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Can There Be a Decent Right?

In Spring 2002, as the war in Afghanistan was entering what appeared to be its mopping-up phase, the political theorist Michael Walzer asked, “Can there be a decent Left [1]?” The question, of course, was rhetorical. Although Walzer hoped that there could be a decent Left, he suggested that existing Left was indecent because of its opposition to preventive war in Central Asia. In order to recover its decency, Walzer argued, the Left would need to reconcile itself to a signature policy of the Right: the application of American military power not only to the Taliban, but also to an array of targets including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

How different things look now. After a decade of futile war, the question is not whether the Left should overcome its resistance to a militarized foreign policy and the national-security state that is inseparable from it. On the contrary, many of the criticisms that Walzer dismissed as indecent look awfully prescient. Instead, the question is whether resources for challenging them survive on the Right. Can there be a decent Right?

The wisdom and justice of particular alliances or operations is not the issue. Rather, it is the ideology of “American exceptionalism” according to which all that the United States does is good, and all the good that is done has its source in the United States. From the French Revolution through the Cold War, conservatives resisted the delusion that any nation, class, or individual is the unique representative and judge of the human race. That is the principle on which a decent Right depends.

But can there be a decent Right in the 21 Century? Do we have anything to learn from the classical conservatism [2] that waged a long, losing struggle against egalitarianism, capitalism, and secularism? Is the Right only about reaction? Or is there a modern, perhaps a post [3]postmodern conservatism [3], suitable to this democratic age?

Those are the questions I’ll try to think through on State of the Union. I am grateful to The American Conservative for giving me the opportunity  to do so in collaboration with such an impressive roster of bloggers. To paraphrase Walzer’s challenge to his comrades: the Right has an old and honorable history, and has gotten some (not all) important things right. But the failures of the last decade–on foreign policy, on the economy, on the fruitless culture war — suggest that it’s time to begin again.

Let’s start today.

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#1 Comment By Vitesse_et_Puissance On May 15, 2012 @ 10:25 am

Wrong premise, wrong conclusion. For one thing, despite the cultural malaise that comes with any Democrat President holding office, there remains a solid core of virtue in the midst of the United States of America. America was, is, and always will be “exceptional”. While dragging it down to the level of the ancien regime or to the level of Socialist Man may indeed be the desired goal of the political extremes – this is not who America is, or what America is about. The second main fallacy is that it is the duty of policymakers to accomodate America to the rest of the world. Now, we have to deal with the rest of the world with all the skill and fortitude we have at hand, but it was, is, and ever shall be a two way street. It is actually not the duty of our elected representatives to make it easier for the rest of the world to deal with us, either by unilaterally reducing our power – be that power hard or soft, or accomodating our policies to their will. And they will not leave us alone. Those, therefore, who wish to use moral platitudes to hamstring the US from taking vigorous action on behalf of its own  interests – and calling that a “nationalist” position should bear this in mind.

#2 Pingback By Can a Decent American Right Embrace Exceptionalism? » Postmodern Conservative | A First Things Blog On May 15, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

[…] Samuel Goldman is now writing at the American Conservative’s State of the Union blog. Asking whether or not […]

#3 Comment By notanotherskippy On May 15, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

What an odd way to end an otherwise coherent piece.

Failures from the Right on foreign policy? Granted, the war in Iraq was a mistake, but even most on the left– including the current President– advocated for intervening in Afghanistan. We are now out of Iraq, extricated by the very surge that Obama ridiculed and then attempted to mimic poorly so far in Afghanistan. Obama’s “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq was little more than turning off the lights.  The key intelligence leading to Bin Laden’s courier was gleaned during the Bush administration and Paneta’s mealy-mouthed authorization for the mission prepared cover for the President.

Failures from the Right on the economy? Precisely what would those be? Surely one of those must be rising inequality. Unfortunately the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay actually peaked during the Clinton administration in 1999. It has since declined from 400:1 to 200:1. Perhaps the author would like to blame Bush for the dot.com collapse which artificially inflated economic activity in the late 90’s? Or perhaps Greenspan’s low funds rate is the clear failing of the Right along with not only a lack of oversight of lending standards but active encouragement of Fannie and Freddie to lend to the subprime market? Wait, that latter one came to us courtesy of that great champion of the Left and gentlemanly Barney Frank. Recall that Glass-Steagall was repealed under Clinton in the 90’s before the terrible reign of Bush II.

Finally we come to the culture war conducted by the Right. I confess to not actually knowing what this is. Government funding of religious aid groups? Pro-life movement(note that I am personally Pro-Choice but respect the right of a group to name itself lest we start calling one another anti-abortion and anti-life)? Same-sex marriage? While I personally side with the Left on these social issues, I find the Left’s politically correct speech crusade to be little more than vile censorship which is among the most heinous of crimes.

So precisely what has the Right done which is so wrong in the past decade? I’d truly like to understand what is in the author’s mind.

#4 Comment By Doug Pascover On May 16, 2012 @ 11:00 am

Best of luck with this.  I remain hopeful there can be an unwhiny right.