The death of conservative ideology

I'm on my porch, shoes off, feeling the smooth planks of pine under my bare soles, listening to the hum of my neighborhood – a radio, hammering, a car down the street, the buzz of a far-off lawnmower – thinking, thinking, thinking. I just had a cup of joe and a vegan chocolate chip cookie at the Good Food Store over David James Duncan's new book, “God Laughs & Plays” and I feel pretty good. (I'll post more on the book in later days.) The kids are off at the local playground, and we're headed for a three-day excursion down to Twin Bridges and then Bozeman, so I won't be posting until Wednesday.

Naturally I want to talk politics. (Many of you may have noticed: I'm a compulsive writer. To be frank, this blog is not my sole writing preoccupation. Mull that over.) I'm nowhere near an Internet connection right now, so you'll have to take my word on a number of references I'm about to make.

First, Bush responded to the recent revelation to the domestic phone call monitoring. My reaction? Yawn. I didn't read his statements. Is there anyone whose statements mean less? Seriously, the guy is a joke. What's more interesting to me is the silence over at “What's Right…” They're either in shock and in denial, or they don't care. The latter is probably true, and that's a shame. Perhaps it's not too late to send them to China where they'd feel more comfortable. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they're concerned about the program. Or maybe they're waiting for the talking points to come in over the fax.

Nonetheless I'm happy ordinary folks are finally getting outraged at something the Bush administration has done. I'm worried it's too late, that this President has inured us to totalitarianism, that the nation is swept up in some kind of “national psychosis,” as David James Duncan wrote in the above mentioned book:

The cofather of psychoanalysis, C.G. Jung, was a great admirer of Jesus. He struggled hard to love his German neighbors back in the early 1930s. But by 1934, Jung had concluded that when psychosis reaches a national scale it has become more powerful than truth, more powerful than reason, and far more powerful than any truth-telling individual.[snip]

To their hearts' credit but their imaginations' disgrace, many who are unaware of these [environmental and political] devastations insist upon remaining unaware. This, I believe, is the kind of mental impasse C.G. Jung was referring to when he said that national psychosis is more powerful than our power to change it.

Elsewhere on the 'Net I saw a recent post that tried to explain why dry-land rural Americans were so affected by 9/11, and why they're overwhelmingly reacting politically out of fear of Islamic terrorism when they're not a target of their violence. (D*mn I wish I had the link. Maybe I'll look for it later.) The answer? Fear of death. Not that Montanans, say, are endangered by terrorists. We're not. But 9/11 made folks here realize how fragile our hereto safe national existence actually is. Let's face it: many folks prefer living in the country because they believe it's safer (it's not), because there's less crime (there's not). So when the planes piloted by swarthy outsiders smashed into a cultural landmark and destroyed it, it freaked people out. So now those people overcompensate and toss any and all civil liberty into the trash bin to regain that sense of national security.

(Cat's out of the bag, people. We live in a world with Islamic terror organizations. People will die. Especially now that we've exacerbated tension by invading Iraq and threatening to nuke Iran. Get used to this idea. It's a fragile existence, and that's all the more reason we should fight to protect our freedom and liberty here at home.)

If we are to endure this Presidency and its legacy, we need a major shift in national consciousness. Yes, it's time to abandon the conservative world-view. It doesn't work.

So what do I mean? In a recent New York Times' Magazine, “The Rehabilitation of a Cold War Liberal,” Peter Beinart argues that

Since the mid-1950's, when William F Buckley's new journal, National Review, created the ideological synthesis that still defines the American right, one overriding fear has haunted conservative foreign policy: the fear that Americans cannot distinguish good from evil.

Basically conservatives have decried “moral relativism” in left-wing circles, that the left's tendency to focus on cause and effect and occasionally implement “collectivist” policies (like the New Deal) “undermin[ed] old certainties, above all the belief in God.” Basically – said the conservatives – liberals were undermining the will of the American people to stand up to their Communist and totalitarian enemies.

