Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 17, 2010

America at the Crossroads: The Inner Life

As some of the TOC regulars have noted, Jeff Bergner wrote a superb piece at The Weekly Standard recently on Republicans and the “Narrative” retailed by the progressive left as the “story of America” – and indeed, as the story of mankind in general.  Bergner perfectly encapsulates the features of the Narrative:  the essentially eschatological view of humans as growing toward a transformed condition of “equality,” and of enlightened, activist government in general – and America’s federal government in particular – as the natural and appropriate agent of that transformation.  And he unerringly identifies the need of Republicans to change the Narrative if they are to achieve political success, rather than being the Party – not of “No,” really, but of “Not so fast.”

In this post in the “America at the Crossroads” series, what I want to begin looking at is what it would take to change the Narrative.  Bergner doesn’t really talk about that.  He provides a list of four major areas in which the right ought to advance a different policy posture, and different sets of policies:  areas, in other words, needing an approach that isn’t predicated on the tenets of the Narrative.  His list is a good one – entitlements, free speech, the size of the federal government, and a healthy recognition and prudent embrace of American exceptionalism.  But what he doesn’t do is suggest how the intellectual groundwork is to be laid, to create the conditions in which a new approach would find success.

That has to be done, and there is a compelling reason why.  A key reason for the great staying power of the left-progressive Narrative is that it is the natural outgrowth of human thought processes, it caters to natural human urges and needs, and it promises things people want to believe are true or possible.  The promises are false, to be sure, but if, as conservatives believe, human nature is unchanging, people will never stop having the tendency to wish such promises were valid.

Progressivism, in spite of the theoretical promise of its name, is in fact based on an utterly pessimistic and retrogressive philosophy.  That philosophy can be summed up as follows:  any human situation not being proactively – preemptively – governed by rules and directives from a central political authority will inevitably produce unfairness, exploitation, brutality, poverty, and so forth.  When progressivism has to acknowledge that central government has spent most of its career on earth oppressing its peoples, it takes the tack that this has been due to a vile, corrupting influence over government by malign forces:  armed potentates, entitled nobility, “Christianity,” mercantilists, colonialists, capitalist robber barons, psychotic ideologues.

Progressivism requires seeing human life in a series of snapshots; forgetting the past; and assuming the worst about the future unless there is forcible intervention by a progressive government.  Thomas Sowell’s frequent point about the University of Michigan study of American households over time is always a revealing counterpoint to the progressive view:  whereas the Michigan study discovered that over 90% of households rose through the income quintiles over the period of an adult lifetime, progressives always see income-quintile placement as frozen in time, as if everyone who is in the lowest quintile simply remains in it.

For American households that is not the case; almost everyone moves up (and most, in fact, move through at least four quintiles).  Our economic evolution is one in which both the past and the future are integral realities:  today’s 50-ish millionaires started out as young marrieds in the lowest income quintile 30 years ago… today’s retired storekeeper, with all the income he wants and surrounded by productive children and adorable grandchildren, started his American life on a leaky boat fleeing Vietnam in 1975… today’s retired professor, who leaves her hundreds of thousands in lifetime savings to a children’s education fund, was once the daughter of a domestic servant in rural Alabama, learned to read by reading and memorizing Bible verses in Sunday School, and didn’t possess a pair of shoes until she was 14.  Every one of these people, and millions of others, were captured in a snapshot at one time in the lowest income quintile, and with the least evidence, in that moment, of prosperity, triumph, or comfort.

History demonstrates that people can and do improve their own lot, and even migrate toward greater equality and more widespread prosperity, without government regulating their behavior preemptively to promote those ends.  Consulting history on this matter would give us cause for optimism, even if we didn’t have it already from faith.  But while people are demonstrably capable of greater optimism about their prospects, both individually and communally, pessimism is usually cheaper and easier in the short run – and is by far the easier mindset to cater to.

It’s always easier to complain about what’s wrong than to count our blessings.  It’s also one of the most basic of human urges to demand that things be set right by someone else, and without inconvenience to ourselves – and then to enhance the experience by congratulating ourselves on our enlightenment and compassion, as compared to that of others.  Progressivist leftism attracts interest and fealty by proposing to validate our least useful and most destructive urges:  to condemn, to sit in judgment, to assume an attitude of sanctimony, to be angry at what seems wrong or unfair to us, to seek vengeance, to keep ledgers against our fellow men, to proclaim how everything should be, from a privileged position in which we are responsible for, and inconvenienced by, none of it.  (If this sounds a lot like many of us going through phases of being unendurable as teenagers – well, there’s a reason for that.)

