Pity the pain of the left. They are twice stung, both by the bitter pain of a lost election and by the great pangs of irony that come from the peculiarly liberal belief that only with the reigns of power can one cure Pain at all. To stack irony upon irony, the liberals lost the 2004 election precisely because they run from pain. They run from it because, unlike conservatives, they lack an understanding of America’s pain (including their own)–a misunderstanding rooted in their stubborn denial of man’s nature.
The late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim holds true to this day: the great conservative insight is that culture is more important than politics, and the great liberal insight is that politics can change culture. Both statements are correct. Both insights are in political tension because they are roughly located each in their respective political parties.
There is a another dogma of the left that had descended into the low frequencies since the days of the Great Society, but one that has slowly increased in pitch and swelled to a din leading up to this election. The conservative insight has always been that the destruction of pain is impossible and an attempt to do so will destroy us. The liberal dogma that culminated in this election is that pain is the fundamental human injustice that must be destroyed.
America does not believe this false maxim of the left.
As liberals rightly assumed, Americans do believe in ending injustices. As liberals rightly assumed, many Americans, despite our technology, wealth and power, are indeed in pain. Liberals assumed incorrectly that Americans by and large consider all pain an injustice, and that it is an injustice requiring government redress.
George Bush saw the swell of this maxim in 2000. His campaign had seen the American people begin to resonate with the empathic words of Bill Clinton: “I feel your pain.” Bush rightly understood the implicit meaning of those words to be that the president understood and would soon end the people’s pain. Thus, compassionate conservatism was born. “Conservative government feels the pain of the American people too” or so the old campaign slogan goes.
And so it went. September 11th knocked the wind out of America, and when the country gained its breath there was little or no desire to attach compassion to the role of the executive. America had suffered an injustice. That injustice was murder and wrongful war. Liberals felt the same pain and endured the same injustice, but here the great schism occurred.
Conservative America thought the attack was unjust and required redress. The pain is part of life. It is the pigment of the paint with which every American hopes to make their masterpiece. The pain, most Americans surmised, was unavoidable. Hence, the arguments of George Bush that it is far better to fight terrorism abroad than to fight it at home. Bush, along with America, thought the pain could not be avoided so let us face it far from our homes while bringing (“Infinite”) justice down upon those who have wronged us.
Liberal America thought the attack was painful and only because of that pain did they think it was unjust. Liberals think that no human being deserves to suffer. Perforce, the left agreed with the right that the terrorists had been unjust on September 11th, but not because those in the World Trade Towers were innocent or because the terrorists were guilty, but rather because people were made to suffer. And so the left and right joined for a brief time of national unity under false pretense.
John Kerry’s campaign failed because in crucial part he embraced liberal America’s view of pain. Kerry attempted to contrast himself with President Bush by highlighting the liberal preference for ending suffering over ending injustice, but after 9-11 Americans were impervious to the siren song of a painless utopia. Nonetheless, this preference for pleasure and comfort over justice (which can be so unpleasant and uncomfortable) was the hallmark of Kerry’s campaign:
On the Iraq War, Kerry tried to move justice off the table. “Of course, Saddam is a tyrant,” Kerry would say, “but our boys are dying over there and that takes precedent.” On the economy, Kerry justified tax hikes on the wealthy by showcasing the plight of suffering seniors and the pain of the unemployed without addressing the question of merit or ownership, two fundamental questions of justice with regards to taxation.
On abortion, Kerry defended his entire position on the observation that a daughter raped by her father would suffer deeply by carrying the child to term. Never mind that Kerry admitted the unborn are humans, that would be a question of justice not based on demonstrable pain. That is why the Silent Scream film was so devastating to the left. Even Kerry’s diplomatic critique revolved around the pain of our wounded national pride that comes at the thought of the world community not respecting America. The justice or injustice of world opinion was never mentioned.
President Bush won the 2004 election on every one of these issues because he rooted his arguments in questions of justice and not demonstrations of pain. The American people are in pain, yes, always. They are also a just people. There was no national tension for Kerry to exploit on these grounds; the only tension was deep within his own liberal party. He was not disagreeing with the way things should go in the future the way other liberals have fought and won elections before him. Kerry was arguing with the way things are. Pain is a part of life, to be used to our advantage. Kerry ran on a platform that assumed a life resigned to pain is mediocrity, and an optimistic attitude in the face of pain is stupidity.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why liberals always think conservatives and their leaders are so dumb. A liberal in 1980 would look around, see the pain of Americans, see the economic turmoil, see the threat of nuclear war and conclude that any fool president who thinks this country is great must be an amiable dunce. The same applies to Bush, to Ditto-heads, and the Republican Party as a whole. Anyone who places justice above the relief of pain must be an idiot in the eyes of the liberal, for to them conservatives advocate the pursuit of justice by the toleration of injustice, namely pain.
The conservative understanding of pain as the lemons required for lemonade is rooted in two deeply American and interwoven pillars of American life: Judeo-Christian belief and common sense, or Church and football, or God and the market, or faith and reason, or death and taxes, in a word, reality. The fact is that pain, especially the pain of death and loss, will be with us until the end of time.
Conservatives, George Bush and the Republican Party recognize this fundamental reality and have developed a comprehensive political platform that looks for family, friends, material wealth, art, and God and His graces to act unhindered to help Americans through life to their final end with joy and consolation, asking only of government that it optimize the actions of these good forces in our country.
John Kerry, the Democrats, and liberals, with their tragic, wrongheaded understanding of pain, ran a campaign based upon the false promise of a painless future that cheapened the suffering of 9-11 and ignored the future hardships those attacks foretold. Liberals then failed to develop any substantive political platform that did not involve taking hold of the government to stamp out pain in this world. Americans have learned to deal with the pain. Pity the liberals. They feel their own pain, and it pains them to think of four more years without government, which, if not their cure for pain, is at least their anesthetic.
Matthew Mehan lives in Virginia and works as the Director of Admissions for
The Heights School for Boys in Maryland. He is a Publius Fellow of the
Claremont Institute and a contributor to National Review Online, as well as the plucky
group blog Down to the Piraeus.