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What Happens To Neoconservatism After November?

Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings and The Art of the Possible has joined the conversation on neoconservatism and its future. He's skeptical about my claim that "[t]he neocons are in a decidedly weak position" and risk becoming marginalized in the … Read More

By / June 9, 2008

Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings and The Art of the Possible has joined the conversation on neoconservatism and its future. He's skeptical about my claim that "[t]he neocons are in a decidedly weak position" and risk becoming marginalized in the likely event of a McCain defeat in November. And rightly so; what I should have said is that the neoconservatives are now in a weaker position than at any prior point in the history of their movement, which—to be fair—isn't the equivalent of being on the brink of dissolution. Jim ably outlines the reasons their total demise is not likely, which fall into roughly three groupings:

  1. The neoconservatives' ample structural and tactical advantages within the Republican party;
  2. The woeful disarray of the internal opposition—which seems more interested at the moment in tearing itself to pieces through mutual recriminations and excommunications than in building a coalition to regain control of the GOP;
  3. The fact that every country has and always will have a nationalist party, and that the neoconservatives have made their beliefs the default American nationalism.

Unless Barack Obama really is the messiah, it stands to reason that regardless of what happens in November, the neoconservatives will remain solidly in power in the Republican party for the foreseeable future, and will be poised to return to government in the event of either domestic or foreign misfortune.

To see why that assumption might nevertheless be wrong, let's make some careful discriminations.

First of all, retaining control of a defeated GOP is not equivalent to retaining a position next-in-line to control of government. Suppose that Obama and the Democrats win the presidential election convincingly and reduce the Republican congressional delegation to a rump caucus of the deep south and sun belt. In such a scenario, control of the GOP may be worth nothing or less than nothing.

Two-party systems are less stable than a cursory glance at their history suggests; the reason the same two parties have competed for control of the government for the last 150 years is because a series of distinct and incompatible institutions have succeeded each other in using the names "Democrats" and "Republicans." The Liberal Party of Britain, which under Gladstone was the party of the Empire and of the sun never setting, held a strong national majority just before WWI. The Liberals then committed Britain to a war that destroyed its empire, at the conclusion of which they were virtually wiped out and relegated to a small handful of seats in Parliament, persisting tenuously and irrelevantly in a kind of unlife for decades until they were absorbed by a splinter faction of Labour. So there is precedent for major parties, even major imperialist parties, to go belly up through democratic means. This is not to suggest that the Republican party itself is in danger of going out of business, but rather that it could be reduced to an ineffectual minority for the indefinite future (the demographic dynamics, in addition to everything else, look really bad for them), in which time there would potentially be space for some other party to become the Second Party. Moreover, if the Republican defeat makes the GOP sufficiently small, it could put the neocons on roughly even terms with factions antagonistic to them, and inspire allied factions (the anti-tax crowd, the Evangelicals, etc.) to break their tactical alignment with the neocons, since the downside of the social conservatives, Chamber of Commerce Bolsheviks, and the rest not caring enough about foreign policy to intervene in any way in what the neocons do, is that they have no incentive to maintain any cooperation once they no longer profit from doing so.

Second, let's explore what is meant by 'neoconservatism' and who the 'neocons' are. It's a tricky task, trickier than it has any right to be, not least because neoconservatives rarely use the term, and even then use it more frequently to insinuate that their opponents are conspiratorial anti-semites than to say anything informative about it, and also because neoconservatism is consciously constructed by its adherents to resist straightforward definition. So it's much easier to get a handle on what it is by defining it recursively, to borrow a concept from math.

Try this: Begin with the paradigmatic examples of contemporary neoconservatives— you're looking for surnames like "Kristol," "Kagan," and "Podhoretz" here; take the rank and file scriveners of the movement, like some of the writers at National Review, a larger proportion of Weekly Standard contributors, and virtually everyone who writes for Commentary; and finally use induction to fill in the cluster of beliefs that links the movement's archetypes to its ordinary membership. The first thing to notice is that the cluster of core neoconservative beliefs are quite few in number and consist largely in negations of various liberal norms, e.g.:

  • war is only justified under atypical and extreme circumstances when all other options are demonstrably non-viable;
  • diplomacy is the first tool of foreign policy with adversarial states and is a deliberative process with no predetermined outcome;
  • rules of ethical conduct are universal and exceptions to them only arise in exceptional circumstances, not out of some individual or country's pretensions to an exceptional identity;
  • resources are scarce (not uniquely liberal but still an important proposition that neoconservatism, as practiced by neoconservatives, effectively denies).

Those few beliefs, however, trade on thick, idiosyncratic concepts like "national will," which are imported from the philosophical canon but warped in transit and don't actually correspond to anything within it.

Minimal reflection on these points should demonstrate the absurdity of Robert Kagan's identification of neoconservatism with the whole of the internationalist tradition, in turn identified as the entire history of non-isolationist thought on foreign affairs. (Compare: Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes were both capitalists.) Because neoconservatism comprises negations of basic liberal norms, it fundamentally is not compatible with liberal internationalism. Yet neither is it immediately identifiable with just any sort of expansionist illiberal nationalism, because the thickness and idiosyncrasies of its concepts make it a poor fit—ultimately, an impossible fit, because it's a cosmopolitan belief system (albeit in a perverse way), and thus eschews various concepts of blood and soil that belong, in American political history, to the paleo tradition.

