Features of conservative history V: the Iraq war and ideological drift

What is one to make of the campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East, ideologically speaking?  For Left-liberals, the answer is easy:  this is a misbegotten creation of the far Right.  Of course, liberals would deny (correctly) that conservatism really has anything to do with democracy, which would seem to be a problem for this explanation.  How does an anti-democratic ideology lead to crusades for democracy?  The usual assumption is, I think, that “freedom for Iraqis” is just a pretext to murder them, and murdering foreigners is what conservatives truly hold dear.  Yes, I really think that’s what my Leftist friends and coworkers believe.  On the other hand, the paleoconservatives (rightly) point out that democracy-through-violence is historically a manifestation of the Left.  The American Conservative went so far as to call George W. Bush our “Jacobin in Chief“.    According to them, the problem with Bush was actually his liberalism.  This explanation, however, also has problems.  If Bushism was really Jacobinism, why is it that the actual decendents of the Jacobins–the European and American Left–despised it?

Paul Gottfried’s histories of the American Right provide the true answer, I believe.  As he points out, the Republican Party and the mainstream “conservative” movement have abandoned anything that could plausibly be identified with real, historical conservatism.  Also, contrary to what the liberals claim about Republicans being the party of “privilege”, the party doesn’t coherently speak for the interests of any existing social class either.  It seems to have no connection to actually-existing 21st-century American society.  In short, the Republican party is adrift.  It is no longer the Whiggish party of Lincoln–the issues that gave rise to that party are long dead.  It is no longer the party of anti-communism; that issue is also largely dead.  It is no longer the party of historical conservatism, because the leaders and most members of the party have abandoned faith in that creed.  The Republican Party has no reason to exist at all.  The honest thing to do, under such circumstances, is to close shop.  However, like Modernist Catholic priests who should do the honest thing after losing their faith and find a new way to earn a living, Republican officials have gone on a desperate search to find a new way to justify their salaries.  In the great debate between conservatism and liberalism (which is really the debate between Christianity and atheism), they find themselves stuck on the former team while thinking the latter team actually has the truer premises and the better arguments.  This is an awkward situation to be in.

The only way out is to take some liberal premise and derive a conclusion to it that the liberal party has failed to reach.  In this way can Republicans justify their existence.  Not only that, they can congratulate themselves on being the true liberals, the true idealists.

And so we get things like Operation Iraqi Freedom.  So liberals like Wilson and Roosevelt brought “democracy” to Europe?  Well, we’ll bring it to the rest of the world, and that makes us their true successors, doesn’t it?  It’s all an exercise in continuing to quarrel with the Democrats even after one has conceded all of the principle points.  It is neither fanatical liberalism nor fanatical conservatism, but something totally different, call it “fanatical self-justification” or “fanatical drift”.

Having so few articulate defenders costs the Right dearly.  We are unusually prone to crises of faith followed by fanatical drift.  The drift can take any number of forms:  neoconservative Wilsonianism, supply-side economics, insistance that global warming or the theory of evolution is a massive fraud, the gold standard, nullification.  Over at First Things, Jody Bottom and others are very excited about colonizing Mars to energize the national spirit.  One common thread in all of these things is that they have nothing to do with conservatism:  the defense of authority, tradition, organized religion, and patriarchy.  Another thing connecting most drift causes is  that they tend to be crazy.

Ironically, if liberals wanted less craziness on the Right, what they should hope for is the rise of self-confident all-out reactionaries.  As for the Republican and mainstream conservative movement as it exists today, I’m afraid I must join the paleoconservatives and say that, except as a nuisance to more clear-headed Leftists, I don’t see that it’s purpose serves any function at all.

2 Responses

  1. One of the things I wonder about vis a vis the neocons is what their rise tells us about the alleged primacy of ideas in moving history. Right now, they rule the R party to a considerable extent through the embrace by Rs generally of the neocons’ insane ideas. Does this show that ideas are important—that their power comes from their ability to convince rank and file Rs to believe? Or does it show the unimportance of ideas—that the masses can be convinced of anything at all once their leaders choose to so convince them? So that the important thing in their rise is just their skillful entryism. I dunno.

    The same sort of questions arise when thinking about modern Catholicism. Do we have the churchmen we have today because modernist theologians were so convincing or do our churchmen pretend modernist theologians are convincing because the modernists hold power (owing, again, to their entryism).

  2. The success with which Catholicism and conservatism have been supplanted by foreign–and not very intelligent–ideologies is a source of constant bewilderment and consternation for me.

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