Last July I wrote that Donald Trump was merely a “blip,” a novelty candidate who couldn’t do much better than 17 percent in the polls. He would swiftly go the way of Herman Cain.
In August, I still didn’t believe the Trump hype. The 2016 race, I predicted, would see an early surge for a religious right candidate, followed by the inevitable nomination of the establishment favorite, probably Jeb Bush. After the Iowa caucuses, I was sure my scenario was playing out, only with Rubio in place Bush.
I was as wrong about Trump’s popularity as it’s possible to get. But I got a few things right, and it’s worth accounting for how I could miss the big story while getting much of the background right.
The simplest answer, if an incomplete one, is that Trump filled exactly the space I expected to be taken by the establishment’s candidate. The race has indeed come down to the front-runner and the candidate with the most appeal to the religious right (Cruz). Only the front-runner isn’t the establishment’s man, it’s Trump.
One mistake I made at the outset, in my July story, was to discount the value of Trump’s celebrity and command of the media relative to Jeb Bush’s super PAC millions. Earned media beat paid media hands down. But something more fundamental accounts for Trump’s success and Bush’s failure, a change in the Republican electorate that I willfully overlooked.
Evidence of that change was plain for all to see: Republican voters who once had seemingly prioritized electability were now prioritizing outsiderdom. The Tea Party had illustrated this as far back as 2010. In Delaware, a state not known as a hotbed of right-wing activity, Republican voters that year sacrificed a chance to win a U.S. Senate seat with the moderate Rep. Mike Castle and instead nominated a right-leaning minor media figure who had never held elective office: Christine O’Donnell. She was only the most telling of several weak outsider candidates the Tea Party propelled to victory in Republican contests and then defeat in November, that year and in subsequent cycles. The Tea Party did, of course, also notch up several victories with outsider candidates: with Rand Paul and Mike Lee in 2010, for example, and with Ted Cruz in 2012. All of these Tea Party Republicans, winners and losers, beat establishment shoo-ins. Republican voters seemed less concerned about winning or losing than about nominating someone who would take on the GOP’s insiders as well as the Democrats.
But those were mostly midterm elections, at any rate congressional or state elections, and surely the presidential nomination was another matter entirely. Grassroots activists might swing the outcome of an off-year primary or a state convention, but presidential primaries brought out your unexcitable, pragmatic, bread-and-butter Republicans, the ones who had nominated Ford in ’76, Dole in ’96, and who did, in fact, nominate Mitt Romney in 2012.
The party seemed to follow a pattern from 1968 onwards of always nominating the most familiar name, usually the previous cycle’s runner-up: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Dole, Bush II, McCain, and Romney. And the only nominees since World War II who weren’t favored by the party’s elite, Goldwater in 1964 and Reagan in 1980, were only partial exceptions to the GOP’s establishmentarian bent. Goldwater had paid his dues as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the conditions of the 1964 election made that year’s nomination a rather dubious prize for whoever might win it. Reagan, meanwhile, had been governor of California and only won the nomination in 1980 after having been rebuffed in 1976 and 1968.
Romney’s cruise to the nomination in 2012 fit exactly the model I expected—the one I went badly wrong with by applying to the 2016 race. I should have paid closer attention to something that had surprised me in 2012, something that in retrospect was an obvious harbinger of Trump: Newt Gingrich’s victory in that year’s South Carolina primary. That was significant because South Carolina, despite its reputation for being a right-wing state, had in fact been an establishment bulwark in past cycles. To be sure, John McCain, whose insurgent candidacy in 2000 was styled as more reformist and progressive than George W. Bush’s, was opposed by right-leaning Republican voters as well as establishmentarian ones in that year’s South Carolina contest. But South Carolina had also blocked Pat Buchanan in 1996, and for all the vaunted strength of the religious right in the Palmetto State, Christian conservatives like Mike Huckabee always lost South Carolina, even when they won Iowa.
Gingrich’s victory, however, showed that by 2012, South Carolina voters were not interested in robotically voting for the most supposedly electable candidate—the establishment’s pick and the last cycle’s runner-up. And if I’d really paid attention, I would have noticed that whoever the voters supporting Gingrich were, they were not the kind of religious right voters whose behavior elsewhere–in Iowa, for example—might be predictable. South Carolina in 2012 previewed a 2016 cycle in which neither electability nor ideological purity would be voters’ top priority. (Gingrich is viewed by many progressives as the living embodiment of conservatism, but on the right Gingrich has long been seen as a wildly heterodox figure. Gingrich is fervently but informally backing Trump this year.)
If Gingrich was a surprise in South Carolina four years ago, bigger surprises over the last two years should have been as much of a wake-up call as I, or anyone else, needed. In 2014, Republican primary voters in Virginia toppled the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, and nominated a right-leaning economics professor with no political experience in his place. Cantor, along with Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, was touted by insider Republicans and the conservative establishment in DC as a “Young Gun”—the future of the Republican Party. But actual Republican voters opted for an alternate future. And last year, the rising tide of insurgency in the GOP took down an even bigger gun—if not a young one—the House speaker himself, John Boehner. After Boehner’s resignation, Paul Ryan picked up the gavel with some reluctance. Many mainstream journalists and establishment conservatives in the media have suggested that Ryan could be the GOP’s nominee this summer in a contested convention. I suspect Ryan can read the writing on the wall better than that: his fate will be the same as his predecessor’s and the same as his fellow young gun’s if he gets on the wrong side of the outsider wave.
Cantor’s fall and Boehner’s resignation showed that the establishment, whose fearsome power I overestimated in my predictions about Bush and Rubio, had already been crippled before Trump arrived on the scene. The Tea Party had shown, too, that from Delaware to Utah to Kentucky to Texas, Republican voters were as hostile toward their party’s establishment as they were toward Democrats. Maybe more so, in the case of places where hopeless candidates like O’Donnell were nominated, giving establishment Republicans a black eye but guaranteeing the Democrats a Senate seat. The Trump phenomenon expresses much the same priority among Republican voters: better to lose with Trump, a plurality of Republicans are saying, than win with Bush or Rubio. (And a fortiori, better to win or lose with Trump than lose with Bush or Rubio.)
My theory from August that the runner-up in this year’s contest would be the religious right’s champion has been half-correct. Cruz is indeed the second-place candidate in terms of votes and delegates, and Cruz has been winning those voters who are most religious—though Trump has proved to have plenty of pull with evangelicals himself. But in August I highlighted the differences between the religious right and other conservative voters. Cruz, by contrast, has become the candidate of movement conservatives, the religious right, and, however reluctantly, the Republican establishment itself, yet all of that is still not enough to beat Trump. I had thought that the split between the religious right and Goldwater-Reagan conservatives explained their failure to beat the establishment in years past. But even together with the establishment, they can’t overcome the outsider insurgency and the Donald.
But that leads me to reaffirm my analysis from July, when I got Trump and Bush so spectacularly wrong. Because what I did get right I was even more right about than I knew. Namely:
none of the factions—the libertarians, the religious right, the Tea Party—have much life in them. After all the sound and fury of the Obama years, no quarter of the right has generated ideas or leaders that compellingly appeal even to other Republicans, let alone to anyone outside the party. … The various factions’ policies aren’t generating any excitement, which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention.
Trump succeeds because of more than outsize personality, of course. He attracts some support from everyone who thinks that Conservatism, Inc. and the GOP establishment are self-serving frauds—everyone who feels betrayed by the party and its ideological publicists. Working-class whites know that the Republican Party isn’t their party. Christian conservatives who in the past have supported Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson also know that the GOP won’t deliver for them. Moderates have been steadily alienated from the GOP by movement conservatives, yet hard-right immigration opponents feel marginalized by the party as well. Paleoconservatives and antiwar conservatives have been excommunicated on more than one occasion by the same establishment that’s now losing control to Trump. They can only applaud what Trump’s doing, even if Trump himself is no Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul.
Conservative Republicans™ somehow maneuvered themselves into a position of being too hardline for moderates and non-ideologues, but not hardline or ideological enough for the right. Trump, on the other hand, appeals both to the hard right and to voters whose economic interests would, in decades past, have classed them as moderates of the center-left—lunch-pail voters.
What’s even more remarkable is that movement conservatives, who have been given plenty of warning, ever since 2006, that their formula is exhausted, keep doing the same thing over and over again: they’ll dodge right, in a way that right-wingers find unsatisfactory but that moderates find appalling; then they’ll weave back to the center, in a way that doesn’t fool centrists and only angers the right. Immigration—which was another of George W. Bush’s stumbling blocks, lest we forget—has been the issue that symbolized movement-conservative Republicanism’s futility most poignantly. It’s not even clear that most GOP voters agree with Trump’s rhetorical hard-line on immigration—they just like it better than the two-faced talk of the average Republican politician.
