The news of the deaths of Irving Kristol and William Safire two months ago provided yet another opportunity for us all to take another hard stab at the merits and legacy of American “(neo) conservatism.” Mainstream pundits however – young and old – used the occasions to weigh in on the movement’s future prospects, as if the historical record itself was still not enough to render Final Judgment on “the persuasion” once and for all. Can “we” simply regroup, they wondered, along ideological lines once demarcated by the likes of Kristol, Michael Lind, James Q. Wilson, and Lionel Trilling? Should they consider adapting to new political realities, i.e., “the Age of Obama?” Perhaps look to some new ideological movement altogether? ("Liberaltarianism"anyone?) And finally, can neo-cons still pursue the mantra of “getting government off our backs,” and look to demonize the decrepitude and drool of single-moms, aging leftists, and Rachel Maddow?
Of course, insofar thoughtful political discussions either implicitly presume – or more overtly state – some notion of shared identity, (whether it be those committed to a political movement intent on steering the ship of state for the rest of us, or simply those grouped as a desegregate formation of random occurrences,) it is important to clarify who “we” think “we” are and what it is “we” want to or do not want to become. As Kristol himself may have once said of the neocons, it is reasonable to wonder: Who is the “we” we are addressing?
Quibble if you will trying to highlight the schisms between the “neo-Con” Kristol, the “libertarian conservative” William Safire, and an avowed “conservative” like William F. Buckley, (who also died recently.) Despite their differences they were all Cons one and the same! And Kristol detected something of a joint mission when he remarked in 2003 that Republicans in general “cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice,” he continued, “that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies.” Kristol recognized that Rockefeller Republicans are indeed a thing of the past, and with Buckley, Safire, Krauthammer, and others the figure that would prove pivotal in this shift was Ronald Reagan. Indeed Buckley and Kristol – all the Cons – loved the deficit-spender Reagan, and considered his Presidential reign to be the greatest American political success of the twentieth century. So do William Kristol and George Will still today, as do Rush Limbaugh and David Brooks. “He ended the Cold War!” “He got the economy out of a recession!” “One of my favorite Reagan quotes,” said Stephen Moore from the glibertarian Club of Growth on the NewsHour in 2004 upon Reagan’s own death, “was when (Reagan) said that a government that's big enough to give you everything you want is also a government big enough to take everything you've got.”
Conservatives usually like to feign a dying aristocracy which esteems the old-fashioned virtues of religion, hard-work, sobriety, and of course low taxes. In this respect, they can perhaps be said to offer at the very minimum cautionary guidance about the leveling impulses – and downright “nihilism” – they believe inherent in “liberalism.” Their references to the Founders, Adam Smith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Edmund Burke seem like nothing more than histrionic references meant for an old world looking to chasten a new world. Thus the more popular rhetorical strategies – which Reagan would become famous for – included colonial and frontier myths, and parochial yet ever-so optimistic depictions of rural and small-town America. Yet as Kristol interpreted the movement, it was actually a lot more “forward looking, not nostalgic” than what the typical campaign rhetoric of Republicans suggested. “Cheerful,” “Bourgeois,” and “patriotic,” he would say. Indeed the appeal to a quasi-fundamentalist past and its “values” throughout the Reagan-Bush years would not be meant to point a way back to the past but instead ease a path toward a particular kind of the future. (Neo)Conservatism and its activism within the GOP was thus far more modernist than its spokesmen tended to present it. In this respect, the nostalgic appeal of “conservative” symbols when selling the Reagan Revolution, and subsequently the GOP, was actually more in line with a corporate branding deployed to smooth over and facilitate an inherent anti-democratic radicalism.
In Kristol’s simple dichotomous mind, “It was Ronald Reagan,” he wrote at the time of Reagan’s death, “by his arms buildup and his inability to contemplate anything but an American victory, that persuaded the Soviet leaders they were fighting a losing war. And so they folded their tents and stole away.” In perhaps an even more telling passage, Kristol concluded, “In sum,”
Ronald Reagan made the Republican party proactive in economic policy as in foreign policy, while forcing the Democratic party to be reactive in both. This is more proactivity than is tolerable to some traditional Republicans, who tend to whine that our troops are too far from home, or that government expenditures have not been radically cut. So the Reagan legacy is still not entirely secure. But that there is such a legacy, and that it is of historic dimensions, is certain.
And as would become clearer as the years would go by, the Reagan era would bring not just greater deregulatory policies when it came to the flow of capital but greater degrees of inequality and burgeoning military and law-enforcement powers.(1) Not only did gaps between rich and poor increase. Wiretapping, for example, increased too – more than twenty one percent between 1981 and 1982 alone, and the average length for single taps in that time period went from twenty-four hours to nearly twenty six days! Also, not only did spending for safety and social-services continually get rationed or cut. The FBI had its budget double in Reagan’s first term to fight the acclaimed “drug war” and increase the power of prosecutors. What does this all amount to? In short, the Reagan era provided new policy and ideological schemes to bring about transfers of capital, mergers, acquisitions, “trickle-down” economics, and huge deficits with a corporate-state cover to police and protect it all. Reagan’s policies were also hostile to labor, environmentalists, consumer groups, and civil-rights activists, as well as belligerent in foreign policy and completely irresponsible when it came to public safety and the early spread of AIDS.
The Reagan-Bush legacy, in short, has NOT been the return of power or “freedom” to small town America, much less the scaling down of centralized bureaucracies, but the continued expansion and strengthening of plutocratic dominance and state power. In these respects, (neo)conservatism should thus be understood as Regressivism into the future. Because for all the campaign rhetoric of “smaller government” and “more personal responsibility,” (neo)conservatives have brought with them – with too many green-lights given by the Democratic party – the astonishing rise in military expenditures; a law and order state grounded in unprecedented rates of incarceration, greater police presence, and crackdowns on civil liberties;, the greater expanse of executive privilege; and a bewildering web of disciplinary and surveillance mechanisms throughout public and private sectors to watch over Americans. While the hobgoblinizing of “values” and “personal responsibility” has only made people more xenophobic and confused, the profound state of loss and uncertainity about the future is due to the bi-partisan corporate domination of ordinary communities and everyday life, or what can perhaps be simply understood as the steady and continued assault on political democracy by the concentration of corporate and financial power.
And so the record of (neo)conservative reign should be clear. Millions have worked hard, obeyed the law, and planned for their future only to have been given the shaft, as the world around them becomes more uncertain, more unemployed, and more violent. If they are not overworked they are withdrawn into hopelessness with little – if any – capacity to collaborate and organize their powers, meager as they may undoubtedly be. At the same time, the formal sameness which makes up the corporate-administrative-consumerist culture is itself policed by a totalized state, I imagine certainly, “too big to fail.” Understandably, life is today listless, banal, as well as ridiculously escapist and over-medicated. As iron-lady Margaret Thatcher once put it decades ago to her detractors, “There is no alternative!”
(1)Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis