Reading the much-talked-about GOP “autopsy” today, trying to put together some impromptu thoughts about it for a Senate District meeting tonight, I find myself reminded of a passage from Douglas Adams’ novel Life, The Universe, and Everything. Slartibartfast, a hapless hero, is trying to explain to his allies, the even more hapless Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, that the universe is going to be destroyed by a fanatic army of unstoppable robots, and that they must move quickly in order to prevent the end of the universe. Ford replies:
“No,” said Ford firmly. “We must go to the party in order to drink a lot and dance with girls.”
“But haven’t you understood everything I …?”
“Yes,” said Ford, with a sudden and unexpected fierceness, “I’ve understood it all perfectly well. That’s why I want to have as many drinks and dance with as many girls as possible while there are still any left. If everything you’ve shown us is true…”
“True? Of course it’s true.”
“…then we don’t stand a whelk’s chance in a supernova.”
“A what?” said Arthur sharply again. He had been following the conversation doggedly up to this point, and was keen not to lose the thread now.
“A whelk’s chance in a supernova,” repeated Ford without losing momentum. “The…”
“What’s a whelk got to do with a supernova?” said Arthur.
“It doesn’t,” said Ford levelly, “stand a chance in one.”
He paused to see if the matter was now cleared up. The freshly puzzled looks clambering across Arthur’s face told him that it wasn’t.
“A supernova,” said Ford as quickly and as clearly as he could, “is a star which explodes at almost half the speed of light and burns with the brightness of a billion suns and then collapses as a super-heavy neutron star. It’s a star which burns up other stars, got it? Nothing stands a chance in a supernova.”
“I see,” said Arthur.
“So why a whelk particularly?”
“Why not a whelk? Doesn’t matter.”
Arthur accepted this, and Ford continued, picking up his early fierce momentum as best he could.
“The point is,” he said, “that people like you and me, Slartibartfast, and Arthur — particularly and especially Arthur — are just dilletantes, eccentrics, layabouts, fartarounds, if you like.”
Slartibartfast frowned, partly in puzzlement and partly in umbrage. He started to speak.
“— …” is as far as he got.
“We’re not obsessed by anything, you see,” insisted Ford.
“And that’s the deciding factor. We can’t win against obsession. They care, we don’t. They win.”
“I care about lots of things,” said Slartibartfast, his voice trembling partly with annoyance, but partly also with uncertainty.
“Well,” said the old man, “life, the Universe. Everything, really. Fjords.”
“Would you die for them?”
“Fjords?” blinked Slartibartfast in surprise. “No.”
“Wouldn’t see the point, to be honest.”
“And I still can’t see the connection,” said Arthur, “with whelks.”
Ford could feel the conversation slipping out of his control, and refused to be sidetracked by anything at this point.
“The point is,” he hissed, “that we are not obsessive people, and we don’t stand a chance against …”
“Except for your sudden obsession with whelks,” pursued Arthur, “which I still haven’t understood.”
“Will you please leave whelks out of it?”
“I will if you will,” said Arthur. “You brought the subject up.”
“It was an error,” said Ford, “forget them. The point is this.”
He leant forward and rested his forehead on the tips of his fingers.
“What was I talking about?” he said wearily.
Fundamentally, the Republican Party — when it is healthy — does not believe politics can alter the human condition. Conservatism holds that the human condition is an immutable consequence of fallen human nature — which is equally immutable. (The religious conservative will add, “…except in Christ.”)
Progressivism, and the Democratic Party built on it, believes precisely the opposite: that mankind, and therefore the world, can be perfected. They have always believed this; they will always believe it. It is, arguably, the founding principle of progressivism — the belief that not just science and technology and wealth but the moral nature of man “progresses” over time. It’s right there in their founding texts.
And the way to bring about this perfection is by uprooting and redesigning human institutions, rewriting human laws, and exterminating the bogeyman of prejudice. These phrases have the ring of familiarity to anyone who has encountered 21st-century Leftism (“Speak truth to power! Marriage for all*!” [*except polygamists]) or, for that matter, anyone who encountered 20th-century Communism (“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains!”, “Viva la revolucion!”) But the progressive idea that mankind’s evil is a result of institutions rather than free will is much older than Marx. To quote the aforelinked Condorcet:
Is there any vicious habit, any practice contrary to good faith, any crime, whose origin and first cause cannot be traced back to the legislation, the institutions, the prejudices of the country wherein this habit, this practice, this crime can be observed?
Because they believe the fundamental human problem, the root of all suffering, the most important problem in the universe, is the foolish design of certain human institutions, combined with the foolish inability of the uneducated masses to see past their own prejudices and embrace enlightened liberalism, progressives will stop at nothing, in the end, to take over those institutions, to change how they are structured, to root out and expel ideological opponents who are “holding back” “progress”, and to dominate the field of education, where — they believe — not only are individuals inculcated with the skills to succeed in life, but the very balance of good and evil in the world is determined. Many would die for power over those institutions. Indeed, plenty have.
Conservatives, meanwhile, see those same institutions as pretty important. Government, the media, and the school system determine a lot about how comfortable our lives are here in this vale of tears. They have the power to add or detract a great deal of suffering from our lives. But they are basically, in the end, a sideshow. The real human drama, the real place where suffering or joy wins out, is within the human will, in the wrestling with temptation and the fortitude of virtue. Conservatives believe that no power in Heaven, much less on Earth, can alter the basic trajectory of human choice, and so — in the final analysis — all that stuff progressives are willing to die for? Basically just fjords to us. Nice crinkly bits on the edges of what really matters.
They care, we don’t. They win.
And so, no matter how often Republicans win, they will always be in the process of losing. They are doomed to an eternity of rearguard actions and catch-up games, trying to beat the Democrats at the game of politics without losing their souls to the Democrats’ treatment of politics as religion. Conservatives will always be besieged in the academy, in the courts, in the marketplace, in the schoolhouse, and (ultimately) in the church.
(…except, I suppose, in Christ.)
Ford Prefect is wrong to say that, because we are doomed to ultimately fail, we should just give up and go to a party. There’s a lot we can do to slow things down, and, of course, every time we get wiped out, we eventually bounce back and win some important victories.
But here is what I am driving at: being a conservative deeply involved in politics is always going to be a bit of a contradiction, and it will always be deeply frustrating. In a healthy environment, Republicans are never going to be the party that inspires people to stay up all night every night for the entire week before the election refining our data analysis algorithms. We’re not going to take over television, publishing, and Broadway and then blacklist everybody who disagrees with us politically. We’ll have a few of those passionates, of course. Social conservatives, in particular, believe that not just our tax rates but millions of unborn lives and the fate of civilization itself are at stake, which has made them an important voting bloc but an infinitely more important part of the grassroots. (They must be leveraged heavily by any reconstructed, politically viable GOP!)
However, on the whole, we’re always going to be the Stupid Party, the party that throws away a pile of money on Project ORCA because nobody can be fussed to do better, which mounts a hapless and disorganized resistance in our increasingly intolerant universities. If we know that we will always be putting forth less political effort with less manpower than our opposition, we can plan for it. If we can plan for it, we can minimize the effect, capitalize on our strengths (the home, the family, and the non-political, non-institutional patchwork of communities that compose The Real America™) — and, maybe, we can win.
Just my afternoon musings.