by Rod D. Martin
June 16, 2010
The left often says (though perhaps not in quite these words) that when the Cold War ended Republicans lost their metanarrative. Republicans reflexively deny this, since the implication is that we have no raison d’etre, and that America can and ought now get about the work of building the secular democratic socialist workers paradise since there’s no one left to kill us (if there ever was before).
But Republicans shouldn’t succumb to reflex. Reaction is rarely right. And regardless of the intent of this bit of propaganda, it isn’t wrong.
You don’t have to wonder what the Democrats are for. “Hope and change” is powerful in part because it means whatever you want it to mean, but it’s also strong because deep down, you know exactly what it means. It means “not America,” or at least not the America we know. It means that current America is bad, racist, imperialist, sort of Darth Vader both at home and abroad. It means we can be better, if we’ll just embrace Woodstock (and perhaps the Weather Underground).
Operationally, the Democrat metanarrative has long been every bit as simple as “hope and change”: you (whoever you happen to be, so long as you’re not a straight Christian white male) are a minority, and “the man” (that would be those straight Christian white males) is evilly and intentionally crushing you, just to watch you die. You are small, he is big (and make no mistake, it’s always “he”). But if you’ll unite under the Democrats, you’ll have nothing to lose but your chains.
Republicans rightly respond that it’s actually the Democrats who have divided all those minorities into smaller and smaller groups of “hyphenated Americans” and that it is the statists who are bringing the chains. But that doesn’t matter. Just as you can’t beat a plan with no plan, you can’t beat a metanarrative with a collection of individual issues that most people don’t care about anyway. People need to see, accept, and care about a bigger picture, a unifying idea around which everything else falls into its place. Democrats show them one. Republicans haven’t in quite a long time.
Ideology Isn’t Enough
Ideology isn’t story. Stories sell. More to the point, stories beat facts that are not told in story form. There’s a reason so much of the Bible is narrative. A lot of people on our side of the fence forget that.
At risk of disconcerting any number of my conservative friends, let me say up front that ideology is not metanarrative (and while worldview is, and while Christians increasingly talk about worldview, most of their talk is more “meta” than “narrative”). Let me also risk the wrath of a few more by suggesting that a political party can have a metanarrative that is significantly less comprehensive than that of a religious faith, even if some political metanarratives (such as Marxism’s) are de facto religions (what I have elsewhere called “atheology”).
In any case, I note these things because the sine qua non of a non-RINO Republican today is “conservatism,” and as one of the people most responsible for popularizing the term “RINO” (which means “Republican In Name Only”) I take my small share of the credit and the blame for that. It is paying off as we speak with the rise of the Tea Party, thank God, and I believe that the people discounting this present rebellion will live to regret having done so come November.
“Conservative” is a good brand (I have myself questioned at times whether this is as true of the label as it is of the philosophy, but my friend Kellyanne Conway helped me see that it is). I have always contended that “conservative” is different in the American context than in the European due to its root word, “conserve”: in Europe, “conservatism” has always been about “conserving” the old order, the ancien regime, monarchism, aristocracy, sometimes literally serfdom. In America, which was conceived in a wilderness and born of the world’s first classical liberal revolution, conservatism has always meant conserving the values of that Revolution. On this point Hayek greatly erred, and while few American conservatives may be able to define their system as I just did, they feel it in their bones.
To me, ideology matters quite a lot. And to be clear, it does not matter — to me at least — because I have some academic interest in it, or because it’s my intellectual hobby (or hobby horse): it matters to me because in those worked-out, interlocking beliefs I see the means to greatly improve the lives of real people, lots if not all of them. I think that matters, and that value too is a core part of my ideology.
But most people don’t think in terms of ideologies, at least not in their daily lives. It’s not that they don’t have an ideology (or a worldview for that matter). But normal folks don’t sit around judging every new idea they hear against a consistent, worked-out set of core beliefs, an ideological matrix if you will, at least not in any conscious way. They’re practical, they’re not political junkies, and as a result their ideas are often a bit of a hodgepodge. That chowder usually goes together pretty nicely, but every now and then you’ll find a fly, or a stick of butter, or an old shoe sticking out of your bowl.
