If the Democratic Party’s control of the presidency and the Senate can succeed in provoking the base of the GOP to reevaluate its collective political identity, then it all may just have been worth it.
Maybe—maybe—the internecine conflict currently on display in the GOP indicates a breakdown of that political philosophy that has dominated Republican Party politics, as well as the so-called “conservative movement,” for decades.
The name of this philosophy is neoconservatism, and it isn’t a version of conservatism at all.
Like their “liberal” or “leftist” counterparts who’d rather die than identify themselves as liberal or leftist, neoconservatives almost always eschew the label “neoconservative.” Some have even gone so far as to refer to the latter as an “anti-Semitic” slur. All of this is as curious as it is preposterous when it is considered that Irving Kristol, a Jew andthe father of Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, unabashedly embraced it nearly 40 years ago.
Neoconservatism, Kristol noted, endorse, among other things, a “limited” welfare state of the FDR variety and an activist military that pursues nation-building enterprises abroad.
Neoconservatives, you see, not only haven’t any objections to Big Government; they desire it, for only a large, centralized government can fulfill the domestic and foreign policy objectives that they want served.
George W. Bush was a neoconservative president. In his second term, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard had written a book in which he lavished praise upon Bush II for using Big Government for what Barnes described as “conservative” purposes. This, at bottom, is what “compassionate conservatism” was all about.
Traditional conservatives, i.e., real conservatives, like, say, Russell Kirk—a man, mind you, in whose absence, according to Bill Buckley, the conservative movement in America would’ve been “inconceivable”—could never so much as imagine that anyone, much less self-avowed “conservatives,” could think to speak of a “conservative purpose” of Big Government.
But a traditional conservative is about as unlike a neoconservative as he is unlike a leftist of any other type.
Conservatives have always known that individual liberty is meaningless unless authority is decentralized and power widely disseminated. It is precisely in the nooks and crannies of our Constitution’s numerous “checks and balances” that the liberty of the citizen is to be found. A so-called “federal” government that reigns supreme over the states is not, truly, a federal government at all; it is just that sort of national or centralized government that our Framers dreaded, the sort of government that promised to eclipse liberty.
But that is the government we have now. And it is the government that domestically, as well as and especially, internationally, neoconservatives have helped to create.
Conservatives attach a premium to tradition—slow as a snail but blind as a bat tradition. Traditionis nothing but the repository of the wisdom of our ancestors. Political institutions are not chunks of machinery that can be exported anywhere around the globe, but the evolved traditions, the habits, the mores, of a people over centuries and millennia.
Thus, from the conservative’s perspective, the neoconservative’s crusade, initiated by Bush II, to essentially remake the Islamic world in the image of an abstract ideology—“Democracy”—is beyond foolish. It is reckless. And it is doomed to fail.
Neoconservatives charge conservatives with being “isolationists”—a term that is as baseless as it is meaningless. Conservatives believe in the necessity of a powerful military, but one that is deployed only for the purposes of prosecuting unavoidable wars and securing its own country’s borders. In other words, conservatives insist that the military is never to be used as an agent in a global cause of one sort or another.
Neoconservatives, in glaring contrast, are no different from any other leftist ideologue inasmuch as they have abundant confidence in the power of government to design and implement blueprints (what Fred Barnes and company would call “conservative purposes”) for any society anywhere in the world. This in turn also explains why the military can never be big enough for the neoconservative, why any talk at all of trimming military spending is invariably met with the charge that his opponents want to “gut the military.”
Yet Big Military is Big Government.
Notice, just those Republicans who are now being lambasted as “RINO sell outs”—John McCain, Pete King, Lindsay Graham, etc.—for voting to fund Obamacare and raise the debt ceiling are the most hawkish members of American society. This is a long-standing pattern: the most vocal enthusiasts of Big Military abroad are always enthusiasts of Big Government at home.
These Republican enthusiasts are not “RINOs.” They’re not even “sell outs.”
They are neoconservatives.
Perhaps one good thing to come out of Obama’s presidency is that it provides the GOP’s traditional base with an opportunity to start discussing who they are—and who they want to be.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.