Trump has a plethora of weaknesses, as general election polls amply demonstrate. But just look what he’s up against within the Republican Party: that’s why he’s winning. I should have recognized that last summer, but I thought voters would never break their habit of preferring “electable” candidates. It turns out that voters have much more capacity to learn and adapt—even if only by trial and error—than Republican elites do.
Donald Trump will go to the Republican convention in Cleveland with more delegates than anyone else. But it’s still possible he won’t have an outright majority. The mechanics of a contested convention have been covered at length in TAC and elsewhere. But what about the politics—who actually emerges as the Republican nominee?
The simplest answer is Ted Cruz. He’ll have the second largest number of delegates, as well as the symbolically important second largest number of popular votes. Although his Senate colleagues dislike and have been slow to endorse him, he has in fact assembled a broad coalition of support on the right, from former Jeb Bush advisors to the Senate’s most policy-minded conservative, Mike Lee. Cruz is the obvious pole around which to consolidate anti-Trump forces.
A two-man contest between Trump and Cruz is clarifying for movement conservatism. Cruz is what movement conservatism consciously created—somewhat to its own regret. The Texas senator checks every ideological box for the movement, from cutting government to talking tough in foreign policy to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Cruz wants to restrict immigration, but he’s more favorable toward free trade than Trump is. That’s roughly where the center of gravity for movement conservatism lies as well. The trouble is that Cruz has used these issues to advance himself in a way that has embarrassed his fellow movement conservatives. Instead of being kept in line by his adherence to movement orthodoxy, he has exploited his mastery of that orthodoxy to make himself a star.
Trump, on the other hand, is what movement conservatism has unconsciously created—a populist, economically nationalist backlash against a movement whose priorities are chiefly those of wealthy and upper-middle-class whites. This is even true where social issues are concerned: the poorest white Americans may not be supporters of same-sex marriage or abortion rights, but when given the choice they prioritize other issues more fundamentally connected to their lives. In this, lower-class whites are similar to black and Hispanic Americans, who remain firmly part of the Democratic coalition—despite much talk from movement conservatives about black and Hispanic qualms over abortion and homosexuality—because economics and group status are the things that matter most.
The practical, short-term question for Republicans choosing between Trump and Cruz is not so much whether either of them can beat Hillary Clinton—that may ultimately depend on her legal troubles—as it is which of them will do the least damage to down-ticket Republicans. U.S. Senators Mark Kirk (Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Pat Toomey (Penn.), and Rob Portman (Ohio) are all vulnerable, as is the Senate seat being vacated in Florida by Marco Rubio. Cruz is less toxic for the party overall—he may be widely disliked by his colleagues, but as controversial as he is, he’s nowhere near as controversial as Trump. Yet one might wonder whether Cruz is really the stronger top of the ticket for struggling Republicans in some of these battleground states, where Trump’s working-class demographic could be critical.
In any event, the long-term, existential question may supersede short-term calculations. This is the question of exactly whose party the GOP is supposed to be and how it can again win elections at every level. The lower-class whites who respond most favorably to Trump have been an indispensable but subordinate element in the Republican coalition for decades. Trump has revealed just how sharply at odds this group’s attitudes are with those of the GOP elite. And looking at the policies that the most elite Republicans support—policies identified with Marco Rubio, for example—it’s obvious that they are intended to build a new base for the party while the white working class is consigned to gradual decline. Trump voters’ jobs are being eliminated by technology and trade deals, while the voters themselves are to be replaced by a larger Republican share of the Hispanic vote.
Ted Cruz, despite his Canadian-Cuban background, hardly seems like the leader to usher the Republican Party toward a multicultural future. But if Cruz is only a halting step forward, in the eyes of the most enlightened Republicans, Trump would be a great leap backward. The Republican elite might have preferred Rubio, or anyone else but Trump, over Cruz. Yet it’s hard to see any other choice emerging at the convention. The notion that Cruz or Trump delegates—who together will make up the overwhelmingly majority—would switch to Kasich seems farfetched. A failed candidate from earlier in the presidential contest, say Scott Walker or Rick Perry, might be more plausible, but not by much. Again, why would Cruz people defect?
Leading Republicans who haven’t been candidates this cycle are no better prospects. Mitt Romney is a two-time loser already, and Paul Ryan, although he has not ruled out standing as a candidate at the convention, is not suicidal: trying to unite the party in July, then beat Hillary Clinton in November, would be quite a trick. Ryan resisted even taking up the House speakership, having seen how the party’s congressional schisms brought down Boehner. Would he take a greater risk with a presidential bid?
Movement conservatives and the Republican establishment are stuck together for now, and they’re stuck with Cruz, who represents the only prospective nominee who can claim legitimacy as the alternative to Trump. And however imperfect he might be, Cruz would do more to advance the elite plan to remake the GOP for the 21st century than Trump would—especially if Cruz loses in November. His defeat could then be pinned on his being too conventionally right-wing, too Trump-like himself, and on Trump voters bolting the party. That would give the establishment all the more reason to call for a return to the policies associated with Rubio and the 2012 Republican “autopsy.” The failure of Cruz’s Reagan-vintage conservatism would clear the way for a new kind of right in 2020.
The white working class isn’t extinct yet, however, and Trump represents a radical alternative for the GOP: a 21st-century Nixon strategy. The racial polarization involved in this has been getting plenty of attention, but the economic dimension should not be overlooked. Trump is not only making promises to American workers that by opposing trade deals he’ll keep good jobs in this country, he’s also bidding for votes by refusing to make cuts to popular government programs. From Social Security to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, voters who want tax dollars to provide services are hearing a pitch from Trump. It’s clear enough where this leads: to a Republican Party that bids with the Democrats to offer voters the most benefits. And if the bidding starts among working-class whites, that doesn’t mean that’s where it will end. If the dream of elite Republicans is to win blacks and Hispanics by appealing to values, the Trump strategy may ultimately be to appeal to their economic interests in much the same way as Democrats have traditionally done.
In simple terms, the elite Republican plan is for the GOP to be a multi-ethnic party whose economics are those of the elite itself; the Trump plan is for the GOP to be a party that politically plays ethnic blocs against one another, then bids to bring them together in a winning coalition by offering economic benefits for each group. Neither of these approaches is guaranteed to succeed, of course: non-white voters who already prefer the Democrats may continue to do so despite a liberalization of the GOP’s immigration policies, while the Nixon-Trump strategy risks being outbid by Democrats—who are historically more accustomed to promising government services—and sacrificing a growing number of non-white voters for a shrinking number of working-class whites.
In a healthy party these factions, Trump and anti-Trump, might learn from one another, the anti-Trump side coming to recognize how it has failed the white working class and the need to provide for it once more; the Trump side acknowledging the demographic realities of the 21st century and the toxicity of strident identity politics. Alas, the GOP has shown no capacity at all for learning from the mistakes of the Bush era—the establishment’s support this cycle for another Bush and for the Bush-like Rubio is proof of that—and the same is likely to be true of learning from the Trump crisis, or of Trump learning from the candidates he has vanquished.
Perhaps Cruz might do what the Republican establishment and Donald Trump cannot, reconciling the demands of the white working class with those of burgeoning cohorts of Hispanic and Asian voters. If he hopes to prevent Trump from assembling a delegate majority ahead of the convention, Cruz will have to broaden his appeal beyond the most religious and ideologically orthodox blocs of the GOP. Those very conservative or devoutly evangelical voters have allowed Cruz to win caucuses and closed primaries in some deep-red states, but they cannot counter the sheer mass of voters that Trump brings out in larger and more politically mixed states. For Cruz, broadening his appeal will be no easy thing, when his entire political profile is based on being the most strictly orthodox movement conservative of all. Orthodox conservatism has served white working-class voters poorly, and now that they’ve been offered an alternative by Trump, they’re taking it.
Cruz’s window of opportunity to halt Trump’s progress toward a delegate majority is closing quickly. The Utah caucuses on March 22 give him a shot at another state-wide win, and the Arizona primary that day will put to the test the question of whether John McCain’s home state prefers an orthodox conservative or the very unorthodox Trump. No polls have been taken since last year, but Trump would seem to be the favorite to win Arizona. And after that, the race heads to turf that’s likely to be exceptionally difficult for Cruz: Wisconsin’s primary on May 5, then New York’s on April 19. Unless Kasich can bleed Trump in Wisconsin, the prospect of blowout victories for Trump loom in April.
Trump has overwhelmed all opposition so far on the strength of earned media. The disparity between Trump and Cruz as a ratings draw for cable television will only continue to favor Trump as the race inches onward. Cruz and Kasich risk losing all their media oxygen in the coming weeks, and without that, building momentum to cut into Trump’s winnings will be excruciatingly difficult. Almost as hard as creating a new order out of the chaos of a contested convention. The irony of Cruz’s position is that the party’s future now hinges on how well he can do with an orthodox conservative message drawn from its past.