In other words, neoconservatism is a very small, idiosyncratic movement; and it is entirely a movement of intellectuals. There is no neoconservative constituency within the body of a democratic polity (nor can there be—as the Converse studies show, "mass publics" cannot, in practice, comprehend ideology at anything approaching the level of sophistication a genuine commitment to neoconservatism requires). This is quite unlike ideologies such as communism, libertarianism, populism, welfare liberalism, social conservatism, even single-issue dogmatic opposition to taxes; i.e., ideologies composed first and foremost of publicly accessible beliefs with immediate mass appeal. Indeed, the neoconservative universe is so small that it excludes individuals who at least at one time were prominently identified with the movement, like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Francis Fukuyama. (What happened? The meaning of 'neoconservatism,' recursively defined by the beliefs of the neoconservatives, changed.)

Even within the movement, there is a detectable two-tiered hierarchy, a division between its theorists and its missionaries (which is true of any ideology). Hence someone like Kagan, Lawrence Kaplan, or even Paul Wolfowitz—informed, reflective thinkers, however one evaluates their thinking—is a different sort of neocon from the crew that blogs for Commentary, whose political philosophy, from what I can glean through my RSS feed, consists entirely in using and misusing words they don't know, alongside occasional sops to evolution denialism and global warming denialism, in the service of making their marginal contribution to destabilizing the globe and instigating wars. Which is to say that the true extension of robust neoconservative thought (i.e., excluding conceptually-confused, true-only-if-Gettierized propaganda) is even smaller than simple recursion suggests.

Neoconservatism is not unique for being an exclusively elite movement with limited membership. The same is true of foreign policy realism, a venerable technocratic system of belief, and there are any number of further examples (at least one for every specialized technical doctrine regarding a policy question or family of policy questions). It's hardly insidious in and of itself that neoconservatism, like realism but unlike communism and social conservatism, is strictly an intellectual movement—which is nothing but an instance of some of the Converse findings. Rather, it's just a fact that neoconservatism cannot, under any practically relevant circumstances, be a mass ideology. (What does distinguish it from other non-mass belief systems is the unusual extent to which, thanks to the Straussian influence, its adherents consciously revel in its public inaccessibility.) So the only way for it to be a successful movement on a large scale is by playing certain functional roles in a genuine mass ideology.

That's how neoconservatism provides the content of contemporary American nationalism. Its rejection of liberal norms, its belligerence, and especially its exceptionalism make it a suitable candidate for performing the function of giving nationalism a concrete platform to adhere to. But it's not the only suitable candidate for that role, and not even necessarily the most natural candidate, since it is at root a cosmopolitan ideology (though David Gelernter is working on fixing that). Hence Jim's point that there will always be nationalism wherever there's a nation is well-taken, but doesn't prejudice things in favor of neoconservatism retaining its dominant position. True blood and soil volkism can play the same role without importing anything from neoconservatism, though the result of that wouldn't exactly be an improvement on present circumstances.

On the other hand, various strains of paleoconservatism—which is much closer to being a mass ideology than neo-ism— especially the 'postmodern conservatism' James Poulos has been cultivating, reject elements of liberalism and provide grounds for national (or regional, or local) exceptionalism that are not bloodthirsty in either intent or effect. Likewise, the reformist conservatism of, say, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam among others (Ramesh Ponnuru comes to mind as well), provides a motivation for grand unifying national projects and for fostering a spirit of special national purpose that has nothing to do with war. Which is to say that there are an array of candidate alternatives to neoconservatism for playing the role neoconservatism presently plays in American nationalism; and if any of them were to supersede neoconservatism as the intellectual movement that fills in the content of ineradicable non-liberal mass ideologies, the world would be a better, less violent place. Not necessarily because any of these alternatives is overwhelmingly compelling (none ultimately compelling to me; I'm a non-conservative cheering them along from the sidelines), but because making the world a better place relative to what neoconservatism has done is a fairly low bar to clear.

All of which is, I hope, an informative way of saying that Jim is right about point 1) that neocons are in a much stronger position structurally, tactically, and temperamentally than their GOP opponents and point 2) that the Republican factions opposed to the neocons are horrendously incompetent at the basic tasks of political organizing and too invested in internecine wars of purity, yet simultaneously too compromised by associations that the public, fairly or not, judges to be electoral non-starters, to mount a credible challenge to the neocons at this moment. Jim's point 3), however—that neoconservatism = American nationalism = the Republican party view writ large—comes apart on close scrutiny of what neoconservatism is. If it's just a catch-all for any illiberal, aggressive, exceptionalist theory of international relations, then it is indeed firmly ensconced not only in the Republican party but in America as a whole; but the perpetuation of neoconservatism so understood is therefore compatible with the fall and marginalization of the actual power players and centers of neoconservatism.

