Recent electoral successes, including Scott Brown’s landmark victory in Massachusetts, have positioned Republicans once again for a role in governing, and far sooner than they might have supposed. But are they ready to govern? It all depends, for the problem with many Republicans (and I am a Republican) is that they, along with liberals, subscribe at a visceral level to The Narrative.
What is The Narrative? The Narrative is the official story about America. It is a story composed by the political left, which entered American public life with the progressive movement in the early 20th century and was elaborated in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and ’40s.
The story runs like this. America was founded on the ideal of equality, though that ideal at first was barely put into practice. The story of America is one of progress toward the fulfillment of the ideal of equality. The end of slavery and the achievement of women’s suffrage are landmarks in this story. All fair enough. So is—less plausibly—the federal income tax, originally established to fund the government but later used to redistribute wealth and tax advantages among Americans. Then came the many programs of direct payments to individuals, the so-called entitlements, beginning with Social Security and extending to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, aid to dependent children, farm subsidies, and myriad others. And today the health care
reform bill before Congress takes its place in America’s advance toward equality. Each and every policy that aims to level distinctions between Americans has found its place within The Narrative.
At times the progression is described as more or less inevitable. It is dressed up in rhetorical finery (befitting the progressives’ debt to Hegel) as the “march of history.” At other times its proponents stress the role of will, exalting the labors of progressive heroes to bring about change. But always they are certain of the single direction in which progress moves.
The Narrative holds genuine power. It permits the easy assignment of virtue and vice. Virtue belongs to those who advocate the fulfillment of equality; they are on the “right side of history,” moving the country “forward.” In opposition are those who seek to take the country “backward,” often identified as “special interests” who favor their own well-being over the equality of all.
The Narrative also identifies the means to be employed by the virtuous. The federal government is the instrument for achieving the promise of equality. If, along the way, this government and its agents of progress should evolve into a separate political class, this is understandable; indeed, it is the more or less inevitable result of the progressives’ role as the vanguard of virtue. In this way, virtue comes to be seen as concentrated, ironically, in the very institution in which the Founders feared that the corrupting effects of power might take root.
The Narrative has an international dimension. With its emphasis on the fundamental flaws in American institutions, The Narrative opposes anything that smacks of American exceptionalism. To exalt the founding would suggest that there was no compelling need to twist our institutions far beyond their original purposes in order to use them to impose equality. Besides, American exceptionalism implies the inferiority of the institutions and cultures of other nations. Only by focusing on American flaws and imperfections can we find sure and stable commonality with other peoples.
That The Narrative should move many Republicans as well as Democrats is hardly surprising. It is, after all, pervasive. This is the story presented to children at school by teachers and textbooks all across the nation. And, while the left-leaning American professoriate may think of itself as contrarian or skeptical, it operates in lockstep to offer The Narrative as the official view on virtually every college campus. It is reinforced at every turn by the print and electronic media, in the arts, and in every mainstream avenue of American culture.
The story is simple and powerful. It offers a ready context for interpreting politics. For the left, every issue carries a moral valence that locates it in the broader story of America. This is why Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid can stand on the Senate floor with a straight face and liken opposition to government-run health care to support for human slavery. Let’s be clear: These two issues have nothing to do with each other. They aim at different ends, and they have been advocated by different parties. Indeed, one could make a reasonable case that government-run health care—with its mandates, penalties, rationing, and the like—has more in common with enslavement than with freedom.
Plausibly or not, though, The Narrative offers a way for progressives to bring the entire force of American history to bear against their opponents. This is no florid overstatement. To the contrary, The Narrative is a powerful tool designed to seize the moral high ground against opponents on issues that would otherwise need to be debated on their merits.
The Party of No
Herein lies the problem for Republicans who subscribe to The Narrative. Even when they doubt the wisdom of “moving too fast” on a given policy initiative, they remain captive in a larger sense to The Narrative. Even as they argue that “the time is not right” to endorse the latest progressive project, they concede the substance. Now, it may be true that it is peculiarly inappropriate to launch a massive new health care entitlement, for instance, at a time of deep recession, double-digit unemployment, and low tax revenues. But that begs the larger question whether there is actually any time when it would be good to establish a government-run health care system in the United States. “Not now,” “not so fast,” “not just yet”—these are the stock-in-trade of Republicans, arguments hinting that at some later date the reform they currently oppose might win their vote. In a very real sense, Democrats are correct: Republicans these days are the party of no.
