Back in the antediluvian spring of 1980—when it had not yet dawned on some of us that the flood of conservative rule was about to swamp an entire generation of American politics—I found myself standing late one night in the living room of a south Georgia farmhouse beside a very large and extremely agitated man, watching the evening news. The man was a farmer and, also, the district aide of a U.S. congressman who was running for Senate. On the television one of the congress- man’s primary opponents, a politico attorney and judge from Atlanta, was delineating his farm policy. The more the judge delineated, the more the farmer’s face reddened, until he could stand it no longer. “That stupid son of a bitch!” he yelled, jabbing a finger at the TV screen. “That’s what’s wrong with those people! He doesn’t know how the car works. He thinks all you have to do is turn the key and drive!”
“Those people,” of course, meant liberals, and the farmer’s statement was a distilled summation of why “they” would lose and the conservatives romp the following November. In a time of national insecurity the populace didn’t want someone who could summon their better angels; they wanted someone to fix the problems. According to reigning mythology, that would not be a liberal. At best, liberals were pie-in-the-sky idealists whose bleeding-heart intentions might be all well and good in some far-off fantasyland where things went according to theory and we had the luxury to indulge our illusions. But any man common enough to have taken his lumps in the real world knew that getting the job done required gritty and unsentimental pragmatism, a hands- on knowledge of exactly how the car worked. The conservatives were the mechanics.
Supposedly. The formulation was always largely a crock. Henry Wallace was an agron- omist, after all, and Joseph McCarthy a politico attorney, before he became a drunk. But the contention enjoyed a certain verisimilitude, especially as the 1960s left displayed its Kumbaya proclivities. And it enjoyed a tremendous power within the right, capable of uniting Rockefeller establishmentarians with redneck populists. The former, adults horrified at the antics of their offspring, were engaged in a generational drama; the latter, workers aggrieved at the condescensions of soft-palmed, privileged know-it-alls, were engaged in a class drama. They found brotherhood under the banner of businesslike pragmatism. And a brotherhood it was: the trope of “knowing how the car worked” vs. “turn the key and drive” contained a gender smirk that the left has still not found a way to beat.
The myth of conservative competence persists as uncontested verity, allowing George Schultz to sigh in public relief, post–9/11, “Aren’t we lucky the adults are in charge?” and New York Times columnist David Brooks to froth recently, concerning the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, that “I love thee with the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach,” because Roberts was what the headline called “A Competent Conservative”—a “practitioner,” Brooks said, instead of a “theoretician,” “the sort of person who rises when a movement is mature and running things.”
Except that the opposite is true. The longer the conservatives have run things, the less mature—and more ideological, theoretical, and divorced from practicality—they have shown themselves to be. An unheralded ground shift of modern American governance is the great do-si-do of left and right in their devotion to core competence. The right has abandoned common sense in favor of ideologically driven utopianism, while governing liberals have become the get-it-done, incremental pragmatists. They have proved effective not only in forwarding such progressive pet causes as the environment and racial and gender equity; if you want to lower abortion rates, shore up the family, improve student performance, reduce violent crime, achieve energy independence, support small business, strengthen the economy, ratchet down the deficit and the flow of illegal drugs, as most conservatives say they do, you’ll have a hard time voting for the current crop of conservatives. They don’t know what they’re doing.
President Bush, it is said, has escaped his comeuppance on this score because there’s a war on. But in truth, it’s his war and going badly. The strategic acumen of his defense team makes the Give-Peace-a-Chance crowd look downright Clausewitzian by comparison. I recall marching in a 2003 rally against invading Iraq behind a group of women whose organizational name (not to mention its acronym)—Ladies Against Boys Invading Anything— bespoke a less-than-serious matriculation in martial matters. Yet their forecast for the coming debacle was as dead-on accurate as the administration’s was wishful.
The damage from all this goes deep. The ongoing spectacle of Frick and Frack Run a Country has already imploded our politics. Defending a Potemkin pragmatism has required greater and greater displays of belligerence. The realpolitik formula that effectiveness requires occasional brutality has degenerated into its decadent approximation, that brutality is all that’s required in order to appear effective. But shock and awe failed, and now the administration is shoring up its credibility by questioning its critics’ patriotism and smearing truth tellers. Dangerously, it has learned to prosper by making mistakes. (The Bush team is incompetent at governing, not politicking—or, to put it another way, it’s accomplished at protecting its own welfare while neglecting that of the nation.) It’s an ironic side effect of the myth of conservative competence: the more the right’s mis-stewardship imperils the country’s fortunes, the more the country turns to the right for rescue.
The ultimate costs will be graver, as our cov- er story this month bears witness. The squalid slapstick of our occupation of Iraq may have begun in bright, naive, petal-strewn daydreams of a more harmonious world. Thanks to the willful incompetence of the dreamers, the mushroom clouds they invoked to justify the invasion may be the invasion’s result.