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The Triumph of Conservatism

Bush accepts the Republican renomination, as shown on the Times Square Jumbotron, September 1, 2004. Photographs by Williams Cole.

Even if the Bush administration loses the coming election, the conservative movement that originally grew out of the debacle of the 1964 presidential election will continue to define American politics. As of this writing the Republicans have a fifty-fifty chance of retaining the White House, and even if they lose that race they will probably retain control of Congress and the Supreme Court and more than fifty percent of the state legislatures. This is a remarkable achievement for a political “persuasion” that was dismissed simply as “cranky” just forty years ago. 

With panzer division zeal, focus, and resources (i.e., money, expertise, and discipline), the Republican Party has arguably made itself the only real political party in the United States. It has won the presidency so many times in the last thirty-five years that when a Democrat does win, it seems like an aberration. The conservative movement has been so successful that it has put other social movements—of labor, blacks, women, environmentalists, and others—on the defensive. With their unrelenting attacks on progressive social policy, conservatives have controlled the policy debate and media perception: Calling someone a “liberal” is now tantamount to calling him a “red” or a “nigger lover.”

It’s also important to note that while the right had its version of “boots on the ground”—that is, running candidates for school board elections, city councils, etc.—the left was busy spinning theories about race, identity, gender, and representation, reading Foucault and Derrida, and neglecting any sense of real politics. Conservatives, it would seem, have little use for theory; while they do have a basic philosophy or worldview, they are more interested simply in power, which generally makes the left suspicious. In the current moment, the right is so powerful that its biggest enemy ultimately may be only itself. 

It would be a mistake to view the conservative movement as monolithic. However, it does tend to congeal around certain bedrock conservative principles: limited government, low taxes and strong national defense, and respect for the “natural order of things,” which kept labor repressed, blacks second-class citizens, women barefoot and pregnant, and gays invisible. These were the basic requirements to the club for years after the Civil War and up until the Goldwater candidacy of 1964. Growing out of the convulsions of the 1960s, social conservatism also had its requirements: hostility against “social engineering” (i.e., New Deal–Great Society programs benefiting blacks and the poor), abortion, and both pornography and the women’s movement. In essence, it was a Christian fundamentalist view of the world. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan became the right’s man on a horse who triumphed by declaring government as the problem and the USSR as the “evil empire.” 

From the 1960s forward, what made this a potent movement—called the New Right—was mainstream Republicans aligning themselves with social conservatives who had resided in the Democratic Party but left when that party supported bringing blacks into the promise of American life as full citizens of the republic. Mainstream Republicanism had the money, and social conservatism had the rage and fire to win. That set into motion the rise of a counter establishment, as noted by journalist Sidney Blumenthal, that began steadily churning out ideas, position papers, and public policies that challenged the “liberal orthodoxy” of the time. These “new” ideas were generated by such think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute and in such magazines as Commentary, Public Interest, and others. 

Public opinion journals such as Commentary and Public Interest were the ideological redoubts of a subspecies of American conservatism known as neo-conservatism. The influence of this subspecies on current American foreign policy is the subject of a new book by two conservatives: America Alone: Neo-conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge, 2004). The authors, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, argue that the current neo-con agenda is a “bridge too far” that jeopardizes the genuine foreign policy interests of the United States. No better example of such danger is the Bush administration, which has been seduced by neo-cons in and outside of the administration into pursuing the war against Iraq at the expense of the war on global terrorism. 

In the view of Halper and Clarke—who spent several years in the American State Department and the British Foreign Service, respectively—the neo-cons’ embrace of the use of American power via force, or “neo-war,” undermines over fifty years of American internationalism and strategic alliance building. The authors write: 

We are at an unusual juncture in American history. The character of our society is in play. The combination of unprecedented technological capability in the U.S. military and a formidable set of highly dynamic, carefully articulated ideas advocated by the neo-conservatives has created a treacherous situation. Given their access to military power and the instruments of domestic authority, this relatively small group has the ability to put its idea of a force-based, war-oriented America into practical effect.

What makes the neo-cons’ ideas and policies even more dangerous, they argue, is that “authoritarianism overseas generates authoritarianism at home.” 

