Conservatives, don't despair

President Barack Obama speaks to the media about the "fiscal cliff" in the East Room of the White House on Friday.

Story highlights

  • David Frum says conservatives are brooding over the loss of the election
  • He says some see it as the whites being outnumbered by minorities who want handouts
  • Frum: Obama was not re-elected by people who wanted to take but by those who want to work
  • Both parties favor social programs to varying degrees, he says, but socialism not in offing

The mood among American conservatives is now one of apocalyptic despair.

Having convinced themselves that this election arrayed freedom against tyranny, they now must wonder: Did their country just democratically vote in favor of tyranny?

On Fox News election night, Bill O'Reilly explained the meaning of the election: The "white establishment" was now outnumbered by minorities. "The demographics are changing. It's not a traditional America anymore." And these untraditional Americans "want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it."

O'Reilly's analysis is echoed across the conservative blogosphere. The (non-white) takers now outnumber the (white) makers. They will use their majority to pillage the makers and redistribute to the takers. In the process, they will destroy the sources of the country's wealth and end the American experiment forever.

David Frum

You'll hear O'Reilly's view echoed wherever conservatives express themselves.

Happily, the view is wrong, and in every respect.

America is not a society divided between "makers" and "takers." Instead, almost all of us proceed through a life cycle where we sometimes make and sometimes take as we pass from schooling to employment to retirement.

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The line between "making" and "taking" is not a racial line. The biggest government program we have, Medicare, benefits a population that is 85% white.

President Barack Obama was not re-elected by people who want to "take." The president was re-elected by people who want to work -- and who were convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the president's policies were more likely to create work than were the policies advocated by my party.

The United States did not vote for socialism. It could not do so, because neither party offers socialism. Both parties champion a free enterprise economy cushioned by a certain amount of social insurance. The Democrats (mostly) want more social insurance; the Republicans want less. National politics is a contest to move the line of scrimmage, in a game where there's no such thing as a forward pass, only a straight charge ahead at the defensive line. To gain three yards is a big play.

Whatever you think of the Obama record, it's worth keeping in mind that by any measure, free enterprise has been winning the game for a long, long time to this point.

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Compare the United States of 2012 with the United States of 1962. Leave aside the obvious points about segregation and discrimination, and look only at the economy.

In 1962, the government regulated the price and route of every airplane, every freight train, every truck and every merchant ship in the United States. The government regulated the price of natural gas. It regulated the interest on every checking account and the commission on every purchase or sale of stock. Owning a gold bar was a serious crime that could be prosecuted under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The top rate of income tax was 91%.

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It was illegal to own a telephone. Phones had to be rented from the giant government-regulated monopoly that controlled all telecommunications in the United States. All young men were subject to the military draft and could escape only if they entered a government-approved graduate course of study. The great concern of students of American society -- of liberals such as David Riesman, of conservatives such as Russell Kirk and of radicals such as Dwight Macdonald -- was the country's stultifying, crushing conformity.

Even if you look only at the experiences of white heterosexual men, the United States of 2012 is a freer country in almost every way than the United States of 1962.

Obama has changes in mind that conservatives and Republicans will oppose. He will want to raise taxes; he will want to sustain social spending at a permanently higher level; he has in mind new regulations over health care, energy production and banking. He'll win some; he'll lose some. To the extent that his wins prove injurious, future Republican Congresses and administrations will struggle to undo them. That's politics: a contest that never ends and in which the only certainty is the certainty of constant change.

The Republican challenge next is to reassemble a new coalition for limited government and private enterprise. That coalition must include Americans of all ethnicities. To assume from the start that only certain ethnicities will contribute, and that others aspire only to grab, is not only ugly prejudice; it is also self-destructive delusion.

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People of all backgrounds want to create, save and contribute to society. A party of the center-right should make them all feel at home, regardless of how they pronounce their last name, the complexion of their skin or the way in which they express love and build family.

The Roman Catholic Church deems despair a mortal sin. To abandon hope is to reject the reality of goodness and to forswear future action. The United States is a great and good country, and it remains great and good even when we do not get all our own way politically. The United States is a tolerant and free country, which means that there are no "tipping points" beyond which it becomes impossible to correct mistakes.

Fifty years ago, Marxism was still a live intellectual force in British universities. Marxists taught that human society must inevitably evolve into a socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. The great British conservative historian Hugh Trevor-Roper scoffed at this arrogance. He said, "When radicals scream that victory is indubitably theirs, sensible conservatives knock them on the nose. It is only very feeble conservatives who take such words as true and run round crying for the last sacraments."

We need more sensible conservatives. As for the feeble conservatives, they should take a couple of aspirin and then stay quietly indoors until the temper has subsided and they are ready to say and do something useful again.

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