* At last... the mass desertion by true conservatives appears to have begun. See this by Paul Craig Roberts, of all people, who was Ronal Reagan's Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and contributing editor of National Review. He is coauthor of The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice. Like Paul O'Niel, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and a few others, these are not traitors to conservatism; they are angry over an ongoing betrayal of genuine conservatism by a cabal of extremists who have taken over the movement for their own purposes.
* Even more telling and devastating is the conversion of Kevin Phillips, whose book "The Emerging Republican Majority" (published as he began work for Nixon in 1969) first coined terms like the "sunbelt," forecasting the southern and rural GOP strategy that we now think of as "red state culture war." (That deserves a high score, whatever predictions "registry" you happen to be using.)
Like Newt Gingrich, Phillips foresaw the developing neoconservative movement not only as a march back to power, after catastrophic political defeat in 1964. During the subsequent long process of reappraisal and renewal, those who were reinventing conservatism envisioned a values-oriented return to decent American norms... sort of an immune reaction to - and correction of - purported anti-individualism excess by a fetishistically paternalistic Left.
According to this expectation, a broadly populist political uprising on the right would lead to fiscal responsibility, reduced debt, cautious restraint in foreign policy, efficient and limited government, elevated social discourse, electoral and legislative transparency, emphasis on professionalism and readiness, rising personal wealth for most Americans, a renaissance of entrepreneurial small business and the fostering of healthy civil society through a Tocquevillian process that devolves power from elites to the people.
Read that list of expectations over and over again, as many times as it may take for the irony to sink in. Did this fantastically successful American political revolution, seizing nearly all of a great nation's significant institutions of power, accomplish any of its worthy surface aspirations? Any at all?
That is, aspirations other than raw power? For those special few who in effect own the GOP, the active and profound reversal of all stated goals may not matter very much. (After all, power is power.) And other parts of the ruling neocon coalition - Straussian Platonist Mystics and religious fundamentalists - are easily satisfied with symbolic gestures, rather than tangible outcomes.
But for old-fashioned Goldwater Conservatives, who still make up a high fraction of grassroots Republican voters, the betrayal of every principle and desideratum must tear, grind and fester. Logically, this kind of cognitive dissonance should lead to agonized-but honest reevaluation, starting from the ground up. Well, it should. But, alas.
IS CITIZENSHIP TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR?
And yet, aren't we praying, right now, for just such a grim admission to emerge out of the festering pain of decent American conservatism? The honest and sincere conservatism of Barry Goldwater, that was based upon a straightforward dedication to rectitude and accountability, arising out of some combination of market forces, law, and a vibrantly empowered, democratically enlightened citizenry? The kind that proudly faced the best of liberalism, ready to negotiate how problems should be solved, not whether they should be ignored?
That notion of conservatism remains valid and continues to deserve a place at-table, even now, after the movement's tiller has been hijacked by monsters. Is there even a slim chance that it can be rescued, before its reputation is permanently ruined by association with monsters?
Imagine how it might help save conservatism - and the republic itself - if a critical mass of decent, conservative paragons were to see their public-spirited duty in time. A clear duty to emulate the Miracle of 1947.
That was when several thousand moderate American liberals - having learned the truth about Stalin's Soviet horror - gathered their courage and resolve, stood up, and admitted that "the radicals of our side can be mad." In a combination of patriotism, pragmatism and idealism, they resolved to separate themselves, from any association with Communism, even at the level of nostalgic sympathy!
Nothing less would have sufficed. A schism of the left was necessary, in order to save the American left as a dynamic force in our national life.
Not only was this move courageous, it proved spectacularly successful. What ensued was not a defeat of American liberalism, but rather its greatest era - that of Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan - when citizens were inspired to redouble every progressive effort, to pass bills, revise laws, change their communities, and above-all to repair deep character flaws of racism, sexism and the shortsighted abuse of our grandchildren's planet. These problems were not completely solved, of course. But few of us regret those strenuous exertions, or call them wasted. Nor could any of it have happened, if honest American reformers had not decisively separated liberalism from a far-left that was deeply sick.
CAN SUCH A MIRACLE HAPPEN AGAIN?
Can anyone doubt that matters are just as serious today, on the American right, as they were for the left in 1947? In much the same way that liberals felt torment over disowning the monsters on "their side," so we now see decent conservatives writhing and twisting, like pretzels, in order to make excuses for rapacious kleptocrats, incompetent thugs, moronic armchair warriors, cynical spin doctors, conniving feudalists and screeching fanatics.
Are they truly loyal to such monsters? Are they kept in rigid lockstep out of some misplaced fealty to a ridiculous "political axis" that was insipid even when the French invented it, in 1789? A left-right axis that offers no relevance or insight or utility for an agile and sophisticated Third Millennium? (Gather a dozen people and no two will even define it the same way!)
In frantic denial, these classic conservatives tell themselves that "at least Clinton was worse..." without ever explicitly showing how he was worse, by even a single rationally explicit metric of human governance!
Such is our human genius for self-delusion. The same deep character flaw that toppled every other great nation, even at its height of power. The character flaw that our pragmatic enlightenment was supposedly designed to overcome.
Will decent American conservatives see their duty in time, the same way that members of the ADA and AFL-CIO and NAACP saw theirs, way back in 1947? Or will we finally see how decisively different these two movements really are, when the chips are down? One with a record of openminded heroism and the other... displaying craven cowardice till the bitter end?
