The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 18, 1995 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In th,e, United States at this time," wrote Lionel Trilling in 1950, " liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact"t that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation ... "Times change. Forty-five years later, in the world of practical politics (as opposed to the otherworldly outposts of academia), nothing but conservative ideas are in general circulation.

As Michael Dukakis learned, no candidate for president can win under the label of liberal. As Bill Clinton has learned, no president can govern as a liberal. On what grounds are both parties contending these days? Tax cuts, welfare reform, "family values," shrinking government, controlling immigration, curbing racial preferences, building prisons, adding cops, even balancing the budget by a fixed date. The other party has adopted every one of these goals, some more ingenuously than others, and for good reason. Bill Clinton's frantic repositioning towards the center is the sign of an astute politician who knows when the ground of debate has shifted. And on every issue except possibly abortion it has.

The problem for conservatives, however, is that while the new national consensus is decidedly, undeniably anti-liberal --the word can hardly be spoken without disdain or embarrassment --it is not yet conservative. There is no new conservative consensus. Instead we have a field of several conservatisms in serious contention -- Christian Coalition social conservatism, Nixon-Dole traditional conservatism, Cato Institute libertarianism, Buchanan's reactionary populism (nativist, protectionist, anti-"finance"-capitalist) --and no one to adjudicate between them.

And now, a new entrant in the Viield, authored by Newt Gingrich it does not so much adjudicate between the factions as try to transcend them with a new forwardlooking, indeed futurist, vision.

Having brought about, by extraordinary tactical skill and strategic vision, the most remarkable conservative victory since World War II -- potentially far more significant than Ronald Reagan's --Gingrich has set out to endow it with theory.

To Renew America (HarperCollins, 260 pages, $ 24.00) is the attempt, a grander attempt than his critics have given him credit for. Nonetheess, the book fails.

There are two possible views of the meaning and mission of the conservative upheaval of November 1994. Isaiah Berlin drew a famous distinction between negative liberty (being left alone) and positive liberty (the "truer" freedom of finding and fusing with some higher purpose). Using this terminology, one might call the first conservative vision "negative":

Its purpose is to, if not abolish, then delimit, deflate, defund, radically reduce the welfare state. Leave the people to their own devices and virtues, unencumbered by the lumbering, grasping, interfering state, and they will flourish as of old.

Dick Armey makes this the centerpiece of his less celebrated, though quite substantial, book outlining the goals of the new conserv- ative majority. The Freedom Revolution, the House majority leader's entry in the Bible-of- conservativerevolution sweepstakes, even gives this goal a number: Cut the federal government in half. Today it takes 22 percent of GNP; it should take no more than 11 percent.

'Cutting even a fraction of that is very ambitious mission, one that could take a conservative Congress a generation to achieve. Indeed, the newest conventional wisdom --that the conservative revolution of November 1994 has " stalled" --is based on the alleged disappointment that the Republicans have not, since November 8, brought about a significant transformation of the welfare state. This after halfa year in power, against the opposition of the executive and with only tenuous control of the Senate. The very expectation is absurd, a merely clever way of damning conservatives by holding them to an impossible standard.

Yet even given the magnitude of the task and the decades required, there is a deep feeling among conservatives that this vision of merely delimiting the state is too, well, negative; that a mini-welfare state, a reformed --even radically reformed --version of the status quo, is simply not enough for conservatism to offer; that without a broader, more "positive" vision, conservatism will fail because it will fail to inspire.

Enter Gingrich and To Renew America. The book is unsystematic, but its underlying vision is easily discerned. It is positive. It is visionary. It is optimistic. It is non-divisive. And it does not hold up.

Gingrich's vision is of an American civilization socially restored by individualism and a sense of personal responsibility, economically restored by a freed-up, unstified market. So far so good, but still' conventionally " negative." Something more is needed to turn this prosaic vision of pre- welfare state America into the shining city of the 21st century. Newt has found it:

high technology.

Wed the free individual and unfettered market to the emerging power of information-based technology (Third Wave, in Toffierese emerging from the hidebound Second Wave industrial technology) and you get the "opportunity society," an America of boundless pros-perity, opportunity, mobility, harmony, and order. The new technol ogy, he promises, in the chapter titled "America and the Third Wave Information Age," will in and of it-self overthrow the great obstacles to growth and freedom: the guild-like legal system, the monopolistic edu cational establishment, hierarchical medicine, the giant corporations, Big Government itself.

