Many of President Reagan's partisans speak the language of revolution, and they frequently remind me of anarchists plotting in basements.
Prosperous real estate operators use the slightest pretext to lurch into harangues against the contemptible pacifism of European revisionists falling back on the weakness of appeasement. Prominent sponsors of charity balls recommend withdrawing food stamps from the shiftless poor. With a zealot's enthusiasm, they explain why the government shouldn't be in business of handing out favors -- not to anybody, not for any reason. Dealers in antique furniture compare the genius of an entrepreneur with the romance of a hero in an Ayn Rand fable. They claim that the true capitalist, like any other true artist, welcomes the risk of creative annihilation.
Why this ominous muttering among people so comfortably place? Such partisans might be expected to confine their political commentary to the usual remarks in circulation at a country club dance. Surely, the ease of their circumstances should incline them to a more tolerant view of the status quo. What is it that annoys them? Who is it they mean to defy?
The questions troubled me, until I was struck by the resemblance between the new Republicasn Resorgimento and the old counter-cultural insurrection of the 1960s. The manners of dress have changed, and so has the age of the malcontents, but the habits of mind remain similar.
Both the old revolution and the new excited the passions of the radical bourgeois; both could be described as "revolutions from above," instigated by people who believed that they were entitled to even more than they had. Something had gone awry with their expectations. Like the admirers of Jane Fonda's political attitudes, Reagan's partisans cast themselves as rebels against "the system." They pose as romantic figures at odds with a world they never made. In the 1960s, the world was made by "the establishment," by old men who couldn't play guitar and who trembled at the sight of long hair. Now the world has been made by "the government," by young men who have no feeling for Bing Crosby, and who have redistributed the nation's wealth as if it were so much confetti.
What else is the promise of the Republican Risorgimento if not the dream of American individualism regained, of capitalism unbound, of rescue from the vultures of federal regulation, of freedom to go plundering through a world in which the spoils properly belong to the rich, to the adventurous and to the strong?
Such promises are not so different from those of the open road traveled by Jack Derouac and Bob Dylan, except that El Dorado is now to be found on the temporal instead of the spiritual frontier. The new movie requires few revisions in the old script. Once, it was impossible to trust anybody over 30 -- unless the poor wretch held tenure at a university and was willing to wear beads and sign petitions on behalf of Consciousness III. Now it is impossible to trust anybody under the age of 30 who hasn't already cashed in his first million for a life membership in the Ameriacan Enterprise Institute.
George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" has replaced Charles Reich's "The Greening of America" as the holy text of reaction. One troupe of arcadian Californians supersedes another on the stage of the national political theater. Orange County displaces the Woodstock Nation as the railhead of crusade, and the locus of the earthly paradise moves from a commune in the White Mountains to a golf course in Palm Springs. If the flower children believed they owed nothing to the republic except an encore of "Blowing' in the Wind," Reagan's entrepreneurs figure they owe reduced tax payments.
As individuals, the members of both constituencies often conduct themselves with a remarkable degree of courage, just as Reagan has done. Yet both communities find it difficult to agree on any definition of law that might take precedence over the supremacy of individual wish. The two caravans of pilgrims made up their own rules on the way west; now they rendezvous in common revolt against time and complexity.
The media still advertise California as the hope of the future, but the state is more accurately understood as the mirror of the past -- not just the recent, historical past but the ancient, primitive past of 90,000 years ago in which it might be possible to remain a child far longer than in colder climates. In California, it is hard to remember that the rest of the world exists as a projection on the screening room wall of a private romance. But, no matter how the self-proclaimed anarchists costume their dramas, they always shout the manifesto of Peter Pan. They declare time to be circular. They say nothing ever changes in the land of perpetual summer. If the counter-culture attracts people who refuse to grow up, the Republican Risorgimento recruits its congregation among the people who refuse to grow old.
The defiant tone of recent announcements probably derives from the discovery of what the fantasy is going to cost.