American conservatives are hurting. It wasn’t that long ago they were strutting their stuff, looking forward to dominating our political scene for at least another generation, if not longer. Karl Rove talked about creating a permanent Republican majority.
Now look what’s happened: Conservatives have become the new hippies.
The costumes are different, but the results are pretty much the same. It’s what happens when politics and cultural values get their wires crossed.
Think about it: Until Ronald Reagan emerged as the voice of a movement, conservatives lived on the margins of American political life. The one time they were able to get a presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, was in 1964, when even Republicans were still distracted by the recent assassination of John Kennedy. But Goldwater, whose book The Conscience of a Conservative was considered a kind of right-wing bible (read and admired by none other than suburban teenage “Goldwater Girl” Hillary Rodham), was clobbered by Lyndon Johnson in one of the most lopsided elections in American history.
What is popularly known as “the ’60s” ensued. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. The Great Society and Vietnam. Long hair, living out of wedlock and spiritual quests approved by various gurus and babas. Taking over the administration building at the college of your choice, followed by late night calls to parents for bail money.
“The personal is political,” we used to say, meaning we were sick and tired of the hypocritical theater that seemed to pass for our country’s politics. Whether we were talking about our complacent attitude toward poverty here at home, or our readiness to drop napalm on Vietnam, the moral dimension seemed like the last thing anyone in power cared to think about.
And those who raised the moral dimension — like Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy — had a way of getting dead.
It became clear that one of the handy things about saying the personal was political was that it made it possible to reject the troublesome, time-consuming and, yes, occasionally dangerous aspects of traditional political activity. Your lifestyle, that is to say your values, could be politics enough. As the ’60s bled into the ’70s, this, for a lot of people, meant hedonism or, as conservatives would soon be saying, going to hell in a hand-basket.
This is when Ronald Reagan came into his own. The Reagan Revolution that made him president in 1980 had as much to do with culture as political policies. The personal was more political than ever: America had been on a bender, a long night of self-destructive excess. Reagan’s conservatism promised to change that by restoring what Reagan called traditional values. Just what those values were turned out to be hard to say. Some thought it was about outlawing abortion — but Reagan did nothing about that. Others thought it was about shrinking government. But Reagan fed the military-industrial complex with tax dollars and created a huge budget deficit.
One thing about Reaganism was always clear: There were no hippies. No buckskin jackets, long hair or beads. None of the trappings of an “alternative” lifestyle. Suddenly, everywhere you looked were pink-cheeked go-getters in worsted wool with spit-polished wingtips on their feet. Hardy handshakes and the steady gaze were in. Reagan brought back the business suit — and with it, the notion that the businessman (or woman!) could be heroic, or, even better, cool.
In fact, the conservatism that Reagan wrought — and that George W. Bush has brought to its current, disreputable state — has turned out to have almost nothing to do with political principles and everything to do with a me-first business model revolving around insider dealing, cheap credit, easy loans and, excuse the word, liberal accounting practices. Subprime mortgages, refinancing and 13 mpg recreation vehicles have been this crowd’s version of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
It begins to look as if Americans are waking up, realizing that filling a government with people who don’t believe in government is no way to have a government that works. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee for president, John McCain, is not “conservative” enough for the corporate media blowhards, whose disappointment in McCain can only be exceeded by the cold fact that their party failed to give them a single candidate they could rally behind. They’re out — beginning to smell as dated as the scent of patchouli.
This isn’t to say that greed is going away, or that we’re on the brink of a new enlightenment. But maybe, just maybe, we’re about to discover an appreciation for the mundane pleasures of practical politics, for candidates with the capacity to solve public problems rather than make them worse. Given everything we face, that would be a revolutionary concept.