All good things must come to an end. Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era.
Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, conservatives of various sorts, and conservatisms of various stripes, have generally been in the ascendancy. And a good thing, too! Conservatives have been right more often than not — and more often than liberals — about most of the important issues of the day: about Communism and jihadism, crime and welfare, education and the family. Conservative policies have on the whole worked — insofar as any set of policies can be said to “work” in the real world. Conservatives of the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich-Bush years have a fair amount to be proud of.
They also have some regrets. They’ll have time to ponder those as liberals now take their chance to govern.
Lest conservatives be too proud, it’s worth recalling that conservatism’s rise was decisively enabled by liberalism’s weakness. That weakness was manifested by liberalism’s limp reaction to the challenge from the New Left in the 1960s, became more broadly evident during the 1970s, and culminated in the fecklessness of the Carter administration at the end of that decade.
In 1978, the Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield diagnosed the malady: “From having been the aggressive doctrine of vigorous, spirited men, liberalism has become hardly more than a trembling in the presence of illiberalism. ... Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?”
Over the next three decades, it was modern conservatism, led at the crucial moment by Ronald Reagan, that assumed the task of defending liberty with strength and confidence. Can a revived liberalism, faced with a new set of challenges, now pick up that mantle?
The answer lies in the hands of one man: the 44th president. If Reagan’s policies had failed, or if he hadn’t been politically successful, the conservative ascendancy would have been nipped in the bud. So with President Obama today. Liberalism’s fate rests to an astonishing degree on his shoulders. If he governs successfully, we’re in a new political era. If not, the country will be open to new conservative alternatives.
We don’t really know how Barack Obama will govern. What we have so far, mainly, is an Inaugural Address, and it suggests that he may have learned more from Reagan than he has sometimes let on. Obama’s speech was unabashedly pro-American and implicitly conservative.
Obama appealed to the authority of “our forebears,” “our founding documents,” even — political correctness alert! — “our founding fathers.” He emphasized that “we will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.” He spoke almost not at all about rights (he had one mention of “the rights of man,” paired with “the rule of law” in the context of a discussion of the Constitution). He called for “a new era of responsibility.”
And he appealed to “the father of our nation,” who, before leading his army across the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, allegedly “ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.’”
For some reason, Obama didn’t identify the author of “these timeless words” — the only words quoted in the entire speech. He’s Thomas Paine, and the passage comes from the first in his series of Revolutionary War tracts, “The Crisis.” Obama chose to cloak his quotation from the sometimes intemperate Paine in the authority of the respectable George Washington.
Sixty-seven years ago, a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, at the close of a long radio address on the difficult course of the struggle we had just entered upon, another liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also told the story of Washington ordering that “The Crisis” be read aloud, and also quoted Paine. But he turned to the more famous — and more stirring — passage with which Paine begins his essay:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
That exhortation was appropriate for World War II. Today, the dangers are less stark, and the conflicts less hard. Still, there will be trying times during Obama’s presidency, and liberty will need staunch defenders. Can Obama reshape liberalism to be, as it was under F.D.R., a fighting faith, unapologetically patriotic and strong in the defense of liberty? That would be a service to our country.