Alternatively, if neoconservatism is the ideology describable by recursion on the beliefs (sincere beliefs, that is, not doublethink or Straussian exoteric deceit) of Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, John Bolton, Norman Podhoretz, Joe Lieberman, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., then all that prejudices our politics in favor of neoconservatism are the movement's comparative strengths, and the comparative weaknesses of internal opposition to it within the GOP. But the neocons' strengths and their Republican opponents' weaknesses are contingent qualities. The balance of power could easily tilt the other way under different circumstances. That fact provides a rationale, the only rationale I can think of at this late date, for continuing to identify as a Republican and participate in the party's internal debates, namely helping some congenial wing of the paleocons or the burgeoning reformists (I suspect that libertarian desertion of the party is too far advanced at this point for the libertarians to play a meaningful role in such disputes anymore) take control of the party's foreign policy apparatus from the neoconservatives. That would be, as my people say, ????? ????.

For these same reasons, ultimately, I don't share Jim's pessimism. Nationalism may be ineradicable without the eradication of the state, but that doesn't mean it's static and impossible to influence. In particular, it doesn't always have to be what it is now; in fact, it's palpably less confident, aggressive, and smothering (though perhaps by the same token more desperate) than it was even four years ago. As Ezra Klein perceptively noted a while back, the shift in the musical backdrop for this election compared to the last one is a telling analogue to the clearer air this year.

In their attempt to maintain a grip on power, the neoconservatives will of course, as Jim writes, deploy a Dolchstoßlegende; but the move isn't guaranteed to work, and in this case, the odds may well be against it, because the targets of the backstabbing allegation wouldn't just be sinister unnamed internal aliens, but the vast majority of Americans. Likewise, Jim lists the neocons' energetic commitment to foreign policy, which far outstrips that of any other GOP factions, as one of their key strengths. Not only that, but the narrowness of their agenda—their sublime indifference, at least in outward expression, to the outcome of key disputes in the party over domestic and social policy (they'd just go with the winning side in the end)—allowed them to leverage a dominant position in the party's foreign policy apparatus. What happens, though, if a monomanical dedication to a narrow foreign policy agenda becomes a political weakness?

In other words, what if—what if?—a new administration ends the war; abruptly puts a stop to its predecessor's crude and badly misplaced Hegelian language of world-historical conflicts (and also its predecessor's war crimes); quietly wages the police campaign that should have begun years ago to put al Qaeda out of business, while delivering free trade, investment in energy development, and international markets to Iran in exchange for liberalizing reforms in the society and curtailment of nuclear research; restores comprehensive arms control and establishes a comprehensive non-proliferation framework; and devotes the bulk of its attention to economic, environmental, good government, and energy supply reforms? What if that new administration comes to power by exclaiming—again and again and again and again—the need to "end the mindset that got us into war"?

What if that new administration comes to power on the strength of a resounding victory over the most prominent and vociferous exponent of neoconservatism in American political life? Without the the leader of the free world and his ministers sternly and ominously preaching Apocalypse from the West Wing every day, without the TV issuing color-coded directives about when to become terrified, with the nation's attention finally turned away from fighting World War ?0, who will be there to listen to or care about the lie that Glorious Triumph was ordained to happen 6 months after t (where t=whatever time it is now)? Who will listen or care, apart from anti-warriors on both the right and left who won't have forgotten what the weasels did to our Constitution, to 4000 of our people, and hundreds of thousands of another country's people?

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the neocons can be defeated and marginalized, either by internal opponents within the GOP taking control, or else, if they can't be dislodged from their perch in the party, then by marginalizing the party itself. (What would a marginalized neoconservative movement look like? That it would be riven by internecine fighting is a near given, but beyond that the example of the realists is instructive. Like the neocons, the realists had no actual constituency; once the neocons superseded them as the party's technocratic elite, the realists were reduced to a small cohort of living fossils, many of whom are happy to align themselves with the neocons for a whiff of power. The moral is that there is no total redemption, and that crowd in particular is as resilient as zombies. Given enough time, they may rehabilitate themselves. But any period in which they are irrelevant and ignored is reason to cheer.)

The circumstances on the ground after a McCain defeat, especially a convincing McCain defeat, will be unlike anything the neoconservative movement has experienced. The trajectory of their prominence and influence has been uniformly upwards from the foundation of their movement, but not until this administration became a war presidency—not even under Ronald Reagan, whose greatest triumphs were knowing when to cut losses in Lebanon, and peacefully winding down the Cold War through a combination of diplomacy and spending, for which, recall, the neocons thanked him with a little Dolchstoßlegende (of course)—did they get to wield true power and put their theory into practice. We all know the rest.

Had they been less adroit in forming coalitions and accumulating power, had the realists been more alert to the threat to their position, had the neocons not been so fluent in adopting the language of humanitarian interventionism to sweet-talk the liberal hawks who ultimately eviscerated the opposition to the war preemptively (though that's another story); had they, in short, been less successful as a party-building movement, they might never have gotten to hold the reins of power. Now, thanks to their own catastrophic success, to borrow a phrase, we can clean up their toxic influence on our democracy. Maybe we won't succeed, but for the first time in a long time, we can succeed, not just at putting the crooks out of business, but at bankrupting the ideology that fueled the crimes. Yes, we can.

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