Republicans captive to The Narrative are thus condemned to a perpetual rearguard action against the consolidation of government-imposed equality. For them, the very definition of a successful administration or Congress is one that doesn’t lose too much ground too fast. This is dispiriting for Republicans. It is also dispiriting to a sizable segment of the American electorate, which is uncomfortable with such a limited range of political options. Consider conservative voters: Why should they care about the 2010 elections? A Republican victory might slow the consolidation of government power, but does anyone think it would reverse it or chart a significantly different course? Is this even the goal?
Coloring Outside the Lines
From time to time individuals break out of The Narrative. Leading radio talk show hosts do this, rhetorically, and are subjected to vicious personal attacks for their trouble. This is because The Narrative denies any legitimacy to a genuinely different point of view; any such view has been predefined as backward, regressive, self-interested, and evil. There can be no reasonable debate with opponents of The Narrative. When opponents, or even mere skeptics, question not just one or another policy notion but the story itself, the political left goes into overdrive. The entire machine is activated—political progressives, left-wing bloggers, the mainstream media, academics, late night TV hosts, and the arts community all descend with fury to attack the intelligence, the background, and the character of anyone who questions The Narrative. To question The Narrative is to question the self-ascribed virtue of the left.
Occasionally political leaders arise who go outside the official story line. Ronald Reagan was one. He was a threat, and a very attractive, genial, and well-grounded one at that. He was a candidate who had the temerity to question The Narrative. Worse yet, if elected he actually threatened to do something about it. He threatened to roll back taxes, eliminate the Department of Education, and reduce the size and scope of the federal government. To add insult to injury, he made a point of holding American exceptionalism—the “shining city on a hill”—at the very center of his political views.
For this, naturally, Reagan was vilified. His views were not merely mistaken, he personally was “stupid,” an “amiable dunce.” His policy prescriptions were not merely wrong, but “dangerous,” “trigger-happy,” “out of touch.” Thirty years later, it is difficult to recapture the ferocity of the left’s attacks on candidate Reagan in 1979 and 1980 and on President Reagan in the first several years of his administration. Here was no go-along, get-along guy, like so many Republican presidential candidates before and since; here was a genuine dissenter from The Narrative. And with such dissenters there can be no logical disputation or rational argument; their penalty must be personal annihilation.
A more limited threat to The Narrative arose in the form of President George W. Bush’s short-lived effort to “privatize Social Security.” Here was a far-reaching and bold proposal. It was predicated, to be sure, on an over-optimistic reading of the results of a close election in 2004—but it was nonetheless a significant departure from The Narrative. Its intent was to connect citizens more closely with their retirement income and to lessen the dependence of seniors on U.S. government-issued checks, the amounts of which are determined by the formulas of Washington politicians. This attack on The Narrative could not be allowed to stand. The idea was not merely unwise, but risky, dangerous, cruel, and heartless. Its political shelf life was brief.
Judging by its rhetoric, the left seems singularly threatened by Sarah Palin, but they can’t explain why. Because she’s attractive? So are most politicians, including the current president. Because she’s from Alaska? So are Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski. Because she lacks “experience”? So do lots of politicians, including the current president. Does anyone imagine that a few more years of “experience” will cause Sarah Palin’s critics to warm up to her? The left simply cannot supply a convincing rationale for its own mania. That a wife and mother is successful in public life and is also a conservative, populist reformer should not be possible. A political reformer opposed to the expansion of the federal government should be a contradiction in terms. Sarah Palin can undo by her simple existence every stereotype of the left’s Narrative. This creates a visceral threat. It cannot be permitted, or even laughed off—she must be destroyed. The threat to The Narrative is what provokes the name-calling and bizarrely substance-free personal attacks that have flowed relentlessly from Palin’s critics.
Another Story Altogether
What if Republicans took back the House in 2010? Or, to enlarge the fantasy, what if Republicans enjoyed the numerical advantage of today’s Democrats in the House and Senate? Would they actually do anything to reverse the growth of government? Republican majorities would surely strive to slow the rush to national financial ruin and rein in unsustainable deficits, and that’s all to the good. Government-imposed equality might advance more slowly. But what are the chances it would be halted or reversed? For that matter, what did Republicans do as recently as five years ago, when they controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House?