Rand Paul’s campaign for the White House ended with a fifth-place finish in Iowa. But Senator Paul has a more important job than running for president, and the conclusion of his presidential bid lets him get back to it. He does, of course, represent the people of Kentucky in the United States Senate. But he represents something else as well: the best foreign-policy traditions of the Republican Party.
However ill-starred his presidential effort, he remains the country’s most widely recognized conservative realist. And before he or anyone like him can become president, Rand Paul will have to help his party reform.
That task will not be easy. But a look at the record shows that it is far from impossible—even as it also illustrates why 2016 was not to be Paul’s year.
Foreign-policy restraint has a deeper history in the Republican Party than its hawkish reputation would suggest. Not for nothing did Bob Dole, as the party’s nominee for vice president in 1976, remark: “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans—enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
A veteran of World War II himself, Dole was hardly saying that America should not have fought any of those wars. But the collective toll, for the good as well as the bad, was staggering. All of them began under Democrats.
Republicans were not the war party; in fact, they were the party of grand diplomacy in the latter half of the 20th century. Richard Nixon not only opened the way for China’s integration into the world economy, he contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union by cracking apart the communist world. Ronald Reagan, caricatured as a warmonger by the left, ushered the Cold War toward a peaceful resolution by negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev. Even George H.W. Bush, under whom our long wars in the Middle East began, deserves praise for supporting German reunification while urging caution over the USSR’s disintegration.
If Republicans don’t get much credit for having long been the less interventionist party in practice, it’s not hard to see why. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all cultivated images—more than an image, of course, in Ike’s case—as war-winners, not doves or doubters of American power. They presented themselves as practical patriots who had the answers for foreign-policy messes created by the Democrats. Yet neither party was quite what it seemed. The Democrats had more outwardly dovish popular elements, but they always had—and still have—a highly interventionist elite. The Republicans often employed hawkish rhetoric but had a relatively restrained elite. Until recently, that is—as recently as the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
This history put Rand Paul in a difficult position. As an acknowledged “conservative realist” who had spoken out against the Iraq War on the campaign trail and opposed interventions in Libya and Syria as a senator, Paul was more openly dovish than any recent Republican nominee—indeed, arguably more so than Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan had been. Add to that the inevitable association of Rand Paul with his father Ron Paul’s strict libertarian noninterventionism, and the Kentucky senator seemed an awkward fit for a party that has usually liked to talk tough, even as it formerly practiced sound diplomacy in office.
Throughout his campaign, and indeed before it, Senator Paul was caught between conflicting impulses among his staff and supporters, and perhaps in his own mind as well. From one side came the argument that by minimizing his foreign-policy differences with other Republicans—by loyally voting with the party against President Obama’s Iran deal, for example—Paul could follow the same path to power that figures like Reagan had trod. The important thing was not to be a spokesman for a less interventionist foreign policy but to become president and actually implement a more realistic foreign policy. According to this line, the failure of Rand Paul’s campaign has to be attributed to his inability to break away from his father’s reputation—and his own. A Republican realist not named “Paul” might one day succeed with this stealthy approach.
But on the other side of the argument, Ron Paul’s campaigns enjoyed much greater success than his son’s—by any measure: fundraising, votes, or influence—by doing just the opposite, accentuating the elder Paul’s sharp differences with the rest of the GOP, especially in foreign policy. Had the younger Paul run like his father, while leveraging his higher media profile and the advantages of being a senator, he would have surpassed Ron Paul’s 2012 successes, which included a third-place finish in Iowa and second place in New Hampshire. Rand Paul would be on his way to the nomination—or at least still in the race heading into the multi-state showdowns in March.
Yet the truth is that Rand Paul could not win either as Ronald Reagan or as Ron Paul. What worked during the Cold War does not work today: Reagan, like Nixon and Eisenhower before him, could run to the right and to the center in foreign policy at one and the same time. Whatever language a Reagan might use on the stump, voters could look to his party’s foreign-policy record and predict that he would not pursue a recklessly interventionist strategy. In primaries and general elections alike, the great Cold War Republicans could strike a balance between words and past deeds. But that’s impossible today: the two Bush presidencies, especially the second, have erased the GOP’s reputation for sensible foreign policy and radicalized the debate within the party.
The post-Cold War ascendance within the conservative movement of neoconservatism and the religious right—both of which favor a values-driven foreign policy—has further changed the way Republicans think about America’s role in the world. The Eisenhower-Nixon-Reagan synthesis of values and pragmatism tilted toward pragmatism, and the party accepted that. Today’s party is left without a synthesis to embrace—for neither the Bush record nor movement conservatism provides one. The Bush record is simply one of failure, while movement conservatism offers only hype and histrionics.
Ron Paul’s campaigns were essential for unveiling the decayed edifice that Republican foreign policy had become. Traditional Republican realists might have thought the Texas congressman went too far in the direction of total noninterventionism, but Ron Paul served realists well by demolishing the pretenses of figures like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the entire 2008 and 2012 Republican fields. The elder Paul’s reward was millions in moneybomb contributions from small donors and a strong performance in the first contests four years ago. But that was all—and it’s all a Ron Paul-style campaign is ever likely to achieve. What Ron Paul did was indispensable, but he did not find a way to change foreign policy, only to critique it.
Rand Paul’s task, and that of a new generation of Republican realists, is to go further—to not only reveal the flaws of their party’s foreign policy but to work out a practical alternative. That task comes before winning the White House, and it has to begin on two fronts: one involves devising and articulating policies to strengthen American security through greater restraint—rather than weakening that security by touching off conflagrations around the world—and the other involves building the networks and institutions to support a return to conservative realism. The materials for creating a post-neoconservative center-right are already available. Talented young conservatives—not least among evangelicals—are clear-eyed about the disasters of the Bush years, and they dearly wish to find an alternative. A leader has to provide one—which is what Rand Paul, or someone like him, must do.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
Donald Trump appears to have won all 50 delegates in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary, but this hasn’t stopped certain pundits from proclaiming Marco Rubio the real story. Rubio took second place with just .2 percent more of the vote than Ted Cruz received. While Cruz was supposed to have an advantage given the state’s large evangelical vote, Rubio had the endorsements of key figures in the state’s political establishment, notably Governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. That Trump beat both of his main rivals anyway, and that neither of those rivals decisively beat the other, is a testament to Trump’s success. This was a tougher test than he’d faced in New Hampshire, and he passed.
Jeb Bush did not—and so he dropped out. In 2000, his brother had used South Carolina as a firewall against John McCain—who had won New Hampshire—by uniting the evangelical and establishment vote behind that year’s Bush. And in 1996, South Carolina helped save Bob Dole from Pat Buchanan—another indication of power of the establishment in the Palmetto State. This year the establishment was divided between Rubio and Bush (who had the endorsement of South Carolina’s other senator, Lindsey Graham). But then the right was divided between Trump and Cruz. (John Kasich and Ben Carson, each of whom received about 7 percent of the vote, also contributed to the fragmentation.)
Cruz has grounds for complaint about the way Rubio has been anointed by the media. Consider: if Rubio had finished .2 percent behind Cruz, instead of .2 percent head of him, would any of the pundits now calling Rubio a winner have changed their tune? The nice thing about being the insiders’ favorite is that it doesn’t matter whether you finish second or third—you’re still on top.
Conventional wisdom now has it that Rubio will vault ahead by soaking up Bush’s support. But wait a minute: what support? If Rubio had received every vote that went to Bush in South Carolina, Trump would still have won. And Bush’s support in South Carolina, where he spent millions and flew in his brother to stump for him, was greatly inflated relative to his support just about anywhere else. In the only February poll of Georgia, one of a dozen states that will vote March 1, Bush was at 3 percent. In Arkansas, he was at 1 percent. Even in Virginia—a swing state where Rubio is within striking distance of Trump—adding Bush’s 4 percent to Rubio’s 22 doesn’t beat Trump’s 28. (And in Virginia, Kasich has been polling ahead of Bush. At least some Bush voters are likely to opt for Kasich over Rubio.)
Rubio is picking up additional donors and endorsements as he becomes the establishment’s consensus choice—but then, all of Bush’s once overwhelming financial backing and his anointment by the establishment and media a year ago didn’t do him much good in the end. (I too thought Bush would be a juggernaut with all that behind him: I was wrong.) Yes, such things are better to have than not to have, as are the votes Rubio will reap from Bush’s departure. But these are marginal gains: they don’t transform the race.
