Conservatism And The 1990s

It's a revealing divide in a way: which conservatives loved the 1990s and which ones found them faintly bathetic? Here's Charles Krauthammer in a semi-nostalgic column:

Throughout the decade, and most especially as it began to wane, I returned to this theme of the wondrous oddity, the sheer impossibility of an age of such post-historical tranquility.

And inevitable ennui. So profound was that tranquility, so trivial the history of that time, that my colleague George Will and I would muse that if this kept up -- an era whose dominant issue was a president's zipper problem -- he might as well go back to the academy and I to psychiatry.

And that would be a bad thing because ... ? There's always a paradox in professional conservatives lamenting happy times, because it both encourages less government and increases their irrelevance as public commentators. But there's a strain in some neoconservatism that can sometimes appear actually hostile to tranquillity because it is seen as a cause of what Krauthammer calls ennui, of boredom, of decadence. "Trivial history" is another term, in some ways, for peace and prosperity, in which our private lives take center stage and the tedium of politics, folly of war, and grinding millstone of poverty are kept at bay.

For my part, the 1990s were a wonderful and largely conservative achievement. I too had a political magazine to fill, but found the changing culture as fascinating as the somewhat restrained politics. This was the era, after all, of OJ Simpson and Afro-centrism, of the explosion of the gay rights movement and the evolution of feminism, of the assault on p.c. and the innovation of the Internet, of the pharmaceutical revolution and Russian .... democracy! Clinton, while a dreadful human being, was a perfectly fine, moderately conservative president. The sex and the lying were just humanly fascinating - as was the socially conservative over-reaction.

A society able to devote itself to the core question of perjury in a civil suit and to enjoy Seinfeld and the Simpsons: isn't that kind of era what conservatives really want?

Not all of them, I found out. For those conservatives deeply troubled by modernity and its pleasures, for those who see war and conflict as key motivators for civic virtue, a society pretty happy with itself, and a government actually running a surplus with no wars, is a problem. It saps "national greatness". Bush openly called for a great theme for a great moment. The tragedy of history was that he was granted his wish.

There are conservatives who are always girded for war or suspect all peace as some kind of hidden war; and those who are happy at peace, grateful for its blessings and hopeful that it will last. There are those who always see Hobbes and those who see Hobbes but are grateful for Locke. There are those who see human conduct at its height as being engaged in virtuous battle for a righteous republic. And there are those who like snow-boarding. These two groups of conservatives have very different pedigrees and philosophical mentors. In the 1990s, the distinction between the two was masked.

It is masked no more.