To digress just a bit, it’s worth noting that a lot of the political junkies, and particularly the consultants, are less ideological than the broader public. Frequently, they don’t really believe in anything except winning. This means that they listen disproportionately to people they believe to be “winners,” those with money and other forms of power (particularly media power) that disproportionately impact their own careers. For the most part, those people are not conservatives, and so most Republican political consultants aren’t either. They loathe the Tea Party, in part because they haven’t figured out how to co-opt it yet (though give them time), and in part because the Tea Party’s ideological enemies say the Tea Party is “too extreme” and “out of touch” and so forth. Since most of our consultants think that general elections are won and lost at very different sorts of parties in Manhattan and inside the Beltway (or their state-level equivalents), the Tea Party is viewed as frightening rather than as a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
This creates the rather perverse situation with which we’ve become woefully accustomed: Republican politicians pandering to their base (which they imagine to be a tiny minority, but which simple math shows to be the overwhelming majority of their own Party and a sometimes majority of independents) and then once elected operating very differently. But this is one of the core limitations of ideology: people who aren’t ideologically minded see the individual issues but no bigger picture – other than their own power – and so they do not see how compromise in one area affects the whole. When others do, they think those people are (to use the current term) “wingnuts.”
And maybe they are. But when one party is advancing a pretty consistent story over time, and the other is labeling everyone on its own team who wants to do likewise a nut, the first party is going to trample the second one time after time.
Story Trumps Ideology
What is needed, of course is a unifying story – a metanarrative – that ties all these ideas together, however imperfectly, for the non-ideological: so simple even a Congressman can get it.
This would be true even if every single Republican leader were a clone of Ronald Reagan. And it’s true even though I have long advocated (and continue to do so) that conservatism sells, and that even when that isn’t true, product differentiation sells, and that Republicans fail to sell (as they failed in 2008 and 2006 and 1996 and 1992 and 1976) when they try to “me-too” the Democrats. The points are not mutually exclusive.
It is by the power of their metanarrative that Democrats hold together what has always been the most fractious coalition in politics: gays, Teamsters, black nationalists, Hollywood producers, Jews (even while the Democrats grow more anti-Israel daily), many Catholics and countless others who just don’t get along. They have mastered divide and conquer – “everybody’s against you, but the people most against you are those Republicans over there” – just as they mastered it in the 1890s when they divided poor blacks and poor whites to prevent the Populist movement from spreading to the South and thus dislodging the rich Democrat planter class from power. They’re good at this.
Reagan was good at this too (the story part, not the Jim Crow part), as good at it as Goldwater was bad and for precisely these reasons. Reagan understood that identity sells better than reason, that narrative sells better than facts. This is not to say that his reasoning or facts were in any way deficient: he produced the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history and decisively defeated the Soviet Empire (and speaking of “facts,” the consensus of liberal academia at the time was that the USSR had an enormous, virtually inexhaustible economy, possibly bigger than our own; Reagan’s belief that it was a hollow shell, a military tail wagging a country-sized dog, was derided as insane. Guess who turned out to be right). But Reagan had help, as Margaret Thatcher had help from Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, and that sort of help may be available to Republicans today.
The need for victory in the Cold War united a great many people who would not otherwise have put up with one another. When the parties themselves were generally united in their approach, that made little electoral difference. But when the Democrats started nominating people like George McGovern, their doing so translated into two Republican 49-state sweeps in 12 years. It wasn’t the only issue on which those elections turned, but it was certainly first among them.
The Cold War was a powerful unifying story around which all other things not just could be but had to be organized: everything America did had to work toward victory, or at least survival, or victory and survival might prove impossible. In the context of the Cold War, we understood that the great story was capitalism and freedom vs. Communism and slavery. This came to require of us an increasing understanding and advocacy of capitalism and freedom, coming out of an era (the first half of the 20th Century) in which both had fallen into disrepute. We understood that the Communists were, like Hitler, seeking to expand their empire across the world: this pushed the West toward decolonization, and America toward pushing its allies to complete that self-maiming project. We understood that the Communists were oppressors and mass murderers: this emboldened civil rights activists and eventually the pro-life movement.
In many cases this dialectic (if you’ll pardon the term) was not obvious. But it was always there, even (for most of the period in question) across party lines. Its power was inescapable. There was the real, not at all academic possibility that every new day would be our last day: “keep my home from being incinerated in a nuclear fireball,” or “keep my children from being forced to learn Russian in a gulag” are demands politicians really can’t ignore, and the best answers to those questions really can’t help but win.
But the Cold War was not all about fear. It also provided the very positive opportunity for competition, in the best and most uplifting sense: the chance for Americans to prove that their values really were best, really were right, really could save the world, and that America would ultimately triumph, not as an imperial power but as the leader of a voluntarily free, peaceful and prosperous world. In many ways this made Americans better, and forced them to rethink many areas in which they’d gone astray.
Just think about those carrots and sticks! Death and enslavement vs. wealth and triumph. That’s pretty hard to top.
