The Magazine

IS 'CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION' AN OXYMORON?

Dec 18, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 14 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But this social pathology is only a small part of the story. The revolution in social sensibility is no less dramatic. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed, we have so succeeded in "defining deviancy down" that what was once regarded as abnormal has by now been normalized, and what was once stigmatized as deviant is now tolerated and even sanctioned. "Illegitimacy" itself has been offcially rebaptized: It is now an "alternative mode of parenting" or "non-marital childbearing," terminology that rhetorically legitimizes what was once illegitimate.


By the same token, institutions that were born only yesterday, in the aftermath of the Great Society, are now regarded as so venerable as to defy retrenchment, let alone abolition. Thus, the proposal to reduce the budgets of the endowments for the arts and humanities, which have grown from less than $ 6 million a year each when they were founded in 1966 to $ 172 million each in 1995, is said to be tantamount to abolishing the arts and humanities themselves -- arts and humanities which were, in fact, in a flourishing state before the creation of the endowments. In this hothouse atmosphere, any program boasting even a five-year vintage is seen as an integral and inviolable part of our social system, a moral and legal "entitlement."


This is the situation that faces conservatives today: an entrenched revolution that cannot be significantly affected by the small, incremental changes a conservative would prefer. Nibbling away at the edges of this or that program, or cutting the budget of this or that agency, is little more than an invitation to restore that cut the following year and to devise yet another "initiative" to warrant the continuance of the agency. More important, the failure to challenge the legitimacy of the revolution itself is, in effect, to legitimize it, to give the revolution the moral sanction that ensures its perpetuation.


To undo a revolution, something like a counter-revolution is required. Reolutions, to be sure, are never completely undone, and counter-revolutions never completely restore the status quo ante. Conservatives, unlike those properly called "reactionaries," are well aware of this. (And neoconservatives are even more acutely aware of it.) If they use the rhetoric of "revolution" -- as in the "conservative revolution" -- it is to highlight the gravity of the situation and the seriousness of their enterprise.


Moreover, it is not in the name of an abstract idea or ideology, not out of regard for doctrinal purity or some notion of an ideal society, that conservatives launch their own revolution (or counter-revolution). The " Contract with America" is not the Ten Commandments. It is a legislative program on the order of a party platform, containing specific, practical proposals for reform -- proposals that can have large consequences in redefining and redirecting our social energies but that are by no means absolute or utopian.


Nor is the impulse behind this conservative revolution an obsessive ideological attachment to the free market, as some have claimed. This is the charge that has been brought against Margaret Thatcher in England and that was echoed here most recently by Alan Ehrenhalt in the New York Times. " Market worship," the unfettered free market," the tyranny of the market," an uncontrolled and amoral free market" -- Ehrenhalt's repetition of thse phrases gives a hyperbolic tone to his argument. Can this describe a proposed reform of Medicare that will not privatize health care but merely reduce the increase of government funding from 10 to 6 percent a year; or a reform of welfare that will not eliminate public relief but transfer it to state governments; or a reform of education that will not abolish free public schools but provide vouchers to parents to be spent on schools of their choice; or a reform of taxation that will produce $ 11.2 trillion in seven years rather than the $ 11.4 trillion proposed by the Democrats? If these reforms deserve the label of revolution, it is because they do truly, significantly, change the direction of social policy. But they hardly change it in conformance with some mythical agenda devised by the "dogmatic marketeers" conjured up by Ehrenhalt.