Progressivism scratches a perpetual human itch – and cloaks it with the majesty of “science,” academe, and government to boot.  Like other things that do the same, it leaves us dissatisfied, unrequited, and always fretfully demanding more.  If we buy into it, it will transfuse us like junkies with the false promise of eventually transforming us – if only all those atrocious, recalcitrant “others” can be gotten out of the way.  But the sober and incontrovertible truth is that buying into progressivism will actively prevent us from any transformation for the better.  If he set out to write a list of axioms for successful life, no one would put on it such dictates as “Look for things to condemn,” “Focus on what’s wrong with other people,” “Try to jerk people around because they deserve it,” or “Be angry and dissatisfied all the time.”  Yet progressivism’s whole “thing,” in a nutshell, is to make a practice of doing these things, and call it a science- and reality-based crusade for compassion and justice.

Even many people who are not, in their political thoughts, directly motivated by these urges and sentiments, have a visceral understanding that others are, and have as well an empathy with their feelings and impulses that it seems “unkind” to deprivilege.  This description fits many centrists to a T.

Combating a philosophy so well adapted for appealing to people on a subconscious level requires more than merely making policy proposals – as the saga of Bush II and reforming Social Security demonstrated.  Unless people are bolstered by positive concepts of compelling intellectual power, it’s too easy to play on their fears and negative impulses.  If those latter factors favor the status quo, as they have on the issue of Social Security’s future, it’s particularly hard to change course:  the status quo is always privileged in the human mind anyway.

This, then, becomes the central question:  how do we encourage people away from a mindset that says “Government is too big, except that we have to preserve Social Security as it’s run now,” and toward the mindset that says, “Social Security isn’t sustainable in any case, it has to change; and change to smaller government will be for the better”?

I believe the prospects for this are not as bleak as they may look to some.  For one thing – and this is the most fundamental positive factor – the ability to respond to a constructive intellectual posture resides in everyone.  No one is fated by any accident of birth or heritage or even current condition to be impervious to positive example and positive exhortation.  Success stories abound, of people whose lives have been turned around by changes in their own outlook and behavior.

Most people learn to value more, as they get older, the qualities that make both independent life and self-government possible.  We may be silly, when we’re young and dumb, about trustworthiness, thrift, getting the work done before we play, doing maintenance on things we want to last, doing unto others as we would have done to us, and not being irresponsible and getting into trouble because it can really mess up your life.  But as we get older, things like kids, consequences, and mortgages start to kick in, and more of us than not figure out that reality is an accountability-based phenomenon – and that’s a good thing, because if you sow well, you’ll reap as well or better.

People respond to positive influences and the knowledge of how to do things in successful, rewarding ways.  This is fact, not theory.  It’s good news for conservatives seeking to roll back the “Narrative” and break its hold on the American mind.  We’re not trying to accomplish the impossible, in seeking to get people to prefer the good news about what man can do if he has liberty, over the bad news in which the progressive left exclusively deals.

We can think about this point:  that people are not actually happier being addicted to drugs or alcohol, being unable to hold a job or pursue their dreams, being in angry, hopeless, codependent relationships, or being always a half-step ahead of the law.  People are, in fact, happier toeing the straight and narrow.  Happier!  Not just more pleasing to their families and neighbors, and less trouble to the authorities, but happier.

There are many different ways of toeing the straight and narrow:  for some people it means professional income with 3500 square feet and a 3-car garage, for others it means being the best you can be as a musician-for-hire who will probably never own a home, but who moves through the world seeing what he wants to, and enjoying laid-back friends, being known for his honesty, and never leaving a place with people behind who hope he won’t be coming back.  But in any walk of life, people are happier, more productive, and in harmony with the system of effort and reward that is natural to the human species, when they are adhering to the positive, constructive principles that require us to suppress our worst urges, and cultivate the good even when it hurts.  Holding ourselves to such standards does more than keep us off the dole, away from prison, and out of the asylum:  it makes us feel good.

This is what a wise conservatism appeals to in the people, and what progressivism in its most extreme execution actively tries to discourage.  It’s there to be called forth.  We should never despair of it.

The other piece of good news is that calling out the best in the people doesn’t necessarily have to mean reeducating everyone.  That would be a far-more-than-Herculean task, but I’m not convinced a prohibitively comprehensive “reset from square one” is required.  The genius of Ronald Reagan was to speak as if the truths and ideas he propounded were, in timeless reality, as self-evident as they were thought to be by the Founders – and that can be done at any time.  The more it is done in simple, arresting language, the more effect it has.  This is what underlies the “informational” – hortatory and persuasive – power of the Sarah Palin phenomenon.

Think about this:  in spite of a year and half of all-out effort, the mainstream media have not been able to confuse people about what Sarah Palin’s message is.  Whether you love her or hate her, you’re doing so based on an essentially shared perception of what her actual message is.  That’s something that could be said of Ronald Reagan, and on some issues of George W. Bush – but of very few other Republicans.