Alas, Newt Gingrich hasn't stepped forward yet. (An in-depth essay re appraises Gingrich's 1994 Contract With America, considering how this masterful piece of 20th Century political polemic might be used by the other side, in the 21st. Indeed, Gingrich might even approve... if his goal remained sincere.)
(And yet, George F. Will, like Cato, continues shrieking hysterically at anemic Carthage, while making wincing excuses for a homegrown tyranny.)
CAUSE FOR HOPE?
But let's look at the bright side. Look around for signs of hope. Glimmers like Kevin Phillips who recently came out with AMERICAN THEOCRACY: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. A book that every one of us should go out and buy, for two reasons:
(1) in order to make it a best-seller, and
(2) in order to shove each copy into the hands of at least one honest, sincere and mentally-competent American conservative. (Well, perhaps as a test of mental competence.)
I won't go into the author's arguments here. Not in detail, although it certainly is refreshing to see a "conservative" concede the obvious - for example, that an ingrown, secretive, and historically selfish petro plutocracy is hardly the most credible cabal to trust with a great nation's energy policy, or its foreign policy, for that matter.
Phillips admits that he was shocked by the course that his revolution took, veering in directions that left all of the old goals of empowered citizenship and public rectitude abandoned, in the dust. He never expected the mass-populist neoconservative movement could be so easily -- almost trivially -- hijacked by elements that are anti-freedom, anti-future and anti-enlightenment, taking this route not only out of venial self-interest but also as a matter of fundamental personality.
According to Phillips, those elements include not only the petrocracy, but also religious fanatics, contemptuous media moguls and foreign elements that seek world power in the most efficient and straightforward way possible - by directly influencing American elites.
While focusing especially upon two of these elements - the new theocrats and the petrocracy - Phillips comes closer than anybody else to actually recognizing what's going on... a return to the consistent pattern that dominated nearly every other urban culture in human history. A power-sharing arrangement between resource controlling aristocrats and mystical clerics, who chant justifications for aristocratic rule.
Don't even try to deny that this was the freedom-suppressing formula in every culture, from Babylon to China to Rome... and all the way to the British Imperium that our founders finally rejected, in their daring gamble. A wager instead upon Periclean-Lockean notions of institutionalized reciprocal accountability. (Moreover, it is worth pointing out that the same formula dominated the old Confederate South, which Phillips now calls the ultimate winner of an ongoing Civil War.)
* Just to keep up my reputation of balance, let me point out that the Soviet Union followed this classic pattern in every detail, down to a mutually beneficial alliance where power-holders bent on ferociously enforced rule by an inherited nomenklatura, relied upon quasi-religious Marxian dogmatists to justify the elites' monopoly of power. Everything else - every bit of "egalitarian" Communist rhetoric - was hypocritical, Potemkin window-dressing. *
Far from being a matter of left versus right, what we are seeing today is a renewal of the same battle fought by Franklin, Washington, Lincoln, Marshall and every other great American hero. Every generation of American heroes. A battle pitting the new maturity of accountability, pragmatic self-improvement and rambunctious citizenship against the endlessly recycled power-rationalizations that served tyrants of every stripe. An age-old reflex that's the real enemy of freedom, still calling to us from Egypt and Ur. From the caves. From our genes.
WILL "DECENT CONSERVATIVES" BECOME AN OXYMORON?
Alas, though Phillips comes closer than anybody else, he still doesn't lay things out this clearly. Amid a somewhat murky morass of near-term details, he never crystallizes the Big Picture... that all ideologies tend to serve the interests of some freedom-stealing cabal. Especially if we let our favorite dogmas get hijacked by monsters.
Liberals (the smartest and best of them) were able to see this, when they performed a miracle in 1947, choosing to side with Franklin, Madison and Marshall. In a similar manner, decent conservatives may yet rescue us from a similarly dire crisis, in 2006, ending "culture war" by the simple expediency of saying "this is not conservatism. No, this is madness."
Will it happen, though?
Let's be clear about this. Patriots of all kinds will stand up and stop the monsters. As our parents and grandparents passed every test, we too will rise up and be counted, in defense of both our republic and civilization. America will be saved. That is not the real issue.
No, the issue is whether enough decent conservatives will rise up, joining this struggle, to save any hope for their movement during generations to come.
If Newt and his friends want a better version of conservatism to survive and thrive, with a reputation for anything other than spineless dogmatism, they will heed the call of history, and stand up. Now, when we need them most.
In doing so, they will make this not a matter of "culture war" between rural and urban America, but a much simpler matter, about ejecting a nasty gang of thieves, in order to let our nation get back to business. In doing so, they will save their own movement. But don't hold your breath.
So far, the pioneers in this conservative turnaround are so few that individual quirkiness dominates over any sense of momentum. From Kevin Phillips to David Brock to Paul O'Neil, the exceptions merely serve to attract Rovean spasms of character assassination, while raising false hopes, that this generation will be able to accomplish its historic mission - preserving the Great Experiment - with significant help from the right.
So far, despite those few exceptions, it seems unlikely.
If we can find any consolation, during this time of darkness, it is in a strange fact... or rather, a bit of inspiring truthiness... that the State of Arizona has started producing copious amounts of clean electricity from magnetic coils that surround the furious spinning in Barry Goldwater's grave.
In order to listen to the podcast of last Wednesday's radio broadcast - a panel discussion on PBS about spying and censorship on the Internet - go to www.kpbs.org/thesedays and click on "itunes". It's an interesting show. I shared the panel with some very bright, visionary minds, exploring the dire issue of freedom in an era of proliferating electronic eyes..