Yet actually the Cold War metanarrative even topped itself. I often like to say (because it’s true) that “America is not a race or a place but an idea.” But the people who’ve braved hostile seas and wicked tyrants and every manner of hardship to come to these shores and live by this idea are still a people. They have a specific identity. It was the idea that the Soviets sought to kill, but the way they intended to kill it was by killing (or at least breaking) those specific people. And they had no intention of discriminating between black and white, Democrat and Republican: we were all in this one together.
Once again, when the Democrats abandoned this central narrative — the need to decisively win — they were crushed, repeatedly, just as Foot and Kinnock were. Indeed, they lost an electoral coalition that had stood for half a century.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Democrats’ Metanarrative
I think there might be a way for them to lose it again.
As we’ve discussed, the central certainty of the left’s metanarrative is that America is bad. But Americans do not believe that they are bad, or that America is bad, and most of the ones who do would prefer not to. There’s an opportunity in that, first because a successful Republican metanarrative is going to need to counter the left’s metanarrative, and second because the left’s metanarrative is horribly and demonstrably wrong. America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world, humanly speaking, and any reasonable assessment (by which I mean virtually anything less blatantly biased than Howard Zinn’s or Noam Chomsky’s) proves that fact with little effort.
A good metanarrative should give its hearers an uplifting goal, a threat to that goal, and a compelling need to prevail. The left’s metanarrative since at least Karl Marx teaches that abolishing capitalism and nation states will bring global peace and equality; that capitalism, embodied in America (the most powerful nation state and the most happily capitalist) is an evil oppressor and the obstacle to all people’s “hope and change”; and that if the left does not prevail, not only will that awful oppression continue, but the Earth itself will be destroyed, consumed by pollution and by humanity itself, whom leftists increasingly define as “a plague upon nature.”
How humans are no longer part of nature I’ve never heard explained.
I’m sure Democrats’ heads will explode as they read those last two paragraphs, but they know it’s true, and you know it too. This metanarrative is the relentless drumbeat undergirding everything they say, always. Republicans frequently accuse them of working from talking points, but the truth is, they don’t have to, just as we didn’t in the 1980s: this story is so embedded in all of our heads that virtually anyone can tell you what any leftist will think about anything at any time. And that’s the power of story: even if my formulation might be seen by some as pejorative (and I dispute that it is), anyone can recognize the left’s central narrative instantly when I write this. And truth be told, many on the left would object principally because I didn’t tell the story as strongly as they would.
So what’s the problem? Most Americans disagree with this story. They always have. They might accept pieces of it, but (in my view at least) there are better ways to explain those parts, and the core truth remains that they just don’t buy it.
But the problem for Republicans is that you can’t beat a story with no story. A piecemeal approach doesn’t work. All you get in response is, “well, maybe the Democrats are wrong about x, but we still have to do” whatever it is the Democrats happen to be saying. This is because one side has a coherent view of everything, and the other side is just picking at pieces of it without offering a competing comprehensive framework. So everyone assumes the framework they have must be true, even when they dislike it and actively disagree with most of its parts.
Whittaker Chambers is the perfect example: he abandoned Communism and embraced Christianity and capitalism, yet he believed to his dying day that he’d joined the losing side. He just thought it was the right thing to do. It’s hard to get many converts to join you on a ship you tell them is sinking.
You see this a lot in the gun debate. Gun ownership has increased almost 50% in the last 20 years, and according to the gun controllers, that means gun crime should be up something like a zillion percent. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s down by half since the early 1990s: it’s actually near its hundred-year lows!
Do these facts (and they are facts, straight from the FBI) change the public’s perception of things? No, not really. Americans aren’t very fond of gun control and never have been, so there’s a limit to how much this helps the left. But if you ask people whether gun crime is increasing they say yes – because that’s the narrative they’ve learned by heart – and if you show someone who’s in favor of gun control (or for that matter most so-called “moderates”) the facts I just cited, they will invariably tell you either that you’re lying or that we ought to restrict or ban guns anyway because “how could it hurt” to “do the right thing”?
And therein lies the power of narrative. How on Earth is it “the right thing” to disarm innocent potential victims when we have 20 years of data showing that the more they’re armed, the fewer of them will become victims? “How can it hurt”? The data shows it will hurt because more of them will become victims! More guns have actually equaled less crime, not in some NRA position paper but in the real world and over a period of decades (I would say this is because, in the words of that great philosopher Batman, “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot,” and they prefer not to attack people who are able to fight back).