The book is a catalogue of the combinative powers of free dom and technology, of how teleeducation will democratize learning; how tele-medicine will solve our medical cost dilemmas; how software and e-mail will make lawyers obsolete; how, in effect, the single mom with laptop will find her way out of dependency. As Gin, grich once said, "There has to be a missionary spirit that says to the poorest child in America, Internet's for you." To be sure and to be fair, there are myriad other prescriptions for reorganizing this and reforming that in To Renew America, not at all tied to technology. But what is new and unique about Gingrich's conervatism-what lifts his above its merely "negative" anti-welfare?

state counterpart --is precisely this marriage of conservative values and digital technology.

It is also what makes it so appeal; ing. Confronting and deconstruct ing existing social hierarchies --ed-ucational, legal, governmental, cororate-is generally assumed to require politics, a politics of destruction, a hard, divisive, traditional "negative" politics of the kind practical politicians (like Gingrich and Armey) have to engage in daily in Congress. Gingrich yearns to rise above this. In this book he does. By assigning the task of politics to the painless and miraculous workings of technology, Gingrich manages to escape the negative and sail his techno-conservatism, unsullied, into a bright and shining future.

WhY does this vision not con-vince? At the broadest level, because it is as naively optimistic about the social and political possi-bilities of technology as thinkers 50 years ago were naively pessimistic.

In the same way that Orwell and Huxley were fascinated and se-duced by the totalitarian potential of technology --convinced that as technology became more powerful, it would become increasingly cen-tralized, a means of social atomiza-tion and political oppression --Gin-grich is fascinated and seduced by its potential for liberation. It is as if Gingrich's entire philosophy hinged on the famous Apple com-mercial (shown once, during the 1984 Super Bowl) that had the indi-vidual, armed with the Mac, de-stroying the Big Brother telescreen.

Having seen the PC and the Inter-net, Gingrichism, a post-totalitari-an creed, shows no appreciation for the darker side of technology.

Take, for example, the central contradiction of capitalist democra-cy pointed out by Daniel Bell: the way in which the constant churn-ing and change of capitalism un-dermines the social structures of society. Like all conservatives, Gin-grich recognizes the decline of in-termediate institutions (churches, clubs, charities, other voluntary as-sociations), the kind of association-ism so celebrated by Tocqueville.

We all know that Americans are, as Robert Putnam has put it memo-rably, " bowling alone." For Gingrich, the solution lies at hand in the free, fluid, associative virtual communities of the Inter-net. Perhaps. Perhaps there will be a slice of society that will interact on the Internet, though how real this kind of community is remains very much open to question.

But what he ignores is the far more important influence of high technology. Why are Americans bowling alone? Because technology enables everybody to spend all night (and much of the day) co-cooned in front of the wide-screened "home entertainment center." Those who do go out move zombie-like through the streets, hard-wired to Walkmans, as oblivi-ous and unavailable to society as the voice-plagued schizophrenic.

And the TV and Walkman are far more common than PCs with NetScape.

Even the 500 channels celebrat-ed by the high technologists as lib-erating have their largely ignored, atomizing underside. The more channels, the more fractionated the audience. The more every individ-ual can order up the kind of self-stimulation that suits his particular taste, the less his need for social as-sociation. In the old days of three channels, the audience could be shepherded into some kind of shared national experience --moon shots, Roots, presidential debates --that helped knit together a country of suburbanites and ex-urbanites.

The cultural onanism of movies-on-demand-by-fiber-optic-wire may be personally satisfying, but it does nothing for community.

This is not to deny the liberat-ing effects of digital technolo-gy. But it is to question the view that these effects are uniformly good. And it is to deny the view 54 / THE WEEKLY STANDARD SEPTEMBER 18, 1995 that they somehow finesse the cen-tral contradiction of democratic capitalism: the atomization that threatens social cohesion. Informa-tion technology may, in fact, make it worse.

The most dangerous cultural contradiction of capitalism, howev-er, involves not the form but the content of mass communication:

the corruption of culture and val-ues by debased, corporate con-trolled mass media.

When even Bob Dole de-nounces Hollywood --to gen-eral applause --we have achieved a national consensus that there is a problem. And it is not the work of liberals in the Education Depart-ment, Pat Buchanan's fanciful bu- reaucrats in "sandals and beads." It is the work of the great corpora-tions of America, as Calvin Klein's latest outrage, its withdrawn kiddy-porn ad campaign, reminds us.

