November 10, 2008

The election of Illinois senator Barack Obama (D) to the presidency confirms a simple truth: when the economy goes into a recession during the last two years of a presidential term, the party in the White House is replaced. That’s an adage I learned several years ago from the astute Indiana economist Bill Styring, and it has proven true over the years.

Consider just the past quarter-century: Jerry Ford, recession, replaced by Jimmy Carter; Carter, recession, replaced by Ronald Reagan; Reagan, no recession in last two years, Republicans retain White House; Bush the Elder, recession, replaced by Bill Clinton; Clinton, recession hits in last months of term, replaced by George W. Bush; Bush, recession appears to have hit in recent weeks, replaced by Barack Obama.

Note that despite an unpopular war in the Middle East, Republican standard-bearer John McCain was leading by ten points in the polls before the subprime mortgage disaster hit the economy. At that point everything turned, and the Republicans were doomed as it became clear that a recession was imminent if not already happening.
As a analysis article noted,

The implosion of the markets “€˜just broke the back of the Republican Party,”€™ said Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Thus while it is indeed “€œhistoric”€ that a black American has been elected President, it does not necessarily signify anything beyond the public’s usual repudiations of administrations that foul up the economy. That charge, incidentally, applies with particular aptness to the arrogant, big-spending Bush presidency, with its eager willingness to unleash a damburst of federal domestic spending in exchange for an economically obliterating flood of dollars for the War in Iraq.

Thus Republicans have only their national political and intellectual leaders to blame.

That means that if the Right wants to begin to reverse their fortunes and those of the nation, those publications, think tanks, authors, and other intellectuals that argued for and abetted the Bush administration in its fiscal abomination absolutely must be made to pay the price for their arrogance.

That means a great part of the New York-Washington, DC Republican and conservative establishment should be banished for their complicity in the outrage that was the Bush administration. I won’t name names here, but readers should take stock of the positions taken by conservative and Republican groups in supporting or excusing Bush’s capitulation to leftist big-spending schemes and hold those groups accountable. The Right professes a belief in personal responsibility, and those who are responsible for the fiscal mess in Washington should now be held accountable.

That process should begin with the defunding of all neoconservatives and liberal Republicans. There should be no exceptions to this. However good their intentions may have been, they were wrong and must be repudiated so that people and organizations with sound values and ideas that accord with reality can take leadership. As Jeff Jacoby noted in his Boston Globe column,

A turn in the wilderness will do Republicans good. During the GOP’s years in power, the one-time party of fiscal sobriety and limited government turned into a gang of reckless spenders and government aggrandizers. If a few years in exile can lead Republicans back to their conservative, Reaganite roots, yesterday’s losses will not have been in vain.

What happened at state level in last week’s elections should point the way for the Republican Party and the American right. In Arizona, Florida, and California, voters amended state constitutions to stop government-enforced endorsement of same-sex marriages. In Indiana, where the Democrat won the state’s presidential vote for the first time in a quarter-century, fiscal conservative Gov. Mitch Daniels won in a landslide over his Democrat opponent”€”who tried to run as a tax cutter herself (as, one should note, Obama very successfully did on the national level).

In addition, the rise in recent years of other fiscal conservatives such as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Alaska governor Sarah Palin confirms that Republicans succeed when they respect their classical liberal roots. The fact that Barack Obama won the presidency by plausibly characterizing himself as the tax cutter and the Republicans as fiscally irresponsible says it all.

The cultural and in fact civilizational dividing line that has cracked the United States apart during the past century is still in place, to be sure. On the one side is the Anglo-American assumption that individuals are personally responsible for the conditions of their lives, that regardless of the circumstances of one’s life, what you will become is based largely on what you do, the choices you make. On the other side is the European idea that the course of each person’s life is determined to an overriding extent by outside events.

The latter appeared to be confirmed by mortgage meltdown, and that worked greatly to Obama’s advantage. Through no fault of their own, according to the mainstream media explanation of the events, people lost huge amounts of value in their retirement accounts and other investments. Thus they were eager to kick out those they saw as responsible, and they did exactly that. Of course, the mainstream media entirely obscured the fact that the rapid rise in many individuals’ wealth was the result of a false housing boom created by government policies and that the bankruptcies and other wealth losses in the mortgage meltdown were the result of people’s and institutions’ individual choices to take on excessive debt. That would have confirmed the truth that what really counts is what one makes of one’s circumstances, that the conditions of one’s life are not overwhelmingly determined by outside circumstances and are indeed greatly a result of one’s own choices.

Thus the civilizational dividing line between determinism and free will remains in place. Obama’s particular power as a politician and a cultural figure is that he quite comfortably fits either understanding of the world. He can be seen as having benefited from affirmative action and other policies intended to help talented but less privileged people reach their full potential, or he can be seen as a superachiever who has, through extraordinary efforts and perseverance, accomplished great things.

That this conflict continues, however, is good news, and the lesson for the right is clear: the battle to sustain the Anglo-American civilizational tradition is not over. All is not lost, by any means.

The necessary work that lies directly ahead is to return the American Right, and thence the nation, to its classical liberal roots. That process must begin with the repudiation and defunding of those who led the people into the wilderness.

S. T. Karnick is Director of Research for The Heartland Institute and Editor of The American Culture.


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