The Pursuit of Knowledge

Surviving Obama

By From the February 2009 issue

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American conservatives, still in a state of shock from President Obama’s victory, must now live with the man for whom they didn’t vote. We English conservatives have born a similar burden for the last 12 years, and maybe we are in a position to give the benefit of our experience. Here at least is the benefit of mine.

Axiom No. 1: There is no greater political virtue than the ability to accept the government of people whom you heartily dislike. In very few places in the world today do we see this ability properly exercised. Nowhere in Africa, only here and there in Asia, and only spasmodically in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, do people accept the legitimacy of a government of which they disapprove, even if that government was democratically elected. The strength of Western political systems lies in our ability to submit to laws that hurt us. This, which is our form of islam, is a real contribution to political stability--something that cannot always be said of Islam in its religious meaning.

Axiom No. 2: Accepting laws that hurt you is easier if you are also working to repeal them. This is slow work. It requires building alliances, organizing high-level discussions, exploring principles, and working out how to influence opinion formers. You cannot rely on a political party to do these things, especially a party that has just suffered defeat, since parties are composed of politicians, who are thinking of their own careers and are usually profoundly unwilling to attract the attention of their critics.

Axiom No. 3: People vote against things, not for things. This is something that Obama saw very clearly; hence he promised nothing, only “change.” I remember seeing an election poster put up on his behalf, mimicking St. Paul: “Faith, Hope and Change.” I wanted to add, “and the greatest of these is Change.” Obama was determined to keep people’s attention fixed on present evils, without committing himself to any concrete way of overcoming them.

In due course people will come to see that those once present but now past evils were probably lesser evils than the alternatives. Politics, after all, is a choice among evils. But it will be impossible to make an election slogan out of that. Just imagine: “Vote for the lesser evil!” “Now you see how wrong you were!” “Back to the past!” People vote for promises, not regrets, even if the regrets show greater understanding. Hence:

Axiom No. 4: The conservative message must be constantly re-shaped, so as to look like an escape from present evils. Mrs. Thatcher made the Conservative Party electable (and thrice over) by presenting conservatism as an escape route from the labor unions--an escape route that Americans will be needing in four years' time. But the message had worn thin by the end, and John Major was unable to come up with another one. Had he addressed people’s concerns over the European Union or the unwanted tide of immigration he could have won again. But he did not dare, and had in any case forgotten to do any homework on these or any other relevant issues.

Axiom No. 5: Don’t trust big business. Mrs. Thatcher rightly believed that conservatives endorse free markets, and that business needs free markets. She therefore wrongly concluded that business will always be on the conservative side. She bestowed honors on business leaders, chose her advisers from among their ranks, and ignored all rival sources of useful policies and arguments. But people get to the top in business because they have an instinct for what consumers want. As soon as business leaders sense a change in popular perception, they too will change. You will see this in America, as the business leaders rebrand themselves as Obamists. This is not a tragedy. But in our case it had the unfortunate result that the top positions in the conservative movement were, during John Major’s time, occupied by people who were no longer supporters of conservatism, while the people who could have helped to redefine the message were out in the cold.

Axiom No. 6: The intellectual battle matters, and it is worth fighting. Here in America conservatives have witnessed the takeover of the universities by a belligerent liberal orthodoxy, which has adopted John Stuart Mill’s view that conservatism is a sign of stupidity and preached this view to several generations of students, who have in turn propagated it through the culture. Conservatives have therefore turned away from the world of ideas, dismissing the universities as enemy territory, and nurturing the view that, after all, ideas don’t really matter, since they are of interest only to a minority. The problem, however, is that ideas have a tendency to lodge in minds that are not equipped to dispute them, and which do not recognize them as moves in a discussion, rather than absolute truths. Only in a culture of debate and dissent will such people be persuaded to move on from their orthodoxies, and even if those orthodoxies are rooted in self-interest rather than ideology, they will be shifted, in the end, only if we go on arguing against them

An example is relevant here. What Hayek said, in The Road to Serfdom, was deeply alien to the socialist consensus in postwar Britain. His life at the London School of Economics was made difficult by Harold Laski, an establishment socialist who had the ear of the Labour elite, and who was determined that free-market philosophy should not be heard within the walls of an establishment over which he presided. Hayek left for America, but not without having first set up networks and recruited disciples who would keep the message alive. It was 30 years before that message finally took on political shape, in the Conservative Party of Mrs. Thatcher. But by then, because the ideas had been kept in circulation, and brought into play at each conspicuous failure of the socialist alternative, people--not just the unthinking majority, but also the thinking elite who, because they live by ideas, are far more obstinately attached to them--were ready to change course.       

Axiom No. 7: No political movement can succeed without the support of the young. Of course, populations are getting older, and older people tend to be conservative. However, older people are also weak, dependent, and afraid of offending the young. They feel confident in expressing their opinions only when those opinions find an echo among people younger than themselves. The Republican Party woke up to this problem too late. Having chosen McCain--someone who represented the America of the Vietnam War--the party was suddenly confronted with the truth that this great event, in so many ways definitive of America in the last years of the Cold War, had no significance in the minds of people born since the Soviet collapse. The party hurried to provide a “cool” candidate for the vice presidency, and that too was a mistake, since nothing irritates young people more than the unconcealed desire to court their favor. One way or another, the party made sure that Obama would win, by cutting itself off from the major constituencies among the young.

We now have an ostentatiously young Conservative Party in Britain. It may have the advantage at the next election. But it has a formidable uphill struggle against the legacy of Tony Blair. When the Labour Party shot to power in 1997 Blair and his cronies filled all posts within their reach with people who represented a break with the past. Most of these people were nonentities of whom nobody had heard. But precisely for that reason they gave the sense that something new was happening, that Britain was freeing itself from the grip of the establishment, and that our government was listening at last to the young people on whom our future depends. The lesson to be drawn from this is that a conservative party without a youth movement is bound to disappear. This was perceived clearly by Disraeli, when he founded the Primrose League. And the Young Conservatives, who took over from that institution, were responsible for the long-running success of Mrs. Thatcher. American Republicans should take a lesson from this, and support those initiatives, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which are trying to form networks of conservative activism among the youth.

Axiom No. 8: In the end conservatives are nationalists. Europeans see modern politics as a conflict between the old forms of territorial sovereignty and the new elitist superstate. And they recognize that the conservative cause lives and dies with the nation. Our cause depends upon custom, loyalty, inherited law, religious leanings, and linguistic conformity. It is in favor of the local against the global, and of past allegiance against future experiment. This is true of conservatism in America too, and that must be the bottom line of the conservative message: that we love our country, wish to protect its achievements and the privileges that it confers upon us, and that the root of our politics is the defense of what we have. This in turn means a concerted effort to define and uphold the “we.” Conservative politics makes no sense without strong policies on borders, immigration, language, culture, and inheritance. It does not forbid change, or demand isolation. But it does require continuity. “We” must be recognizably the same through all our changes, recognizably united around our shared inheritance, and recognizably committed to each other in any conflict with the wider world. This is the strong point of conservative politics, and also the weak point of liberalism.

The liberal establishment is only half heartedly in favor of America, only half heartedly committed to the Western inheritance, and in social matters largely opposed to the majority culture. You see this clearly in situations of conflict, when the first instinct of liberals is to side with the enemy. And that is the aspect of liberalism which--when they wake up to it--ordinary people most dislike. By keeping the idea of the nation, its rights, privileges, and unity, at the heart of politics, conservatives will ensure that, when the time comes and the message is right, voters will turn against the liberal establishment and once again vote as they ought.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.