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The Problem with Conservatives

At first blush this is an extraordinary statement from the father of the beltway conservative establishment. Bear in mind that he’s not talking just about Republicans.

  • Colonel V. Doner,
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"Conservatives for the most part lack an internal belief system." (Conservative Godfather Paul Weyrich, March 1997)

At first blush this is an extraordinary statement from the father of the beltway conservative establishment. Bear in mind that he’s not talking just about Republicans. No, he’s addressing the mystery of the hapless and rudderless crew of Republican conservatives in Congress; flailing their arms, desperately beseeching for someone — anyone — to take the helm of the Good Ship GOP as it descends in increasingly tight spirals ever downward into a whirlpool of compromise, neutrality and irrelevancy.

The GOP is visionless in large degree because its one component capable of generating vision — the conservative movement — has failed to do it. This has happened for two reasons. First, most men in leadership lack the time or interest in forming an internally coherent belief system on "the way up." And they certainly have no time to do it now that they’re in charge. It’s a little late to take navigation lessons when you’ve just been handed the helm. How does one form a coherent, comprehensive worldview (as opposed to an eclectic collection of contradictory notions inherited from childhood and cobbled together haphazardly as we hurdle through life)? Once upon a time when most public servants actually possessed a Christian worldview, it was imparted by the local Calvinist minister who was probably the best educated man, and not coincidentally, the foremost leader in almost every town. Thanks to the influence of a century’s dose of dispensational pietism, now the local pastor is likely to be the least educated "leader" in town. What education he (or she) does have will most likely be the antithesis of a Christian worldview. The Devil owns the earth, culture is doomed, the church is destined to experience increased corruption, weakness and death. Only a remnant is to be saved by a extra-Biblical "rapture" previous to the second coming of Christ. Consequently, to form a worldview today means devoting painstaking years (perhaps decades) to disciplined self-study — the rough equivalent of structuring your own Ph.D. program. This is not the road preferred by most men of action — at least not by those who strive for political office.

Normally, our public servants have "arrived" through one of two paths. A minority have spent their lives as political junkies, graduating from Teenage Republican’s (T.A.R’s) to Young Republicans (Y.R.’s) or Young Americans for Freedom (Y.A.F.) to become party hacks or legislative aides. Then they get lucky and win their boss’s old seat. The second route and by far the one that sees the most traffic, is that traveled by the businessman-politician. In this model one spends his university years focusing on his career goal: law, medicine, business, etc. Then another decade or two is invested in becoming the most successful lawyer, doctor, dentist, hog farmer, car dealer, real estate broker or rancher possible in Middletown. Then comes service in city, county or state office (usually in that order) where one spends endless days mastering the intricacies of zoning ordinances, water policy, land management and the politics of subsidizing whatever the local crop is (hogs, oil, tobacco, gas, fisheries, tourism, etc.). Not much time for intensive study here. Then the big break comes with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"; and all filled with heady idealism, he is sworn into the House of Representatives.

Unhappily he is soon informed that most of his time and energy must be spent in "constituent service": pothole fixing, expediting government wealth-transference checks, and meeting with delegations from the local metal workers union, 4-H Club, Catholic Bingo League and Hog Farmers Association. He quickly learns that all this is vital to his re-election campaign — which incidentally starts TODAY since his primary is a scant eighteen months away and Billy Joe Bob, whom he barely defeated, is already out on the hustlings, raising money, kissing anything that moves, promising voters everything he can think of (but will never produce), and otherwise garnering pledges of votes.

If anything in the Congressman’s background prepared him for rigorous thinking, weighing competing truth claims (or even recognizing the distinctions between various philosophical systems), or for plumbing the depths of the religious assumptions that undergird particular cultural and governmental models (which always express the dominant religious zeitgeist, whether humanism, Calvinism or Marxism), he now realizes that he is out of time. Whatever he has learned to this point is all he is going to learn. Whatever time and energy and mental focus he can muster up must now be devoted to his political survival.

What to do? Fall back on the usual Washington practice of total dependency on party-certified "policy experts" — the antithesis of anything remotely visionary. Incidentally, to reach outside the beltway networks for ideas or "vision" is to risk alienating "the mainstream," the media, and more important, scaring off big corporate contributors. Even Ralph Reed plays this game, preferring in his books on the future of the Christian Right to quote Tony Campolo or Martin Luther King rather than Abraham Kuyper, R. J. Rushdoony or Francis Schaeffer, none of whom, interestingly enough, he appears to have read. So our hero searches for a conservative "think tank" chuck full of conservative "wise men" with world-shattering vision. The problem is that they don’t exist. Political strategists, fund-raisers and sycophants of every description yes — conservative worldview philosophers, no.

