No TIME like the Future

Posted: Mar 30, 2007 1:36 PM
No TIME like the Future

TIME magazine says the future of conservatism is bleak.

"These are gloomy and uncertain days for conservatives," writes Karen Tumulty in the March 26 issue. "The principles that propelled the [conservative] movement have either run their course, or run aground, or been abandoned by Reagan's legatees." In fact, some say we should just pack it in. "Realistically, it will probably take until the year 2016" to restore conservatism, activist and fundraiser Richard Viguerie told Tumulty.

It all sounds pretty grim. Unless you realize that it’s all been said before. By TIME magazine. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery dug up some nuggets from TIME's archives. "There was no Reagan revolution, just a Reagan bedazzlement. The magic is going off almost as mysteriously as the spell was woven in the first place," Garry Wills insisted on March 9, 1987. In fact, Wills added, Reagan had accomplished nothing at all. "The whole thing is not falling down; it was never weighty enough for that."

Emery also thumbed through "The Reagan Legacy," a book by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. "Reagan leaves behind an array of unresolved substantive problems. His successor will inherit a collection of outdated strategic premises, alliances that don't quite adhere, [and] roles and expectations for America that no longer hold," Ignatius wrote in 1988. Try telling any of that to Mikhail Gorbachev.

These stories highlight the dangers of trying to predict the future. And the biggest pitfall seems to be that, for some reason, people so often predict the future will be bleak.

Think of the great futuristic books. In Huxley's "Brave New World," individual identity has been wiped out by scientific advances. In Orwell's "1984," humanity has been enslaved by totalitarianism. In Carson's "Silent Spring," the planet has been destroyed by chemicals. They all missed the mark.

In recent decades science has made life longer and better, without turning humans into drones. The fall of the Iron Curtain showed the impotence of totalitarianism. And once again this spring, birds are chirping and flowers blooming. In reality, tomorrow is almost always better than today.

Let's use the Ford administration as an example. If we could magically bring an average American directly from 1976 to today, he'd be amazed. "What happened to inflation?" he'd wonder. That seemed like a big deal in the Ford years, and we don't even give it a second thought today. Meanwhile, he'd ask, "Unemployment is only 4.5 percent?" It was 7.8 percent in Ford’s time, and seemed unlikely to go any lower.

Our time traveler would no doubt be amazed that we enjoy hundreds of TV channels, instead of the three or four he watched. He'd be stunned at how clean our water is (the rivers no longer catch on fire?), how plentiful and cheap our food is, the fact that we've overcome global cooling (a huge concern in the mid-1970s, according to a contemporary story in Newsweek), and by the fact he can now watch more than 30 college football bowl games each year (although that might not, in fact, be an improvement).

How about investing? Many people today profess worries that sub-prime loans will destroy our economy. But the stock market reinforces the lesson that, financially, things are always improving. Stocks go up and down from day-to-day. But stay in long enough and you will make money. As James Glassman and Kevin Hassett wrote in The Atlantic in 1999, "Never in American history has a diversified basket of stocks failed to double in buying power over a generation. Never."

Even Sept. 11, which many feared would trigger a depression, didn't stop stocks. Yes, the Dow dropped, and stayed down for awhile. But it's made up its losses and now closes each day above 12,000 -- higher than its pre-9/11 record high.

This is no time for pessimism. "What is conservatism's rationale for the next generation?" Tumulty wonders. "What set of goals is there to hold together a coalition that has always been more fractious than it seemed to be from the outside, with its realists and its neoconservatives, its religious ground troops and its libertarian intelligentsia?"

Well, for starters, we want to devote 4 percent of GDP to our military ("4 Percent for Freedom") to ensure it remains the most powerful fighting force in history. We intend to make sure the U.S. deploys a missile-defense system that could help protect us from rogue nations such as North Korea or Iran. We want to lock in the Bush tax cuts, to keep the economy growing into future decades. And we've laid out plans to create personal retirement accounts to shore up Social Security for future generations.

In short, conservatives are bristling with ideas and confident about the future. Oh, and when we succeed with our agenda -- which we will -- don't expect a TIME cover story.