For the past couple of decades, any time two or more conservatives have gotten together they could count on Ronald Reagan's ghost showing up, too. The freshest-faced ideologue at the confab would admonish any dour conservatives that the Gipper was an optimist, that he declared it was Morning in America, that he won 49 states just by smiling. Leave the doom and gloom to the likes of Jimmy Carter with his malaise speech. People don't want to hear that.
But in the wake of the the economic downturn and the election of Barack Obama, conservative politicians keep going off script. They are starting to sound as mournful as conservative intellectuals. Maybe American life is ending, after all. Ben Franklin told us that the Founding Fathers had given us "a republic, if you can keep it" — well, perhaps we're losing it.
The American character has changed. We're entering into the common and predictable morbidity of a falling empire. It's Midnight in America.
In Mitt, the new campaign documentary on Netflix, Mitt Romney expresses the idea rather starkly to his family. "I cannot believe that [Obama's] an aberration of the country," he says. "I believe we're following the same path of every other great nation, which is we're following greater government, tax the rich people, promise more subsidies for everybody, borrow until you go over a cliff. I think we have a very high risk of reaching the tipping point sometime within the next five years. And the idea of saying, 'Hey, it's fine, don't worry about it' — well, it's really not."
Romney's not alone. If voicing a little pessimism about the American project is a slip, it's one many Republicans make. In 2009, it seemed that South Carolina's Mark Sanford was the man for the hour: Anti-bailout, the most austere of the austerity advocates. In an interview, he described the 2009 bailouts not as a "giveaway" or a market distortion, but as a "crisis of American civilization."
Even a relative moderate like Jon Huntsman unburdened himself in this way to me. While discussing America's "diminished leverage" abroad, he said politicians in Washington "clearly haven't read the history about the end of empires where you have a diminution in values, you have a society that becomes bankrupt with debt, and overreaching abroad. It's the same three or four things that have brought an end to any empire."
In the same interview, Huntsman let his frustration out, saying, "I can't stand the thought that we're about ready to hand down the greatest nation that ever was to your generation less good, less competitive, saddled with debt, less hopeful than the country I got."
Less good?! The US of A? It is one thing for an aristocrat or appointed prefect to mourn this way for his country. But for politicians out on the hustings, flattering the electorate is basically their job.
Retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, through self-imposed term limits, has given himself an aristocrat's ability to be blunt about "the people." In an interview in which he lamented the president ignoring the Simpson-Bowles debt commission, he said this of Americans: "We've gone from self-reliance to dependence... It is cultural."
Sitting bolt upright in his office, he told me: "Republics last a limited amount of time and they start to fail on fiscal issues... If we do nothing, we'll have a large lower class with marginal incomes and a tiny wealthy elite."
To be sure, there are Cassandras in every age of America's life. Thomas Jefferson saw the end of the American experiment lurking just about everywhere after his presidency. Jacksonian democracy, Reconstruction, the Great Wave of Immigration, Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Reagan Revolution all had stone-throwing critics, worried that the latest transformation in American life would be the one that made it no longer American.
So it would be tempting to assume that conservative politicians are just taking on the same mask as conservative intellectuals, embracing their role in American life as the "beautiful losers," a phrase that the populist and racialist writer Sam Francis used for all ineffectual conservatives. And it would be comforting to suggest that it is a passing phenomenon, and that once a charming Republican candidate comes along in 2016 or 2020, the GOP's mood will pick up again.
But what if something else is going on? Looked at more pessimistically, it may be the case that America's hardening socioeconomic classes are pushing elected officials and voters into the kind of hostile relationship that precedes most divorces. To the people, Washington is "out of touch." To Republicans in Washington, America looks like it has lost its mettle. The people governing America and the people who elect them live in worlds that are drifting apart more and more each day.
Counselors say that in dysfunctional relationships, the couple can no longer "hear each other." In American political life, between the rulers and the ruled, the contempt is mutual.