“How can it hurt” is a question that can only be asked because the story is more powerful than the data. And the story is not about gun control per se (though through sheer repetition it has taken on a life of its own), but about the metanarrative’s larger presuppositions: that most of the world is against you and your group, that most of those people are dumber than “we the enlightened,” that the other side is using stories to trump our “facts” (this is called “projection,” but ideas like “the Republican War on Science” flow from it like water) with the ignorant racist hate-filled masses, and that therefore the only solution is (1) to disarm those masses and (2) to ensure that we the enlightened control the government, which will thenceforth control the only guns.
This narrative has previously worked quite well in scores of socialist countries of both the Communist and Fascist variety. When I unpack it, surely you see its power.
In any case, my point is not about gun control (I obviously have an opinion, but let’s ignore that for now). My point is that if you’ve bought into the story that guns are bad, that guns cause crime, that people cannot be trusted with guns, and that eliminating guns would solve this important social problem and others about which we probably should not speak, it simply does not matter that the facts are against you: you stick with the story. To you, the facts don’t disprove the story, and even if they do, the bigger story (the metanarrative) is more important than this one small piece of it, and the bigger story requires the result those facts are trying to prevent. The story is what’s compelling, just as the story of the Cold War was compelling.
I am not saying that citing facts is a pointless exercise: obviously doing so eats away at the story and create opportunities for discussion and conversion. I’m just saying that most of the people who know any facts about any of this have a narrative about those facts to begin with and for the most part will not be swayed (Van Til’s pioneering work in presuppositionalism is most helpful to understand this in its fullness). And in the case of gun rights, there is obviously a strong presumption in America that guns are good, which makes the left’s narrative hard for many people to swallow. But this is because on this one issue at least, the right does have a counternarrative, which is one or both of “you gun banners are crazy: of course we need to be able to defend ourselves” or “the Second Amendment is about restraining potential government tyranny, and the benefits of that outweigh any other cost.” Try arguing with either of those: you’ll get just as far as you’ll get with Sarah Brady.
Still, even in the face of these powerful narratives, there are pro-gun people who will vote against Republicans (who consistently support gun rights) and for Democrats (who consistently oppose them) purely because of the left’s larger metanarrative. These people accept the bigger story and put up with disagreeing about the smaller. Likewise, strongly masculine Teamsters put up with the LGBT agenda, and Jews put up with Democrats’ increasing hostility toward Israel, because the bigger picture matters to them more. And that picture isn’t an ideology so much as it’s a story.
All of this said, the story of the Cold War was far more compelling than the story of gun control – obviously, since gun control is in retreat and the Cold War was won – because the facts actually matched the story. A story that has the facts on its side is far easier to believe than one that does not. And this is Republicans’ great opportunity. The facts match our story better, on everything.
Unfortunately, while we do have the facts, we still lack the story.
Inventing a New Republican Metanarrative
I am not saying definitively that I believe I have the answer to this problem. But I think I may be on to something. We could call it “competitiveness,” but that sounds like something you’d hear at a conference of local businessmen sponsored by your regional power company: my own eyes glaze as I write the word.
So let’s think of it with a different appellation: “Keep America Number One.”
“Keep America Number One” (and I’m by no means saying that should be the final phrasing) could draw together all of the core conservative ideas into a self-defining program with an obvious and obviously beneficial goal.
1. It’s built on identity rather than ideology. Every nation’s people ought to want their country to win (go to a soccer game sometime and you’ll see that they already do). All non-fascist and some fascist socialists do not want their country to win, because they are opposed to the existence of countries, and because they see America as the great impediment to the end of nationalism. This is why leftists are so touchy about the questioning of their patriotism, and why any contest that involves patriotism as a motivating force puts them at a great disadvantage.
2. Despite its tapping into the American identity rather than mere ideology, “Keep America Number One” reinforces those parts of the conservative ideology that work (which, once again, I think to be all of them). It is very practical, where the left tends to be very ivory tower. The contest is necessarily skewed our way.
3. Practical tends to reinforce common sense, and tapping into common sense means that the story is extremely easy to accept. It is common sense that if jobs are flowing to China we should both negotiate better deals with them and also make our own competitive environment better. It is common sense that we shouldn’t turn California’s Central Valley into a desert for the sake of a tiny fish that isn’t even native to the area, at the cost of putting ex-farmers in food lines instead of in their fields feeding the world. It is common sense that American foreign policy should first and foremost serve America’s national interests rather than the interests of foreigners. It is common sense that budgets should be balanced, that people should have not just the opportunity but the duty to work for a living, that faceless bureaucrats in Washington don’t understand or care about your family as much as you do, that the safety net should encourage advancement, not stifle it. It is common sense that schools should focus on subjects that will help kids become good citizens and perform well at work, that families should be reinforced, that neighborhoods should be safe.
Indeed, “Keep America Number One” strikes at the heart of every aspect of the leftist metanarrative.
Now there’s no question that all this lacks the existential threat that defined the Cold War metanarrative. But that’s not necessarily a problem: the left consistently denies that America faces any threats whatsoever (other than straight white Christian males), and they’re obviously successful. There’s also no doubt that phrases like “Keep America Number One” get used all the time right now. But that use is not the same thing as creating a compelling, central story around the idea.
So let’s examine this in terms of our three essential elements as listed above.
An Uplifting Goal
Our first element is an uplifting goal. And indeed, how can anyone be against keeping America number one? Answer: by being a foreigner (nothing wrong with that), or by putting foreigners’ interests ahead of your neighbor’s (quite a lot wrong with that). Either immediately defines you as, if not quite an enemy, then at least not someone to whom sensible Americans ought to listen.
This by itself is reason enough to give this line of thought serious consideration. Coming to grips with the reality of the left’s metanarrative makes writing our own (which we believe in anyway) child’s play. We should be for our own team. Because they aren’t. And we don’t have to say so: we just have to provoke them to say it themselves.
And the goal is actually uplifting. Where the left wants to make America “better,” by which it means different (or in Obama’s words, “fundamentally transformed”), “keeping America number one” assumes that America (1) already is number one and (2) ought to be. It unashamedly embraces both patriotism and American Exceptionalism. It also says that people can’t and shouldn’t (yes, it makes value judgments) rest on their laurels, that hard work is both a virtue and a necessity, and that failing to actually do that hard work will have inevitably unhappy consequences.
This is exactly how we train kids in sports, by the way (at least when leftist union trolls aren’t giving everyone a trophy). It has instant resonance almost everywhere. And for parents currently forced to put up with the insanity I just described, they suddenly have a rhetorical weapon they don’t currently have: “this isn’t helping make America number one!”
It is not within the scope of this essay to fully describe the benefits of keeping America number one, but let’s take a look at a few. First, it necessarily involves the belief that the vision of the Founding Fathers was not merely that of racist dead white men (the left’s metanarrative) but the highest point of human thought in the area of politics and law since the Creation, that it is literally (as Abraham Lincoln put it) “the last best hope of Earth.” (For those who have theological issues with Lincoln’s statement, please recall that we are discussing politics here, and only politics.) Moreover, because that is true, America is an unambiguous force for good in the world simply by existing: it is indeed that “shining city on a hill,” encouraging respect for everyone’s God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, everywhere in the world.
Second, it assumes that putting American interests first is not only legitimate but morally mandatory. This is not to say that others’ interests don’t count, only that others have their own governments to represent them and that ours ought to represent us. One can argue about whether this or that trade policy is best, or this or that immigration plan, or this or that whatever. But once you define the goal as “keeping America number one,” then the only remaining question is which policy works best, empirically, to achieve that end.
This, crucially, is how the vast majority of Americans already think. They do not understand why it so often seems that, if the world were a court, their lawyer is representing the other side. So this is a winning point of view, even if we differ on the details. Those differences are fertile ground for a rollicking primary debate every cycle, but the metanarrative defines that debate’s boundaries. And when in the general election the other party explicitly rejects the premise, pretends to accept it but offers “solutions” which empirically fail to serve it, or even embraces the premise with a watered-down approach, in all three cases we win.
And that is the key: “we win.” We say outright that we’re going to be the richest, freest, most successful, best educated, most innovative place in all of history, and we’re going to push the limits of what’s possible all the time. We’re going to compete in all things and be the best in all of them or die trying. Are there orphans to take care of? We’ll make enough money to do it. Are there unemployed people? We’ll get them some benefits, but we won’t rest until we literally have to build robots to fill all the jobs we create. Is there pollution? We’ll clean it up, but with approaches that don’t hold up growth. Are there regulations standing in the way? We’ll slash them down to the minimum necessary to serve their goals (if they’re worthy goals), and if we must err, we’ll err on the side of getting people moving, fast. Add in a modern equivalent of the Transcontinental Railroad or the Panama Canal for good measure: something that changes the very nature of the world, offers an enormous payoff, and engages the national imagination.
We once did such things, unapologetically.
Or to put that another way, we won’t talk about “4% growth rates” as some candidates have been known to do, instantly glazing over the eyes of all but the bankers in the crowd. We’ll talk about how fast we’re going to double the American economy, and how that will make every single American’s life better. And we’ll talk about how we’re going to do that again, and again.
This raises an important point. I constantly hear it said that America’s economy can grow no faster than some piddly amount “because we’re a mature economy.” That’s bunk. What does “mature economy” even mean? By the standards of 1750, Britain not only had what was then considered a mature economy, it had the most advanced economy on the planet. Britain’s economy, like the world’s as a whole, has hockey-sticked since then.
Does anyone think that innovation is slowing down? No, American growth is at best 3% or 4% (and frequently much worse) while China’s is 7% or 8% because America has accumulated byzantine impediments to growth. It took just 18 months to build the Empire State Building in the worst years of the Great Depression. It is expected that less than half of the new World Trade Center’s one tower (not two) will be complete by the end of this year, almost a decade after 9/11. No one has the slightest idea when it will be finished. That’s not a “mature economy”: that’s a stultified economy, on which the parasite of government has grown fat.
“Keep America Number One” has the beauty of simplicity, and that simplicity carries over to goals such as this one. Few people are going to understand much of what I just said, but they’ll understand doubling the economy. 3% growth means you double the economy in roughly 25 years. 8% growth means you double it in 9 years. So figure out the goal – not the gobbledygook — and talk about that. And talk about why. Doubling the economy, and faster rather than slower, means far more jobs. Doubling the economy means the government can do it’s work with a much lower tax rate. Doubling the economy means our military can stay ahead of China’s, our scientists will have more money to cure diseases, and perhaps most important, you’ll have plenty of money for Suzie’s braces, Johnny’s tuition, and a host of important things that may not even exist yet.
Keeping American number one can get very, very personal.
So back to my earlier point. If we jettison this “mature economy” outlook in a time of constant advance, if we shoot the Moon and go for 7% growth (“doubling the economy within this decade” ala JFK and Apollo), if we keep America number one (which we cannot possibly do when more populous countries are growing faster), it will be because it’s what most people think we ought to do anyway. Our coach (the government) ought to push our team (all of us) to go and win the Super Bowl every year, forever. Even if we don’t make it, we should always try, and we should fire any coach who doesn’t think so.
Non-political, non-economic people can understand this. It makes a lot more sense than the left’s loony narrative. And aside from the obvious virtue in healthy competitiveness and striving for excellence, it is right to try to be the best, and it is right to set an example for others. Everyone else should be doing these things too, everywhere in the world.
We’ve always been better at it. And we ought to do whatever it takes to stay that way. That should be our goal, for the rest of the world, and for us. And that is an uplifting goal.
A Threat to the Goal
The rising power today is China. China probably doesn’t want to nuke us or conquer us (as the Soviets did). But you just never know. These days they’re somewhere between Communism and Fascism with a big dose of Confucianism, none of which is especially fond of freedom (or of us).
With six times the U.S. population, China’s individuals can have one-sixth the wealth of America’s individuals and still boast an economy that’s our equal, and thus capable of fielding a military that’s equal to ours if not greater. Historically speaking, people that well armed who are also that poor – and they’re used to being a whole lot poorer – are likely to be resentful and to want to take our stuff, or our place, or at least something that’s ours. And with consistent 7% to 9% growth for three decades with no obvious sign of let-up, they’re likely to get a lot bigger still, maybe a lot bigger than us.
This is not an argument for trying to hold them back: we should rejoice in their success. It’s just…disconcerting. And we shouldn’t leave them any opportunities to act badly.
India, with only a few less people than China and a nuclear force as well, could easily achieve the same things and become the same sort of threat. They’re the world’s largest democracy, stable now for over 60 years, they speak English and more-or-less share our legal system. But they’re not exactly our friends (we should work on that), they’re Hindus (we should work on that too), and they’re Socialists (historically anyway) who aren’t above electing actual Communists (as the state of West Bengal has done for 30 years). Who knows how that might end up?
That’s all before we consider some future Islamic caliphate, the EU, and a world that’s getting richer and (in some ways at least) more dangerous all the time. What will it take to keep America safe from hypersonic MIRVs and EMPs and God only knows what else from a whole host of countries and stateless groups we aren’t even considering yet, and over the span of another 50 years?
No one can be sure, but I can tell you this much: it’s going to take a whole lot of money. And assuming it’s the same amount of money either way, we ought to spend it out of a (much) bigger economy rather than out of a much smaller one.
So the “keep America number one” argument as to national security is very straightforward: whether or not we use our power, we should have enough to be invulnerable, always; and a rapidly growing economy can support that strength with far less sacrifice. This approach makes obvious sense to most people; it also provides all reasonable means for America to be a force for good in the world: stability, peace, disaster relief, freedom of the seas, all the traditional American goals. Failing to do so means we could again face the threat of annihilation here at home, from quarters which aren’t even threats yet. It’s easy to make that point too, especially when there’s plenty of money and the goal is to “keep America number one.”
