Splintering of the Right
By Rick Freedman
the conservative movement self-destructing? Many observers
believe that the liberal movement became its own worst enemy
after the paroxysms of the Vietnam war, the Watts riots, and
the counter-cultural explosions of the '60s, devolving into
a morass of competing narrow-interest advocacy groups, losing
its Truman-esque center and disconnecting from the concerns
of real voters. Now that conservatism has become the dominant
American political worldview, is it in danger of falling victim
to the same self-destructive splintering?
The latest salvoes being fired across the bow of both neo-conservatism
and the Republican establishment indicate that this may be
the beginning of the end for unified American conservatism.
When even Pat Buchanan - that bogey-man of the left whose
campaigns for president are widely credited with exposing
the darkest prejudices and deepest hatreds of the "wingnut"
contingent - dissents against the neo-con worldview, and when
the National Review claims that the current Republican
majority in Congress encapsulates Washington's steady slide
from transparency, the rule of law, and first-world political
norms toward a standard of public integrity like Tanzania
(one of the planet's most corrupt nations), we may be seeing
a tipping point in the debunking of the Perle/Cheney/Wolfowitz
Let's look at these comments in detail, and discuss what
they mean for the theory that Republicanism will be the dominant
political force of this generation.
Pat Buchanan is a central figure in the rise of modern conservatism.
As a speechwriter for Richard Nixon's administration, he is
widely credited by reputable historians and journalists with
going far beyond the speechwriter's traditional role to participate
in the famous "dirty tricks" strategies of the Nixon Campaign
committee. Buchanan has been charged with authoring the famous
"Canuck" letter that caused Ed Muskie's presidential campaign
to implode, with authoring the Nixon enemies list and IRA
target list, and with urging Nixon to obstruct justice by
destroying the Watergate tapes.
At the 1992 Republican Convention Buchanan was given a coveted
speech time slot as his consolation prize for losing the primary
battle against George H.W. Bush (after scaring the snot out
of the Republican establishment by garnering a 37% win agains
Bush in New Hanpshire). This speech is widely credited with
framing the cultural themes that Republicans have used as
wedge issues against Democrats ever since. He began here the
central myth of the Reagan era, that Reagan single-handedly
"won the Cold War." He fired an opening shot in the gay-agenda
battle on which Bush has recently decided to capitalize, stating
that Bill Clinton and Al Gore represent the most pro-lesbian
and pro-gay ticket in history.
Buchanan framed the Republican agenda in this speech with
more honesty and forthrightness than could all of Bush's protestations
of "compassionate conservatism" when he said "There is
a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.
It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we
will one day be as was the Cold War itself."
So when Buchanan piles onto the neo-conservatives, as he
does in his current review of David Frum and Richard Perle's
new book An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror,
liberals will understandably take a jaundiced view of his
assertions. Buchanan of late has been a vehement critic of
the Iraqi adventure, and many of his recent pronouncements
sound like they could have come out of the mouth of Noam Chomsky,
not a virulent Goldwater conservative. Listen to this, from
his recent article "US Pays the High Price of Empire":
How can all our meddling not fail to spark some horrible
retribution .... Have we not suffered enough - from Pan
Am 103, to the World Trade Center, to the embassy bombings
in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam - not to know that interventionism
is the incubator of terrorism. Or will it take some cataclysmic
atrocity on U.S. soil to awaken our global gamesmen to the
going price of empire?
America today faces a choice of destinies. We can choose
to be a peacemaker of the world, or its policeman who goes
about night-sticking troublemakers until we, too, find ourselves
in some bloody brawl we cannot handle...Either America finds
an exit strategy from empire, or we lose our republic.
In an influential column entitled "Whose War is This?",
Buchanan took on the neo-cons directly:
The war Netanyahu and the neo cons want, with the United
States and Israel fighting all of the radical Islamic states,
is the war bin Laden wants, the war his murderers hoped
to ignite when they sent those airliners into the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon.
If America wishes truly to be isolated, it will follow
the neoconservative line.
