Maybe discussions about how the Republicans can climb back into power as soon as possible are the worng ones to be having. Maybe some kind of more or less left-wing rule, antipathetic towards initative and success, sympathetic to those with even mildly plausible victimary claims, aversive to the use of force or risk taking in politics and economics, is the normal state in advanced market societies. Of course, government and public opinion can never be too antipathetic, sympathetic and aversive to these respective features of civilized life–it is enough that we know, when scapegoats are to be chosen, where the pool of possible victims is to be found and what the offenses for which they are to be punished are. One of the more interesting statistics I saw following the election was that the proportion of Democrats and Republicans in Congress is pretty much the same now as it was upon Clinton’s election in 1992; even more, if we factor in the further left-wing tilt of this Congress, it looks a lot like pre-Reagan proportions. It’s almost as if things “snapped” back into place, after being “stretched” into some anomalous form for the last quarter century.
We could use the originary scene as a model for this situation (as, indeed, for all things): the putting forth of the originary gesture constitutes the scene, but if we were to segment the scene into all of its constituent elements–the beginnings of attention paid to the appetitive object; the acceleration of mimetic energy directed toward that object; the approaching crisis and the preliminary apprehension of imminent destruction; the gesture itself; the spread of and obedience to the gesture throughout the group; and, finally, the devouring of the object in unison–how much time would be taken up by the critical juncture of the gesture itself? In a sense, it’s silly to try and quantify it, but maybe 1%?
A genuinely responsible political party wants to be the party that supplies the gesture when needed. Now, this doesn’t mean that conservatives should be content to rule 1% of the time–a party that rules as much of the scene as possible would be better positioned to emit the gesture when required. It does mean, though, that however we position ourselves throughout the rest of the scene, our attention is always directed to what would count as the next gesture, in the next crisis. Norms are established in exceptional circumstances, when they present some renunciation to the consideration of the community that the most powerful forces in that community can see as the only way out of some crisis; and they become normal as the memory of that circumstance becomes ritualized and largely absent from daily life. Those who preserve and clarify the “materials” of such norms are likely to either be unpopular or to be vulnerable to the charge of supporting what is merely normal, i.e., the majority against some more victimized or romantically charged margin.
It is interesting that while the left offers a wide range of “benefits,” an all inclusive sparagmos–we will make sure you never experience poverty, never go without health care, get all the education you need, always have a job or are able to live without one, free sex, etc.–conservatives have really only offered one over the past few decades: tax cuts. It’s not surprising that, all recriminations aside, the bottom fell out of the conservative movement when we got to the point where there are really no more taxes to cut–well, we could cut capital gains taxes, I suppose, but there are few if any at this point with a strongly felt need to have their taxes cut, at least at the level of national politics.
What this may mean is that the conservative path back to power will be the same one pursued by Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1980, Guiliani in 1993 and Gingrich in 1994 (to take just some major landmarks): restoring the norms that have been trampled on by leftist experimentation and dogmatism–law and order, national security and a privileging of the “middle” or “center” (those who work, save, pay their bills, etc.) over those who flout the normal conventions that make such stability possible. If the Democrats now raise taxes significantly, tax cutting can again become a “benefit” offfered by Republicans; but it might be more productive to consider that what we will mostly have to offer are deferral and renunciations. The only “benefit” that comes along with that is an honoring of those who have made such deferrals and renunciations in their own lives, a feeling that the mores of the country reflect their own personal code.
After all, even though we know that the free market is the surest way of creating prosperity and more goods for all, in the first instance the free market is experienced by just about everyone (with the exception of the risk-taking entrepeneur) as renunciation: one needs to find a job on one’s own, pay for one’s own health care and education, compete against the rest of the world, accept that there are no guarantees that the stock market won’t dip or worse right when I am ready to cash in my IRA, etc. Arguing, in practice, for the free market is first of all telling people what they can’t have for free, or supplied by the government. Even arguing against someone else’s protectionism on the grounds that it hurts you is far more indirect than the fear of having the protections you depend upon lifted. And even the benefits brought by the remarkable innovations made possible by the free market are ultimately highly abstract: everyone thinks in terms of holding on to what they have and making incremental additions to same: no one was clamoring for the benefits of the internet or cell phones in 1985, and no one is now clamoring for some invention 20 years down the road that will transform our lives.
Conservatives, then, should work to reform the Republican party as the party of deferral, renunciation and normalcy and prepare itself for the exceptional situations in which an argument for these qualities can be heard. I think it is a fantasy to think that returning to the Reaganite values (some of them honored more in the breach even then) of small government, reduced spending, modesty and reticence in things associated with family and sex, increased national defense, etc. will activate some majority already out there and waiting for these principles to be presented in their pristine form by uncorrupted representatives. It’s impossible to compete with the promises of Democrats, whether it be for universal health coverage or that a nicer President will make the rest of the world very happy with us. These promises tap into fantasies that can only meet their match in a more powerful reality, a reality that the majority of Americans now feel safe enough to banish from their everyday considerations. The whole era of Bush scapegoating was an attempt to impose a cartoonish representation on a reality that was becoming a little too real: as opposed to a risky world, with dangerous enemies, increasing but unsteady prosperity and cultural conflicts that aren’t going away any time soon–a reality that requires decisions made by imperfect people with limited knowledge–the Left created a fantasy world in which everything Bush touched was falling to pieces (immiseration increasing, skyrocking hatred throughout the “world,” the Constitution in “tatters,” etc.) while simultaneously living in a real world where they went to work, grew their IRAs, spoke their minds and generally went about their business unmolested. Now the fantasy world has grafted itself onto the real one as the anti-Bush promises to make everything right.
Those who protect us from harm also remind us of the existence of such harm and we want no such reminders when the harm appears distant; those who enforce the norms that make civilized life possible remind us of all our thwarted desires, and once civilization appears secured why shouldn’t our desires find an open field of fulfillment–the exceptionally normal then become bad fathers and convenient scapegoats. But as generative anthropologists and originary thinkers we know that the center cannot go undefended long without being cannabilized; as marginalists in politics we can likewise know that the hardest and least rewarded task is to immunize the imperative orders that provide the last line of defense for the center by making it clear when we will disobey them in specific cases. We should have faith in reality, that majorities will come to reocgnize the wisdom in deferral (and then will go again) and we should take honor in standing where reality is sure to present itself and standing with anyone who happens to find him or herself there when it does.