Oh, I have plenty of I-told-you-sos. With scandals engulfing the Obama administration, I’ll happily reiterate what I’ve been saying since 2008 (and even earlier). Namely: liberalism has no limiting principle. It exists to attempt to create utopia, and considers evil anyone who doubts the attainability of that dream. To the left, the only truly unethical thing is to question the rolling tide of progressivism and the rise of the state. Thus there is nothing really wrong with clamping down on journalists, lying about a terrorist attack on an American embassy or using the IRS to stop groups who might be opposed to the power of the government. To liberals, the culture war is a religious war, and the enemy is evil. Coexistence may always be possible with the world’s religions — at least according to the popular hippie bumper sticker — but not with conservatives. They, we, must be driven into exile.
So the fact that the IRS has been targeting tea party groups, and that the Department of Justice has been seizing the phone records of journalists and that the State Department lied about the terrorist attack in Benghazi should all come as no surprise. There is probably much worse coming.
But instead of celebrating my ability to predict the obvious, I’d like to offer conservatives some advice on how to not let this crisis go to waste. As Obama goes down in flames, I think the right needs to talk about the importance of community.
I’m serious. If conservatives use the abuses of the Obama administration to launch salvo after salvo against big government, the right will continue to lose. Because Americans like government. That is to say, they like competent government that helps the vulnerable. They also like small, local government, as well as local community ties. The right needs to reject the myth of rugged individualism, of the lone entrepreneur or frontiersman who creates a universe on his own and doesn’t need to be connected to anyone or anything — the guy alone on a farm in Montana who kills eight robbers who came through his bedroom window one night. If conservatives respond to the Obama scandals by attacking the government, we can all look forward to losing more elections.
Here is the way to make the argument: acknowledge reality. It’s what conservatives have been doing for 40 years, from the damage that welfare inflicted on families to the evil of the Soviet Union. And the reality is that human beings are social animals who need the love and help of others to get through life. They need connection and community. The crucial thing is for conservatives to win this argument back from the left, which owns terms like “compassion” and “community.” And we can do that by saying that we are not the party of the Lone Ranger — that we support communities and a government that helps make happiness easier to pursue.
We can do this without giving up any of our core principles. Conservatives often talk about the irreducible importance of family, and they are right to do so. But what about the kid from a broken family, or a family filled with drunks and lunatics? It’s not necessary to go from a bad family to being directly cared for by the president of the United States (midnight basketball), which is what liberals want. You can defend and support so-called mediating institutions that the individual can go to and that stand between the family and the state — community centers, churches, private schools and other groups that serve as mentors to people when they are struggling. Over the years there has been some talk in conservative circles about these civic institutions, but in my view it has often been drowned out by anti-government tirades.
This hurts the conservative cause, because people in America in 2013 are suffering in ways that only strong local ties and healthy communities can address. I can give an example from my own experience. In 2008 I was diagnosed with a serious illness that required treatment. The first five phone calls I got were from high school friends, who offered love and rides to the hospital. When there was a problem with my insurance, I contacted my local congressman and his office of insurance compliance, which straightened the problem out. I got through the experience due to family, local friends and a nearby politician. Conservatives should be in favor of all three.
We should argue not for rugged individualism and against all government, but for effective forms of local community. One of the ways mediating institutions — i.e., churches and community centers and bars — build strong citizens is through a process the government is reluctant to engage in: shaming. In his book “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of Community,” Ray Oldenburg argues for the importance of the “third place,” the hangout between home and work (or the government) where people can gain connection to others. These places, argues Oldenburg, strengthen moral ties more than any government program. This is largely due to the ability of regulars in such spots to judge the others in that place. This sounds punitive, but as Oldenburg notes, it’s actually quite gentle — and even humorous. There is a certain way you’re expected to behave in the local tavern or coffee shop, and this moral sense carries over into home and community life. A guy at the local hangout who hogs the conversation or is crude to women is shunned. People who adhere to the unwritten rules are accepted, and find that the moral parameters stay with them at home. At one point Oldenburg notes that he could never sue someone with little cause or have trash in his lawn because of “what the guys at the local watering hole would think.”
The breakdown of such places in the last 50 years, due not only to big government but also to careless zoning and suburban sprawl, has deleteriously affected America every bit as much as video games or bad TV. After the massacre at Columbine, conservative journalist Christopher Caldwell wrote that as long as young people anxious for community and connection were scattered in far-flung suburbs, we could expect more of the same. Suburbs filled with people who never see each other means young boys without male mentors, and that usually means trouble. Recent history has proven Caldwell right.
So, by all means, in the wake of scandals that make liberals look like despots right out of a tea party fever dream, let’s let Obama have it. Let’s argue that he’s no better than Nixon. Let’s remind liberals of the cultish and truly frightening way that they worshipped at the Church of Barack. Let’s argue for first principles and smaller government.
But let’s also not go to the other extreme, sitting alone in a bunker, hoarding food and waiting for the end of the world. That way lies Hillary 2016.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.