[President Obama] is frustrated because he cares about the small people. And we care about the small people.
—BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, June 16, 2010
It was a bad week for the big people.
On Tuesday night, President Obama, surely the biggest big, delivered his first speech from the Oval Office to the American people. It was a bust. The next day, after a big people’s meeting at the White House, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg explained that he and his fellow bigs cared about us small people. And then on Thursday, at the big spectacle in the hearing room of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, big-deal chairman Henry Waxman waxed ridiculously demagogic, big-shot BP CEO Tony Hayward played unconvincingly dumb, and GOP-big Joe Barton was remarkably dumb.
But at least they care about us.
Well, actually, they don’t—as even a cursory observation of the careers and behavior of Messrs. Obama, Svanberg, Hayward, Waxman, and Barton reveals. More important, they’re incompetent. Who wouldn’t prefer to be governed by the first 500 (small) people in the phone book than by the big people currently in charge?
This year’s primaries and the general election polls suggest this sentiment is pretty widespread. But beyond the 2010 election results, which are likely to be satisfactory for conservatives, the task ahead is daunting. We’ve seen over the last few years the failures of big finance and big government. We’re witnessing a well-deserved collapse of big media and the ossification of academia. The establishment hasn’t been this discredited since the mid-1960s.
The task is to forge a better response than the one in the 1960s.
In speculating which decades to compare to our own, I wonder whether we’ve been looking in the wrong places. Liberals have been hoping that Obama would be another FDR and this period like the 1930s. Conservatives have been warning that Obama is another Jimmy Carter, and we are repeating the late 1970s.
But what if we’re in for a period more like the late 1960s? We could soon have a rebellion, from both left and right, against a difficult war. We already have a Middle American populist reaction against the government schemes of pointy-headed intellectuals. Barack Obama got the highest percentage of the votes of any Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964; Republicans look to be on track this year to replicate their 47-seat House pick-up in 1966.
What comes next? That’s up to us—especially to us conservatives. We’re not doomed to repeat the pretty miserable political, social, and economic performance of 1967-80.
Unlike in that period, we’re not all Keynesians now; Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom has spent much of the last week at number one on the Amazon bestseller list. Unlike in the late 1960s, the Silent Majority already knows it shouldn’t defer to the big people. Unlike 40 years ago, progressivism is no longer hegemonic and the reactions against it no longer merely uncertain or instinctual. And today, there is a serious revival of interest in the Founders and in constitutionalism.
To avoid replicating the dark period of 1967 to 1980, American conservatism will have to govern successfully. A year and a half ago, it seemed that conservatives would have years in the wilderness to lick their wounds and gather their forces. Now, suddenly, conservatism is being called on to be intellectually robust and politically adept. Conservatives have both to save the country from a failed liberal progressivism and to avoid being satisfied with what we might call the Nixonian temptation—too much anger and too much accommodation, and too little fundamental regrounding of our politics.
With the left in control of the commanding heights of government, academe, Hollywood, the media, and much of big business, modern American conservatism can identify with and speak for the “small people,” aka the people. Can it help them govern? Can it help them build on their good sense that they don’t want to be “cared” for by President Obama or demagogued by Henry Waxman or apologized for by Joe Barton? Can conservatives develop a program, an agenda, and a governing vision that would, in the words of Federalist 39, vindicate “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government”?
Meanwhile, even Messrs. Obama, Svanberg, Hayward, Waxman, and Barton can see the peaceful constitutionalist-populist political realignment that is happening. The small people are winning.