The Rise of the Chicken Little Conservatives

The economy is bad. There's rioting in London. Terrorists want to kill us. But a cadre of pundits undermines the seriousness of these problems by wailing about catastrophe.

As London riots, every civilized person on the planet is eager for an end to the mayhem and violence, but am I alone in thinking that the reaction from certain quarters is a tad overwrought?

Victor Davis Hanson, oblivious to majority opinion, thinks we've lost the capacity for upset. "Such urban violence was of course a constant in 19th and 20th century Europe and America," he writes, "but now it is deeply embedded within modern sociology and no longer seen quite as criminality." Says talk radio host Mark Levin: "We can see this society transforming in front of our eyes... the Western World is in decline." John Derbyshire goes even farther, arguing that Great Britain is irrevocably lost. "Why does the British government not do its duty? Because it is the government of a modern Western nation, sunk like the rest of us in trembling, whimpering guilt over class and race," he writes. "I treasure my faint, fading recollections of Britain when she was still, for a few years longer, a nation. Today Britain is merely a place, a bazaar. Let it burn!"

You've heard of hawks and doves. These are Chicken Little Conservatives. Every week, as headlines filter in from around the globe, they take the most disturbing as an occasion to strut around with ruffled feathers and cluck that the sky is falling. Writer Mark Steyn has established himself at the top of the pecking order. In 2002, he published a book of collected essays about the new war against Islamist terrorism. As Western Civilization made significant gains against that foe, Steyn was at work on America Alone, his 2008 tome that argued "America is the only hope against Islamic Terrorism." His thesis turned partly on demographics: Due to a lack of civilizational confidence, he argued, Europeans weren't having enough kids to keep their societies going.

Apparently, the lack of civilizational confidence was catching, because Steyn's latest book, published this month, is titled After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. In three years, he's given up on the West's "only hope" and now argues that "America's decline will be a wrenching affair marked by violence and possibly secession." Imagine that: The right's favorite columnist no longer believes in American exceptionalism! It's bedtime reading to kill the birth rate for good.

Steyn is hardly the only conservative suffering a crisis of civilizational confidence. Another strain is less concerned by demography than the notion that a tiny minority of Muslims are going to take over America and impose Sharia law on its people. Former federal prosecutor and National Review contributor Andy McCarthy insists that radical Muslims are even now allied with American leftists led by President Obama in their grand jihad against the U.S. (Fighting terrorism is part of the stealth plan!) Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy, has criticized figures including Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Gen. David Petraeus as unduly submissive to Sharia. Gaffney also helped to inspire bills in multiple states to ban Sharia, despite the utter implausibility of any jurisdiction imposing it.

For talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, Sharia is at most a secondary concern: There's nothing to fear but President Obama himself. Back in 2009, he told Sean Hannity, "If Al Qaeda wants to demolish the America we know and love, they'd better hurry because Obama is beating them to it." It's a theme to which he returned on this week's program. "A lot of people don't want to think that the country has as a president somebody who so abhors the way the country was founded and so abhors capitalism that his objective is to destroy it," he said. "Let me ask you this.  If somebody was really trying to destroy this economy, what would they do differently? Keep in mind now, if you're president, and your objective is to destroy the economy, you have to do it on the sly."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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