Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant Land.
In regard to attitude, America's conservatives could do worse than to be moved by those lines of William Blake from another place and another time on behalf of a similar sacred cause then not yet realized.
Conservatism always has been and always will be a force to reckon with because it most closely approximates the reality of the human condition, based, as it is, on the cumulative judgment and experience of a people. It is the heir, not the apostate, to the accumulated wisdom, morality and faith of the people.
As a force in electoral politics in any given season, conservatism, like all ideas and causes, is hostage to the effectiveness of the party that carries its banner, the candidates and leaders who articulate its principles and programs, and the engagement and spirit of the people who are its natural adherents.
A dispassionate critique of the performance of each of those elements would have to conclude that the core of the conservative people -- our natural adherents -- were inflamed with both passion and knowledge of conservative principles. It was the party and the candidates, leaders and conspicuous advocates (with some honorable exceptions) who failed both in their visions and their performances a cause that yearned to be well-led.
But fate (if you are a classicist) or the mystery of God (if you are religious) also has played its part this season. Only once since FDR-Truman has the American electorate elected the same party to the White House three times in a row (Reagan, Reagan, Bush -- 1980-1992). And by the way, only once since 1896, when Grover Cleveland declined to run for re-election and William McKinley won, has the American voter not elected the same party to the White House at least twice in a row (Carter, Reagan -- 1976-1980).
Moreover, the Republican Party, our reluctant champion, naturally (if, in a few instances, unfairly) was held to account for two unpopular wars, manifest corruption and managerial incompetence, a collapsed housing market that resulted in a 20-50 percent crash in the home values for most Americans, and a financial crisis that threatens world prosperity and has reduced the value of the average American's stock portfolio by about 40 percent.
But as someone who has been banging around American politics since the Goldwater glory and defeat of 1964, I need to observe that the first explanation of losing causes and losing parties (liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans) almost invariably is to blame incompetent candidates, ineffective messages, and overwhelming events.
At a technical level, that is often true. But at a deeper, historical level, the failure was that the cause was not yet ready to lead. We conservatives were not ready to lead in 1964. By 1980 and 1994, under Reagan and Gingrich, we had figured out how to talk to a majority of the country with both principles and programs that gained a majority endorsement. We no longer were just standing on our high horse declaiming to a nation. We were on the ground, with the people, leading them into the citadel of power.
At a practical level, it is worth considering how Benjamin Disraeli reformed the modern British Conservative Party in the 19th century. (For a fuller account, see David Gelernter's Feb. 7, 2005, article in The Weekly Standard, "The Inventor of Modern Conservatism.")
Disraeli envisioned the Conservative Party as the true national party, while the Whigs were merely the party of intellectual ideas. In that time, English intellectuals and progressives were fascinated with German ideas, just as today Democrats are enchanted with European ideas. Disraeli judged: "In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change, which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines." By championing the vote for the people in a century in which that was inevitable, Disraeli formed a conservative party that dominated British politics for 150 years.
Today there are certain profound values -- free markets and respect for life -- that are renounced at the price of our soul. Free markets, particularly, are under the immediate, explicit assault of the next government. Life may be undermined more surreptitiously.
But as a national cause championed by a national party, a conservative agenda must, for example, learn to speak persuasively to a near majority of Hispanic-Americans, or we will be merely a debating society. When Texas joins states such as Colorado, New Mexico (and even North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona and Florida), where Hispanic votes are necessary for victory, there is no possibility of national governance without finding that voice.
Our challenge is not to retreat to the comfort of self-congratulatory exile but to sweat and bleed -- and be victorious -- in the arena of public opinion.