So now our beleaguered true-blue conservative representative finds the most accessible "vision" to be the self aggrandizing and eclectic "futurism" of a former college history instructor: Newt Gingrich. His only other viable alternative, or so he is led to believe by his Washington staff, is to rely on a never-ending stream of policy papers generated by "Neo-Conservatives." These "policy studies" are most notable for their avoidance of any discussion of principles, first causes or morality. In keeping with the Neo-Conservative secular temper, they are pragmatic or scientific in nature (e.g., welfarism isn’t wrong because it’s immoral; it’s wrong because the statistics prove it’s counterproductive) rather than principle-driven. Thus our new congressman finds himself looking for guidance to 1950s style centrists (as exemplified by the former Vice President of the United States, Dan Quayle, appointing Bill Kristol, son of Neo-Con patriarch Irving Kristol, as his chief of staff).

What I’m asserting is that there is no longer an intact "conservative movement" or vision. What we have now in its place is a twenty-first century melding of corporate America’s internationalism with the Utopian Global-Democratic Capitalist New World Order of the Neo-Cons.

The Disappearing Conservatives

"It now seems increasingly likely that the New Right is on its death bed." (The Conservative Movement, Paul Gottfried, page 116)

The question that now arises is, whatever happened to the conservative movement? How could it so easily be supplanted by a "Neo"-Conservatism? Indeed, what was once a vital conservative movement has been so thoroughly consumed by its Neo-Con predator that only a few brittle bones remain. Or, to employ a different metaphor, it’s not that the conservative emperor is bereft of clothing; it’s that he’s clothed in a Neo-Con skirt, the political equivalent of a cross dresser.

In exploring the roots of modern conservatism, we encounter our first clue as to its surprising vulnerability to a hostile takeover. Simply stated, American conservatism never had its own worldview or coherent, "internal belief system," as Weyrich correctly surmised. Ironically enough, the history of the conservative moment has been one of progressive syncretization. It began with a coalition of isolationists and free-market theorists reacting to FDR’s "war-mongering" and quasi-socialist government interventionism. In 1944 a handful of them founded the weekly newspaper Human Events, still the flagship publication of "The Old Right." This small but vocal group evolved into an ad hoc alliance with "Traditionalists" like Russell Kirk (who authored his definitive work The Conservative Mind in the early 1950s). Kirk’s philosophy was largely drawn from a confluence of European conservatives: the British philosopher Edmund Burke; Roman Catholic "natural law" theories, and from a school of thought known as "New Humanism." With Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (and Senator Richard Nixon’s) communist-hunting forays, the movement took a distinctly anti-communist turn and grew significantly. In the early 60s the movement further expanded its already eclectic range with the addition of various stripes of libertarians and Randians (devotees of "objectivist" novelist Ayn Rand), alongside fundamentalist communist fighters like Rev. Carl McIntire and Rev. Billy James Hargis (the predecessor to Jerry Falwell). The movement’s quantum leap in popularity came with the formation of the "Draft Goldwater Committee" in 1963. For the boomer generation of activists this was the beginning of our (including my) self-conscious identity as "conservatives."

The movement, ill-defined as it was (which enhanced its ability to attract subcultures as diverse as Randians and fundamentalists) was bonded together by five central concerns: 1) anti-communism, 2) "anti-big government," 3) free enterprise, 4) anti-abortion and 5) "traditional values," whatever the last may have meant (and surely its meaning was in the eye of the beholder). Of the five, a fierce anti-communism was clearly the driving force and the primary bonding agent which held the movement’s otherwise disparate elements together. Badly outflanked by the media, academia, and the political establishment, conservatives were in some ways what the Left characterized them as: "reactionaries." We were, in fact, so overwhelmed "reacting" to the seemingly unstoppable march of communism across the globe and frightening cultural disintegration at home that we had little inclination or time to develop a coherent worldview. Just protecting children at public school from a myriad of wild-eyed social programmers seemed a full-time task. In such a setting, concentrating on immediate threats seemed entirely justifiable. When the barbarians are at the gates, it’s not the time to wax philosophical. It’s time to man the walls and start dumping cauldrons of boiling oil.

