by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Charles Cooke of National Review Online has heard conservatism’s naysayers. They remind him of Reg.
Reg, for those who are unfamiliar with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is a fictional Judean rabble-rouser who loathes the Roman Empire and seeks to undermine it at every turn. Unable to see the advances that have been made around him, Reg takes to asking rhetorical questions that, in the grand scheme of things, are both extraordinarily myopic and politically ill advised. “What,” he inquires indignantly at one of his insurrectionist meetings, “have the Romans ever done for us?” To which the truculent crowd responds predictably: An awful lot. “All right!” Reg eventually concedes with irritation, “but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health . . . what have the Romans ever done for us?”
The answer to this absurd question, delivered as the coup de grâce: “The aqueducts?”
I am reminded of this scene a great deal at present. Consider, if you will, how often disenchanted conservatives propose in earnest that “conservatism hasn’t conserved anything” — and, by extension, that the Republican party has failed to represent anything more than “Democrat lite.” Consider, too, how readily right-leaning voters express a peculiarly Painean desire to “burn it all down and start again.” Prior to the Iowa caucuses, the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson joined a growing chorus of such voices, submitting that Donald Trump was doing so well in the polls because conservatism had “failed” and needed to be replaced. This assessment was broadly praised, especially by those who have become convinced that Republicans and their ideological allies are all but collaborating with the enemy. Unspoken, but everywhere implied, was a modest variation on Reg’s infamous query: “What has conservatism ever done for us?”
When confronted by this challenge, one is tempted to list the monumental ideological victories that the Right has won over the past 40 years. And rightly so. Since Ronald Reagan made his first serious presidential run, in 1976, conservatism has produced a cornucopia of significant changes — not only to government policy, but to the baseline presumptions of American life. Among these alterations are the tarring and feathering of the reflexively technocratic mindset that obtained from the outset of the New Deal to the end of the 1970s; the marginalization of wage and price controls, and of other centralizing tools; the lowering of destructive tax rates on income and other forms of wealth; the deregulation of a significant number of major industries; a renewed focus on national sovereignty; the successful reform of the welfare system; a consensus around free trade; a much lower minimum wage; a focus on both the text and the original meaning of the Constitution when discussing limits on government power; the restoration of the right to keep and bear arms; the stronger protection of freedom of expression; a national partial-birth-abortion ban; the death of speech-killing “campaign-finance reform”; and, lest we forget, the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union. For some much-needed context, understand that the GOP’s standard-bearer in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon, was the mind behind the Environmental Protection Agency, whereas today’s Republican candidates are opposed to so many departments that they can’t always remember all of their names.