The PJ Tatler

What Do Conservatives Mean When They Say They Want to 'Restore America'?

Peter Beinart writing in The Atlantic wonders about “The Republican Obsession with ‘Restoring’ America.”

In 2007, when he was planning his own presidential bid, Mike Huckabee wrote a book subtitled 12 Steps to Restoring America’s Greatness. (It’s available for one cent on Amazon.) In 2010, Glenn Beck organized a rally on the National Mall entitled “Restoring Honor.” In 2012, Mitt Romney’s supporters established a Super PAC called, paradoxically, “Restore Our Future.” Later that year, the Republican platform promised the “Restoring of the American Dream” and the “Restoration of Constitutional Government.” This June, Ted Cruz pledged to “Restore the Great Confident Roar of America.”

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Specifying exactly when that golden age existed can be perilous. In a 1976 campaign speech entitled—what else—“To Restore America,” Reagan declared, “I would like to be president because I would like to see this country become once again a country where a little 6-year-old girl can grow up knowing the same freedom that I knew when I was 6 years old, growing up in America.” Reagan was 6 years old in 1917, when women and most African Americans could not vote, when socialists and labor organizers were being jailed, if not lynched, for opposing America’s entrance into World War I, and when governors in Reagan’s native Midwest were making teaching German a crime.

Here’s the problem. Unlike Reagan, today’s Republicans are generally shrewd enough to avoid identifying exactly which previous age they wish to restore. But for African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays and lesbians, idealizing any previous age means idealizing one in which they enjoyed fewer rights and opportunities than they do today. Pledging to “restore” America appeals to many older, straight, Anglo, white, and male voters, because it’s a subtle way of saying Republicans will bring back the good old days. The GOP’s problem is that to win back the White House, it must make inroads among Americans who know the good old days weren’t all that good.

Beinart makes a good point, but is totally clueless when it comes to the context of American restoration. And his simple-minded analysis of  why conservatives want to “restore” America is identity politics writ large.

He’s right about the “good old days” not being so good for many. Indeed, there is a small minority of those who call themselves conservative who wish to go back to a time when women were in the kitchen, gays in the closet, and minorities were neither seen nor heard. This kind of cultural revanchism is impossible to achieve, of course. Women, gays, and minorities have made far too much progress in seeking equality of opportunity to put a cork in the bottle now.

Why would anyone think conservatives want to “restore” an America that was failing to grant equal rights to women, gays, and minorities? That’s a political attack, not a rational, serious look at just what conservatives want to restore in America. It’s not so much a time that conservatives want to bring back. It’s more of a state of mind — a way of looking at America that breeds policies conducive to economic growth and greater opportunity, and places a greater value on individual liberty.

In order to understand what conservatives want to restore, perhaps Beinart might want to ask himself what we’ve lost that needs restoring. The slow, inexorable expansion of the powers and reach of the federal government — accelerated under this administration — has led to a degrading of individual liberties, a stifling of economic activity and entrepreneurship, and a general cynicism among the citizenry that perhaps more than anything else needs to be addressed by national leaders.

Put simply, Americans don’t believe in America anymore. The spirit that animated previous generations to perform magnificent scientific, economic, and cultural feats that awed the rest of the world is largely gone. A nation of dreamers and doers has become a nation of sullen, sulking cynics, deliberately remaining ignorant of what’s happening in the country and obsessing over the most banal and frivolous distractions the culture provides.

Many conservatives agree that “restoration” is more than sloganeering. It has nothing to do with wishing for a return of male and white privilege. It has little to do with restoring American military power, or our position in the world, although addressing those issues will be an important adjunct to restoring an abiding faith in ourselves. Ultimately, that’s what conservatives mean when they speak of “restoration”: rekindling a belief in our own exceptionalism. If that can be done, the rest will follow.

Beinart only sees racism, sexism, and homophobia in the conservative effort to restore America. It’s a consequence of seeing the world through the prism of identity politics. And he’s wrong to write that conservatives want to “go back” to a specific time in history — especially his insulting and ridiculous notion that the real reason for the conservative desire for restoration is to reestablish old, straight, white, male, “Anglo” dominance (mustn’t forget the Hispanics, right Peter?).

Faith is a fragile thing, and restoring American’s faith in their own country is a daunting challenge, especially when those who oppose this restoration of faith fear the political consequences of an American Awakening. Perhaps some who agree with Mr. Beinart don’t want a restoration of the kind envisioned by conservatives because we’re an evil country that must pay for our sins — past and present.

But the American people have shown a great resiliency in the past. And that’s what conservatives are counting on.