As the Republicans prepared for their national convention, the party's official Web site welcomed party members to Philadelphia and pointed out helpfully that the city has two airports. In a telling aside, the GOP planners also noted that one of the airports could "accommodate private and corporate planes."
Once they get off their jets, the Republicans will engage in ideological time travel and proceed to hash out a platform from the days of the horse and buggy. The official statement of party principles, full of platitudes and hedged with the rhetoric of compromise, is likely to be soon forgotten. But before that happens, it's worth imagining how the platform would read if it were put in plain English and boiled down to its essentials. The bumper-sticker version might be: repeal the 20th century! If you listen to the speeches and read the position papers of George W. Bush, it becomes clear that the Republican candidate and his supporters want an America that looks like this:
In these bedrock beliefs, Bush and his supporters display their loyalty to an imagined past. Bush himself is squarely in the camp of those traditionalists who believe that a once-great America got off track during the twentieth century and then cracked up in the 1960s. Under the banner of what Bush calls "compassionate conservatism," the Republican Party seeks a restoration of an America that is remembered fondly--without regard for the harsh conditions that actually existed. A rich source of insight into this world view is provided by one of Bush's acknowledged gurus, the conservative author Marvin Olasky. (If Bush wins, you'll get to know that name better.) Never a big reader, Bush has said he got most of his ideas from talking to Olasky.
What would he have picked up in such a conversation? Olasky is an evangelical Christian who argues that Americans made a mistake--and betrayed their legacy--when they made public assistance to the poor a routine legal entitlement rather than a shameful act of private charity. In a recent New York Times report, Alison Mitchell wrote that Olasky had "concluded that 19th-century America's religious-based charity was preferable to the welfare state" that Democrats and Republicans built together during the twentieth century. He thought that the social revolution of the 1960s was "disastrous" because it emphasized public assistance as an entitlement, asking nothing in return. The "key contribution" of the War on Poverty, he wrote, was "the deliberate attempt to uncouple welfare from shame." Religious charities of the past century, he argued, were more effective because they made demands in exchange for aid and because they required donors to give time as well as money.
The era Olasky yearns for was a time when the entire contemporary Republican platform was put into practice. And, it must be said, those ideas were given a fair shake. Although never a majority, prosperous white Protestants applied this program widely, from California to Maine and from Georgia to Michigan. It was a good long try, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century (after the passing of that unreliable generation of the founders--hard-drinking libertines, skeptics, and Deists like Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton). In fairness to Bush and his supporters, there's no evidence any of them seriously wish to restore the American society that existed before the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865--that is, a society where it was legal for one human being to own another. The world they seem to be hankering for is the one they think existed in the late 1800s. In popular mythology, this was the time when men were men, when cowboys triumphed over Indians, when we got along without a meddlesome bureaucracy, and when a benevolent God showered his chosen people with land, prosperity, and freedom.
The evidence suggests that such a program would not be very popular today. The fact is, the Bush platform has been tried, and the American people didn't like it. Issue by issue, the American people decided to change those policies. Consider abortion. For much of American history, abortions have been illegal, stigmatized, dangerous, or all three. Women got them anyway, but people--including many men--did not like the legal, social, or medical risks. Nor did they like orphanages, whether faith based or county run, filled with the unwanted, discarded children who were the products of banning abortion.
Or look at isolationism, the policy of staying out of the world's distant trouble spots like the Sudetenland or East Timor. That didn't work out too well. When we tried to ignore the rest of the world, the rest of the world did not return the favor. Of course, we could follow the lead of Senator Helms and croak the United Nations. That would put us back into a situation like the one we faced in 1939, before the UN existed. But the fact is, the world is much safer this way--and not just for people in little countries. This system works to the advantage of Americans, too.
We tried getting by without an income tax. But people recognized the unfairness of all the other tax schemes and voted the income tax into the Constitution, as the 16th Amendment, in 1913. We tried banning evolution from the nation's public schools, and we tried mandating the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. We could restore those practices (although it would be inconsistent for conservatives who consider education a local matter that should be exempt from federal mandates), but the American people seem to be in no mood for it. And so it goes, through the entire conservative Republican program. There are almost no new ideas in it. And almost all the old ideas, after years of practical testing, were rejected. As he seeks to become the first president elected in the twenty-first century, Bush has a platform that dates from two centuries ago. As a result, he and his handlers have a problem: They must try to position him as a forward-looking, moderate politician, when in fact he is a backward-looking, radical conservative. Maybe they could try calling him a "compassionate reactionary." ¤