The Magazine

Can Republicans Govern?

Not unless they change The Narrative.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By JEFF BERGNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers