Those on the right are positively giddy about the protracted race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Their pleasure is the result, most obviously, of the opportunity cost that Democrats incur in the race. Clinton and Obama are forced to use their messages and expenditures to undermine one another — not advance a negative image of John McCain. The upshot: better electoral prospects for McCain, the candidate whom most Republicans support.
But their satisfaction is prompted by more than mere advantage in a political contest. Theirs is also a moral satisfaction, associated with the fact that many Obama supporters have come to view the Clintons in the same way the right has for decades. For many on the right, the possibility of a Clinton defeat, no matter at whose hands, is a reason for celebration.
Even this satisfaction is eclipsed by the thought that the Democratic Party may nominate Obama, a candidate further to the left than Clinton. It is in these circumstances that Republican merriment turns into hope — hope that the Democratic Party will abandon the mainstream entirely, consumed by the puritanical orthodoxy of a leftist fringe and fading into irrelevance.
Though this particular hope has a chance of being realized, there is something odd about the gaiety which accompanies the possibility. Not only is gaiety premature, it also bolsters the stereotype of schadenfreude as one of the right’s fundamental values. Put simply, after years of national disaffection with a Republican president and bitter internecine conflict within the GOP, tactical failures by the opposition justify gratitude for a second chance — not joy. The laughter of the right strikes a dissonant chord, a brittle and inadequate rejoinder to Obama’s unclear but sincere projection of hope.
The truth of the matter is that the right, as it exists today, cannot compete with Obama within the framework established by “the audacity of hope.” When the paradigm of liberal progressivism becomes the benchmark for politics, the right loses. Liberalism delegitimizes unchosen obligations, thereby problematizing inherited relationships. It then promises to fix the resulting rootlessness by creating a world better suited to autonomy. Once citizens buy this liberal vision, they feel themselves more alienated from nature than before, and the reformation of the world in the terms of that alienation becomes urgent, even necessary.
Obama is indeed a phenomenon. But not all phenomena ought to be imitated. The message implicit in Obama’s rhetoric is progress through autonomy. It is powerful and elicits an enthusiastic response. Should the right adopt this message in search of similar enthusiasm, it would thereby abandon conservatism, becoming nothing more than an authoritarian version of the left. It adopts autonomy as the solution to the problem of human alienation, but grants that autonomy to the state rather than to the individual. Contemporary Russia under Putin is an example of this version of the political right.
McCain differs from Obama and Putin in that he does not present autonomy, in either the individual or the state, as the ultimate mechanism of progress. Rather, his conservatism carves out a space for the right quite distinct from that of Obama’s left. Those on the right in America, therefore, need not revel in the Democratic civil war; rather, they ought to find satisfaction in their own candidate, seeking to expound his philosophy, his qualifications and his character.
They have good reason to do so, because the election of Obama would mean an ascendant liberalism on the left. And the byproduct of ascendant liberalism is the amplification of alienation, which desires a return to rootedness. The left promises that the liberation of the individual will enable him to create his own rootedness, but when that promise proves false, the alienated look elsewhere. The right, having shed its conservatism, valorizes the state as the enforcer of national rootedness. It adopts the left’s rhetoric of autonomy and applies that rhetoric to the state.
It may be true that conservatism today is an anachronism in a world enthralled by progressive liberalism, a heretic from the reigning doctrines of modernity. But liberal modernity has produced its own horrors, which ought to be enough — even from the standpoint of liberalism — to justify the continued influence of conservatism on the right.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.