Conservatives know that American genius flows from the bottom up rather than the top down
By Richard Esenberg
Reaction to the adulation and almost millennial expectations for Barack Obama might be seen as a political Rorschach test. It’s not that Obama kitsch-the chanting schoolchildren and prostrating celebrities kissing their biceps in support of the president-presages the rise of a cult of personality. Americans are blessed with a healthy irreverence for politicians that, God willing, will always restrain our commitment to charismatic leaders and secular saviors.
What is critical, I think, is your visceral reaction to schoolchildren taught songs evocative of a soteriological presidency in which Obama plays the role of Messiah (“He said Red, Yellow, Black or White/All are equal in his sight”). It’s your immediate impression of an iconography reminiscent of Socialist Realism-red, white and blue lithographs of The Leader gazing into the future with sorrow at what he has inherited and a hope anchored firmly in himself.
If you’re a conservative, you find it creepy.
The reason is not simply partisan. Conservatives don’t expect political leaders
to deliver the social transformation that Obama offers, and we don’t trust those who promise it. We are never the ones we have been waiting for. We know that the state can love us but cannot establish, as Obama has promised, a Kingdom right here on Earth.
As conservatives struggle with our time in the wilderness, we ought to start with this as a bedrock principle. The great society is not created with government programs or the ministrations of bureaucracy. It is not, as Michelle Obama would have it, Barack Obama or the state who will put us to work. The American community is built through individual initiative and voluntary associations. Its genius flows from the bottom up rather than the top down.
We should not forget that our legacy is success. It is hard to overstate the pessimism that had gripped the country as I entered adulthood. If you had suggested in 1980 that America was about to enjoy 30 years of economic prosperity, dazzling innovation and a peaceful end to communist totalitarianism, few would have agreed.
But thats precisely what happened.
We should remember that our support for limited government is rooted in a particular anthropology-a set of beliefs about human beings. Part of it is recognition of human fallibility. No single individual or organization can ever know enough or be trusted to recognize and to impose the conditions for the good life. Part is recognition of human creativity. Human responsibility and freedom are powerful forces for social correction and improvement.
While this anthropology fuels our suspicion of top-down solutions directed by the state, we need, nevertheless, to recognize that government is not the only obstacle to human freedom and creativity. Our objective is not simply to keep the state in its place, but to cultivate civil society.
This means furthering a community in which individuals and voluntary associations-the family, the church, business and charitable organizations-can flourish. Although he failed to implement-and perhaps even to understand-them, George W. Bush’s notions of a compassionate conservatism and an ownership society deserve more attention.
Compassion is, of course, a feeling and not a virtue. It can rarely serve as a principle of decision. It is not quite correct to say, with George W. Bush, that when someone’s hurting, governments got to move. But conservatives cannot be indifferent to the ability of individuals to obtain a stake in our common progress.
Our solutions will never have the ambition of those offered by the left. They will focus on ensuring opportunity and not results. Our respect for the individuals, families and their voluntary associations-the recognition that they are actors rather than objects to be formed and succored by the state-requires that human initiative and responsibility be respected.
The role of the state is to do only those things individuals and private organizations cannot do. It is to remove obstacles to human creativity, not to direct or subsume it.
In crafting policies that serve these objectives, we ought not to succumb to the suggestion that we abandon social issues. As Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson observe in a recent issue of Commentary, Republicans must be the party of both Adam Smiths: the free-market champion who wrote The Wealth of Nations and the moral philosopher who authored The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Virtue cannot be compelled any more readily than economic justice can be imposed, but a line of conservative observers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Milton Friedman have emphasized that both capitalism and democracy require a public that is not only politically and economically free, but morally formed. Private liberty requires private virtue. The objectives and interests of values and pocket book voters are more aligned than is commonly supposed.
Of course, these are only guiding principles and not specific proposals. They leave room for vigorous debate, and we ought not to shy from it. Conservatives won as the party of ideas. That is the way that we will win again.
Richard Esenberg, a visiting assistant professor of law at Marquette University, blogs at Shark and Shepherd.