — at least not the 95 percent of Americans who live outside the elite, cosmopolitan bubble which constitutes Obama’s comfort zone.

For all their faults, it’s impossible for me to believe that either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders share this attitude. Go back and re-read that Bernie Sanders quote and just stop and think how strange it would be to hear Obama to talk that way — like he actually cares about real, average American citizens in a way that goes beyond just speech props and dry statistics. When Sanders talks about America, you don’t feel the need to mentally insert snarky air quotes and bored eye rolls to reflect what he’s really thinking.

Compared to Sanders, Hillary probably cares far less about average Americans — but even she appears to possess a more genuine, instinctual connection with America and its traditions than Barack Obama. The fact that she’s married to Bill Clinton, the greatest retail politician of the age, doesn’t hurt. You don’t get the sense that Hillary would happily preside over a fire sale of American power and credibility the way Obama has.

Finally, there’s the “first black president” issue: Obama has been exempt from many of the traditional rules of American politics because of his race. Even many of Obama’s fiercest opponents have a palpable desire to see him succeed at something, anything — even if it’s just keeping the seat in the Oval Office warm through the Constitutional limits of his term. I think this explains the reluctance to, for example, threaten impeachment when the President openly brags about using his executive authority to nullify Congress. I suspect if Obama were white and his name was Barry O’Brien, that sort of thing would prompt a much more ferocious backlash from an institution which has traditionally been quite jealous about its prerogatives.

In summary: Turn that frown upside down, you gloomy right-wingers! Even if Bernie Sanders is sitting behind the Resolute desk come January 2017, the ship of state is likely to drift back towards calmer waters and charted shores. The confluence of currents pulling it starboard will by that point be too powerful to resist. Hey, you take hope where you can find it.


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