In the wake of the recent and raucous debt ceiling debate, The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart noted two important developments:
The good news is that the Tea Party, more than Barack Obama, has now ended the neoconservative dream of an ever-expanding American empire. The bad news is that it has also ended whatever hopes liberals once entertained that roughly 100 years after Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, roughly 75 years after the New Deal and roughly 50 years after the Great Society, we were living in another great age of progressive reform.
Beinart’s observations are generally—and hopefully—correct. They’re also even more correlative than he suggests.
Neoconservatism is right-wing progressivism. During the Bush years, every self-described conservative who thought it was America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy” spoke the language, however unknowingly, of an earlier left-wing liberalism. Traditional conservatives have always understood that there are practical limits on what government can accomplish, and that the state typically does more harm than good. Progressives believe there are virtually no limits to what government can accomplish, and that any potential damage is far outweighed by the potential good.
It’s hard to fathom a conservative who doesn’t believe in a strong national defense. However, few if any have ever believed in an irrational offense, especially one based on utopian premises.
The neoconservatives’ progressive promise was a democratic Iraq, and indeed, a democratic Middle East, in which the US would successfully impose American values on a part of the world that had never known nor wanted them. True to progressive form, this Arab democracy project would supposedly work simply because the neocons really wanted it to—and the contortions of logic they used to portray it as working became more transparently absurd as the war’s many failures became more obvious to a majority of Americans.
In hindsight, it’s amazing that such misty-eyed liberalism was ever confused for conservatism, but thankfully, post-Bush, things have become less confusing. Under Obama, right-wingers have traded war obsession for the more traditionally conservative focus of limiting government. As conservatives continue to call for greater spending reductions, not only left-wing progressives but right-wing progressives howl over the very thought of there being any cuts to their favorite programs. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes that the recent debt debate “clarifies something that’s been increasingly obvious for a while: The interests of right-wing tax cutters and right-wing defense hawks do not necessarily align with one another, and they will continue to diverge as we go deeper into the looming age of austerity.”
Douthat also notes that the current environment is most favorable to conservatives of the traditional rather than neo variety: “At the moment, the hawks are at a clear disadvantage. From Rand Paul to Grover Norquist, there’s a broad constituency within the conservative movement for shrinking the national security state, either as a compromise necessary to keep domestic spending low or as an end unto itself.”
Douthat adds: “But there’s no mirror-image constituency among hawks for raising tax revenue for the sake of maintaining the Pax Americana.”
As Sen. John McCain, almost alone, clamors for even more US intervention in Libya, Syria and beyond, most of the Right looks at the 2008 GOP presidential nominee in puzzlement—and the neocons’ inherent nuttiness becomes even more clear. During the Bush years, foreign policy was the one issue the Right considered non-negotiable—but the size of government and spending was perfectly negotiable, per Bush’s big government example and legacy. For today’s Tea Party, it is the desire to reduce government that is non-negotiable—while anything that might land on the chopping block to meet this end becomes fair game. Beinart explains:
The Tea Party… is a post–war-on-terror phenomenon. Many of the newly elected Republicans are indifferent, if not hostile, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re happy to cut the defense budget, especially since it makes it easier to persuade Democrats to swallow larger cuts in domestic spending. It’s the reverse of the Cold War dynamic. During the Cold War—especially in the Nixon and Reagan years—conservatives accepted that overall spending would go up in order to ensure that some of that increase went to defense. Today, conservatives accept defense cuts in order to ensure that overall spending goes down.
It is fitting that the diminution of Wilson’s progressive domestic vision now coincides with the unpopularity of his foreign policy vision, whether as promoted today by President Obama or Bush Republican retreads. The Tea Party does not have a foreign policy per se, but it does have a domestic policy—as it continues to learn that “making the world safe for democracy” is not only impractical and impossible, but also racks up a pretty large bill.
To be consistent in their limited government desires, today’s conservatives must remain opposed to all forms of progressivism, both foreign and domestic, Democrat and Republican, left and right-wing. And if, or when, the serious cuts come, it is inevitable that both liberals and neocons will continue to shriek—as government shrinks.