For many conservatives today, the “rot” to be excoriated is not about economics and health care but about culture. A persistent theme of conservative intellectuals and commentators – in print and on Fox News – is the cultural decay of the country. But compared with almost any period in U.S. history, we live in bourgeois times, in a culture that values family, religion, work and, above all, private business. Young people today aspire to become Mark Zuckerberg. They quote the aphorisms of Warren Buffett. They read the Twitter feed of Bill Gates. Even after the worst recession since the Great Depression, there are no obvious radicals, anarchists, Black Panthers or other revolutionary movements – except for the Tea Party.
Now, for some tacticians and consultants, extreme rhetoric is just a way to keep the troops fired up. But rhetoric gives meaning and shape to a political movement. Over the past six decades, conservatives’ language of decay, despair and decline have created a group of Americans who fervently believe in this dark narrative and are determined to stop the country from plunging into what they see as imminent oblivion. They aren’t going to give up just yet.
The era of crises could end, but only when this group of conservatives makes its peace with today’s America. They are misty-eyed in their devotion to a distant republic of myth and memory and yet they are passionate in their dislike of the messy, multiracial, capitalist-and-welfare-state democracy that America actually has been for half a century – a fifth of this country’s history. At some point, will they come to realize that you cannot love America in theory and hate it in fact?