The primaries on March 1, however, really will be transformative, and in complicated ways. Each of the three prime contenders for the nomination—Trump, Cruz, Rubio—will have something to brag about on March 2. Cruz should handily win Texas and ought to have a shot in Oklahoma as well. Rubio can win Minnesota; he’s a plausible candidate for Tim Pawlenty voters, just as he is assuredly the candidate of the Tim Pawlenty pundits who hyped the Gopher State governor’s chances in 2012. Virginia is in play for Rubio, and Colorado as well. Trump faces a new challenge in having to campaign in several places at once—he’s proven he can win states like New Hampshire and states like South Carolina, but can he win Massachusetts and Georgia on the same day, while fighting elsewhere as well? In some of the Super Tuesday contests, the fact that Ben Carson is still in the race may prove more significant than Jeb Bush’s dropping out. If Carson draws large enough percentages of evangelicals, he can make the difference between a Cruz victory or a Trump victory—or in Colorado especially, a Rubio victory against both of them.
Kasich has little chance of winning anywhere on March 1, but a few respectable second- or third-place showings should keep his campaign alive long enough to score its first victory—a delegate-rich one—when Ohio votes on March 15. That same day, Florida will be a make-or-break for Rubio: if he loses to Trump (or Cruz) in his home state, it’s hard to see what his argument is for remaining a viable prospect for the nomination. If Rubio wins Florida, however, he’ll not only have a weighty delegate bloc, he’ll have made a prima facie case for his strength in the general election. Indeed, for all the factiousness of the Republican contest, the fact that the GOP has candidates who may hold special appeal for the battleground states of Ohio and Florida in November must be a source of comfort. And notably, Rubio and Kasich are the Republicans who poll best against Hillary Clinton in hypothetical general-election match-ups.
But it’s a long way yet until November, or even the GOP convention in July. And if Trump has disrupted Republican politics so profoundly—ending, for now, the Bush dynasty and defying all pundits’ expectations—who’s to say he can’t also rip up the playbook in a general election? As for Cruz, he’s the one rival to beat Trump so far, and he’s beaten Rubio more often than not. (Again, imagine how different press coverage would be if Rubio, rather than Cruz, had finished third in New Hampshire.)
After Iowa, I predicted that the Republican establishment, movement conservatives, and a superficial media would concoct a narrative that would help make Rubio the nominee. Just as the Trump phenomenon itself has been media driven, or was at the start, a media-driven Rubio storyline could do wonders for the Florida senator. (The money and organizational resources that come with being the establishment’s pick are also nothing to scoff at, however inadequate they proved to be for Jeb Bush.) Only Rubio’s disastrous debate performance before New Hampshire and his fifth-place finish in that first primary made it impossible to stick to the story.
Now it’s back. And I still think this elite bias in his favor is one of Rubio’s strongest assets. But there’s a difference between acknowledging that hype matters and actually believing it. Based only on the outcomes so far, Trump is the solid frontrunner and Cruz, not Rubio, is his nearest rival. That might change a week from Tuesday, but it’s what voters up to now—not the pundits—have decided.
I met Justice Scalia only once. He spoke at Washington University in St. Louis while I was president of the College Republicans there, and I attend a lunch with him and a half-dozen faculty and other students. What stands out in my memory is Scalia’s answer to a professor who asked whether he objected to demographic quotas on the Supreme Court—that is, whether the idea that there now had to be at least one black justice, at least one female justice, etc., was a problem. Scalia cheerfully said it was not, as long as those who filled the quotas were qualified. After all, there had been quotas of other kinds in the past, he noted, such as a requirement that the court should have a distinct Southern representation.
Scalia’s death throws into question another, more important balance on the court, the ideological one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the Republican candidates on stage in South Carolina on Saturday night said that President Obama should not bother trying to nominate anyone to fill Scalia’s vacancy. Let the next president make the appointment, they say, and let this be something voters decide when they choose that president in November. In terms of textbook civics the suggestion is appalling, but the political realities are clear-cut: a Republican Senate—indeed, a Republican judiciary committee—will not grant a lame-duck Democratic president a chance to replace a Republican justice in an election year. The court had a 5-4 Republican majority before Scalia’s death, though the mercurial Anthony Kennedy—Scalia’s fellow Reagan appointee—kept the court from reliably aligning with the Republican right. Even the most moderate Obama appointee would give America the most liberal and Democratic court in 30 years.
Republicans are, of course, taking a risk: should a Democrat be elected as president in November with significant coattails in Senate races, the result would be a much stronger hand for a successor from Obama’s party to play in picking judges. But some Republicans see the risk as a clarifying one—indeed, as something that will unify the party around an electable candidate, one not named Donald Trump. The GOP establishment certainly sees the case for a candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush strengthened by this turn, while Ted Cruz, the only 2016 aspirant with judicial experience, is banking on it helping him. Trump has so far defied the litmus tests of movement-conservative orthodoxy, but the idea that one must vote for a viable Republican for the sake of getting Supreme Court justices who will re-moralize America and defend free markets through their constitutional jurisprudence remains a knockdown argument for many voters on the right.
No matter what happens, conservatives who hope that Supreme Court appointments will turn the tide of the culture war are apt to be disappointed. Since the brutal Robert Bork hearings, a generation of lawyers aspiring to land on the Supreme Court one day has learned to keep quiet about controversial subjects. That first of all makes identifying reliably right-wing nominees difficult, and it further means that having acquired a habit of avoiding conflict even a right-leaning nominee might not have much spirit for battle once on the court. Certainly it’s hard to imagine any new justice following Scalia’s example as an outspoken cultural combatant. Justice Alito is not quite another Scalia, and future justices promise to be more in the mold of John Roberts.
For this reason, even if movement conservatism enjoys a brief renewal of its consensus in the wake of Scalia’s death, in the long run Scalia will be seen as the last really unifying figure of the postwar American right. Paleoconservatives and right-leaning libertarians, as well as the establishment right, idolized Scalia, and the promise of another Scalia kept them all in the Republican Party—or at least voting for Republican presidents. Scalia was the embodiment of conservative opposition to the liberal jurisprudence of the ’60s and ’70s, and that opposition was the glue that held the conservative movement together over the last 40 years, as the end of the Cold War and the waning electoral power of welfare liberalism attenuated other sources of unity.
Ironically, the best chance the Reagan right might have for gaining a new lease on life, in an era when talk about tax cuts and military build-ups has become passe, could rest with a revival of judicial liberalism. But probably even that would not restore the matrix out of which the Reagan consensus came. War, immigration, trade, and political correctness are the issues that quicken conservatives’ pulses these days, and the Supreme Court is not the left’s driving force in any of them. That could change—but until it does, the right will be more divided by policy differences than unified by a common foe in the judiciary.
Antonin Scalia was a titan of his time. But there are no more Scalias waiting to take the stage, and in the years to come the Supreme Court may not be the stage that matters most.
Rand Paul’s campaign strategy worked brilliantly—for Ted Cruz. For Rand, it’s led to him dropping out before the first primary. Staunch libertarian supporters of his father’s two campaigns believe Rand should have run more like Ron. But it’s worth examining why he didn’t and why neither Paul has come close to the nomination.
Rand Paul’s team last year seemed to expect a three-way race with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, in which a candidate who could unite the right would win. To that end, before the campaign began Paul built ties to the Heritage Foundation—the bastion of movement conservatism—and aggressively courted evangelicals of the sort who ultimately delivered victory to Cruz in Iowa this week.
The Kentucky senator would not campaign, as his father did, as a libertarian insurgent. Instead, Rand would be the total package, the libertarian who was as passionate about Israel as any evangelical, who would restrict immigration just as the party’s grassroots demanded, and who would be a rock-solid Heritage conservative, albeit one for the 21st century. He would not be the candidate of any niche.
Against Bush and Rubio this might have been a winning strategy. But who needed Paul to put on this act when Ted Cruz can do it better? Cruz was a closer fit for the evangelicals, and though Cruz is hated by movement-conservative insiders, he was always better positioned to be an all-purpose right-winger than was Paul, with his libertarian legacy. The mainstream media buzz that made Rand Paul “the most interesting man in politics” didn’t help him with Republican voters, and while newsmakers remain fascinated with the idea of Rand as a new kind of Republican, they’ve found it more effective to cast Marco Rubio for that role simply on account of how he looks. To figure out why Paul is a new sort of Republican requires reading whole paragraphs; to see why Rubio is, just glance at a photo.
Several of the rationales for Rand’s failure have the merit of being true. His team can’t be blamed for overestimating Jeb Bush—everyone did, myself included. And Cruz has proved to be a more adept retail politician than his reputation inside the halls of power suggested he would be.
The rise of ISIS certainly undercut Paul’s foreign-policy appeal, while in domestic policy—unlike his father in 2008 and 2012, Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, or Bernie Sanders among Democrats today—Rand didn’t have an economic position distinct from rivals’. The Kentucky senator was unique in his commitment to civil liberties and reining in domestic surveillance, but those are hardly issues that drive Republicans to the polls. Rand might have snatched the media’s attention from Trump if he’d been the sole Republican (presently in office, that is) to support the Iran deal, and he would have energized more of his father’s base by being more outspokenly anti-interventionist. But how far would that have taken him?
There’s a perfectly good case to be made that this just wasn’t Rand Paul’s year and nothing his campaign did could have made much difference. Even his poor showing in Iowa (fifth) relative to his father’s performance in 2012 (third) has to be kept in perspective: in 2012 the evangelicals’ favorite, who was then Rick Santorum, took first place; the establishment’s favorite, Mitt Romney, took second in a virtual tie. In 2016, those Romney voters were always more likely to go for a Rubio than a Rand Paul, and the evangelicals were always be more apt to go for a Cruz. Even in the best-case scenario, without Donald Trump seizing the anti-establishment vote that went for Ron Paul in 2012, third place would have been about as good as Rand could have expected.
That Ben Carson actually beat Rand for fourth place only underscores the point: Iowa is a state in which the evangelical vote has muscle to spare, and a “libertarian-ish” Republican named Paul is never going to overcome the religious right there. Just because caucuses have smaller turnout than primaries does not mean the proportion of libertarian-ish voters is going to be any more favorable.
Had Rand Paul run another Ron Paul campaign, he might have done better—but not well enough. Campaigns fueled by insurgent enthusiasm have a lousy track-record against even establishment opposition as underwhelming as Bob Dole and Mitt Romney. What would make an insurgency this year—or in 2020, for that matter—any different?
As the Trump phenomenon has shown, there are many more anti-establishment voters than there are libertarian voters. But even anti-establishment voters—perhaps 30 percent of the GOP—are not enough to take the nomination. If Cruz can take Trump down quickly enough, he might yet beat Rubio by combining the religious right with the anti-establishment vote, but considering that Trump is stronger than Cruz almost everywhere, that seems unlikely. (Cruz polls better as a second choice candidate than Trump does, which is one indication that Trump would not benefit as much from Cruz getting sidelined as Cruz would benefit from Trump’s absence.)
All of this is a grim picture for libertarian-leaning Republicans and others who have put their hopes in one or both of the Pauls. A libertarian “fusion” candidate, like Rand Paul this year, is unlikely ever to surpass someone like Cruz who offers a more visceral appeal to non-libertarian right-wingers (religious or hawkish); while an insurgent libertarian, like Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012, is limited to getting more or less the same anti-establishment percentage that goes for a Trump or Buchanan—which has never been enough to beat the establishment.
The one thing neither Ron Paul nor Rand Paul tried is to court the establishment’s own voters—that is, those Republicans who just want a respectable, electable nominee. The problem with this approach is not that libertarianism can’t be respectable or electable; on the contrary, modestly libertarian attitudes can be found quite readily among center-right Republicans. Rather it’s that libertarians are romantics. Right-wing libertarians prefer dreams of populist uprisings or systemic collapse to the unglamorous and frankly dirty work of politics and policy, while center-left and dead-center libertarians tend to be technocratic types who disdain association with conservatives of any stripe. Their fantasy is of a world that keeps naturally getting nicer through guiltless sex and global commerce. Ahh!
America is nowhere near as anti-establishment or anti-statist as right-wing libertarians want it to be, while libertarians unsympathetic to the right are too mild to confront the love of power that in politics trumps the love of money and love of pleasure alike. Right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats both have much tougher agendas than non-right libertarians can handle. So those libertarians wind up with no firm allies—despite their hopeless infatuation with the left—while right-wing libertarians have mostly ineffective ones: unpopular populists, for example.
Ron Paul didn’t have illusions about any of this. His campaigns were educational rather than directly political; winning the nomination—let alone the White House—wasn’t the point. That’s not to say his efforts and those of his campaign staff (I was one of them in 2008) weren’t sincere: pushing as hard as possible for the nomination was the best way to advance the educational effort as well. But knowing what the odds against his winning were, Ron Paul fought on because there was always something else to be achieved.
Rand Paul was also clear-eyed: his aims were political, not educational, and the libertarian populism that served his father well would not win Rand—or anyone else—the presidency. So he broadened his brand; unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Movement conservatism is a rigid thing that doesn’t reward the ideologically entrepreneurial qualities that make libertarianism attractive to so many Americans of different backgrounds. A libertarian Republican has many novel views, for a Republican, about civil liberties, foreign policy, armistice in the culture war, and a capitalism that aspires not to be cronyism—all this can open the party to people turned off by the GOP’s presently bellicose brand. (Including younger religious conservatives and disillusioned Eisenhower Republicans.) But evangelical voters and movement conservatives are the Republican constituencies least appreciative of those ideas— less appreciative even than the average Romney or Dole voter.
Rand was right to try to broaden libertarianism’s political appeal, but he was mistaken in trying to become the most orthodox right-winger in the race at the very same time. Rather than trying to combine relatively well-defined and incompatible ideologies—libertarianism, religious rightism, and movement conservatism—a future contender might be better off trying to combine libertarianism with old-fashioned Republican pragmatism, the non-philosophy of the so-called establishment. Rubio shows how the neoconservatives have done this, fusing their stark ideology to an appearance of moderation and electability. Libertarians and reality-based conservatives can do likewise.
This does not mean failing to appeal at all to the more self-consciously right-wing elements in the party. The neoconservatives do, of course, have their own sway with evangelical right. But Bill Kristol never prefers the likes of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum as the Republican nominee; the preferred vehicle for neoconservatism is always a respectable, electable one. That’s not because respectability and electability are inherently neoconservative traits—far from it—but rather because neoconservatives are more interested in winning office and shaping policy than they are in proving their right-wing bona fides. They know how the GOP works.
This is heresy, however, to anti-establishment populists, who prefer to lose with their ideological credentials intact rather than win by going mainstream. It’s also heresy to those who want to believe the Republican Party is deeply right-wing and principled rather than confusedly center-right and pragmatic. But the GOP is a national party: it can’t represent only the saved; it has to be a party of the damned, too—whether in religious terms or the mock-religious terms of ideology. It’s a party of sinners, statists, and sellouts just like any other party that actually wins office.
The campaigns of the two Pauls have been learning experiences for libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives. Ron Paul built a fundamentally nonpolitical movement, and others—including Rand—channeled its energies into political successes from the local level up to a race for the U.S. Senate. Rand Paul recognized that something more was needed to get to the White House, and he tried a plausible formula that turned out to be more plausible for Cruz than Rand. Another insurgent libertarian campaign won’t achieve anything that Ron Paul’s campaigns didn’t already achieve in 2008 and 2012; and another libertarian effort to be the most orthodox right-winger can be expected to end just like Rand’s. But libertarians and libertarian conservatives have another approach to try, one that co-opts the establishment foe that cannot be beaten by frontal assault. That’s an effort both political and educational, and it requires what for any ideologue is the hardest thing: learning to become the mainstream.
Politics is more about organization than raw enthusiasm. Donald Trump was beaten last night by Ted Cruz’s organization in Iowa—and more significantly, they will both be beaten by Marco Rubio’s organization nationally. That’s because Rubio’s organization is not only his campaign but the Republican establishment and conservative movement as well. He can even count on the organized power of the mainstream media aiding him, for while the old media may dislike Republicans in general, they particularly loathe right-wing populist Republicans like Cruz and Trump.
A divided right is the classic set-up for an establishment Republican’s nomination. Cruz and Trump draw upon the same base of voters. Rubio, it’s true, has establishment rivals to finish off in New Hampshire—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. But Rubio has been within a few points of Bush and Kasich in recent New Hampshire polls, and after Iowa it’s not hard to imagine him gaining three or four points, probably more, over the next week. Cruz, who hasn’t been far ahead of the moderates in the Granite State, might also gain a few points, but those will most likely come at the expense of Trump, who to be sure has plenty of margin to spare. Although it’s possible that Trump and Cruz will finish first and second in New Hampshire by splitting a big right-wing turnout, Rubio seems to have a good shot at placing second by swiftly becoming the establishment’s unity candidate.
Jeb Bush may hate his fellow Floridian, but Bush has a family—a political dynasty—to think about. The whole family’s political fortunes depend on Republicans, and establishment Republicans at that, winning again. Does Jeb want to be the Bush who turned his party over to Trump or Cruz (hardly beloved by his fellow Texan George W.) and their uncouth supporters, only to lose in November? The family’s rich and influential friends know the score, and they’re on the phone with Jeb right now telling him to get out. His son, George P., will do just fine in a Rubio administration, and who knows, maybe Jeb himself can be ambassador to Mexico.
The story of how Rubio won the establishment’s civil war is the story of just how adroit the neoconservative “deciders” really are. Neoconservatives compounded the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq folly, but because Bush was the brand name attached to the disastrous policies of 2001-2009, the Bush family suffered the consequences far more than did the obscure policy hacks and think-tank propagandists (and their billionaire backers) who egged the administration’s warhawks on. The neoconservatives have turned against the Bush family in part because it’s damaged goods, in part because the Bushes had started to catch on: George W. began to reconnect with foreign-policy realists in his second term, and while Jeb may count Paul Wolfowitz among his advisers, he also consorts with James Baker, anathema to the neocons.
Heading into 2016, neoconservative foreign policy needed a new, untainted brand and a less experienced, more malleable candidate—someone who wouldn’t be as wary as an old Bush might be. In Marco Rubio, everything was ready-made. The fact that Rubio’s brand isn’t foreign-policy failure—the legacy the Bushes must live with—but rather that of a fresh-faced Hispanic, a new and different kind of Republican, meant that the media and public would not guess that what they were in store for was more of what was worst in the George W. Bush administration. As if to taunt the forgetful, the Rubio campaign adopted as its slogan “A New American Century”—counting on no columnist or newscaster to remember the name of the defunct Kristol-Kagan invasion factory. Rubio has been similarly blunt in his hawkish statements throughout the Republican debates.
Conservative realists as well as libertarians are apt to be dismayed by Rand Paul’s fifth-place finish in Iowa, ahead of Bush by roughly two points but behind Ben Carson by nearly five. Ron Paul had finished third in 2012, with 21 percent of the vote compared to his son’s 4.5 percent this year. But anything short of the nomination is only worthwhile as a learning experience and as an opportunity for further organization, and in that regard Paul’s well-wishers need not be discouraged. Though the Republican Party has reverted to a hawkish disposition since 2013, there is still a better-organized counter-neocon faction in the party today than there was in 2003, when the Iraq War began, or even 2006, when Republicans paid the political price for the war. And it’s notable that the top finishers in Iowa, Trump and Cruz, while being far from realists or libertarians, are almost equally far from being neoconservatives. The party’s foreign-policy attitudes are more diverse today than they were even in 2012.
Both libertarians and conservative realists got carried away by their own hopes in the five easy years between 2006 and 2013, when the domestic political climate and world events alike took a favorable turn for realism and made things maximally difficult for neoconservatives and hawks. Today things are hard for everyone—though the hawks and neoconservatives are fortunate in having an avatar like Rubio, whose youth, looks, and race make even those who should know better yearn to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The danger is that libertarians and traditional conservatives will learn the wrong lesson now: the problem is not exactly that Rand Paul was not more like Ron Paul in his unbending libertarianism or more like Trump in his rabble-stiring populism. To be sure, Rand came off as sometimes tentative and embarrassed about his principles, and in trying to appeal to the hawkish evangelical right he only alienated his base while failing to win much new support. But while his father did better in 2012 and Trump did better still this year, neither of them had what it takes to actually win. The insurgent right is extraordinarily bad at politics and consistently mistakes raw enthusiasm for effective electoral power. Ron Paul couldn’t leverage his third-place Iowa finish in 2012 the way Rubio’s allies are set to capitalize on his third-place finish this year because the extra-political as well as political organization that Rubio commands dwarfs anything that the libertarian or populist right possesses, and the neoconservatives have been much more effective at devising narratives and message-frameworks that the mainstream media and the business class can support. Trump might get second place, Ron Paul might get third, yet both remain fringe figures to the opinion-forming classes.
Rather than face this fact, too many true believers on the right prefer to retreat into fantasy—indulging in dreams of third parties or sudden popular uprisings or the triumph of disembodied ideas over mere flesh-and-blood politics. Yet better, more far-sighted organization in politics and the media is the only way to advance worldly change. The neoconservatives have understood this better than anyone.
And so the neoconservatives have won the civil war for the Republican establishment, beating the semi-neocon Bushes and elevating their preferred candidate, Marco Rubio, to the role of establishment savior. The unified neoconservative-establishment bloc now waits for Trump and Cruz to bleed each other dry, before Rubio finishes off whoever remains—probably Cruz. Should all proceed according to plan, the fresh-faced establishment Republican champion then goes to face the haggard old champion of the Democratic establishment, Hillary Clinton, in November. Whoever wins, the cause of peace and limited government loses. Yet even then there will come a backlash, as always before, and next time perhaps an opposition will be better prepared.
For 175 years the United States was not a country known for its self-consciously conservative thought. America’s “Tories,” after all, had been on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War. The names of our great political parties—Whig, Republican, Democratic—were everywhere else labels for liberal or radical groupings. Americans may have had their own kind of conservatism, but they rarely called it that.
But something changed after World War II. Not only did books with titles like Conservatism Revisited, The Case for Conservatism, The Conservative Mind, and Conservatism in America appear in rapid succession between 1947 and 1955, but distinctly conservative ideas—not merely pro-business or anti-communist ones—were unmistakable in works by authors such as Richard M. Weaver and Robert Nisbet. Observers called this efflorescence of the intellectual right “the New Conservatism.”
Why did conservatism enjoy a revival at this, of all times, even in as unlikely a place as America? War is the answer: specifically, the disillusionment that thinkers of conservative temper experienced as a result of World War II.
Europe’s turn to totalitarianism before the war had already prompted the first stirrings. “The success of literal ‘National Socialists’ whether Hitler or Stalin, is in their vote-getting synthesis of romantic expansive nationalism with a planned economy,” wrote Peter Viereck in the April 1940 issue of The Atlantic. “In contrast, we conservatives must synthesize the good in the latter, not with despotism, but with freedom—that is, with all our ancient civil liberties, tolerance of minorities, and a peaceful internationalism of Law.”
Viereck was “twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash,” yet confident. His outlook was like that of Guy Crouchback, protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honor” trilogy of World War II novels, at the beginning of the conflict. With Nazis and Soviets on one side and the Christian West on the other, everything was clear to Crouchback: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”
But at the end of the war Stalin controlled half of Europe with the West’s acquiescence. For Crouchback, as for his author, this amounted to unconditional surrender of the very principles of civilization for which the West had fought.
Richard Weaver, soon to be a professor of rhetoric at the University of Chicago, felt the same way. The war was over, but, he asked a friend in 1945,
is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them? I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible.
Weaver’s 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences—one of the first classics of postwar conservative literature—was, he explained in its foreword, “a reaction to that war—to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought.”
A year later Viereck published Conservatism Revisited, which gave the “New Conservatism” its name. But it was a work by another young scholar, four years hence, that would connect this philosophy with the popular imagination. That scholar was Russell Kirk, and his book was The Conservative Mind.
Bradley J. Birzer begins his definitive new biography of Kirk—Russell Kirk: American Conservative—with his subject stationed in the Utah desert, at Dugway Proving Ground, where the U.S. Army Chemical Weapons Service put its wares to the test. “Coming here,” wrote Kirk to his friend Bill McCann in 1942, “tends to make me lean toward the Stoic belief in a special providence—or perhaps more to the belief of Schopenhauer that we are punished for our sins, in proportion to our sins, here on earth.”
Military life instilled in Kirk a lasting hatred of regimentation. “Greater self-love has no government than this: that all men must wear khaki so that some men may be taught to brush their teeth,” he wrote in a 1946 essay about the prospect of a peacetime draft, one of his first published pieces.
He was even more scathing in a 1949 short story. “America, I Love You” tells of one Private Dahmer, who as Birzer relates “proudly destroyed Albrecht Dürer’s house and stole the fourteenth-century charter of the village of Kempten. It turns out that Dahmer also raped a woman in Munich.” Kirk has Dahmer explain why he intends to remain in the Army after the war: “you’re a king. You take a little stuff from the officers, sure; but then you get a chance to kick somebody else around, half the time.”
Kirk responded to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki much as Richard Weaver did: Americans were wont to talk of “progress,” he wrote to McCann, but “apparently, it has been progress toward annihilation, an end to be accomplished, perhaps, by the improved atomic bomb? We have dealt more death and destruction in the space of ten years than the men of the Middle Ages, with their Devil, were able to accomplish in a thousand.”
That was not the war’s only irony: “the expulsion of American Japanese from the West Coast … might, if necessary, be compared to a number of other well-known exoduses.” While fighting fascism, America had taken its own steps down the road to something similar.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that after the war Kirk left the country to pursue graduate studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Before joining the Army he had already written a master’s thesis at Duke University on John Randolph of Roanoke, a Virginia statesman more Jeffersonian than Thomas Jefferson himself. Kirk didn’t repudiate Americans like Randolph in his St. Andrews doctoral dissertation—which became the basis for The Conservative Mind—but he came to see them as variations on a deeper theme of Anglo-American civilization, whose conservatism was rooted in the life and thought of Edmund Burke.
“In essence, The Conservative Mind offered the West not only something to love but proof that such things had been loved since the eighteenth century and, before that, since antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Birzer writes. There was a personal as well as a philosophical motive behind it: Kirk had come to Scotland in 1948 with a younger woman with whom he was in love. She left him. “Too much a brother, too much a father, too much a preceptor, too much a husband—these things, and my exceeding love, made an end of me,” he wrote in his diary. “With Rosy gone, what am I seeking now from life?” His answer: “An invigoration of conservative principles.”