But defense is not by itself enough. The idea of keeping America number one inescapably includes a robust defense of Western Civilization (what some of us like to call Christendom) and its values. If another civilization – particularly the Chinese or Indian – were ever to overtake us, the world would follow the leader, as it always has through all of time.
Both China and India presently give at least lip service to many of our values, but would they if they came out on top? Not likely. A China that was in first place would rediscover its Confucian soul, its ancient heritage, and the “superiority” of its extremely authoritarian, anti-innovative past. Pride always works this way, particularly in lands with genuinely glorious pasts and great resentment at having to “catch up” with people many still call “white devils.” Forgotten (and demonized) will be the many Western ideas by which they actually caught up.
Understood this way, keeping America number one means keeping American values preeminent for the good of all mankind, exactly as Lincoln and the Founding Fathers suggested. And this is deeply troubling, offensive, even infuriating to the American left, which has made multiculturalism its totem, by which it means respect for every culture except America’s, no matter how antithetical to its own values that culture might be. As just one of many examples, watching feminists and other leftists come to excuse and even promote Sharia law over the decade since 9/11 has been quite educational for many of us. During the Cold War we thought these people merely sympathized with the Soviets, or perhaps were Communists and fellow travelers. Now we know better: they really just hate America and everything it stands for.
So provoking them to show this proclivity, as often and as vocally as possible, works well for conservatives. It’s far better for them to say it themselves, not least because then we get to have a real debate about whether (again, as just one example) it’s a good idea to have zones in this country where honor killings are allowed, and where wives are treated as property. We get to have a public discussion about whether we should uphold the First Amendment in the face of violence-backed demands that Mohammed never be visually depicted. Discussing this out loud will be…helpful.
Obviously we do a good bit of that already. But it would be far better if we were to cast these micro-issues, these ideological points, in the light of competing metanarratives. The anti-nationalist, anti-Western left should be made to face an explicit goal not just of promoting America but of acknowledging and ensuring that America is number one: her values, her economy, her raw power.
This the left cannot bear. And the more the left is forced to respond to our simple idea, our overarching story, our comprehensive framework from which nothing can quite escape, the harder it will find it to justify its countless individual positions without more explicitly articulating its own metanarrative, a worldview it prefers to keep in shadow for the very good reason that it isn’t well received when articulated explicitly.
What this means, of course, is that whatever external threats may exist, the most dangerous obstacle, the most pressing threat to the goal of keeping America number one will be right here at home, not because we’re ugly but because they’ll tell the world it’s true. And note well: this is exactly the point of the left’s metanarrative – that Republicans are the singular obstacle to global paradise, opposed to all that is right and good – and exactly why their adherents fight us with such great determination and passion. And since “Keep America Number One,” like “hope and change,” is a goal with which comparatively few would even want to argue, this will put the left on defense in exactly the same way that the Cold War metanarrative did in the 1980s, when they consistently lost between 40 and 49 states.
A Compelling Need to Win
Obviously, this is all good stuff: great framing device for all of conservatives’ values, great potential to “out” the left’s not-at-all-hidden agenda, great opportunity to put them on defense and us on permanent offense on all fronts.
The question remains, though: can it provide large numbers of regular people a sufficiently compelling need to win?
On this point I’m not certain. But I think it might.
As I said previously, the mere lack of a genuinely existential threat is not necessarily a problem. In fact, I think most people rarely process alleged existential threats anyway. What hits home are threats to their immediate circumstances. And on that front we have a winner.
Let me illustrate. Illegal immigration is a compelling threat requiring action for many Americans because they fear increased crime, erosion of wages, competition for jobs, and a generalized change in their neighborhoods and their country against their will, without their consent, and in blatant violation of their laws. As a result, this issue has produced a degree of passion and unwillingness to accept compromise that has completely shocked Washington and greatly altered our politics.
Or to take this from another perspective, voting Democrat is compelling for many blacks and Hispanics, even when they disagree with many or even most Democrat policy positions, because the Democrats have been so successful persuading them of their metanarrative, the most essential part of which is that “Republicans hate you.”
I clearly disagree with that last point, but if I were black and I believed it, I’d certainly vote for the party that didn’t hate me. That’s an emotional argument, an argument from identity, one that necessarily trumps all discussions of tax cuts, charter schools, or whatever else some Washington think tank might dream up.
I have spoken endlessly and written a good bit about the need for Republicans to bridge that particular gap, the easiest means for which are walking across the street and making friends. Republicans aren’t good at grassroots, Democrats excel at it, and it shows, right here and in this.
