The Rump clarified

An important comment on the Rump post:

1) What is your definition of neo-conservatism?
I’ve heard it used more as an epithet for any disliked Republican idea than as a precise term. The best guess I can gather from your post is that you use it to refer to the Republican version of the visceral reactions to immigration, social change, and high taxes, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what you meant. If you could explain your view of neo-conservatism as opposed to conservatism, it would make your post a lot more clear.

2) What would you say is different between the Republican ideology currently versus that of 1994?
I ask this question because you seem to be making the assertion that the modern Republican party cannot be a majority party, but the opening of your post seems to be addressing Republicans since the 1980s, and you never created a clear distinction within the party’s last 30 years.

3) What is the alternative?
You end by criticizing Republicans as being too conservative to succeed in the near future. If changes were possible, what would you say must be done to improve the party?

1) Neoconservatism, from my previous post: involves “a free-markets, socially conservative, American Founding-loving ideology.” I’m not saying these things are bad. I’m saying there was a crystallizing of several items into one political/thought system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, bringing together the reactions against the welfare state and the 1970s poor economy, anti-Communism, the rise of the new evangelicalism, the increasingly politicized anti-abortion movement, and more. While some of these were in the Republican platform/coalition before, they were not necessarily connected in the minds of voters. The visceral reactions against high taxes, immigration, and social change are all very old, and end up being expressed in various political ways (and many times are not articulately expressed at all) – but again, I’m not saying these are necessarily bad. I’m saying they were not part of a comprehensive political ideology. The Republican Party itself was a coalition of possibly unrelated groups and ideas, bouyed like the Democrats by hereditary voters who “inherited” there parents’ voting habits. What I am saying is that the neoconservative system of thinking politically was able to bring all of these issues to the level of being important in people’s minds. Having done that, there are now lots of people who have identified with this system of thinking, and are as opposed to new taxes as they are to abortion as they are to soft foreign policy. Perhaps, most importantly, it became believed that all these must be fought on the national level. Again, I am not demeaning this – I just think this is how it went down.

2) The Republican executive control of 1980-92 (and they probably would’ve won in 1992 if it weren’t for Perot), and the 1994 Congressional and following 90s elections, were the result partly of this comprehensive political ideology taking root, and partly from the decay of the Democratic coalition. The more socialistic Democrats lost any legitimacy with the fall of communism, which was therefore perceived as the triumph of freedom, including free markets; the Democrats lost many of its pro-life members; and the explosion of urban problems and violence in the 1970s were not getting better. If Republican victory was the result of not only its own strengthening position, it was also the weakening of its opponent. In other words, the Republican coalition involved disaffected people who were not committed to their ideology, but were opposing the Democrats. In American politics, both parties have been anchored by hardcore true believers of some kind (though I obviously think the Republican core has a more comprehensive and rooted ideological system), and a number of people in the middle who can be persuaded. The Republican core has been anti-Communist before, as well as simply owning the hereditary votes; now it is neoconservatism that holds the line. Part of earlier Republican victory had to do with disaffection from the Democrats. Republicans now carry the weight, though, of perceived failures of the Bush administration – I think it will take years to move past that public image.

3) I don’t think at all that the Republicans are too conservative to succeed. My comment on electoral success was off-hand, and I am willing to be disproven. However, there is at this point the continuing baggage of George Bush that will not go away quickly. It is possible for his image to rehabilitate if Iraq goes well, but there were so many people blaming him for eveything this past decade, that I don’t think they can change this thought quickly.

From the standpoint of practical politics, it is assumed that the Republicans have to change to win. Maybe, maybe not. Some of it will just take time. However, I don’t think the party will be able to change, because so many people now have an articulated system of political and social critique and a vast amount of literature to reinforce it, which socially justifies their visceral reaction, and places it within the context of a broader system of picturing the world around them. This sounds bad, but I am actually supportive of gut reactions – not that intuition or prejudice is always right, but that it is biased toward social order, which I think should inform our politics. It is a helpful starting point, not an end point.

If you’re still reading, I suppose I find important solutions not so much in Republican reascendency, per se, but in (1) effectively countering destructive Democratic positions, and (2) finding humane solutions to social problems. These are not always the same. Both, however, may involve local rather than federal activity, or social rather than government activity. As such, the solution may be an effective decoupling of neoconservative ideology from national politics, per se. This is already true to an extent, but it needs to involve motivation for and social recognition of local and non-governmental activity.

