Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Is Hillary a neoconservative?

That question was the title of a recent article from the libertarian Cato Institute, which pointed out the similarities of Clintonian neoliberalism and the big-government Republicanism sometimes called "neoconservatism." Activists on the left wing of the Democratic party often feel the same way about both Clintons. They're on to something.

The main obstacle to seeing this is the misunderstanding of "neoconservatism" as a form of conservatism. As with any word, the meaning of "conservative" depends on its context. In modern Anglo-American political usage, it expresses a simultaneous belief in traditional forms of society, a slow pace of political change, and opposition to large government, combined with a strong skepticism about politics and politicians. It's as much an attitude as an ideology. In a general way, conservatism sees society as more important than government, custom as more important than law, and culture as more important than politics. Before the 1920s, the traditional opponent of conservatism was classical liberalism (today called "libertarianism"), which emphasized limited government as well, but for the sake of individualism and greater individual freedom. At the same time, there was a significant overlap between the two. Indeed, the founding figure of Anglo-American conservatism, the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, was a Whig - in 18th century terms, a liberal.*

Modern connotation of the term "liberal" began around World War I and has evolved into something that has only a vague connection to its classical meaning. In American usage today, it means something roughly like what Europeans call "social democracy" - short of real socialism (government ownership of the means of production), it supports a large and powerful welfare-regulatory state and a "mixed" economy. This type of liberalism had its origins in the era of the "new liberalism" in Britain and the Populist and Progressive movements in the US. While rejecting the Marxist concepts of historical determinism and class warfare, the "new liberals" perceived a basic failure in the notion of society (shared by both classical liberals and traditional conservatives) as largely self-regulating. Instead, a stronger and much larger government would be needed to regulate and guide an increasingly complex society. Society itself would have to become more conformist and egalitarian for this vision to work - 19th century notions of laissez faire would have to go.

This modern liberalism carried the day in the 1930s and indeed got an enormous boost from the two World Wars and the Depression. Techniques of wartime government control and emergency economic stimulus seemed ready for use in non-emergency peacetime. The trend reached its height between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, before falling apart under assault by a younger generation (the Baby Boomers) impatient with its conformist demands. At the same time, this generation was also bewitched (at least for a while) by a whole range of radical, totalitarian ideologies and cults. Then they grew up, got jobs, and had to start paying rent. But the basic tension that caused the collapse of modern liberalism remains even now: fervent belief in ever-expanding government combined with an anti-authoritarian suspicion of government as it actually exists - a mentality faithfully reflected in the news media. It means, for example, you can believe simultaneously in socialized health care and belong to the ACLU. It provides no coherent basis for a successful politics.

When modern liberalism fell apart between 1965 and 1980, it not only left an irreparable breach in the Democratic party. It also spun off a heresy, a "right-wing liberalism" - or better, a "right-wing social democracy." Certain beleaguered liberals, flummoxed by student rebellions, a general collapse of social authority, and the implosion of the conformity needed to run modern government, perceived that what the Democratic party needed to save itself was to shed its "progressive" utopianism and develop a firmer defense of the post-New Deal, Cold War state.

Thus was born "neoconservatism." It was popular too - large pieces of the Democratic party - Catholic and white Southern voters - responded strongly to the first, half-conscious attempts at putting together a "neoconservative" coalition by Nixon in 1968 and 1972. But the US failure in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, rising inflation, and slow economic growth (the price of ballooning government) stopped this coalescing tendency, discredited establishment Republicans, and gave an unexpected chance to the conservative wing of the Republican party, who quickly found their champion in Reagan. But the "neoconservative" tendency remained strong, if sidelined. It reflects a sound understanding of the connection between a moralistic and authoritarian politics and a large, powerful state.

The late Cold War period and the decade immediately following seemed to be moving in a very different direction - towards a synthesis of conservatism and libertarianism. The Democrats, wanting to regain the White House, were forced to invent "neoliberalism" in response and run a "neoliberal" candidate, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Once in office, Clinton tried one final time, with his wife's socialized health care plan, to impose a mid-century conformist-statist solution to what was widely viewed as a crisis. That proved the final undoing of what was left of modern liberalism; it led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and to the transformation of Clinton into the most conservative Democrat since Grover Cleveland: while there's no longer a gold standard, Clinton strongly supported the globalization trends and market liberalization-low inflation policies that started in the 1980s, combined with a clear commitment that America would remain the world's main security pillar.

In order to succeed at modern big government and live up to America's present role as globocop, any successful Democrat will have to adopt something like a "neoconservative" approach. So of course Hillary is headed in that direction - she wants to succeed, and she wants to prove that a Democrat in the White House will not be clone of Pelosi and Reid (feckless and clueless) and not a repeat of Carter (both sanctimonious and ineffectual).

A new binary fault line is developing in American politics that will soon completely displace the older liberal-conservative fault line (which itself has become more and more blurred in the last 40 years). This fault line divides populist, moralistic, and authoritarian approaches to politics, in support of big government, from skeptical and individualist approaches in opposition to big government. Among the big losers will be religious conservatives who still believe in limited government. The other losers will be the left-liberals - the ones who simultaneously believe in government control of everything and remain paranoid about government control of everything. Both groups have been able to maintain their illusions only by not having significant power. Once you've got power in a democratic society, political reality intrudes and forces you into trade-offs and responsibilities.

One small sign of this is the recent Ron Paul boomlet. Ron Paul is an anti-abortion, isolationist paleoconservative, a less grating version of Pat Buchanan. He has no chance of winning anything beyond his Texas congressional seat. But he's become an unexpected focal point for the conservative and libertarian discontent with Bush, neoconservatism, and big-government Republicanism. The boomlet will end when serious presidential campaigning starts next year. But it exposes the new fault line plainly.

So is Hillary Clinton a neoconservative? What's in a name? "Neoconservative" has a number of shifting and partly overlapping meanings. But in practical political terms, it means "mildly authoritarian welfare state-globocop" - having your big government cake and eating it too. The Democratic version will be called something else, only vaguely religious, and friendlier to Democratic special interest groups. The Republican version is simpler and broader, with a stronger religious tinge. However you may think of neoconservatism as failed or unpopular now, it is here to stay - whether it's called that or something else.

POSTSCRIPT: Another conservative throws in the towel on Bush Jr. and the Republicans: Victor Gold, who helped Bush Sr. write his autobiography, co-wrote a novel with Lynne Cheney, and worked for both Goldwater and Reagan, has just released his Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP. Correctly, he understands that the problem isn't just Bush Jr.
* For example, Burke was an early convert to abolitionism and an opponent of the London government's policies in the American colonies. (Burke was an Anglican, but perhaps a bit of his Irishness was slipping in here.) But he later became a famous and bitter opponent of the French Revolution. Seems like a puzzle - and it seemed so at the time too. It's really not, as Conor Cruise O'Brien explained in his thematic biography of Burke, The Great Melody.

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