In 1960 when Barry Goldwater was writing Conscience of a Conservative, the world was in the throes of a massive transition which, though it is continuing today, is much easier to recognize in our time. It is a move from the old rural model of life to an entirely new degree of urbanization and constant change.
For Uncle Barry, the political world was defined by a battle between collectivism and the rights of the individual. On one side were those who saw the interests of “the people” or “the oppressed” as the most vital priority in politics. For these folks, personal freedom was at best a quaint novelty. At worst, it was a relic to be stamped out on the road to class-consciousness.
On the other side were those noble, stubborn souls who clung to the notion that personal liberty was the most critical building block of a healthy civilization. They saw the struggle for the rights of the individual as a centuries-long drama that reached its climax in the birth of the American republic. That republic was a beacon of hope for mankind, a gift to us all which must be protected and passed down intact to our heirs.
That was a different century. We live on the other side of a divide some scholars have called “The End of History,” referring to the death of the great human struggle over political ideals. Though the ghosts of communism still haunt our halls, there is no longer any comprehensive, universal ideology that competes with liberal democracy on a global scale. Yes, there are terrorists blowing up school buses and airplanes, but there are also bank robbers and serial killers, vandals and car thieves. None of them have a meaningful ideology to offer. No matter what weapons they obtain or explosions they engineer, they cannot compete with us on political terms. They are at worst a mass global criminal gang.
Do you remember the scene at the end of the movie, “Return of the Jedi”? Stay with me here. The heroes are frolicking with those adorable little Ewoks, celebrating their final victory over the Evil Empire. There are smiles and congratulations, singing and dancing. Then the film cuts to credits. Have you ever wondered which political coalitions controlled the new republic that emerged from the victory; which economic interests the new government would promote; how many people would have access to healthcare and at what cost? No? Really? You mean you haven’t been waiting breathlessly all these years for Star Wars VII: Managing Currency Fluctuation for the Maximization of Galactic Trade Efficiencies?
We live in the scenes that George Lucas never filmed, the ones that came after the victory. There is no “Greatest Generation” for us. No Normandy Beach. No Reagan at the Berlin Wall. We are the heirs of the victory. Our mission is to manage a more prosperous and peaceful world than humankind has ever before experienced. Our battles, as brutal and complex as ever, are fought on small scale against ambiguous enemies. There will be no liberator’s victory for us, just the policeman’s satisfaction of a job well done, lives protected, and civility maintained.
It is for us to build a new urban civilization in a world of scarce resources. To preserve individual liberty and human dignity in the face of the growing power of a mostly benign government. So far, we are doing a monumentally crappy job of it. Like spoiled children handed the keys to the Porsche, we are in real danger of wrapping this fabulous machine around a light pole – while drunk and chock-full of anti-depressants.
When the country, and let’s face it – the world, needs to be rallied, needs to be driven to find the steel in its spine; when the country needs to grow up, this is a moment for the Republican Party. But we can’t do it by fighting yesterday’s wars. We can’t do it by chasing ghosts. It is time to move beyond the ideology of Uncle Barry and reckon with the challenges of our own time. We need to face the future.