The Pursuit of Unhappiness

By Meyerson, Adam | Policy Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

The Pursuit of Unhappiness


Meyerson, Adam, Policy Review


Rip Van Winkle arose this spring from a slumber of two decades. He gazed in amazement at a world transformed.

The Soviet empire, so menacing when he fell asleep in 1977, was now on the ash heap of history.

Rising protectionism had given way to exploding commerce and tumbling trade barriers.

Nixon-Carter stagflation had been replaced by Reagan-Gingrich prosperity.

Business and profits were no longer dirty words. Now everyone wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Prices for gasoline, airfare, and long-distance phone service had plummeted thanks to competition and deregulation.

California had passed an initiative abolishing racial preferences.

Federal farm and welfare programs dating to the New Deal had been abolished.

Welfare caseloads in Wisconsin had fallen in half.

A new emphasis on local accountability, truth-in-sentencing, and community policing was reducing crime in New York and other major cities.

Congress was debating fundamental Medicare reform that would lower costs and give the elderly more choices.

Leading liberals were pushing for legislation criminalizing late-term abor- tions.

Congressional Black Caucus leaders were breaking with the teachers unions and the NAACP by endorsing school vouchers.

Conservative Republicans now controlled both houses of Congress and a robust majority of governorships.

Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep listening to a harangue by Ralph Nader. He awakened to the music of Rush Limbaugh.

But one thing hadn't changed since Rip closed his eyes. Conservatives were still depressed. They were still complaining about their leaders. And they were still failing to build institutions as powerful as their ideas.

The American conservative is seemingly dedicated to three principles: life, liberty, and the pursuit of unhappiness. Something there is about the con- servative temperament that loves despair.

Conservatives have been singing the blues for most of the 20 years this magazine has been published. This is not simply nostalgic yearning for a leader like Ronald Reagan. Conservatives were unhappy during most of his administration, too.

In October 1983, Policy Review interviewed 12 conservative leaders to ask them what they thought of Ronald Reagan. Nine gave him low ratings.

"If Reagan represents no more than a right-of-center vision of the welfare state, he doesn't represent change; he simply represents cheap government. Republicans cannot win in that framework," said a GOP backbencher now in the congressional leadership.

"The radical surgery that was required in Washington was not performed. Ronald Reagan made a pledge not to touch entitlement programs, and that's one of the few pledges he has kept absolutely," said a top conservative activist.

"This has been essentially another Ford administration. It has been business as usual, not much different from any other Republican administration in our lifetime," said a leading conservative intellectual and journalist.

These quotations, from brilliant people I admire, betray an impatience, a set of unrealistic expectations that lead to dejection when they aren't satisfied, and a failure to create a culture of celebration for conservative achievement. In retrospect, we know that 1983 was a glorious year for conservatism. It was the first year of the Reagan boom. During 1983, as Grover Norquist wrote in these pages in the spring of 1984, "America in the throes of a supply-side recovery created more jobs in 1983 than Canada has created since 1965 . . . and as many jobs as Japan created in the entire decade of the 1970s."

That year was also the turning point in the great titanic struggle against communism. As Elizabeth Spalding and Andrew Busch wrote in Policy Review in the fall of 1993, "a series of events in 1983 would come together to stop the seemingly inexorable advance of Soviet totalitarianism and to lay the ground- work for the eventual triumph of the West. …

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