I used to absolutely marvel at Margaret Thatcher’s prowess in debate in the Commons, back when seeing such exchanges was a new and remarkable opportunity on C-SPAN.  She was amazing at executing rapid-fire, point-by-point takedowns of the opposition’s arguments, and not bad at the one-liners either.  Reagan’s gift was perhaps even more unusual, however, in that he simply transcended the debate, establishing the informational environment on his own terms, seemingly without effort.  He put a description of Congress in joking terms – “like a baby, with an insatiable appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other” – and conveyed memorably the same thought it takes skilled communicators like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney 2000 words to get across.

Similarly, Sarah Palin refers to proposed medical practices boards, which would be chartered with deciding which treatments that keep old people alive are not cost-effective, as “death panels” – and permanently resets the terms of the debate.  Since the medical practices boards are, in fact, intended to weed out treatments that aren’t “cost-effective,” by criteria other than whether they keep people alive, the left has no brief, inherently compelling argument to oppose to the “death panel” characterization.  You can’t explain in 25 words or less why it’s a lie to call a medical practices board a “death panel,” if its purpose is to save money and its result is that more old people end up dead sooner.

It may seem impolite to people who are enthusiastic for medical practice boards when others call them death panels, just as it was annoying to government enthusiasts when Reagan won votes by proclaiming “Government is the problem!”  And there are valid points to make that, for example, government is necessary, and you have to do more than identify it as a problem; and that medical treatment for the old does present cost issues, and people are always having to consider them one way or another, so a medical practices board wouldn’t be a unique nexus of immorality in that regard.

But these are ultimately arguments against things no one is proposing to actually do:  e.g., dispense with civil government entirely, or pretend that cost is never an issue in making decisions about medical treatment.  They are hollow, uncompelling, intellectually overdetermined – and they take too many words to spit out.  Conservatives need to study and learn from the simplicity of message that puts the progressive left in this position.  It’s not done by addressing the left’s arguments point by point, it’s done by redefining the terms of the debate.

And it works.  In the next segment, I will look at four dimensions in which conservatives can reset the debate to the greatest advantage.  Jeff Bergner discussed four areas of policy; I propose four areas of America’s intellectual life.  They are:  (1)  Promoting optimism as opposed to the profound pessimism of the progressive philosophy; (2)  Promoting intellectual honesty, without fear or favor; (3)  Steeping ourselves in history and speaking of it as real, meaningful, and relevant to the present; and (4)  Reclaiming terms that rightfully have positive connotations, like compassion, community, and diversity.

See you there.


  1. J.E., I’m thrilled to see you pick up here where Jeff Bergner left off! I forwarded the Bergner article along to others. One person asked me a few days later to forward it to him again (presumably so he could forward it on to someone else), another person said she was highlighting certain parts of the copy I gave her. Yet another person said he had become “obsessed” with the article and was going to have his kids read it. Seeing TOC pick up the mantle and give it some legs makes me think that an assault on The Narrative might be achievable in some manner. Now all we need is Fox News to somehow find a way to incorporate this into a segment! Haha!

    I see that Michale Steele and the RNC had a meeting with a bunch of Tea Party folks. My understanding was that it was a little contentious. Maybe I run in conservative circles and read mostly sites like this one, but I sure hope that the R Party tilts towards the Tea Party mentality rather than remaining trenchant. I feel like the country is clamoring for some “Tea” and the R’s would be remiss if they didn’t jump on the bandwagon.

  2. J.E. what a wonderful post, you may have done better in the past but if so, I cannot remember when.

    I too am thrilled to see you add your insights to Jeff Bergners’ and I find those insights to be of great value. I absolutely look forward to your next post.

    There are so many points, implications and insights in your post that I hardly know where to begin to comment.

    The most immediate that comes to mind is when you say, “the great staying power of the left-progressive Narrative is that it is the natural outgrowth of human thought processes, it caters to natural human urges and needs, and it promises things people want to believe are true or possible.”

    I would add that much of the progressive/liberal agenda is centered upon a fundamental misunderstanding of reality. Progressivism, indeed all ism’s that come from the left are, at base, simply an infantile protest against existential reality’s inequality of results.

    That is because they fail to understand the deeper benefit of inequality of result; that life’s essential unfairness is absolutely necessary and when understood properly, found to be, overall, a very beneficial attribute of reality.

    It is necessary because you can’t have progress, in its most positive meaning, without it. Indeed, you can’t have life as we know it, without ‘unfairness’.

    I’ll offer three examples of life’s essential unfairness and the absolute necessity for that inequality.

    Evolution. Ironically, the left, who most cherish the theory of evolution, remains willfully blind to its most important and profound ramification; if, as evolution posits, life evolves out of beneficial, individual adaptive mutation to environmental conditions…then individual beneficial mutation, itself is ‘unfair’.

    But of course, absolutely necessary and essential to the increasing adaptability of life to a changing environment and the increasing complexity of evolving life forms.

    When beneficial adaptive mutation occurs, it necessarily confers an ‘unfair’ advantage upon the beneficiary. Yet without it, life would not have progressed beyond the amoeba stage…

    Likewise, capitalism, an innately ‘unfair’ arrangement in its rewards, inevitably confers upon some, benefits greatly out of proportion to the norm.

    Yet, no practical alternative to a privately controlled pool of investment capital has ever been devised for the creation of new jobs and creating a rising standard of living for all of a societies members.

    Finally, the gift of invention, music and art are individual talents, for no committee ever invented a new, beneficial device or composed a beautiful new symphony or created a new, inspirational image.

    Yet without those individual, ‘unfair’ advantages, civilization itself would not exist and we would have remained in caves.

    Thus, once the value of beneficial inequality is understood, much of the left’s rationale falls apart.

  3. That was pretty good Geoffrey.

    To go along with your well put thoughts on “equality,” I’ll posit another thought on a different cherished term of the left – “rights.” The left declares virtually everything a “right.” A right to gay marriage, a right to housing, a right to a job, etc… I think this society has fallen into the trap of this term and we have become subject to this “Narrative.”

    Conservatives should make clear I think that the only rights we have are the ones that are bestowed upon us by the very fact of our birth (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness….). Marriage is not a right. A house is not a right. You’re not born married, you’re not born with home ownership, you’re not born with a job.

    In short, a “right” is something that you have upon birth that the state can take away (hopefully only with due process of law). Something that the state bestows upon you (marriage) isn’t a right. A privelge is what that is. You have a right to chose your companion, but you don’t have a right to marriage. You have the right to *search* for a job, but you don’t have a right to employment in that job.

    I think the term “right” needs to be confronted and called out for the watering down that it has received over the decades by progressives. Perhaps another step in our brewing conservative revolution!

  4. […] In this respect, it’s arguably closer to the Optimistic Conservative’s latest “America at the Crossroads” installment focusing on the “inner life” of conservatives, or to Glenn […]

  5. Guys, I’m glad this one is resonating. Time does get away from one, and it’s hard to cycle back as often as I’d like. Real life and all.

    I think future posts will be addressing most of your points, so I will concentrate on getting those written rather than going through them point by point here. But I did want to respond to RE on “rights,” about which he is, well, so right. 🙂

    The basic, correct, and actionable definition of a right is that it’s something that’s good against others. By that I mean that when a right inheres in a human being, others are bound, and should be bound, to modify their behavior so as to not interfere with it. That includes government, but government also has a special role of securing the most basic list of rights by rule and enforcement.

    Thus, we have a right to freedom of thought, and others, including the government, can be compelled to not interfere with that right. But we do NOT have the right to the affirmation of our thoughts by others. I have the right to prefer the color blue, but no right to a chorus of affirmation from other people, some of whom may prefer green, brown, or purple.

    We have a right to freedom of speech, but we do NOT have the right to it at the material expense of others. And that includes the government. There exists no right to have someone else pay for our speech to be broadcast, printed, amplified, etc. We have the right to say “Obama is a schmo,” if we think there’s some value in that, but no right to other people’s bank accounts in propagating that thought.

    And again, we have the right to sell our own labor, make our own contracts, etc as a means of supporting ourselves. We do not have a “right” that’s good against others — that puts a claim on their bank accounts — to food, shelter, clothing, or cell phone service.

    Every genuine right is good against the behavior of other people. My right to life means others are required to exercise care not to kill me, and I to not kill them. It means the government is required to refrain from depriving me of life, except under limited and extraordinary circumstances and by due process of law. It’s also required to enforce these rules on others, and on myself.

    Once we understand that a true right is held against the behavior of others, we see how incompatible long lists of material “rights” are with liberty. You can’t proclaim long lists of “rights” to this and that without shrinking the boundaries of liberty until only compulsion and effective slavery are left.

    So the list of true, fundamental rights must be kept very short, if liberty is to be retained.

    • My rights stop, where your rights begin and your rights stop, where mine begin.

      The dividing line between our rights is determined by where the exercise of one person’s rights begin to lessen another person’s rights.

  6. […] the discussion of America’s philosophical decisions about our future as a nation – the “inner life” – with a focus on the need for conservatives to recognize the essential optimism of our ideas, […]

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