So long as Republicans are enthralled by The Narrative, they will be stuck in rearguard actions. There will be no coherent set of policies toward which Republicans aim steadily over time, such as characterizes the progressive left. There will be only the (almost endearing) Republican embarrassment about governing at all.
So Republicans must ask themselves: Are they really ready to reverse the trend of more and more Americans becoming dependent upon government? Do they really deny the working assumption that most Americans don’t know what’s best for them, and that public policy must set them straight? Are they willing to act so that initiative does not meet bureaucratic obstacles at every turn, and regulations don’t hamper every creative venture? Do they actually disdain an ideal of justice that conjures up an image of well-fed and well-tended sheep?
What if Republicans aimed at a different story altogether? What if the story of America were one in which government imposed ever less control over citizens? What if they considered every policy initiative through this lens: Does it help Americans become less, rather than more, dependent on the government? Their goal would then be to create—as best they can, and over time—a nation of self-reliant citizens, not merely “consumers” and “providers” and “practitioners” and “beneficiaries” and “recipients” and all the other less-than-fully-human descriptors of the left.
What if our national history were recast and understood in this new light? What if we reminded ourselves that it was the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that ended slavery and the Democratic party that dragged its feet? That it was the Republican party that pushed through women’s suffrage? That Republicans like Senator Everett Dirksen were leaders in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? The overthrow of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the end of segregation all empowered people vis à vis their government. And these advances in citizen empowerment were then wrongly put to the service of (seemingly well-intentioned) egalitarian programs that result not in the improvement of America’s citizenry but in their perpetual dependence?
This would be arduous work. It would require Republicans not simply to oppose current Democratic policy initiatives, but to reinterpret the broad course of American history. It would also require Republicans to end their blind acquiescence to the Democrats’ demand to be judged by the purity of their intentions. The so-called purity of the Democrats’ intentions should count for nothing, nothing at all. One cannot have witnessed the effects of the left’s policies over the past 60 years—the poverty, the destruction of families, the coarsening of public life, the despair of dependency, the financial bankruptcy, the politicization of everything, and the lack of a global compass—one cannot have seen this and think that good intentions should count for anything.
Walter Lippmann identified the problem as long ago as 1937:
In the name of progress, men who call themselves communists, socialists, fascists, nationalists, progressives, and even liberals, are unanimous in holding that government with its instruments of coercion must by commanding the people how they shall live, direct the course of civiliza-tion. . . . So universal is the dominion of this dogma over the minds of contemporary men that no one is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of public officials and to extend and multiply their intervention in human affairs.
Republicans will learn to govern well only when they free themselves from the pseudo-inevitability of this dogma.
What if? What if a new Republican interpretation of American history succeeded in breaking apart the false conflation of Democratic efforts to consolidate power with political virtue?
First, Republicans might lose their shame about actually governing. The Republicans’ badge of honor—their reluctance to govern, their hesitance to press an affirmative agenda of their own—might be overcome. Republicans might actually learn to use the levers of power, if only to reverse our national course.
Second, Republicans would discover what they have lacked so long: a cornucopia of policy ideas that could shape a legislative and regulatory agenda for decades to come. It is not that Republicans haven’t put forward good initiatives from time to time; what they’ve lacked is a long-term vision that produces a wide and coherent menu of policies. Though correct in principle, the mantra of “lower taxes and less regulation” is too narrow to amount to such a vision. An affirmative vision of ever-expanding citizen empowerment is one that can generate initiatives and policies that build upon each other, unlike today’s almost random occasional departures from the unrelenting growth of the left-Hegelian administrative state.
Such a policy agenda would address at least four broad areas:
(1) Entitlements. Direct payments to Americans are bankrupting the country. Worse, they are creating massive and unhealthy dependence and ever-expanding state power.
- On health care, we should do no (more) harm. Republicans have rightly opposed creation of a massive new government-run entitlement. But Republicans had 15 years between the last attempt to impose such a program in 1994 and the current attempt, and in that time they failed to address the genuine health care concerns of the American people. They should not make that mistake again. Republicans should support cost containment by fostering insurance competition across state lines, the expansion of health savings accounts, sensible tort reform, and insurance portability. These and similar steps will solidify the private sector foundation of the American health care system and obviate any need for yet another Democratic effort at nationalization.
