Conservatives Seek Restoration, Not Nostalgia
People tend to romanticize the past. Whether we are thinking of departed loves ones or a treasured national history, we easily over-rouge the blemishes that mar any life or any heritage.
With respect to America, some conservatives surely think of the past in selective terms. They develop a lovely vision of supposedly halcyon days of yore that omits grim realities they would rather ignore.
It’s possible there are those (I know no one like this, but for the sake of argument) who believe that we can emancipate ourselves from the political, social, and cultural accretions of 238 years of history and return to an America that never really was.
These efforts are grounded in unreality and, thus, doomed to failure.
We can neither reconstruct what never existed nor massively change all the things we dislike immediately and comprehensively. Such agendas are the stuff of intellectual child’s play, not serious thinking about where we are and where we need to go.
Still, conservatives who long for the establishment of constitutional government as it was articulated and envisioned by the Founders are neither malcontents, romantics, nor naive. We take our country in our time as it is, appreciating its myriad blessings while still mindful of the many impediments to the changes we wish to realize, and work to pick our battles based on the gravity and urgency they present.
Given our view of human nature and of the nature of change, we are aware that a “great undoing” of what has become a gigantic, intrusive, and powerful federal apparatus can happen neither all at once nor as thoroughly as we ideally would wish. That does not make change impossible. Entrenched institutions or practices running counter to the Constitution and the public good can be improved or, in some cases, abolished.
Combativeness is different than combat itself. The temperament characterized by chronic rage is not a conservative one; it transcends political philosophy and infuses the shrillest of both Right and Left.
Yet standing-down when there are battles to be fought because such battles seem intractable is not principled compromise. It is the quest for peace when there is no peace, the confusion of superficial good feeling with genuine civility, the exchange of necessary combat for the illusion of conciliation.
Acceptance of radical extremes is not conservative. To accept with smiling equanimity the metastasizing federal state or to be content with tinkering on the edges rather than embarking on a program of substantial and endemic change is not conservative.
It is acquiescence and an abandonment of conservative principle for the modest pottage of tertiary reform.
We must make our arguments cogently, repetitively, and simply. And we must often go forward in intentional increments. Many conservatives have proposed intermediary steps to move us away from the enormous, greatly overpotent government that is the fruit of the abandonment of constitutional governance. For example:
- President George W. Bush’s plan to offer personal savings accounts in the Social Security system. Many conservatives would argue that, ideally, Social Security should cease being federally-run and instead be distributed to the states. The modest plan President Bush proposed was at least an improvement over the existing, financially doomed system.
- U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” proposal, which “would begin on a pilot basis. It would consolidate a range of safety-net programs -- from food stamps to housing vouchers -- into a single grant offered to states. State governments, working with local officials and nonprofit and faith groups, would then distribute the money, with strict accountability standards.”
- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed some innovative ideas to modernize the federal tax code, proposals designed to bring greater fairness to the tax system and foster higher economic growth
These are creative, potentially effective steps to streamline government and make it more consistent with genuine constitutionalism. They are helpful but impermanent bridges to something more: The restoration of a Constitution-based form of the federal government.
Dramatic changes in government are unlikely in the short term. We should choose our battles with care; priority should be given to those most pressing and serious, and the means by which to address them should be well-considered.
But political realism need not mean philosophical surrender. Prudence without principle is cynical pragmatism, self-interest (or at best laziness) elevated to an ideal. Principle without prudence is vanity, and shows more concern with gratifying one’s sense of righteousness than with accomplishing anything of genuine and enduring importance.
“What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner, I stand for consensus?” asked Margaret Thatcher. Taking small steps might be necessary, but we take them only after attempting greater things. Not things so great as to be preposterous from the outset, but things that at least point toward larger transformation.
Conservatives should look back not with pining, grieving nostalgia but with gratitude and a quest for guidance. We appreciate the great goods of the present, aware also of the present’s great evils. And we seek to build for a future that offers opportunity, dignity, hope, and liberty to more and more people, born and in generations unborn.
Satisfaction with the middling is what Theodore Roosevelt called “the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” We inspire, lead, and achieve by attempting doable but still great things. Do we then get the stars? No -- but maybe, at least, the moon, and that’s better than the dust of contented mediocrity.
Rob Schwarzwalder has served as chief-of-staff to two Members of Congress and was a presidential appointee in the Administration of George W. Bush.