A conservatism that is hopeful about what tomorrow might bring.
"The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin."
So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair.
Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
Kindness effects more than severity.”
One of the greatest differences between the American Republican and British Tory parties has been dispositional. Under Margaret Thatcher British Tories handbagged a failing Britain back to life. President Ronald Reagan’s approach was different. He encouraged America back to vigour and his ‘Morning in America’ commercials encapsulated his optimism.
Whilst George W Bush inherited Reagan’s optimism the Conservative Party has often appeared to prefer the nannying style of Margaret Thatcher to sunny uplands optimism. The red-teared lions and devil imagery of the 1997 campaign were the least attractive manifestation of this inheritance.
The same pattern is true in the commentariat. Doom-mongery sometimes has its place but the brilliant analysis of Peter Hitchens isn’t balanced by the kind of optimism that the likes of Peggy Noonan give to American conservatism.
George W Bush rediscovered Reagan’s optimism after Republicans had allowed themselves to become the angry men of politics during the Clinton years (particularly during the impeachment saga). In a conscious attempt to take on Reagan’s mantle Bush ended his 2000 Convention speech with this passage:
“My friend, the artist Tom Lea of El Paso, Texas, captured the way I feel about our great land, a land I love. He and his wife, he said, "Live on the east side of the mountain. It's the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not to see the day that has gone." Americans live on the sunrise side of the mountain, the night is passing, and we're ready for the day to come.”
In his campaign biography George Bush attempted to define compassionate conservatism as a demeanour as much as a philosophy:
“The phrase “compassionate conservative” recognises that a conservative philosophy has sometimes been mistakenly portrayed as mean-spirited. I like to joke that a compassionate conservative is a conservative with a smile, not a conservative with a frown.”
The Christian and neoconservative roots of ‘Morning in America conservatism’
The Reagan-Bush positivity seems to have two principal origins. One source of American conservatism’s optimism is the Bible Belt. George W Bush’s conversion story is one that millions of Americans can identify with. Now teetotal, George W Bush was a heavy-drinker until his fortieth birthday. “I was a drinker. I quit drinking because I changed my heart. I guess I was a one-man faith-based programme,” he told a gathering of religious leaders in New Orleans. In his campaign autobiography he wrote: “Faith changes lives. I know, because faith has changed mine”.
The other source has been the prominence of a number of liberals-turned-neoconservatives in the highest echelons of the Republican Party. They may have abandoned the methods of the left but they have not ditched its idealism.
George W Bush’s own willingness to adopt liberal ideals and redeem them with progressive conservative methods was beautifully expressed in this section of a speech, made to students at Notre Dame University in 2001:
“I leave you with this challenge: Serve a neighbor in need, because a life of service is a life of significance. Because materialism ultimately is boring, and consumerism can build a prison of wants. Because a person who is not responsible for others is a person who is truly alone. Because there are few better ways to express our love for America than to care for other Americans. And because the same God who endows us with individual rights also calls us to social obligations.
So let me return to Lyndon Johnson's charge: You're the generation that must decide. Will you ratify poverty and division with your apathy? Or will you build a common good with your idealism? Will you be a spectator in the renewal of your country, or a citizen? The methods of the past may have been flawed, but the idealism of the past was not an illusion. Your calling is not easy, because you must do the acting and the caring. But there is fulfillment in that sacrifice which creates hope for the rest of us. Every life you help proves that every life might be helped. The actual proves the possible, and hope is always the beginning of change.”