The Splintering of the Right
March 2, 2004
By Rick Freedman

Is 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 hallucination.

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.