Second, neoconservative ideology is so committed against government activity at the national level, that they cannot conceive of it at the local level. However, effective solutions exist in manipulating zoning laws and building codes, and in public funding of public places, such as parks and outdoor markets. New Urbanism is not an obviously neoconservative solution, but it is a humane and conservatively-rooted solution, in some ways.

Ultimately, the Republican party is a necessary vehicle for countering the Democratic party, and it would have to gain power if negative Democratic policies are going to be stopped. However, I would hope for neoconservative ideology to shift away from its commitment to the Republican party – not to be open to the Democrats, but to draw itself away from politics, sometimes. An effective movement has a more articulate voice when it has results; and when conservatives say the social results won’t come from government activity, there has to be some kind of linked to some kind of positive results.

This is a starting point. Let me know your thoughts.

Bryan Wandel
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.

6 Comments

  • August 15, 2009

    bryancleveland

    Thanks for the lengthy reply!

    Two additional questions:

    1) How do you differentiate conservatism and neo-conservatism?

    Original conservatism seems to be distinct from the Republican party, but it is unclear how it actually functions in your post.

    2) How can a political ideology be consequential separate from a political party?

    It seems like arguments about neoconservatism apart from the Republican party have to assume either that political ideologies encompass all facets of life (as opposed to a limited part) or that political ideologies should function as informal parties.

  • Brian Brown
    August 17, 2009

    Brian Brown

    A few thoughts:

    There is a difference between a party platform and an ideology. A platform is a series of positions on various issues – they can be unified by a central principle or principles, but they don’t have to be, and the details change over time (to continue Mr. Wandel’s old Britain analogy, think Whigs and Tories). An ideology, on the other hand, taps into the transcendent – it treats politics like religion, and presents a central principle or paradigm that claims to comprehensively address everything in politics.

    Neoconservatism is misnamed, because despite holding coincidentally conservative positions on some issues, it is an ideology (and conservatives have for centuries been the critics of ideology). But unlike ideologies like Progressivism or Communism, it stems from no unifying principle – it is a party platform transformed into an ideology. Thus it contains contradictions, as Mr. Wandel notices with the issue of local government. The neoconservative idolizes the American founding, yet his most basic belief is that when a government exercises more power than the Founders bequeathed to the federal government, it is bad (and in this the neocon disagrees with the Founders, who supported heavy regulation of business, civic life, even religion by local governments and common law courts).

    Neoconservatism will always be compelling to some people, and occasionally compelling to a majority, because it is a comprehensive ideology. But because it is a comprehensive ideology, there will usually be severe limits to its ability to address certain issues through politics.

  • Bryan Wandel
    August 17, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    I fully endorse this message. I’ll add: there is no such thing as “original conservatism.” The comparison can only be between neoconservative ideology and the general attitude or preference of “conserving” that someone might take to life – an important one because it is not value-free, but biased toward social order – the start, but not the end, of political life.
    I’ll cede that your second question is tough – since the practical reality is that interests and ideas will force themselves into politics. Therefore we need both political philosophy and political parties.
    However, what I would hope is that we could all understand politics better by understanding how it relates to “political life.” Ideologies always, therefore, fall short, because they fail to cast a political or even social vision in terms of a recognizable philosophy of existence. Instead, they supplant the ideology of their politics as being of the supreme importance, and deny the importance of everyday matters.
    I’m not saying neoconservatism always goes this far, but I think it would be helpful to introduce neoconservates to non-political activity that relates to their vision of political life – a valuable person vis-a-vis her government. This is a religious path, and therefore needs to be handled by religious people and religious organizations, among others.

  • August 19, 2009

    bryancleveland

    Brian Brown–
    I think you misread my question on ideologies and parties. I asked how an ideology can be consequential apart from a party–I have no doubts that it can be defined separately. I only doubt that it can have any meaningful effects separate from a party.

    On Neoconservatism–I’m not certain how your definition amounts to anything more than a straw man of the Republican party. Your claim that it is a platform turned into an ideology implies that you regard it as an ideological form of some version of the Republican party platform. That’s a plausible definition, but I think it only furthers my claim that neoconservatism is nothing more than a term for disliked Republican positions. Without any clear distinctions between American conservative politics of the past and present, the term neoconservatism becomes meaningless.

