As Congress returns to work this week, some conservatives are massing for a final assault on the National Endowment for the Arts. You can almost hear their direct-mail machines humming. Never before have conservatives so enthusiastically surrendered to so profoundly an anti-Madison-ian impulse as the proposed dismemberment of the NEA. In ginning up the debate, they overlook the first principles of U.S. conservativism.
Ours is--and should remain--an anti-majoritarian government, one faithful to its original purpose of controlling and defeating the violent effects of what the Federalists called "faction." Simple majorities not only do not count; they should be resisted. Minorities should be protected, their rights defended, their views incorporated into government.
A thousand devices have evolved to further this design. Among the most successful are the "constituent agencies" of the federal government. The farmers have the Department of Agriculture; the veterans, the Department of Veteran Affairs; American Indians, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Small business has its agency; the Federal Communications Commission represents the broadcasters. There are a hundred other examples.
Constituent agencies, to be sure, do not always please their constituencies. But they do serve as mediators, as vehicles for discrete groups to be a part of government.
A relatively recent and discrete--if not discreet--addition to the nation's list of interest groups is the arts community. Although a crucial force in the United States, the group is relatively small in number and, in general, not well organized politically and not very powerful. Dancers, photographers, artists, musicians and playwrights are not activists in the traditional sense of the term. The institutions that nurture them and their work are legion--from community theaters to historical societies to local museums. But as the past few months demonstrate, this community can be rolled.
Blessed with some easy targets and sensing a big win, a subdivision of conservatism has gone for the jugular. A debate about "Art" might have been useful. But its degeneration into a lynch mob aimed at humbling and punishing an entire minority, by eviscerating its symbol of participation in and inclusion within the federal government, is mean-spirited and intolerant.
The nation spends decades building up the traditions and institutions that bind it together. When a truly divisive internal issue or powerful external threat arises, it is thus prepared to survive the strains on the idea of "one country and one people." Slavery, of course, was an issue for which there could be no compromise. Communism's internal threat in the post-war years was another. Debate over the Vietnam War eventually took on an intractable tone; the abortion question may yet evolve into an issue where only the majority can rule, and where a minority's view must be repudiated.
The idea of building tolerance for and including within the government every "interest group" is profoundly conservative. An assault on an identifiable minority--or even a well-intentioned debate that is perceived by the minority as a potentially ruinous attack--ought to be avoided. We purposefully wound interest groups and their symbols only at great risk.
Conservative rhetoric in the NEA debate has been neither measured nor qualified. It proceeds from the premise that we might be better off without an arts endowment. In taking up and defending this position, the right behaves like the left--contemptuous of diversity, arrogant and absolutist.
A measure of the NEA's success is that it, in fact, is largely responsible for calling into being "the arts community." The endowment has nurtured it, financed its growth, promoted its importance. The right ought to be praising the endowment, not preparing to bury it.
Ronald Reagan, it should be recalled, began his second term by celebrating the "American sound"--a magnificent noise encompassing a thousand different choruses, not all of them meshing harmoniously. The NEA has served to expand the band.
The conservatives trashing the agency are seizing on only the irritants that go with the inevitable elitism surrounding the arts. Yes, some of the spokespersons for the arts are insufferably condescending. Yes, the NEA's grant panels relentlessly exclude middle-class taste. And yes, some in the arts are about as tolerant of educated criticism as Stalin was of political dissent.
But so what? An appropriate correction could have been accomplished by leavening the panels with some new perspectives. And yes, some of the subsidized exhibits offend. But 99% of television's fare offends, and yet we do not revoke licenses.
When the debate resumes, there is the great risk that the right will try to escalate it to a demand for a kind of reverse cultural apartheid--only a grant that does not offend the majority's taste may be made. This demand, if met, would yield sterility. Worse, it is totalitarian in its lineage.
President Bush appears to sense this. Hopefully, the national commission preparing recommendations on the NEA's future, due at month's end, will as well. After reflection, perhaps voices on the right will urge the commission to recommend to the Congress what it needs to hear:
"Lighten up. The NEA works. In fact, it works very well. Reauthorize the agency for five years and leave it alone, except to praise it as an engine of diversity and inclusion in a country of diverse minorities, all of which should have a link to the federal government."
If such a report is not forthcoming, perhaps some first-string conservatives will step up to defend the NEA. The brief against the endowment is seriously flawed, since it is based on a majoritarian and exclusionary principle. It is not too late for some principled stars on the right to say "I dissent."