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Voters Demand Restraint

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Nov 5, 1996

This week, politicians, political consultants, lobbyists, reporters, media analysts and academics across the land are reviewing election results. They are trying to decipher the message sent by the American electorate on Tuesday.

The Republicans won their largest victory in the House of Representatives in many decades and dominated state government elections, too. While it is true they didn't reach the heights hoped for in the Senate, they need only remember that a year or so ago common wisdom dictated that it would be a bad year for the GOP in the upper chamber. They were defending lots of seats, while the Democrats had the momentum. 2012 actually sets up significantly better for the Republicans in the Senate.

Why did the tectonic shift happen? Why this sudden tsunami of support to a party that had become somewhat hapless? We could as easily ask why the Democrats took over the Congress in 2006.

The answer, I think, has to do with a particular kind of American conservatism. Not neo-conservatism. Not John McCain-style "National Greatness" conservatism. No, the answer goes back to the nascent conservative movement growing up with William F. Buckley in the 1960s. Here it is:

Don't immanentize the eschaton.

I know. Some of you just sprayed coffee across the table at the sheer impenetrability of it. Though the phrase comes from the equally mysterious writings of Eric Voegelin, students in Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom wore the expression as a slogan on buttons!

Fortunately, the meaning is simple. Don't try to bring heaven to earth. It is an anti-utopian statement. It means that we cannot achieve the same things as are hoped for in the after-life because we are limited by our own fallen nature and by the means available to us.

Thus, in 2006 the American public sent a message to the Republicans and to the Bush administration. Their message was that we didn't sign on for a seemingly permanent occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and that it may be time to recognize limits in how much an outsider nation can change a culture through military supervision.

Now, again, in 2010, we have an electorate quite sagely refusing to believe that a huge, new entitlement plan designed to deliver health care to all will actually reduce our expenditures. Instead, they fear that the administration has tried to make its dreams come true at a time when the most sober pragmatism is needed. We narrowly avoided the wreck of our entire financial system, which was caused in part because we refused to accept some of the stingy old-horse sense about the importance of down payments and good credit scores. Americans fear that we are living in a house of cards. They want to shore up the foundation rather than adding
10 more stories to a wobbly structure.

Our president was elected on rhetoric of hope and change, but he learned Tuesday that voters insist those things must ever be moderated by prudence and wisdom.

This article orginally appeared in the Nov. 5 edition of the Jackson Sun