- Many direct payment programs, such as agricultural commodity support programs, aim to ameliorate systemic risk. They should be replaced with risk insurance, priced to reflect best estimates of true risk.
- Such programs are designed to carry Americans through temporary difficulties. Too often the programs are extended and re-extended, sometimes more or less permanently. Let’s take a page from our recent experience with the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The conditions for receiving TARP funds were such that banks sought to escape from the program as soon as they could. Let’s reorient our social safety net programs so they meet genuine needs but also encourage recipients to provide for themselves as soon as possible. The successful welfare reform of the 1990s—which the left wrongly predicted would be catastrophic—provides an excellent model.
- The hardest entitlements to reform are the most popular and expensive—Social Security, Medicare, and Medi-caid. All of these are unsustainable—bankrupt—in their current form. It is not a political prejudice, but a mathematical certainty that they will have to be reformed. When the time comes, Republicans should support reforms that adjust age levels, means-test benefits, and wherever possible move Americans toward private insurance and retirement plans. Social Security and Medicare have both traded on the now false notion that they are social insurance programs, when they are in fact generational welfare schemes. Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed a thoughtful “road map” for needed reforms.
(2) Free speech. Freedom of speech is vital to a free people, but is everywhere under assault by the left. It belongs at the center of a new agenda.
- We need new laws protecting the constitutional right to the free expression of religious views.
- The regulation of campaign speech should end, a project the Supreme Court happily advanced in a recent decision.
- A new job description is needed for the Federal Election Commission, restricting it to providing financial transparency in political campaigns.
- Public financing of presidential campaigns should end. This is a highly unpopular provision of law, of which the Obama campaign made a special mockery.
- Taxpayer-financed speech such as National Public Radio should end.
- Federal assistance should not flow to colleges or universities that adopt “speech codes.”
(3) The federal government. The federal government, with its 2.8 million civilian employees, has become a self-perpetuating machine, insulated from the problems of ordinary Americans by ever-greater disparities in job security, pay, and benefits. The average government salary is north of $70,000, and a fifth of all federal employees make more than $100,000, in a country where the per capita income is just over $40,000.
- Since federal employees are not smarter or more virtuous than other Americans, we should bring federal salaries and benefits back into line with those of the private sector.
- Federal government employee unions have become venal “special interests,” providing campaign contributions and other election support directly to the officials who set their salaries and benefits. This should end, if necessary by banning federal employee unions—which were first authorized by an executive order in 1962.
- To make it clear that elected officials are not expected to make permanent careers in Washington, even opponents of term limits (like me) could agree to abolish retirement benefits for elected and presidentially appointed officials.
(4) American exceptionalism. Let’s aim to be respected abroad, not loved.
- America was built on the strength of immigrants. A more open and generous provision for legal immigration would welcome people who want to share in the American dream and are prepared to follow our laws. This can make us stronger. But let’s also defend our borders and end illegal immigration.
- America has a special role in helping people in other lands who share our values and who wish to be free. We should champion people who seek to free themselves from oppressive governments. We should give them moral support and, where prudent, material aid.
- We should be staunch supporters of free trade and investment.
- We should defend Internet freedom, even if this results in diplomatic difficulties with nations that seek to control their people’s access to information.
- We should reorient our public diplomacy away from selling American consumerism and popular music and otherwise currying favor with foreign populations. Current polling abroad shows this doesn’t work anyway. Instead, we should remind the world that we are a nation of free people, who cherish free speech and individual conscience and oppose religious fanaticism and political violence. If other people hold other values, so be it.
None of this will go down easily. There will be bitter claims that Republicans are “politicizing” matters. This is straight out of the left’s playbook: Politicize everything, and then scream loudly if anyone seeks redress.
Formulating a new American narrative and governing in accord with it is not a task for the faint-hearted. But the effort is worth it. Unlike the left’s initiatives, too many of which must be disguised and misrepresented at every turn, these initiatives can be crafted to win genuine popular support. These initiatives, moreover, are likely to achieve their stated purposes, unlike those of the left, and can be expanded and developed over time. Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s that strong forces in modern democracies press toward equality and passivity at the expense of liberty and self-government. But he also noted that these forces are not fated to prevail.
Jeff Bergner has served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assistant secretary of state, and professor of government. His forthcoming book is on the role of German idealist philosophy in shaping the modern idea of a human being.