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Why don't Republicans hate Disney's America?

On a whole range of issues, conservatives and liberals should be standing together

In late December, the Walt Disney Company announced a plan to build an American history theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, a rural town of 500 just beyond the cordon of fake-farmhouse tract developments, glass-towered office parks, and shopping strips that make up the suburbs of Washington, D.C. "Disney's America" is scheduled to occupy 3,000 acres of land and has a certain grotesque irony about it--not the least of which is the fact that the Washington area burgeons with landmarks of real American history, including the Civil War's Manassas battlefield a few miles away. Disney promises that the park's attractions will generate as many as 19,000 new jobs--of the low-paying, transient-attracting, tourist-service variety. But far from needing the work, the Haymarket area is already prosperous on a modest scale, and metropolitan Washington in general has the nation's highest per-capita living standard. Worst of all, Disney, a multibillion dollar corporation that almost never fails to turn a profit, expects the commonwealth of Virginia (that is, its taxpayers) to underwrite part of the theme park's costs, shelling out $163.2 million to build roads, train employees, and even advertise the attraction.

Big spending, government entwinement in private enterprise, and the certain destruction of all that is left in Northern Virginia of a traditional, family-and-church-centered, rural way of life--sounds like political liberalism at its overbearing worst. However, Disney's America's biggest booster is no liberal but Virginia's new Republican governor, George Allen, who ran for office in 1993 on a conservative platform of oldfashioned morality and fiscal restraint. When Allen talks about Haymarket, though, he doesn't talk about anything resembling conserving. He talks growth. He talks progress. "Disney's America can and will be the first step in Virginia's renaissance," he told state legislators early this year.

Allen's rhetoric is typical of those whom we call "conservatives" in America these days, or at least of the conservatives who figure prominently in politics and the media. Conservatives are supposed to stand for a love of tradition--hence their name--and also for a suspicion of government.

Protecting the environment, for example, ought to be a conservative cause. The Republican can president and WASP aristocrat Theodore Roosevelt practically invented the word "conservation." But most conservatives nowadays call conservationists "tree huggers" and make fun of endangered species. Conservatives ought to champion propriety and good manners. Yet The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial writers have taken up the cause of Ewart Yearwood, the Swarthmore College student in trouble with school authorities for allegedly making a pest of himself around a female freshman.

Country squire George Washington, perhaps the most conservative of the Founding Fathers, cautioned the country in his Farewell Address to avoid entangling herself in foreign wars except in "extraordinary emergencies." Most of today's conservatives ignore this counsel and instead promote an aggressively interventionist U.S. foreign policy reminiscent of Wilsonian do-gooder Democratic internationalism. Indeed, the former Reagan administration official and current Republican presidential hopeful William Bennett edited Washington's mind-your-own-business sentiments right out of the version of the Farewell Address he included in his Gibraltar-size tome The Book of Virtues.

And how about that incubator of hard work, thrift, and other Bennett-touted virtues--the family farm? The view of today's conservatives: plow it under. "I was at an American Enterprise Institute thing where someone said, |Maybe we just don't need family farms anymore; we've progressed beyond them,"' recalls Gary Dorrien, author of The Neoconservative Mind. "I've never heard anything so un-conservative in my life."

Although they talk a great deal about personal responsibility and ethics, most of today's conservatives refuse to support the traditional social and economic arrangements--small towns, extended families, generational roots, secure livelihoods, and respect for the land--that create the stability in which a sense of duty to others thrives. Instead, conservatives function as shills for big business and, as if America weren't already the most prosperous country on Earth, "growth"--a perpetual frenzy of economic development designed to make life ever more expensive and transform people into slaves of consumption. Then conservatives wring their hands and castigate the "Hollywood elite" for turning young people into illiterate MTV-heads--as if everyone in Hollywood weren't working for the very capitalistic enterprises that conservatives otherwise commend.

All this should change. Just as there are "neoliberals" who find common ground with conservatives on such issues as crime and entrepreneurship, there ought to be conservatives who take up causes we now associate strictly with liberals. Among them: environmental protection, stopping the drug war, saving the family farm, and rooting out consumerism. Figuring out a name for this new conservative movement will be difficult ("neoconservatism" has already been taken), but it deserves attention nonetheless.

So far, that attention has not come from conservatives themselves. "There's a certain Philistine streak among them," observes Philip Terzian, a conservative columnist for the Providence Journal. Thus, although conservatives fret about America's moral decline (which they blame on a leftish "adversary culture" of influential intellectuals), in order to find a serious moral critique of the state of current society you have to turn to a socialist such as the late Christopher Lasch. "Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization," Lasch wrote in a 1990 afterword to his famous 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism. "We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us," continued Lasch. "Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images."

"The leftist critique of modernism is OK, even if you agree with none of the left's answers," says Chilton Williamson of Chronicles magazine, a paleoconservative monthly. "The right can't face the fact of environmental degradation and the enormous power of corporations. The left--they're self-righteous and self-serving in their critique, but that doesn't mean they aren't right."

Nonetheless, genuine conservatives ought to be willing to confront phony conservatism, if only to keep liberals from always seizing the high ground. For example, the Bush presidential campaign in 1992 made family values a rhetorical linchpin, but it was Bill Clinton who actually appeared to be doing something for parents and children when he pushed a federal family leave law through Congress soon after taking office last year.

The law was arguably a mistake, and it certainly represented big government at its most heavy handed (it overrode a plethora of state laws already requiring employers to grant unpaid leave for pregnancy and family illnesses). But you never heard any of the Republicans who opposed the federal leave law suggest that employers might have a moral if not a legal obligation to allow mothers to stay home with newborn or sick children without losing badly needed jobs. That argument--an appeal to private compassion and to reciprocal loyalties between employer and employee rather than to written rules--would have made business interests (and most liberals) queasy, but it would have represented a genuinely conservative way to shore up families.

Conservatives by all rights should be defenders of traditional communities, from black churches to urban ethnic enclaves. Nonetheless, it is liberals who have appropriated both the word "communitarian" and the votes of working-class people who are deeply conservative on social issues but fret about their livelihoods. All that movement conservatives have to say to blue-collar blacks and ethnics is: Not to worry. If NAFTA takes away your job or your farm, that's the "creative destruction" that makes capitalism work over the long run.

The reason for the disjuncture between what conservatives call themselves and what they believe is that there is very little about American conservatism nowadays that would be recognizable as conservative anywhere else. For example, Edmund Burke, the benchmark philosopher of English-speaking conservatism, would have been horrified at the very idea of creative destruction. "A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views," he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke cherished individual liberty, but he saw it as the glorious end-product of a civilized society that could enforce its mores by long-held convention and custom rather than by coercion. Burke viewed people's obligations toward each other not in legalistic terms but in terms of "fealty"--mutual duties that bind people of every social class into "little platoons" of immediate and personal loyalties.

Deeply conservative strands also run through American society, from its rural and small-town communities to the family-centered immigrant cultures that fill its cities. But America also has the Republican Party, with its strong pro-business tilt that sometimes, but not always, coincides with real conservatism. The Cold War reconciled conservatives to big government via the defense buildup, and it also brought in waves of neoconservatives: welfare-state Democrats and even ex-Marxists disenchanted with the left's softness on Soviet totalitarianism. Pushed to the margin were the paleoconservatives--Southern agrarians and others. And many paleos have their own imagined governmental and technological fixes for social problems: immigration curbs and population control, to name a few. Thus, with American movement conservatism of every stripe in philosophical disarray, it is not surprising that genuine conservatives often find more to their liking in The Nation than in National Review.

So what's a real conservative to do? The answer: align with or at least talk to liberals on issues that the left has adopted but that more properly belong to the right. Here is a partial list of genuine conservative causes that movement conservatives ignore:

* The environment. Conservatives tend to be wary of environmentalism, and rightly so, for it often translates into snarls of federal regulation. However, there is nothing "conservative" about polluting the air and water and destroying the habitats of animals and birds. Nor is conservation necessarily incompatible with hunting, fishing, farming, and economic prosperity. Without sacrificing their distaste for the Leviathan, conservatives can ally themselves with private-sector organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, and associations of local people who live off the land or water they are trying to preserve. The movement to save the Chesapeake Bay is a perfect example.

* Family farms. Conservatives should work to destroy agribusiness, which mistreats domestic animals, poisons the land with chemicals, gluts the markets with mediocre foodstuffs, and strangles small farms. No more subsidies for land-grant colleges, where our taxes pay for research for corporate farmers.

* Consumerism. Just for starters, don't let Wall Mart wreck your downtown.

* Small businesses. Clinton's 1993 tax law increased the burden for almost everyone, but it did cut small businesses, capital gains tax. The Wall Street Journal peevishly opposed those salutary clauses. Conservatives should also line up with liberals to battle corporate America's outsized political clout and stranglehold on the regulatory agencies.

* Stopping the drug war. Conservatives should favor legalizing drugs, or, at the very least, leaving their regulation up to local communities. The totalitarian "war on drugs" has done nothing to reduce their availability. Drug legalization has a respectable conservative provenance: The Austrian free market economist Ludwig von Mises was an early supporter.

* Diversity and tolerance. Cultural diversity as properly understood (not as a cover for pseudo-Marxist Third Worldism) promotes the growth of autonomous communities with their own ways of life. Conservatives should take a second look at Lani Guinier, an innovative legal thinker who invoked a Southern agrarian, John C. Calhoun, to argue for assurance that racial minorities receive voting representation.

* Good manners. Conservatives should oppose legalistic sexual harassment codes but encourage all extra-legal efforts to force people to behave like ladies and gentlemen.

* Giving peace a chance. Let's bring back George Washington's foreign policy. Conservatives should generally let other people fight their own wars, intervening only when there is a direct threat to the U.S. national interest.

So, Burkeans of the world, unite. But keep in mind that some of your fiercest enemies are likely to be other people who mistakenly call themselves conservatives.
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Title Annotation:neo-conservatives
Author:Allen, Charlotte
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1994
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