Now Buchanan has taken on the neo-cons in his most direct
attack yet. In "No End to War", his review of Perle and Frum's
book, Buchanan concludes that the neoconservative moment may
be over. For they are not only losing their hold on power,
they are losing their grip on reality. Fear is what Perle
and his co-author David Frum are peddling to stampede America
into serial wars. Just such fear-mongering got us into Iraq,
though, we have since discovered, Iraq had no hand in 9/11,
no ties to al-Qaeda, no weapons of mass destruction, no nuclear
program, and no plans to attack us. Iraq was never "the
clear and present danger" the authors insist she was.
In ridiculing Perle and Frum's assertion that our war caravan's
next stop must be Iran, Buchanan asks:
Where in the Constitution is the president empowered to
"toss dictators aside"? And if it took 150,000
U.S. soldiers to toss Saddam aside, how many troops do Frum
and Perle think it will take to occupy the capital of a
nation three times as large and populous and toss the ayatollah
aside? How many dead and wounded would our war hawks consider
an acceptable price for being rid of the mullahs?
Buchanan's conclusion indicates why he has decided to take
on the neo-cons with such urgency - he sees them as a threat
to true conservatism:
Neoconservatives have revealed themselves as the antithesis
of conservative. In the depiction of scholar Claes Ryn,
they are the "neo-Jacobins"of modernity whose
dominant trait is conceit.
Only great conceit could inspire a dream of armed world
hegemony. The ideology of benevolent American empire and
global democracy dresses up a voracious appetite for power.
It signifies the ascent to power of a new kind of American,
one profoundly at odds with that older type who aspired
to modesty and self-restraint.
The Perle-Frum book is marinated in conceit, which may
prove the neoconsí fatal flaw. In the run-up to the invasion,
when critics were exposing their plotting for war long before
9/11, the neocons did not bother to deny it. They reveled
in it. They boasted about who they were, where they came
from, what they believed, how they were different, and how
they had become the new elite. With Rumsfeld, Cheney and
Bush marching to their war drums, one of them bellowed,
"We are all neoconservatives now!"
With the heady days of the fall of Baghdad behind us and
our country ensnared in a Lebanon of our own, neocons seem
fearful that it is they who will be made to take the fall
if it all turns out badly in Iraq, as McNamara and his Whiz
Kids had to take the fall for Vietnam.
And this one they've got right.
And in the National Review, contributing editor Deroy
Murdock is bucking that magazine's trend toward convoluted
Bush apologism for deficits and cronyism in a series of articles
with titles like "Washington Spendaholism" and "Republican-led
Journey to Tanzania." By refusing to go along with his peers
typical "our guy right or wrong" mentality, Murdock is violating
conservative tradition. One can only wonder if he'll experience
the same fate as Orrin Hatch, who had the temerity to display
some conscience about the recent Republican staffers who illegally
purloined Democratic documents and was subsequently pilloried
by the conservative thug-punditry.
In his prescient book Up From Conservatism, Michael
Lind predicted that the traditional, William F. Buckley style
of conservative Republicanism and the populist far-right conservatism
of Pat Robertson were heading for schism. Instead, as illustrated
by the current incarnation of the National Review,
intellectual conservatism has mostly been co-opted and subsumed
by the far right.
Now, it seems, the real schism is occuring between the "paleo-conservative"
movement - begun by Goldwater and still upheld by Buchanan
and a few other diehards, consistent with the ideals of limited
government, limited immigration, fiscal responsibility, and
states' rights - and the anything-for-power, internationalist,
interventionist theories of the neo-cons. Republicans are
learning that escaping from the wilderness to the center of
political debate has its downside.
Democrats, with some smart strategizing (I can dream, can't
I?) might conceivably figure out how to take advantage of
these schisms, by, for instance, using some of these quotes
and criticisms against the Republicans in upcoming contests.
That's a tactical approach, but one that Republicans have
used against us fruitfully in the past.
More strategically, progressives need to figure out what
this means for the future of the right, and what unlikely
alliances (such as an anti-interventionist alliance of liberals
and paleo-cons, a human-rights campaign that challenges the
Christian Right to make good on its after-the-fact rights
justifications on Iraq, or a pro-fiscal discipline movement
across the divide) can play to our benefit, and, more importantly,
to the benefit of the Republic.