America has become alone in the world by embracing the neo-con policy agenda and in the process has lost its “moral authority”—indeed, it now seems as thuggish as Stalin, who once contemptuously asked how many divisions the Pope could field. The neo-conservatives are on a mission to make the world, or parts of it, adhere to the American notion of democracy—read “values”—even if it means destroying those parts of the world. The radical innovation is that neo-cons believe that the United States has to set the “standard of a global superpower that intends to shape the international environment to its own advantage.” This contrasts sharply with the traditionally conservative (and liberal) idea of the United States pursuing what is in the nation’s vital interests. The neo-cons, Halper and Clarke suggest, have a much broader agenda and “represent a new phenomenon in American foreign policy analysis, something that might be called ‘agenda-ism.’ “ And this agenda smells much like the old Trotskyist notion of “permanent revolution.” 

What makes America Alone well worth reading is that it succinctly tells the story of how the neo-conservatives came into being and of their migration from left to right. The book delineates the ideas and philosophical orientations of men and women like Irving Kristol (the godfather of neo-conservatism), Nathan Glazer, Daniel Moynihan, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Daniel Bell and others who made up a generation that started off on the left, some as socialists and many as Democrats. They traveled rightward, often displeased at the turn of events that occurred during the 1960s, especially in regard to the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union and what they saw as the Democrats’ pusillanimity concerning the use of force. For some thinkers of the New Right, even Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of détente was one of appeasement, and they thus welcomed the more muscular approach of the Reagan administration. When the Soviet Union fell, the older generation was left adrift, more or less, but the second generation, led by William Kristol, editor of the Rupert Murdoch journal Weekly Standard, began articulating something new: America’s goal of global dominance, driven by “missionary imperialism and international confrontation.” 

The foreign policy neo-conservatives—Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Dick Cheney, and others—sat out the Clinton years as a “shadow defense establishment,” cranking out policy papers and constantly harping on one particular issue: Saddam Hussein. According to Halper and Clarke, “their objective was to seize the political space created by the strategic vacuum of the 1990s to advance a foreign policy agenda that seeks to remake a substantial part of the world in America’s image.” Thus, the neo-cons submitted blueprints for the Middle East, including the notorious “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” along with Defense Planning Guidance, which argued for American dominance and thwarting the rise of a challenging power (China?). Such ideas formed the basis of the Bush administration’s 2001 national security strategy, which emphasized preemption, including regime change, as the means to fighting the war on terrorism. 

How the American public was sold the war in Iraq—first as Saddam Hussein being in league with al-Qaeda, then as a search for weapons of mass destruction, and then as liberating the Iraqi people—was essentially via the politics of deception, made easier because of the events of 9/11. The neo-conservatives downplayed their agenda of regime change in the Middle East and knew it would not fly before the American public unless it was couched in terms of fighting the war against terrorism or as a search for WMD. When all these rationales fell apart, the administration shrugged its shoulders. America can do whatever it wants to whomever. Who can stop it?

What disturbs traditional conservatives like Halper and Clarke is that [A] preexisting ideological agenda was taken of the shelf, dusted off and relabeled as the response to terror. The reality is that it has little or nothing to do with combating terror and in fact may make the terror threat all the worse. An ideology that highlights conventional state-against-state conflict as a one-size-fits-all policy option has been adapted for an era when threats are unconventional, transnational, and non-state-specific. Little wonder that no one feels safer.

The neo-cons’ agenda becomes even more macabre when one considers that they predicate their views on bringing “moral clarity” to various issues, especially in regard to foreign policy. In spite of this, they feel no compunction about lying to the American public to achieve their policy goals. The overreach of the neo-conservatives has even caused some bona fide conservatives like Kevin Phillips and others to question if George W. Bush is a true conservative. Indeed, what does it mean to be a conservative in an era of ballooning deficits and government spending, as well as of encroaching government surveillance, when the president acts as an agent of God, initiating what appears to be a war without end?

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s election, conservatism has triumphed in the realm of politics and perception in American society. The right has discredited liberalism and has forced most left-of-center politics into a defensive position. Worse yet, the left neither produces ideas nor answers to compete in the marketplace of political reality, and it has no real communication apparatus to do so. If—God willing—the Republicans are forced to decamp from the White House after the November election, we can rest assured that they will be at their desks the next morning, plotting their strategy for 2006 and 2008. They are like rust, and rust never sleeps.


Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2004

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