Don't Pass the Torch, Put It Out

One hears considerable talk, either with panic or jubilation, that no one is emerging as the bearer of the torch of Reaganism in the Republican party. Conservatives who have held sway since 1980, taking only eight years off during the Clinton era, can't reach a consensus. Commentators are predicting that the fractured Republican primaries, having picked two different winners in Iowa and New Hampshire, may pick a third or fourth winner in Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida, adding Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani to the list. Perhaps the attempt to fuse together a united right-wing coalition is as doomed as the attempt to resuscitate the Roosevelt coalition in the Fifties.

With the White House seeming to be an apple ready to fall into their laps, thanks largely to the misbegotten Iraq war, Democrats are understandably nervous that they will self-destruct. Painful memories persist of two Presidential elections in which the inferior candidate won, and yet something deeper is going on. Reaganism represented the end of altruistic politics and a turn toward other, less savory forces that have long haunted American politics. Since the Depression no ruling coalition has been able to hold power without bending to the racist South. Gun owners must be mollified. Right-wing Christians with dogmatic, narrow-minded stands on school prayer, abortion, and gay rights have aroused the callous worst in political expediency. Now that anti-immigration has reared its ugly head once again, another perennial bugaboo for at least a century, Republicans can only pass on the torch by stooping lower and lower.

Hopefully the torch will be put out this time. The image of conservatism, indeed the label itself, hides a shameful reality. Jingoism, war-mongering, fiscal irresponsibility, and nativism go back to the very source. (Fiscal conservatives conveniently forget that Reagan hugely increased the deficit while Clinton turned it into a surplus.) The Bush era may have brought a sordid climax of flank-rubbing corruption, but the truth is that the Reagan coalition has never been remotely idealistic and always proudly anti-progressive. This sort of reactionary backsliding was tolerable, perhaps, when America felt rich and confident. It's atavistic now, in an era where so-called family values are a paper disguise for ignoring the urgent need for global solutions to a host of problems. It may be, as some analysts predict, that the public's reaction to illegal immigration, gay rights, secularism, big government, terrorism, and the global economy will be negative in the end. The politics of altruism has yet to prove that it can breathe new life. But the bottom line for putting out the right-wing torch is that none of us can afford to follow it -- on the grounds of realism alone, America needs to acquire a new vision of itself before crisis arrives on our doorstep and can't be wished away any longer.