The Cold War liberal thinker “rehabilitated” by the article is Reinhold Niebuhr. A dedicated anti-Communist, Niebuhr was “concerned that in pursuing a just cause, Americans would lose sight of their own capacity for injustice.”

Americans, Niebuhr argued, should not emulate the absolute self-confidence of their enemies. They should not pretend that a country that countenanced McCarthyism and segregation was morally pure. Rather, they should cultivate enough self-doubt to ensure that unlike the Communists', their idealism never degenerated into fanaticism. Open-mindedness, he argued, is not "a virtue of people who don't believe anything. It is a virtue of people who know. . .that their beliefs are not absolutely true."

While many conservatives argued that this was a form of moral weakness, post-WWII foreign policy was constructed around Niebuhr's ideas, which “underlay America's remarkable willingness to restrain its power.” The US created international organizations like the UN and NATO, and gave its partners not only a voice in the proceedings, but often demurred when opposed.

…America's great advantage in the cold war was that the Soviet Union constituted an empire, which held its alliances together by force. By contrast…if the United States resisted the imperial temptation and built alliances that respected foreign nationalism, those alliances would endure. In 1947, when the Truman administration announced the Marshall Plan to help rebuild postwar Western Europe, he resisted using the aid to recast European economies in America's image. Indeed, his administration assisted socialist parties, recognizing that while they might not always prove ideologically pliant, they represented home-grown bulwarks against Soviet power. As one Truman State Department official put it, America should seek European allies "strong enough to say no both to the Soviet Union and the United States, if our actions should seem so to require."

Since 9/11, conservatives have dominated all discourse on foreign policy and have pushed aside Niebuhr's ideas. According to neoconservatives, American Democracy is naturally good and anything it does is righteous. Neocons recognized that the US is the only dominant superpower and wanted to use its power to spread its form of governance and economics across the globe.

In 2002, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer noted that "people are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire.' " And that discussion had an idealistic cast. For its proponents, "empire" was usually preceded by the adjective "benign" or "liberal." In other words, the United States would rid itself of external impediments but nonetheless act in the global good, uncorrupted by the temptations of unrestrained power.

In other words, conservative ideology would not have us bother with cause and effect. Instead of considering why Islamic terrorism exists and what we can do to stamp it out at its root, conservatives feel it should simply be fought. Any and all who are associated with it or harbor it should be treated as an enemy. Period.

Once the Bush administration embraced and executed this line of reasoning, the US began to ignore, break, and abrogate a number of international treaties.

On global warming, an America liberated from international restraint has acted irresponsibly; in our antiterrorist prisons, we have acted inhumanely. And from the moment the United States invaded Iraq, the Bush administration's complacent certainty of its own benevolence has blinded it to the dangers of colonial rule. While the authors of the Marshall Plan avoided remaking Europe's economy, for fear of sparking nationalist resentment, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer III, unilaterally rescinded Iraq's import tariffs on foreign goods. Bremer may have thought he was acting on Iraq's behalf, even without its people's consent. But that is only because he lacked the self-consciousness and humility to see that he was not. As Larry Diamond, a more reflective C.P.A. official, noted: "American political leaders need to take a cold shower of humility: we do not always know what is best for other people, even when we think it is their interests we have in mind. And as I saw during my time in Iraq, it was frequently our interests that were driving decisions we were trying to impose." Niebuhr couldn't have said it better himself.

The same conservative principles used to justify our actions abroad have also been used here at home. Everything done by the President's office is trustworthy and true, according to these same right-wing thinkers. If the President is wiretapping his people, it's for our security. The “conventional” restraints of the Constitution are likewise unimportant in the light of the President's moral power.

Only this policy has failed us, absolutely. This line of thinking, the dichotomy of good and evil, doesn't work in a post 9/11 world. In order to eliminate terrorism and deal with the problems in a globalized economy and a globalized political entity (where internal Saudi politics could eventually morph into a terrorist attack on New York City). Strong and voluntary international treaties and organizations are needed, international co-operation essential in weeding out violent extremists of any stripe. (US white supremacist groups?)

The unprecedented post-cold-war gap between America's military power and every other nation's does not make international institutions unnecessary, as the right argues; it makes them even more essential. The liberals of the early cold war, who had seen depression and war cross the oceans and imperil the United States, believed America could guarantee neither its prosperity nor its security alone. And globalization makes that even truer today. The world's increased integration has left the United States more vulnerable to pathologies bred in other nations. So more than ever before, American security requires economic, political and even military interventions in the internal affairs of other nations: to stop bird flu from spreading in rural China, corruption from sparking a banking collapse in Thailand or jihadists from plotting in Pakistan.Yet if America pursues those interventions itself they will spark exactly the nationalist backlash that Niebuhr and Kennan feared. As Princeton's G. John Ikenberry has put it, a one-superpower world is like a town where there is only one policeman and the houses have no locks. In such a world, America's challenge isn't proving that it can wield unrestrained power; it is proving that it won't become a predator.

The same is true in domestic politics. Excluding all but a rabid minority of like-minded ideologues and religious fundamentalists from participating in the governing of the country is morally and practically wrong. Assuming that this same cabal of extremists does not need the checks and balances of American government because of its political “righteousness” is morally and practically wrong. And illegal. This political approach has torn apart the country, excised civility from public political discourse, and created policies catered to the minority that governs: the ultra-rich and religious fundamentals. Our imbalanced budget is a disgrace, the administration's tax cuts overwhelmingly favor the wealthy, our schools are in crisis, our economy teeters on the brink of rapid inflation, our emergency agencies crippled, health care costs spin out of control, etc., etc.

Conservative ideology has proved itself incapable of dealing with real problems. Conservative ideology is dead.

If we are to have any hope of restoring the problems the Bush administration has created for us at home and abroad, we must reclaim Niebuhr's ideas, that compromise, understanding, and cooperation are the bedrock to peace and prosperity.

Conservatives may not believe it. A majority of Americans may still react strongly to the “us vs. them” analysis of foreign policy. The specter of this failed ideology may linger with us for another generation, just as the Soviet Union clung tenaciously to Marxist theory long after it was shown to be completely impractical in everyday life, but the bottom line is that this ideology does not work.

See you Wednesday.

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  1. Shows how much you know about “conservative ideology” considering that the current foreign policy is decidedly “neoconservative” and has been rejected by most American “tories” including W.F. Buckley, Jr. and George Will. Neoconservatism carries with it the worst of both worlds; Wilsonian internationalism combined with large government activism.

    You and Duncan would benefit from understanding the evolution of the coalition of conservatism and the (ex-Trotskyist) neoconservatives – such as Norman Podhoretz, Donald Kagan, Irving Krystol and Leo Strauss. Blame for its infection in conservative ideology can, however, be traced back to Buckley himself. In the late 1950’s Buckley embraced various neoconservatives in his war against the paranoid John Birch Society to rid conservatism of conspiratorial nut jobs. But if you’ve been paying attention, it appears that it is neoconservatism that has failed at its root – at least if you buy into what ex-neocon, Francis Fukuyama has wriiten.

    I’m neither a neocon or a conservative by their classical definitions but by that measure Bush is no conservative either. I also understand your natural affinity for labels and your misunderstanding of political philosophy. I protest because labeling Krauthammer as “conservative” is as appropriate as labeling Daniel Patrick Moynihan a “neoconservative”- as many “progressives” of the past were known to do.

    If anything, I predict the failure of neoconservatism will only help the consolidation and growth of conservatism. Just look at the push back by conservatives over Bush’s growth of the federal government. The GOP coalition may crack, as I think they deserve to do, but conservatism is set to be stronger by the lessons learned from that partnership of political convenience.