But the bigger issue is that the narrative – Republicans hate you – is compelling, especially when repeated constantly and when you don’t know any Republicans (who also don’t know any of you). It is even more compelling when it faces no counternarrative at all. And just to be clear, occasionally mentioning Abraham Lincoln (whom many blacks I’ve met assume was a Democrat), or holding an “outreach” event, isn’t a narrative: it’s not even good politics.
Now take this to the metanarrative level and you see how much worse this is for conservatives. The left’s metanarrative isn’t just that Republicans hate blacks, but that the entire power structure is dominated by a white conservative majority that can only be defeated by all of the minority groups – who also largely hate each other: the Democrats benefit from this too – banding together against their collective overlords: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It redefines most of the values of the Founding Fathers – and increasingly the Founding Fathers themselves – as racist, as antidemocratic, as a means of keeping the masses down, and therefore in need of heavy modification or abolition. Buying into this story buys you into everything, the entire agenda, even the parts you don’t necessarily agree with.
So for the many blacks who do agree, there is absolutely a compelling need to win. They don’t know what will happen if they lose, but they “know” it will be bad. And likewise, they aren’t happy in their current circumstances, so victory means something better, however ill-defined: “hope and change.”
It is in this that we find the key to our “compelling need.” Our metanarrative must simultaneously make us each part of something far greater than ourselves, and at the same time give us clear reasons why we as individuals will benefit from its success (and face painful harm if it fails). I am certainly not suggesting that we stir up group hatred as the left incessantly does: quite the opposite. By recovering the “we’re all in this together” ethos of the Cold War era, we will live out our core value that Americans don’t need hyphens, that markets create opportunity for everyone, that all have equal dignity before God. And by clearly drawing the connection between America’s success as a nation and ours, both individually and collectively, we will make it ever harder for the left to divide and conquer.
But these things accomplished, keeping America number one will prove compelling because we are all in this together. There are very few who can jump off this ship successfully should we ever experience the grave decline the left preaches and promotes. Reagan understood this well, as he advocated his “shining city on a hill,” and repudiated the Democrats’ handwringing about “malaise” and “Limits to Growth.” His optimism for all of us was infectious, compelling, winning.
Focusing that promise – and the dangers arising from the failure the left’s policies require – can, as we’ve established, be very personal indeed. The metanarrative just makes it a lot easier to convey that.
The various parts of the Republican coalition have countless ideas, far too many for normal people to keep track, but plenty for them to argue. It’s not just that we can’t beat a story without a story: it’s that to most people – even most Republicans – it’s all just a box of puzzle pieces. And lacking a coherent metanarrative, it’s easy for the left to impose theirs on us: that we are incoherently, stupidly, even crazily opposing all that is good and right.
No wonder Democrats are winning, and that the Republican coalition has been fragmenting for some time now.
“Keep America Number One” would bring all our issues, and all of us, together. There would necessarily be some big internal debates as to the specifics, and yet the broad theme would have the effect of focusing the outcome in a contained, positive direction that, in most cases, would be driven by empirical outcomes. This is a significant advantage for us over the left: story and emotion supported by experience and fact is much stronger than emotion and story standing against experience and fact.
And that being so, let the best metanarrative win.
Bringing us together very much includes social conservatives (of whom I am surely one), who have perhaps the greatest stake in defending and advancing Western Civilization’s two-thousand-year-old values. An America that genuinely believes in and stands for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is worth defending; a movement that pursues these things is also, for many people now on the fence, or even in the other camp, worth joining. And to keep America number one, there will be an overarching need to improve education, clean up neighborhoods, bring people together, and generally solve the many social problems Republicans too often ignore, and the festering of which feeds the left’s “divide and conquer” strategy.
An America that believes in itself, that expressly asserts the virtues and benefits of peaceful nationalism in the face of the dominant internationalism, that raises great kids with boundless opportunity in good homes and safe neighborhoods, that leads the world in economic growth and innovation, that cures diseases instead of managing them, that invents untold wonders to solve “unsolvable” problems, that completes the eradication of poverty by creating untold wealth, that shows the world the way: that, that is compelling.
That America is only possible through the implementation of conservative ideas in virtually every area. Even the assertion that America ought to be “number one” is a conservative belief. And the results-driven approach embedded in it will leave little room for the muddle-headed leftwing boondoggles America – and particularly America’s poor – have languished under for so long.
This is who we’ve been for all of our history. This resonates in our very soul.
Maybe you have a better idea for a new Republican metanarrative. I’d absolutely love to hear it.
But until then, I think in this we may have a winner, not just for our Party but for America and for the world.
It’s not one moment too soon.
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