What to do? In normal, "nega-tive" politics, you fight, denounce, threaten, and, as a last resort, cen-sor. (Yes, censor: We already have, for example, all kinds of censoring conventions that distinguish broadcast TV from cable TV from pay-per-view Tv.) The coarsening effects of mass culture present con- servatives with a diffcult choice:

freedom of expression and free markets on the one hand, versus the preservation of public morality on the other. It forces conservatives to choose often unpopular anti4ib?

ertarian stands.

Gingrich would transcend these contradictions and avoid the un:

pleasant choices with technology.

And this particular case does offer Gingrich some vindication. For a part of this problem, there is indeed a magical technological fix: the V-chip, the computer chip placed in televisions at manufacture that al-lows parents to automatically screen out violent or other unsuit-' able programming. It permits some control over the corrupting mass media without preventing entre- preneurs from producing and dis-seminating as they please.

The problem for Gingrich is that the V-chip solution is a rarity, not the rule. Even regarding this nar-row problem --controlling the cor-rupting influence of media --it solves only a piece of a part. The V-chip will shield no one from the bus-shelter posters and looming billboards of the next Calvin Klein campaign. The Internet shields no one from gangsta rap. However much kids ride their Macs, they still spend most of their day bathed in the influences of music, movies, TV, and advertising. There is no es-caping them. And therefore no es-caping the hard, divisive, political choices required to curb them. V-chip conservatism, leaving so many contradictions unaddressed, is at best a niche ideology.

There is a second aspect to Gin-grich's belief in the Tocquevil-lian, associative, liberating direc-tion of technology. He believes that the dissemination of information technology will democratize knowledge. And, when everyone can access everything, the knowl-edge priesthoods will dissolve. The great industrial age hierarchies --legal, medical, educational, corpo-rate, governmental --now obsolete, will break down, "leading us back to something that is --strangely enough --much more like de Tocqueville's 1830s America." The opposite, it seems to me, is far more likely. The explosion of knowledge in all fields makes for more specialization and more alien-ation of knowledge. Medicine, for example, is hardly democratized by high technology. I am a doctor, board certified in psychiatry and neurology. I cannot even read jour- nals of immunology. Technology does not, as Gingrich suggests, make it possible for any Joe to be-come, at his will, a "specialist in some obscure medical procedure." I doubt Gingrich would go to Joe for the removal of an obscure bone tumor. He'd go to the Mayo Clinic.

Technology is making medicine so specialized that even specialists need specialists. The resulting structure is not more horizontal. It is more pyramidal.

It is typical of Gingrich's belief in the power of technology, howev-er, that he sees it as solving not just the hierarchical structure of mod-ern medicine, but also the more prosaic and pressing problem of its bankrupting costs. Gingrich's solu-tion? Even higher tech. Telemedi-cine, for example, will allow remote diagnosis and treatment, reduce costs, and allow the exportation of medical services to other coun-tries-turning medicine from a fi-nancial drain into a vast new source of wealth for the United States.

This is nonsense on stilts.

Telemedicine --assuming it ever becomes feasible, a large assump-tion-is decades away from making any significant impact on medical practice and cost. Meantime, the unrelenting impact of high tech-nology on medicine is to increase cost. And not just because ma-chines are expensive. Better ma-chines, whatever their cost, make for better medicine. Better medi-cine means people live longer. Peo-ple who live longer suffer, over time, more disease and disability.

Good medicine does not reduce the percentage of people with illnesses," explained Willard Gaylin in a brilliant essay on this theme in the October 1993 Harp-er's. "It increases that percentage." Good medicine keeps sick people alive, people with heart disease, di-abetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. Sick people are expensive. The dead are a burden to no one. Fifty years ago there was whooping cough and diphtheria. "The child either lived or died, and, for the most part, did so quick-ly and cheaply," noted Gaylin. Now that child "will grow up to be a very expensive old man or woman." People used to die young of heart attacks. Now we save them, expen-sively, so they can die later, even more expensively, of more chronic diseases like cancer. It is techno10-gy's very success that occasions its ruinous cost.

There is no way out of this dilemma. Ultimately, the only an-swer is some kind of rationing, un-der whatever guise. Gingrich the politician understands that. He proposes to help reduce the explO-sive growth of Medicare, for exam- ple, by inducing the elderly to join HMO's, which is a form of ra-tioning (as Elizabeth McCaughey made very clear in savaging the Clinton plan, which was designed to herd us all into HMO's). But Gingrich the visionary will hear nothing of such conventional nega-tive thinking. To Renew America trusts in the bounty, the yet to be believed wonders, of technology.

