The Magazine

Harbingers of Success

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the subsequent rapid American recovery at home and abroad, didn’t come out of the blue. There were plenty of signs before Election Day 1980 that such a reversal and triumph were possible:

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher

AP / Dave Caulken

* The late 1970s featured a broad-based rebellion throughout America against big-government, welfare-state liberalism—in the form of tax revolts at the state and national level, the rise of religious conservatism, and popular resistance to elite acquiescence in a foreign policy of weakness and accommodation.

* The late 1970s saw the election of strong conservative leaders abroad who were willing to take on the political establishments and welfare states in their own countries—such as Menachem Begin, who charged out of the political wilderness to victory in Israel in 1977, and Margaret Thatcher, who prevailed against many in her own party and won election in Great Britain in 1979.

* The late 1970s also saw an inspiring popular rebellion against a seemingly well-established dictatorship in Poland, led by Lech Walesa and (in a sense) by Pope John Paul II.

Needless to say, history doesn’t repeat itself. We can’t expect a moment like the pope’s visit to Poland in June 1979. We can’t perhaps expect another Reagan here at home. But there is the real possibility that we are today at a big, pre-recovery-of-the-West moment similar to the late 1970s. The Tea Party is of no less importance than the tax revolt, and the widespread sense that America needs finally to deal with her out-of-control spending and debt is no less fundamental than the sense of liberalism’s failure in the late 1970s. The revulsion (not too strong a word) at the cavalier and disdainful treatment of an old and deep ally like Israel is as heartfelt as the sense of disgust at Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. The electoral and governing successes of conservative prime ministers Stephen Harper in Canada and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel are comparable to the achievements of Thatcher and Begin. The Arab Spring in the Greater Middle East, and even the Jasmine Revolution in China, are reminiscent of Solidarity. These developments of 2009-2011 could be precursors of not just a renewal of American conservatism, but a renewal of the West, just as the events of 1977-1979 were harbingers of better days to come.

Of course, as signs of renaissance came into view in the late 1970s, many conservative elites were lapsing into despair, and many in the Republican party waffled and wavered. So it is now. The main obstacle to November 6, 2012, turning out as happily as November 4, 1980, is a kind of premature intellectual resignation, a pseudo-sophisticated political pessimism, that would lead us to settle over the next year for uninspiring champions and timid agendas.

The obstacles to success today remain daunting. It’s understandable that politicians and commentators may lose heart. But here’s a suggestion: Read up on Stephen Harper. Listen to Benjamin Netanyahu. They had (and have) tougher rows to hoe than conservatives in America. Are we truly less able than the tiny state of Israel, or our northern neighbor Canada, to produce a platform that—to quote Ronald Reagan in 1976—“is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors, with no pastel shades,” and to find serious and courageous leaders to explain, and then implement it?

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