A half-century ago, conservatives were full of gloom and foreboding. In 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that unless conservatives prevailed, “one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
In accepting the 1964 Republican nomination for president, Barry Goldwater warned that his opponents “are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies.”
Conservatives had good reason for pessimism in the 1960s. The Soviet Union was at the height of its power, wielding nuclear weapons, tyrannizing half of Europe and fomenting revolution around the globe. Democrats, with an unbreakable hold on Congress, were expanding the welfare state. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, violent crime and the counterculture were upending the landscape.
But the Soviet Union failed to conquer the world. America did not succumb to communism. Crime rates plunged. Hippies were unable to turn the country into a vast replica of Haight-Ashbury.
On the contrary. Reagan carried the conservative banner into the White House. The economy became freer. Tax rates came down. The Soviet empire collapsed. The counterculture passed largely into history.
Christianity, defying John Lennon’s assessment, outlasted The Beatles. By the 1980s, young people gravitated to preppy clothes, business school and the Republican Party. The long dark night of totalitarianism never descended.
So you might think conservatives would wake up every day with a spring in their steps and a song in their hearts. But that’s not what happened. When their worst fears weren’t realized, they didn’t discover grounds for optimism. They looked for new reasons to be fearful — and they found them.
Barack Obama strikes many Democrats as a pale facsimile of what they would like in the White House. He relied on Republican ideas for his health care reform, accepted across-the-board spending cuts, conducted secret domestic surveillance, kept Guantanamo open and did next to nothing on gun control. Blogger Andrew Sullivan admiringly calls the president “a de facto moderate Republican.”
But to hard-line conservatives, he is the embodiment of a screaming nightmare. They suffered a lot of horrifying hallucinations after Obama won re-election, and those visions have not gone away.
Here’s Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the star attractions at last week’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, sounding the alarm: “The challenges facing this country are unlike any we have ever seen. … This is an administration that seems bound and determined to violate every single one of our Bill of Rights.”
He declared, “We’re nearing the edge of a cliff. … We have a couple of years to turn this country around, or we go off the cliff to oblivion.” And he invoked Reagan’s 1961 warning, fearing that “one day we will find ourselves answering questions from our children and our children’s children, ‘What was it like when America was free?’”
Cruz is blissfully oblivious to the fact that when Reagan issued that jeremiad, he was talking about what would happen if Medicare became law. Medicare did become law — and yet here is Cruz, 52 years later, telling us that we are still free. So Reagan was wrong then. But he’s right now. Or something.
It’s not hard to make a case that Medicare reduced freedom in one realm of our lives. But it didn’t destroy individual liberty in the aggregate, or even prevent the expansion of liberty in other areas.
It was not a cataclysmic event that turned us into slaves. Neither is anything that Obama has done or is about to do, including his health insurance overhaul — which, by the way, involves fewer government restrictions and less expense than Medicare.
But somewhere along the way, many conservatives became addicted to the fear of apocalypse. So even when their dire predictions fail to come true, they keep forecasting the worst possible outcome if they don’t get their way. They seem to need the perpetual excitement of impending doom.
Cruz and his audience are in the grip of a mania that tells them we are hurtling toward catastrophe. There is no evidence that we’re about to go over a cliff, even if some people have gone around the bend.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.