What will happen to American conservatism as a result of the 2004 election? Obviously, the answer depends largely on what happens in the election, and we won’t know that until tomorrow (or later). But that doesn’t stop pundits from telling us anyway.
Pat Buchanan believes a “civil war” will break out inside the Republican Party over its ideological future, a war between the Bush partisans and their neoconservative allies on the one hand and, on the other, paleoconservatives like Mr. Buchanan, advocates of an “America First,” national interest-based foreign policy, economic nationalism and traditional conservatism—small government, constitutionalism and cultural traditionalism.
The most recent contribution to this discussion comes from two British observers with The Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, they suggest that whatever happens in the election, what President Bush has done to American conservatism is here to stay. [“‘Bushism’ Win or lose, the president has remade the politics of the right. October 27, 2004
What Mr. Bush has done to conservatism, they argue, is to revolutionize it. He has embraced what they call “big government conservatism,” reversing what both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan supported. “The massive growth in the state during this presidency (faster than under Bill Clinton, even if you exclude the spending on the war on terror)” is at heart “a deliberate strategy.”
Moreover, they claim that Mr. Bush’s use of the state is conservative in that in his intention was “to turn government into an agent of conservatism,” using federal power to impose moral values in ways traditional conservatives rejected (not because they rejected the values but because they rejected the scale of federal power to impose them).
Finally, “Mr. Bush’s boldest contribution to reinventing conservatism” lies in his foreign policy, which centers on spreading democracy across the planet as a moralistic crusade.
Like a lot of foreign observers of America since Alexis de Tocqueville, these two don’t get everything right, but they do spy trends many Americans tend to miss, and they are largely right about the impact of the Bush administration on the body of American conservatism.
To put it another way, the impact of Mr. Bush on American conservatism has been a disaster.
It has been a disaster because every “contribution” the authors cite is not simply a modification or an adjustment but an abandonment of what traditional conservatism means and has meant.
It is, in short, “neoconservatism”—and in a way that has nothing to do with “neoconservative” as a codeword for “Jews.”
The main neoconservative writers—Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and most others—have long insisted that they don’t share traditional conservative distrust of the centralized state—a distrust that was shared by traditional Jeffersonian conservatives, constitutionalists and libertarians.
What the neocons wanted, wrote their “godfather” Irving Kristol, was “a conservative welfare state,” while Mr. Podhoretz has written that from its beginnings “the neoconservatives dissociated themselves from the wholesale opposition to the welfare state which had marked American conservatism since the days of the New Deal.”
Today, thanks to the Bush administration, they have succeeded in disassociating American conservatism from American conservatism.
Mr. Bush’s use of expanded state power for “moralistic” ends is consistent with neoconservatism as well, though it mainly comes from his alliance with the religious right, a movement that has close ties to the neo-cons.
But Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge may exaggerate the degree to which the president has actually embraced the religious right’s agenda. Most I know in that movement are less than pleased with what he’s done to advance it.
Most obviously, as the authors acknowledge, Mr. Bush’s foreign policy is largely the creature of the neoconservatives all by themselves. The crusade to spread democracy, especially in the Middle East, has been a neoconservative obsession since at least the Reagan administration. Only under Mr. Bush did they have a green light to make it the central purpose of American policy abroad.
The trouble with Mr. Bush’s adaptations of conservatism to fit the neocon mold is that they are fundamentally inconsistent with what most American conservatives have always believed and believe today.
Only by masking them with conventional conservative rhetoric—and by dwelling on how awful the liberal alternatives are—can a Republican Party dominated by neoconservatism expect to keep grassroots conservative support and remain in office.
And maybe it can and will. As neoconservatism entrenches itself as the dominant and defining expression of conservatism, there will be fewer and fewer Americans who even remember what real conservatism is.
Maybe they can still wage a civil war to take back their party and their nation, but the result of that civil war could be as much of a disaster as the last one.