After he completed the dissertation in 1952, Kirk expected it to be published back home by Alfred A. Knopf. But Knopf wanted drastic cuts, so instead the book was brought out by Henry Regnery in 1953, to an avalanche of reviews. The Catholic press loved it. The liberal literary establishment generally did not—but they took it seriously.
Hostility from one quarter was unexpected. Frank Chodorov, editor of the libertarian Freeman, had been irked by the readiness of conservatives like Viereck to accept the New Deal. Now that Kirk had delivered what was hailed as the New Conservatism’s magnum opus, Chodorov assigned a reviewer to take him down. The task fell to Frank Meyer, an ex-Communist turned libertarian-conservative fusionist. “Collectivism Rebaptized,” Meyer’s 1955 attack on Kirk and the “New Conservatives”—among whose ranks Kirk did not, in fact, wish to be counted—became a cause of enduring animus, not only between Kirk and Meyer but between Kirk and libertarians generally.
Meyer’s involvement in National Review, which launched that same year, made Kirk suspicious. But the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., succeeded in courting him—much to Kirk’s detriment, Birzer contends. “Kirk’s involvement with Buckley and the National Review as well as with the Goldwater campaign lessened his reach and allowed his opposition to question his integrity and consequently the integrity of nonpolitical conservatism.” T.S. Eliot—who had been much impressed by The Conservative Mind and arranged for its publication in Britain—had warned Kirk of this danger in 1956:
I fear that a reader of ‘The National Review’ who does not already share 100% Mr. Buckley’s opinions, might gradually get the impression that it was a vehicle of prejudice, and that all issues were decided in advance. I think that would be a great pity from the point of view of the need for a sane Conservatism in American life…
Two rather different things, both called “conservatism,” came together in the 1950s, with Kirk at the center of their confluence. There was the Burkean philosophical conservatism—the so-called New Conservatism—that Viereck and Kirk had developed in their separate ways. Then there was the resurgent political conservatism—economically liberal, in the “classical” sense, with a vein of populism and nationalism—that gathered force in National Review and the campaign to draft Goldwater for the 1960 Republican nomination. These two conservatisms overlapped, including to some extent in Kirk himself. But they were not the same thing.
Birzer argues persuasively that Kirk’s conservatism is better understood as a kind of “Christian humanism” than as anything overtly political. Kirk incorporated Stoicism and other classical influences with a gothic and sometimes unorthodox Christianity—spiced with a dash of the occult—into his worldview. In 1964 he became a Catholic during his engagement to Annette Courtemanche, yet even thereafter, Birzer suggests, “Kirk was a Stoic pagan who later added Catholicism to his Stoic paganism.”
Chodorov and early on Buckley—in God and Man at Yale, for example, published in 1951—thought of themselves as “individualists” not “conservatives.” (Chodorov threatened to “punch in the nose” anyone who called him a conservative.) But “conservative” was what progressives had called their opponents since before the New Deal, and now that Kirk had traced a respectable lineage for conservatism, the word became popular with many people who had formerly identified as individualists, anticommunists, or simply Republicans. They changed their label, but not their politics.
One of these two conservatisms was aimed at getting power—if only, in theory, to fight communism and bolster free markets. The other was aimed at humanizing power by reforming character and culture, and while Kirk did not join Viereck in embracing the welfare state, he applied the demands of humanism to markets as well as to the state.
The clearest difference between the two conservatisms arose in foreign policy: humanist conservatives, Christian or otherwise, were less apt to support military interventions or restrict citizens’ civil liberties in the name of fighting communism. “A ‘preventive’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field—and that is a question much in doubt—would be morally ruinous to us,” Kirk wrote in A Program for Conservatives, his 1954 sequel to The Conservative Mind.
Caught up in the Goldwater movement and controversies of the Vietnam era, “Kirk became increasingly hawkish in foreign policy in the 1960s,” Birzer reports. But in the years before his death in 1994, his noninterventionism was stronger than ever: in “attempting to demolish the work and the ideas of the neoconservatives,” Birzer writes, Kirk “found a new intellectual vigor.” He opposed the 1991 Gulf War and shocked a Heritage Foundation audience by observing “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”
Yet to characterize Kirk—or Weaver, Viereck, or any of the postwar philosophical conservatives—as simply “antiwar” would be a mistake. Their distinguishing characteristic was not what they were against but what they were for: restoring the roots of civilized conduct in literature, philosophy, and personal character.
Kirk’s quip at Heritage earned him accusations of anti-Semitism, which Birzer shows were not only unjust but ironic. His most vicious detractors included certain disciples of Leo Strauss, yet Strauss and Kirk had been mutually supportive friends. Indeed, in 1957 Kirk launched the journal Modern Age in part to defend Strauss against liberals’ aspersions, and he resigned from the quarterly the following year after coming to believe one of his colleagues was anti-Semitic. Kirk wrote of his vision for Modern Age, “I have been endeavoring to steer clear of bigotry, intolerance, eccentricity, and preoccupation with the hour’s political controversies—the curses of American conservatives.”
Birzer, who not coincidentally holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of History at Hillsdale College, provides as much insight into Kirk’s life as Kirk’s work provides into conservatism. His chapters on less known dimensions of Kirk, including his family life and fictional oeuvre—one novel, Old House of Fear, outsold anything else he wrote, including The Conservative Mind—are superb. But most valuable of all is the reminder this biography serves of how conservatives like Kirk sought to recover civilization from the ashes of war and collapse: one book, one line, one thought at a time.
There’s much more to say—but Birzer says it best in Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
Four years ago, Newt Gingrich led national polls of Republican voters, nearly 28 percent of whom indicated they supported the former House speaker. Mitt Romney was close behind at 24 percent, however, and in Iowa polls of prospective caucus-goers suggested that Ron Paul might beat them both—Paul getting 22 percent, Romney 21 percent, Gingrich 14 percent.
The polls were wrong. Gingrich would only win South Carolina and his home state of Georgia. He didn’t even make the top three in Iowa, where Romney and Paul placed second and third—and the surprise victor, who nine days before had been polling behind Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as well as Paul, Romney, and Gingrich, was Rick Santorum. He, not Gingrich, would be Romney’s toughest competitor for the rest of the campaign, winning 10 more contests after New Hampshire.
This year Donald Trump polls better than Gingrich did in 2012, both nationally and in the early states, and no establishment contender in 2016 has the support that Romney did last time. But Santorum’s 2012 upset might still tell us something about what to expect on February 1. Santorum’s performance showed that Iowa voters were even more focused on social issues than pollsters and pundits had realized. Religious right caucus-goers voted their consciences, and when they asked themselves whether Romney or Gingrich or Ron Paul best represented their views, they disregarded the choices that polls and the media had given them and voted for Santorum instead.
This could be good news for Ben Carson, whose moribund campaign actually polls better in Iowa today than Santorum’s did nine days before his win in 2012. Then again, Trump has advantages this year that Gingrich did not have in 2012—most importantly, the endorsements of Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin. But if the Santorum vote in 2012 really was a conscience vote, I have a hard time believing that Iowa evangelicals in their hearts of hearts identify more with Trump than with Carson. These voters—as their support for Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008 demonstrates—know who they are and what they believe in. They are rock steady, not swayed by media buzz or the showbiz glitz of a modern presidential campaign. They are also organized: their churches and religious groups are ready-made battalions that translate directly into political strength.
The left-wing canard about the religious right is that its adherents are—as a Washington Post reporter famously wrote—“largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” And among the non-evangelical right, there’s a reluctance to admit that Christian conservatives really do have fundamental differences with other Republicans. Elite centrists in the GOP who do indeed recognize the religious right as a separate species from themselves nevertheless tend to perceive the evangelical vote as basically populist rather than distinctly values-driven.
Left, right, and center thus all run the risk of underestimating how focused and distinct Christian conservatives can be, especially in an environment like the Iowa caucuses, where such voters predominate in numbers great enough that they need not worry about coalition-building. The Iowa caucuses are, in fact, practically the only opportunity these voters have to “send a message” in national politics—to testify in action to what they really believe.
That doesn’t mean that a surge for Ben Carson (or much further down in the polls, Mike Huckabee or Santorum himself) is the only possible outlet for evangelicals’ political intensity. My guess is that there is at least as good a chance that this intensity will lead to a bigger than expected turnout for Ted Cruz, who seems to have been successful at positioning himself as a plausible avatar for the religious right. An unexpectedly big win for Cruz could put a dead stop to Donald Trump’s momentum, robbing him of the limelight in which he has flourished and dampening, if not overcoming, his support in New Hampshire.
