Call­ing for a con­ser­va­tive re­newal

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

What sick­ens me about left-wing peo­ple, es­pe­cially the in­tel­lec­tu­als,” wrote Ge­orge Orwell in 1938, “is their ut­ter ig­no­rance of the way things ac­tu­ally hap­pen.” The em­brace of left­ist ide­ol­ogy — some sort of philo­soph­i­cal-po­lit­i­cal Mas­ter Plan to bring about heaven on earth — tends to do that to peo­ple, mak­ing oth­er­wise in­tel­li­gent peo­ple seem sense­less. And ide­ol­ogy can be em­braced by rightwing peo­ple, too, with pre­dictably dis­ap­point­ing re­sults — as many Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives have learned to their sor­row dur­ing re­cent years. As if in an­swer to the so­cial­ist Orwell, con­ser­va­tive colum­nist Thomas Sow­ell re­cently wrote, “They say live and learn. Of­ten what we learn is what damn fools we have been.”

In “The Last Best Hope,” MSNBC tele­vi­sion host and for­mer con­gress­man Joe Scar­bor­ough of­fers an ex­tended lament and heart­felt cor­rec­tive wis­dom in the wake of Repub­li­can fail­ures dur­ing the past decade which have been glee­fully cel­e­brated as fail­ures of con­ser­vatism it­self by many left-lean­ing me­dia out­lets.

The au­thor notes, “Repub­li­cans un­der Ge­orge W. Bush took a $150 bil­lion sur­plus and tur ned it into a $1 tr il­lion deficit. The GOP also dou­bled the na­tional debt, presided over a stag­ger­ing trade deficit, al­lowed the dol­lar to col­lapse, passed mas­sive tax cuts, bur­dened a crip­pled en­ti­tle­ment sys­tem with $7 tril­lion in new debt, and al­lowed do­mes­tic spending to grow at its fastest rate since the Great So­ci­ety.” (And af­ter all this, there still ar ise voices in the me­dia snarling about Mr. Bush’s “ul­tra-conser vatism.” — largely be­cause of the war in Iraq and those aw­ful “mas­sive tax cuts.”)

Mr. Scar­bor­ough serves as a lat­ter-day Jeremiah of con­ser­vatism, urg­ing the right to em­brace the pru­den­tial wis­dom of Ed­mund Burke, Rus­sell Kirk, William F. Buck­ley Jr. and Ron­ald Rea­gan to of­fer a cor­rec­tive al­ter­na­tive to the lib­eral ide­o­logues cur­rently in power. Bar­ring that, the United States may well be­come a failed so­cial-demo­cratic husk of a na­tion: di­rec­tion­less, ter­mi­nally statist, mired in a per­ma­nent eco­nomic re­ces­sion, and presided over by leaders lack­ing constructive imagination and ig­no­rant in the skills of gov­er­nance, but mas­ters of dema- goguery.

Mr. Scar­bor­ough de­clares that read­ers of his book will dis­cover that “like Bill Buck­ley I have a lot of Burke in me, and Burke’s think­ing starts with this: Re­spect re­al­ity. Un­der­stand the age you’re liv­ing in, un­der­stand its facts.” Part of that ori­en­ta­tion in­volves rec­og­niz­ing that man is a fallen crea­ture, given to self-cen­tered­ness, greed and lust for power, a fact that must be pru­dently rec­og­nized and ac­com­mo­dated in the gov­er­nance of the elec­torate. “Men not be­ing angels, a ter­res­trial par­adise can­not be con­trived by meta­phys­i­cal en­thu­si­asts,” warned the late Rus­sell Kirk, in a quo­ta­tion cited by Mr. Scar­bor­ough, “yet an earthly hell can be ar­ranged read­ily enough by ide­o­logues of one stamp or an­other.”

“The Last Best Hope” calls for con­ser­va­tives to rec­og­nize the lim­its of pol­i­tics and a turn to­ward high char­ac­ter and pru­dent de­ci­sion-mak­ing in terms of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, en­ergy pol­icy, the size and reach of gov­ern­ment, tax­a­tion and the en­vi­ron­ment. On this last­named mat­ter, Mr. Scar­bor­ough be­lieves, with Kirk, that con­ser­va­tion is prop­erly a con­ser­va­tive call­ing, one that works hand in hand with seek­ing new forms of en­ergy. He sees en­ergy in­de­pen­dence as a most worth­while and at­tain­able goal, one that will free Amer­ica from con­tin­u­ing to en­rich oil-rich thugs on other shores. Free­dom: that is the last great hope of Mr. Scar­bor­ough’s ar­gu­ment.

In all of the above-men­tioned ar­eas, the au­thor is a be­liever in min­i­mal­ist gov­ern­ment, one that re­flects his own lib­er­tari­an­con­ser­va­tive bona fides. Mr. Scar­bor­ough will of­fend many po­ten­tial al­lies in his state­ment that conser va­tives “can­not claim the con­sti­tu­tional high ground in our ef­forts to fight the na­tion­al­iza­tion of health care and fi­nance while de­mand­ing that Wash­ing­ton be­come en­tan­gled in gay mar­riage de­bates or ob-gyn is­sues” — mean­ing the abor­tion is­sue.

Mr. Scar­bor­ough would pre­fer to see th­ese is­sues set­tled at the state level, as they are ar­guably Tenth-Amend­ment is­sues. But he might con­sider Rus­sell Kirk’s warn­ing, “If we Amer­i­cans have be­come too deca­dent to de­fend even the right to life of the in­no­cent and the help­less — why, a sen­tence will be passed upon us all. ‘And that house fell; and great was the fall of that house.’ “ He calls for in­tel­li­gent con­ser­va­tives to demon­strate char­ac­ter in their deal­ings with op­po­nents, and to avoid fall­ing into ex­er­cises in high-deci­bel shr ill­ness and silli­ness.

Mr. Scar­bor­ough ex­hibits a sure knowl­edge of eco­nomics, his­tory, and po­lit­i­cal savvy. His book has great swathes of good sense and strong rea­son­ing, served up in an un­but­toned con­ver­sa­tional style. “The Last Best Hope” is marred only by oc­ca­sional pas­sages that read like ap­plause lines in a po­lit­i­cal stump speech — “It is past time for Wash­ing­ton to stop mak­ing ex­cuses and start mak­ing his­tor y” — and by sev­eral in­stances that read as if his copy­ed­i­tor dozed pe­ri­od­i­cally. (For ex­am­ple, “Amer­ica’s col­lapse in Viet­nam cou­pled with the shame of Water­gate made the elec­tion of a Demo­cratic peanut farmer pos­si­ble. Eight years later, Nixon had promised to bring sta­bil­ity to Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, but in­stead of­fered vot­ers only more chaos.” One sus­pects Mr. Scar­bor­ough in­tended that last sen­tence to be­gin with the words, “Eight years ear­lier.”)

But th­ese are small is­sues in a book with much to com­mend it. There is much hum­ble, cor­rec­tive wis­dom in Mr. Scar­bor­ough’s vol­ume, that is both a call for the putting aside of bump­tious pride and the em­brace of pru­dent wis­dom in con­ser­va­tive state­craft. To be­come an in­tel­li­gent al­ter­na­tive to the pre­vail­ing wis­dom, rather than a bleat­ing echo: why, that’s change con­ser­va­tives should be­lieve in.

James E. Per­son Jr. is the au­thor of “Rus­sell Kirk: A Crit­i­cal Bi­og­ra­phy of a Con­ser­va­tive Mind” (Madi­son Books) and has com­pleted a novel.

FROM THE BOOK COVER

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