Calling for a conservative renewal
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.