In sum, with a highly visible enemy, we didn’t need a coherent philosophy (or so we thought). Besides, we knew what we stood for: free enterprise, traditional values (meaning we were for conserving anything the Left proposed changing), and "freedom" (meaning "Better Dead Than Red"). Ironically, it was this overarching priority of destroying the Red Menace that opened the gates to the Neo-Conservative Trojan Horse.

The Neo-Conservative Trojan Horse

"The old conservatives of the 80s were being swallowed up by the alliance they initiated and sustained." (The Conservative Movement, Paul Gottfried, page 90)

"The offensives of radicalism have driven vast herds of liberals across the borders into our territories. These refugees now speak in our names, but the language they speak is the same one they always spoke. [The conservative Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1996) as quoted in The Conservative Movement, Paul Gottfried, page 91].

The conservative movement of the 70s, dispirited from successive annihilation of its two most prominent anti-Communist heroes, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon (exactly one decade apart), was desperate for new allies, especially ones with impeccable academic credentials and media connections. Enter the "Neo-Cons," the "New Conservatives." In brief, "Neo-Conservatism" came about as establishment 1950s Harry Truman-Scoop Jackson anti-Communist liberal intellectuals (many of them former Marxists) were repelled by the violence and anti-establishmentarianism of the radical Left. A mostly Jewish group, they were also alarmed by the New Left’s rabid anti-Israel pro-Arab rhetoric and the radical sea change that was swamping the Democratic Party as illustrated by the growing popularity and influence of Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Disillusioned by liberalism’s receptivity to the Marxist critique of Western culture, and concerned for Israel’s security (the Soviets were effectively surrounding Israel with their client states) this Gideon’s band of "liberal anti-communists" searched for a new home. Deeming themselves the "New Conservatives," they began writing for conservative magazines and supplying the intellectual capital for a handful of conservative foundations. Nevertheless, they remained classic establishment liberals, or "Democratic centrists," with their twin goals of establishing a new world order of democratic pluralism and a well-managed, budget balanced, neatly ordered welfare state here at home. These "New Conservatives" were, in fact, anything but, then or now. They were conservative only in relation to the far-out radicalism of their former comrades.

By insinuating themselves into the heart of the conservative movement this small band of less than a hundred was gradually able to dominate intellectually or financially (or both), the key publications (National Review, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard) and think tanks (The Heritage Foundation, The Hoover and American Enterprise Institutes) of the Right. As Gottfried notes, Neo-Cons’ progressive influence over foundation purse strings (with grants of $30 million a year!) gave them "control over the form and content of movement conservatism" (The Conservative Movement, Paul Gottfried, page 129). Not a few of the Old Guard objected to these brazen house guests evicting their hosts, but with the Neo-Cons’ media cachet and their new found pot of gold, opponents were easily marginalized or blacklisted as anti-Semitic, a tactic that was most recently employed with some success against Pat Buchanan.

In short, most of the old post-WW II conservative movement that didn’t die off was run off by the neo-con blitzkrieg, or absorbed by the New Right (circa 1970-1980). In turn, during the 80s the Neo-Cons co-opted the few real assets the New Right possessed (which wasn’t much beyond their heavily incestuous and burned-out mailing lists). In 1997, the breathtaking success of the Neo-Con sweep was dramatically underscored by "The First International Conservative Congress" ("Reinvigorating Conservatism Worldwide") held in September 1997 where the vast majority of several dozen featured speakers were Neo-Cons. In fact, the only name from the Old Right was Neo-Con convert William F. Buckley. The lone Christian Right token was, of course, Ralph Reed.

The Neo-Con Agenda

"Almost all Neo-Conservatives . . . remain qualified defenders of the welfare state." (The Conservative Movement, Paul Gottfried, page 85)

To inquire about the specifics of the Neo-Con agenda, all we need do is observe the Republican agenda in Congress. Ironically, while "Newt’s Freshmen" complain that "the revolution" has stalled, that things have gotten boring for lack of action, the Neo-Con agenda (which has subsumed the Speaker and his minions) is rolling along quite smoothly. In foreign affairs we continue to use tax dollars and American troops to transplant American-style "democratic capitalism," while encouraging "open immigration" from the Third World and accelerated emigration of blue-collar jobs to Red China and sundry Third World concentration camps. This seemingly disastrous policy is the Neo-Con’s raison d’ etat in foreign affairs — the pursuit of international cultural and political homogeneity based on secular democratic values.