    Bryan Wandel–
    Conservative politics definitely takes different forms over time, so I could grant that there is no “original conservatism,” but only in the context that there are several variations of conservative politics that have existed in history. I still don’t see how American conservative politics have really changed much over time, and comparing modern ideology to generally conservative views in all of life merely sidesteps my question. 😉

    On the second question–do you think that a person can be committed to both a political ideology and a separate philosophy of existence? It appears that you’re arguing that a political ideology inevitably becomes a pseudo-philosophy, or at least that it seems to in recent times.

  • Brian Brown
    August 19, 2009

    Brian Brown

    Mr. Cleveland (I’ll stick with last names for clarity’s sake), my comment was a response to the post, not to your comment. Sorry I left that unclear.

    As for the question of neoconservatism, I did not define it, nor did I seek to. I sought to make a quick observation on neoconservatism’s interplay with one of Mr. Wandel’s points and with the point I had just made about platform vs. ideology. I don’t think either Mr. Wandel’s post nor my response stemmed from an interest in a complicated debate over the “conservatisms” of different eras and stripes (Patrick Allitt’s recent book covers that pretty well, and it’s hundreds of pages long).

    But unlike the conservatives of any other era, the early neoconservatives are easy to differentiate. Unlike any other so-called conservatives, they were explicit in their articulation of “conservatism” as a set of specific principles–not general principles of temperament (such as an aversion to change or a respect for natural law) but present-day, political policy preferences transformed into “principles.” Some of these reflected things typical of historic conservatives, others did not. The neocons were not completely unified in their views, because their views reflected a desired party platform and that desire was slightly different with each human holding it. But themes emerged.

    For example, read this article by Irving Kristol, perhaps the quintessential neoconservative: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/003/000tzmlw.asp?pg=2. Kristol says the purpose of neoconservatism is “to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”

    “Convert?” This is the language of religion, not politics–of ideology, not political platform. Yet what he describes is precisely the latter–a political platform. Kristol follows up this statement of purpose with the ideas that neoconservatism is distinctly American, and that its heroes are Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Ronald Reagan (three men who had almost nothing in common beyond an aggressive foreign policy and, with the possible exception of Reagan, a nationalistic Americanism). He goes on to articulate “principles” of tax cuts, patriotism and military interventionism–all of which are policies that had either not consistently been preferred by conservatives, or not preferred by conservatives at all.

    The Republican party of the 20th century (as distinct from conservatives in general) rarely if ever identified with interventionism or FDR, and was only intermittently a proponent of tax cuts or (specifically) patriotism. Since the advent of neoconservatism, however, the party has been more and more easily understood simply by reciting neoconservative “principles.” That is the only sense in which neoconservatism, as I described it, could be linked with “disliked Republican positions.”

    American conservatism has certainly, as you say, taken different forms over time. Even if you were to examine the views of John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams, and Russell Kirk (men arguably in a very similar strain of conservative thought, unlike say Robert Taft or Barry Goldwater who could also be claimed as conservatives), you will find subtle variations in their modes of thinking, and pronounced variations in their views on contemporaneous public policy. But neoconservatism (understood as a serious political phenomenon, not a loose criticism) is radically different from all of them, in two important senses: first, that it is a set of policy preferences held with an ideological fervor (my original point), and second, that in constructing those policy preferences it consciously eschews historic conservative tendencies (coincidentally, often in favor of views more commonly held by 20th century American liberals).

    In these two important senses, neoconservatism is anything but conservative. It rejects the “conservative mind” entirely, constructs a set of policy positions that are a combination of classical liberalism and Progressivism, and advocates them with an ideological fervor as the main solution to the problems of the modern world. While the conservatives of the past changed considerably over time (for example, between Taft and Goldwater), neoconservatism represents a total sea change in self-described conservatives, and a transformation from anti-ideology to ideology itself.

  • August 29, 2009

    N.P. West

    Since when did neoconservative David Brooks become an interpreter of Edmund Burke conservatism and not Burke scholars Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis? Sounds to me like another interloper usurping traditionalists in the movement. Then again it wouldn’t be the first time.