G ingrich does so because he is a revolutionary. And revolution aries believe in brave new world% brought about by irresistible agen cies. Each revolutionary has his own particular agency --Reason History, the proletariat, technolo, gy --but they all share a belief in its unremitting power, ultimate benig nity, and absolute necessity.

At root, the problem with Gin?

grichism is not its belief in technol ogy, but its belief in revolution.

Technology is just the means. Rev, olution is the end --and for conser vatism, a very odd end. Technology is how Gingrich gets there, "There," however, is a strange place for a conservative to be.

Gingrich, who sees a new society about to be born with technology as midwife, really is that oxymoron, the conservative revolutionary. He wears the label proudly. And it will do as an ironic, slightly self-mock-ing slogan. The problem with To Renew America, however, is that it takes the oxymoron seriously as a political program.

The revolutionary vision is not just confined to the book. It occa-sionally finds expression from Gin-grich the politician, particularly at times when he believes high poli-tics demands the expansiveness of a "positive" vision. In his acceptance speech as Speaker, he proclaimed the goal of the conservative revolu-tion of 1994 as not just political --"Our challenge shouldn't be to bal-ance the budget, to pass the Con-tract. Our challenge shouldn't be anything that's just legislative" --but meta-political: the manufacture of a new society, an America where, for starters, random violence, child abuse, poor education, and chronic unemployment have been abol-ished.

Conservatives can't promise that.

Conservatives shouldn't promise that. It is not the business of conser- vatives to offer utopias. Utopia is the business of liberals and social-ists. It is the business of conserva-tives to debunk such visions, not just as impractical but as inimical to liberty. It is the business of conserv-atives to oppose such expansive vi-sions and the great statist appara-tuses by which they are to be legis-lated into existence. The business of conservatives/s to balance the bud-get, to pass the Contract, and leave social transformation to liberals.

At the heart of conservatism's ar-gument with liberalism is its rejec-tion of the notion of human per-fectibility, with or without technol-ogy. That is the other guy's game (and why his failures, when juxta-posed with his promises, appear doubly abysmal). Conservatism cannot be revolutionary in any- thing but the more limited "nega-tive" sense of radically stripping away the encumbrances of the wel-fare state. Conservatives do not need a more " positive" vision other than the faith that, with these en-cumbrances removed, native Amer-ican genius will flourish, and civil society, freed from the grip of the state, will renew itself. What new society this will yield, we do not know. Conservatives believe such things unknowable.

Igrant that this conservative con-servatism is less inspiring than Newt's. But it is bound to be more durable because it will be less dis-appointing. Delimiting Leviathan is work enough without promising nirvana. The "optimists" mock this caution as root canal conservatism.

But reforming Medicare, arresting cultural decline, curing the federal debt require root canal work. Ni-trous oxide won't do.

Even from the point of view of practical politics, one doesn't have to promise the moon. The anti-lib-eral sentiment in the country is so broad and deep that offering a vi-sion of America freed from liberal-ism's welfare statism is appeal enough. It is what won the conserv-atives control of Congress. It can win them the presidency. More-over, to win the other way, with the promise of revolution, is to lose from the start.

Finally, a conservative conser-vatism is more honest. We don't know what comes after the welfare state. Even Reagan promised just three things --lower taxes, strong defense, less government --and left the rest to our imagination, and to the truly Tocquevillian American genius for then freely, unpre- dictably ordering society. No need --no conservative call --to or-der the result from above, nor to believe its shape inevitably deter-mined by technology or any other agency of history.

Cynics might say that Gingrich has latched on to technological Tof-tierism just for that reason, as a way to endow his conservative vision with a sense of historical inevitabil-ity. All serious revolutions produce theories of history to explain why their triumph is inevitable. It in-spires the troops. There is nothing like being on the winning side.

(Though there is always the odd skeptic asking: Why join the revo-lution if it is going to happen any-way?) But the cynics are wrong. Yes, technology is Gingrich's deus ex machina, the means by which he fi-nesses the dilemmas of modern capitalism and conveniently bridges its philosophical and politi-cal divides. But his techno-conser-vatism is no construct of conve-nience. He believes in its power, and believes in it deeply. It is not by accident that he once suggested tax credits for the poor to buy laptops.

He later retracted. But the original suggestion, blissful and wild, was the real Newt, the one who wrote To Renew America. *

By Charles Krauthammer