At home the Neo-Cons betray their true colors as neo-liberals with their vehement defense of big government (albeit a well-managed one!) and the welfare state (again, an efficiently run one!). As a whole, Neo-Conservatives are interested in containing or moderating the civil government’s role as sovereign caretaker for the people, not replacing it. Irving Kristol (Bill’s father) and the progenitor of the Neo-Conservative movement, freely confesses "we are not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state," inferring it was merely the gross mismanagement of the welfare state Neo-Cons found irksome.

The Future

"Real conservatives are a populist anti-establishment force that is not represented by ‘establishment’ conservative parties." (The Weekly Standard, Paul Weyrich, September 1, 1997)

The unexpected victory of the conservative coalition over its two great enemies of the last half century, communism and liberal Democratic control of Congress, has revealed the movement’s bankruptcy in terms of a coherent vision for the future. In fact, it seems the movement even lacks agreement on the first principles (i.e., worldview) necessary to construct such a vision. Now that the "tie that binds" (resistance to the Evil Empire) has dissolved, what’s to hold the increasingly diverse elements of the movement (Libertarians, America Firsters, Isolationists, interventionist Neo-Cons, corporatists, country clubbers and Christians) together? Remember the five-legged stool of the prototype conservative agenda: 1) anti-communism, 2) anti-"big government," 3) free enterprise, 4) antiabortion and 5) "traditional values," ? Number one is moot. Number two is now axiomatic for everyone not living in Cuba, China, North Korea, or humanities departments of elite American universities, and is consequently no longer of interest to most activists. On points 3 and 4 Christians will most likely find themselves at loggerheads with the rest of the movement, especially the Neo-Cons. The last issue, "traditional values," surely will turn out to be the most divisive, as the recent "Neo-Con/Theo-Con" war vividly demonstrates. What we have yet to perceive is that 80% of the GOP — from Libertarians to country clubbers, from Neo-Cons to secular conservatives, are purposefully uninterested in Christian Right issues. Read one hundred conservative pundits, peruse the policy papers generated by conservative think tanks and you will find ninety percent deal with balancing the budget or fine-tuning the bureaucracy.

War of the World Views

". . . if the evangelicals should lose their foothold within the Republican party or if the abortion battle should swing against them with an aura of irreversible finality, a larger number of conservative Christians will begin to think more seriously about overt forms of social protest and resistance. If that should occur, the Reconstructionists will be waiting for them with open arms." (Heaven on Earth, Bruce Barron, page 148)

While the Neo-Cons are high on "traditional values," they’re really talking about "generic" civic virtues that provide the gravitational grounding to keep our culture from flying apart. Antithetical to their concept is anything as divisive as Christianity’s exclusive truth claims. The Neo-Cons fancy themselves managing a polite, pluralistic, secular, democratic capitalistic society where everyone gets along nicely, a "kinder, gentler" society. Thus we have the stage set for a replay of the Neo-Con vs. Theo-Con war. Having successfully vanquished their opposition from the conservatives’ Old Guard (see Andrew Sandlin’s extended editorial), their next most likely target is the Christian Right, at least those who cannot be co-opted or who stubbornly insist on the primacy of a Christian worldview which mandates “discipling the nations to follow all God’s Law” (Mt. 28).

If the Neo-Con bile spat at Pat Buchanan, or the charges of sedition launched against Christian Neo-Cons (now called Theo-Cons) are any indication of the tenor of the coming attack, the Christian Right is in for quite a mudslinging contest. Unfortunately, it is a contest wherein the Neo-Cons enjoy almost every strategic advantage: deep financial pockets; excellent access to, and approbation by, the secular media; and control of the conservative media, and increasingly, of the movement itself.

The one critical ingredient that both Neo-Con and the Remocrat establishment lack is popular support. That large slice of culturally and religiously conservative Southerners, Northern Catholics and Western independents loosely identified as “populists” are determined to defy the political establishment, be it Center-Left or Center-Right.

The Christian Right must decide whether it is content to stay in the Neo-Con dog house, learning to love our ugly stepchild role, or whether we will seek to independently build a bridge to these culturally conservative but independent voters. If the Christian Right gets the courage to leave the Remocrat plantation and hook up with these political rebels, we may have a fighting chance. Nevertheless, it will be a long and difficult road. As Professor Gottfried observes in The Conservative Movement: “Not only Neo-Conservatives but the Republican party flourishes with the expansion of the welfare state. No one is likely to ‘break the clock of the great society’ without first having to take on the ‘respectable’ conservative movement and the Republican Party” (page 164). A formidable challenge, to say the least.

But then there’s that second advantage which the secularists lack. It’s called God’s Sovereignty, and the timetable is exclusively his.