The modern American Right is in a state of resignation. Most recently,
Christian conservative Paul Weyrich wrote that the proper way for conservatives
to escape the great American morass was to withdraw from the culture war
altogether and concede victory to the Left. The larger war is not winnable,
says Weyrich; but the preservation of the distinction between right and
wrong and the sanctity of family can be accomplished on a small scale.
There is little good or inspiring to be found in this romantic, remnant-mentality position. Aside from the truth that personal example is generally a better witness to the truth than any political process, and is more likely to leave a deep impression on the lives of others, the Weyrich ideal amounts to a lame homage to mediocrity, a cheap way out and easy surrender. How did the Right come to this? What has happened to us?
The answer can be found in two parts: the Right’s perception of man as imperfect or fallen (and thus, the Rightists’ perception of themselves as such), and the moral mediocrity of the Left.
The self-critiques of each movement are striking. The Right—comprised of conservatives and most libertarians—is full of intellectual rigor and self-criticism. The Right has been a minority for so long, at least among the intellectual elites of the country, that like any other minority it has become fairly self-conscious and self-critical. Minorities must defend themselves in order to survive, and as such, the Right’s ability to criticize itself, to develop rigorous positions, has developed over the years.
The Left, as the majority, can relax. Their complacency is natural,
since most people agree with them. (This is certainly true at Yale.) In
comfort rigor is lost.
The Right is crippled by the Left’s criticism and its own. Rightists’ belief in man’s imperfection leads them to question themselves all the time, and constantly wonder if criticism of themselves is true. Hence the inability of Republicans to kill accusations of partisanship in the impeachment trial. The Left accused them of being partisan, and got away with it, in spite of the fact that not a single Democrat in the Senate veered from the party line. The Left was just as partisan as the Right, if not more so. But the Right half-believed their accusations and thus could not rebut them. The Left is just as sanctimonious as the Right in defense of policy—but it is always the Right that receives that label.
A hallmark of Leftism is the belief that a nation’s problems are solved by better government policies and planning. If something goes wrong it is because it was not done as it should have been, or because there was not enough money. The irony, of course, is that the modern Left does not believe that good policies depend on good people to implement them. Somehow good policy robotically implements itself. Of course, intelligent policy requires intelligent designers. These intelligent designers will be drawn from the liberal intellectual elite—the group from whom Clinton picked his staff and advisors, the whiz kids who had late-night sessions over pizza in the White House. Hence the willingness of liberal intellectuals to go to great lengths to defend the power they attain. Rightist intellectuals, whether they endorse the populist ideal of Pat Buchanan or the traditionalist ideal of Edmund Burke, do not desire that same power, because they do not believe government policy is the answer to most problems. They do not think that only intellectuals like themselves can be competent governors.
The old-style liberals such as Senator Paul Wellstone and those further Left have one point in their favor—their honesty, which is at times brutal. That alone may be reason to vote for them, but they are undone by moral relativism, which prohibits them from condemning their less scrupulous, more moderate colleagues. So long as the Left remains in power, anything goes—witness, most obviously, feminists’ response to Bill Clinton as opposed to Bob Packwood or Clarence Thomas. The new moderate Left of Clinton and Gore is less honest, more arrogant, and more accepting of the faults of modern America because it is more desirous of power. And the old Left—which at the very least saw imperfection in humanity and strove for something better—acquiesces to the new Left’s power. The old Left’s intellectuals succumb to the temptation to finally do something.
The Right cannot believe the Left any longer, nor ought it resign itself to the Left’s victory. It cannot let itself slide into a remnant mentality—romantic as it is—or into moral sanctimony and condemnation, which is an easy way out. The Right must offer what the Left never can, and that is something found in the same place as its problems today: its belief in an imperfect world. But instead of resignation and self-doubt, human imperfection must be seen as a call to greatness and struggle and fearlessness. For the Right this great and fearless struggle with imperfection is not something to be sought through government, but by each individual. It is a human quest, not a project limited to arrogant intellectual policy wonks. Liberalism, with its emphasis on good planning to overcome problems, limits the quest to a few heroes who will bestow utopia on the rest of us. Therein lies the hope of the Right and its appeal to all.
—Matthew MacLean is a senior in Calhoun College