At First Things, R.R. Reno posts a thought-provoking analysis tying together the election, the financial crisis, and broader economic and cultural trends. To simplify somewhat crassly, he argues that conservatism promoted and helped to bring about a more dynamic economy; this coupled with the international instability caused by conservatism’s foreign policy to create a widespread desire for stability; and this desire led to popular attraction to the candidacy of Barack Obama, notwithstanding his claim to be an agent of change.
There is certainly something to this hypothesis, but there are also a couple problems.
1. Theoretically, there is some difficulty in identifying free-market conservatism with Bush-style foreign policy. Granted that there is a lot of overlap among the principal political figures, the promotion of democracy abroad (putting the most positive possible spin on the Bush agenda) does not intellectually equal promotion of free markets and trade. Certainly there are many libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives who have opposed much Republican foreign policy.
2. Historically, I’m not sure that Reno’s trajectory from economic stability to economic dynamism, with its implications for America’s mood, entirely holds up. It’s true that there is greater geographic and career mobility now than there was in the 1950s, but it’s not clear that it is the result of what I’ll call “negative dynamism,” for example, that people are forced to move or to switch jobs out of financial necessity. Instead, people are pursuing positive opportunities, and making decisions that approximate the following: “I would rather make $20,000 more and live a thousand miles from the community where I grew up, than stay in that community and survive on less.” I’m not claiming that such a decision is good or bad, rational or irrational, only that it’s a different sort of decision than one made by a frontiersman in the 1850s, who had to leave his family for six months and work on the railroad so as to avoid starvation. The feeling of instability, if it is indeed as widespread and decisive as Reno suggests, is more self-imposed than the product of impersonal economic forces. (All of which is a generalization intended to characterize most Americans, and not to deny that some are compelled by genuine economic necessity to one course of action or another.)
With Reno’s conclusion, however, I wholeheartedly agree:
…American conservatism must recognize the primacy of social mores over economic philosophy and foreign policy. We need to expand an old argument. A democracy depends upon citizens capable of ordered liberty. And a culture that seeks economic vitality and is committed to global leadership also requires citizens who can distinguish responsible autonomy from a life of anomic desire. We can endure the inevitable risks of marketplace and battlefield—but only if we have some confidence about the stability of the deeper, more fundamental things of life.