    I think what both you and Duncan portend is misguided thinking – and wishful at that.

  2. I dunno. Simplistic ideology seems to fail. In this sense, conservatism has a lot in common with Marxism. In fact, in a lot of what you and other “free market” conservatives write, I see not original ideology, but a reaction to Marxism. Time to come up with something new and capable of working in the real world.

  3. I bring up your apparent lack of understanding of the nuances of political philosophy and you tell me that I need to diving a new economic paradigm?

    What’s that? Your way of changing the subject?

    And by calling conservatism “simplistic” you prove my point. I recommend you read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1955) for starters – just so you have a clue what you’re talking about. I’m sure you won’t subscribe to much of what he has to say (I reject a great deal of it) but it seems to me, if politics is your passion these days, you should at least be familiar with your philosophical opponents. Nes pas?

    How can you be open minded when you don’t take the time to learn the views of those you perceive as your detractors?

  4. I have yet to see any clear, coherent opinion come in either the comments or on your website about…well much of anything. You seem to concentrate all your energies on belittling everyone’s ideas, but don’t bother to put forth any of your own. It’s quite off-putting, frankly.

    Until you actually propose or explain what you mean, please leave off on stuff like:

    “…shows how much you know…”
    “…you…would benefit from…”
    “…but if you’ve been paying attention…”
    “…I understand your natural affinity for labels…”
    “…misguided thinking, and wishful at that…”
    “…I bring up your lack of understanding…”
    “…just so you have a clue…”

    I feel like I’m talking to the freshman who’s just taken his first poly sci class.

    Of course if you follow my blog regularly, you’d know I’ve been following the “neocon” debate pretty closely. If you’d read Louis Menand on Fukuyama, you’d know that Fukuyama was never really a true “neocon.” So him saying the policy is failed is like me saying Bush is the worst President in US history. He may be right, but nobody’s listening, as witnessed by Krauthammer’s blistering rebuttal.

    As for “traditional conservatives,” well they’re pretty much extinct, wouldn’t you say? They certainly aren’t any mainstream policy planners from those circles. Might as well quote a T-Rex on urban planning…

  1. 1 4&20 blackbirds » Blog Archive » The fantasy of American Empire lives on

    […] The deal is simple: the GOP wants you and me to believe that the present Iraq War is analogous to WWII because that was the “good” war. No one thinks fighting that war was a bad idea, and they want you to think that fighting their war is the same thing. It’s part of the conservative mindset on foreign policy, where everything is broken down into a simplistic “us vs. them” approach. Only no one asked us whether we want to go to war, no one proposed it for debate. We were hijacked, and some of us are still pretty p*ssed. […]

  2. 2 On patriotism and torture « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] One of the favorite conservative attacking points is that liberals don’t love their country. Certainly it’s true that the left tends to be less absolutist about…well…everything, including country. (I’ve written about this topic before when it comes to foreign policy, noting that a non-absolutist or liberal policy actually works compared to a simplistic, absolutist conservative one.) I do, for example, often decry events from our past policies that were wrong. Slavery and segregation. Support for Pinochet and the Shah of Iran. The invasion of Iraq. The designated hitter. […]

  3. 3 Squabbling over the deck chairs on the Titanic « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Geraghty’s call for the Republican party to move further to the right reflects his disconnect with reality. What’s causing the GOP to fall so far behind in 2006 is the fact that it is too far right to begin with. Conservative ideology has lead to foreign policy disaster. Conservative small government rhetoric has led to massive fiscal irresponsibility, where GOPers gleefully cut taxes but still hand out massive pork projects to constituents. Meanwhile, the social radicalization of the GOP in Kansas is driving the state into Democratic hands. […]

  4. 4 What China can teach us about democracy, capitalism, and foreign policy « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] foreign policy in a complex world should (as I’ve written before) rely on “compromise, understanding, and cooperation [as] the bedrock to peace and prosperity,” […]




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