To be sure, the Santorum 2012 vote isn’t the only group that might yield a surprise in Iowa’s caucuses, where turnout is small enough that intensity and organization can trump—if you’ll pardon the expression—media exposure and general polling. Rand Paul has staked his campaign on getting younger and more libertarian Iowans to caucus; he’s confident in his ground operation, and he argues that his voters are not counted by conventional polling.
But if the religious right vote is historically even stronger in Iowa than analysts expect based on polls, the opposite is true of Iowa’s Paul-family vote: in 2012 Ron Paul underperformed in the caucuses relative to his polling beforehand. He had a shot at first place but finished third. No matter how good Rand’s ground operation may be, the supply of libertarian-minded voters in Iowa is simply unlikely to be enough.
Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has to hope that a large slice of Romney’s 2012 Iowa vote (roughly 25 percent of caucus participants) finds Trump and Cruz alike unacceptable—and that those voters pragmatically opt for Rubio instead of Jeb Bush. My hunch, however, is that the conventional wisdom is backwards: Christian conservatives are much more certain about how they want to vote than pundits give them credit for being, while middle-of-the-road Republicans are much more indecisive and impulsive this year.
(For Trump, the worst case scenario would be for the conventional wisdom to be half-right: a rally of electability-focused centrists to Rubio, coupled with stronger-than-expected evangelical support for Cruz. That would almost certainly set up a Cruz-Rubio race for the rest of the primary season, leaving Trump where Gingrich was in 2012.)
Donald Trump has proved all skeptics wrong so far. Maybe he really has changed the nature of Republican presidential politics, such that precedents from years past no longer apply. Maybe. But that notion has yet to be put to the test that counts—in real presidential primaries and caucuses.
A Republican from the party establishment enters the presidential race and immediately tops the polls. A few months later, he trails a politically inexperienced but media-mesmerizing businessman. The story of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump? Yes—but also the story of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in late 2011. And a glimpse back at the early months of GOP contests in 2008 and 2012 suggests what’s to come in 2016: a Christian conservative leaps to first or second place, surprising the pundits, only to lose at last to the inevitable establishment nominee.
This is no inscrutable design of fate. The Republican Party’s knack for nominating Bushes and Romneys and McCains has a reason, just as there are reasons why certain kinds of opponents catch on. Nate Cohn of the New York Times supplies a piece of the puzzle in a story headlined “The Surprising Power of Blue-State Republicans.” But there’s a deeper philosophical explanation for why the GOP perpetually fails to nominate another conservative like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan—conservatism itself has lost its identity to politics.
The truth is that leaders like McCain, Romney, and the Bushes represent the GOP as a whole better than right-wing candidates do. Contrary to caricature, the GOP is not just the party of the South and relatively underpopulated states in the Midwest. Cohn’s headline calls the power of blue-state Republicans surprising, but it shouldn’t be: the majority of Americans live in blue states—that’s why Obama won the last two elections—and one would expect a national political party to draw a great proportion of its presidential delegates from the states where more Americans actually live.
Geography is ideology, at least in part. Blue-state Republicans may still identify as conservatives, but their conservatism is quite different from that of their red-state counterparts. As Cohn reports:
According to an analysis of Pew Research and exit-poll data, blue-state Republicans tend to be more urban, more moderate, less religious and more affluent. A majority of red-state Republicans are evangelical Christians, believe society should discourage homosexuality, think politicians should do what it takes to undermine the Affordable Care Act and want politicians to stand up for their positions, even if that means little gets done in Washington. A majority of blue-state Republicans differ on every count.
The blue states hold the keys to victory for establishment candidates: “Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney won every blue-state primary in 2008 and 2012,” Cohn notes, “making it all but impossible for their more conservative challengers to win the nomination.” Indeed, “Mr. Romney lost all but one red-state primary held before his principal opponent dropped out of the race”—that opponent being Rick Santorum, who a few months earlier had seemed utterly hopeless. Santorum lost his Senate seat in blue-state Pennsylvania in 2006. But in red-state presidential primaries six years later, he was formidable.
The division between blue-state and red-state Republicans by itself, however, is not enough to account for the party’s seeming inability to nominate anyone to the right of Romney or McCain. There remains a mystery: in the past generation, even as the GOP has come to be viewed as more right-wing than ever, conservatives have actually fared worse in its presidential primaries. In just 16 years between 1964 and 1980, conservatives won the Republican nomination twice. In the 36 years since Reagan left office, conservatives have never won it.
There were plenty of blue-state Republicans in the days of Goldwater and Reagan, of course, and even back then the party had distinct factions of conservatives and liberals—“Rockefeller Republicans,” as they were called. Why, then, did conservatives succeed in 1964 and 1980 but never again?
The answer lies in a development that appeared for the first time in 1988: the emergence of a distinct religious right or social-conservative candidate. That was Pat Robertson, who carried four states and won a little over 9 percent of the overall primary vote—behind Bob Dole’s nearly 20 percent and George H.W. Bush’s 68 percent. Robertson’s modest campaign, however, was like a hairline crack in the foundations of the political right. Since then in every election there has been a strong social-conservative contender in the Republican contest: Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012.
The gap is filled by George W. Bush, an establishment candidate who, as a born-again Christian himself, was “a uniter, not a divider” in appealing to religious conservatives. And he left nothing to chance: his “compassionate conservatism,” inspired in part by the evangelical thinker Marvin Olasky, was pitched directly to Republicans of strong religious sensibilities, and he was eager to accept whatever help Catholics like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus could provide in building interdenominational political alliances. Bush’s efforts came up short in November 2000, when he failed to win the popular vote—in part, his campaign believed, because not enough churchgoers went to the polls for him. But his re-election in 2004 was widely credited to success in mobilizing “values voters.”
Before 1988, religious conservatives voted with other conservatives. The religious right wasn’t yet organized in 1964, but “moral” voters were a significant component of Goldwater’s base, sometimes to the candidate’s own embarrassment. (He vetoed the distribution a short film, “Choice,” intended by his supporters to rally voters with alarming images of race, sex, and crime.) Reagan in 1980 was the first Republican hopeful, and then nominee, to benefit from effectively organized social-conservative groups like the Moral Majority.
The development of the religious right or social conservatives as a bloc discrete from conservatives generally proved to be the undoing of the right in Republican presidential primaries. But this differentiation into two distinct strands of conservatism, represented most of the time by competing avatars in GOP primaries, was not the result of hubris or short-sightedness on the part of religious conservatives. On the contrary, it represents a real philosophical divide that can be seen in the different emphases, attitudes, and even positions taken by social-conservative champions vis-à-vis other conservatives.
The bottom line is that however different a Romney or McCain might be from the average conservative Republican, figures like Huckabee and Santorum are even more so. In tone, social conservatives are apt to be either provocative (Buchanan, Santorum) or “folksy” (in the case of Huckabee and George W. Bush). On issues, the religious right’s candidates have tended not only to emphasize homosexuality and abortion more strongly than other Republicans, but significantly they have also staked out more blue-collar economic positions, most notably in the case of Buchanan but to varying degrees with Huckabee and Santorum as well. (George W. Bush tried to square the circle and failed: his compassionate conservatism was never accepted by the right’s old guard, who sensed that the adjective implied an unflattering judgment about their free-market philosophy.)
These candidates represented, all in their own ways, a very different worldview from that of the Goldwater-Reagan type of conservative. Christian conservatism is a clear enough idea that it finds independent champions, and it’s politically well enough organized that those champions can be “competitive losers” every four years: never winning the nomination but always finishing with the second or third highest aggregate vote totals. To state the obvious, if Christian conservatism were really as similar to the rest of the right as the conservative movement likes to insist, there would not be a “market” for a separate “product.” The one candidate since 1988 to bridge the divide, George W. Bush, left almost all conservatives feeling disappointed or betrayed by the end of his presidency.
It’s not a coincidence that this ideological and political differentiation expressed itself immediately once the Reagan era had reached its end: before Reagan, an all-purpose conservative represented to the religious right—whether organized or nascent—a candidate who might give them the kind of country they wanted. Goldwater’s defeat avoided the disillusionment that victory would have brought. Reagan, however, showed that a general-purpose conservative once elected could only go so far: he appointed Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, after all. Reagan himself did not come in for much blame, but the spiritually diffident conservatism that he and Goldwater represented—neither was more than nominally religious—was no longer enough.
The mythology promulgated by the conservative movement has it that a candidate who naturally expresses both Christian conservatism and Goldwater-Reagan conservatism must be out there somewhere. But the record of three decades since Reagan won the nomination with support from both camps suggests otherwise: in a full generation, there has never been a candidate equally appealing to both kinds of conservative. What reason is there to think there ever will be one?
Christian conservatives may no longer be the only ones who have this problem. Libertarians have had cause to celebrate in recent elections, as they too seem to have emerged as a distinct force in the GOP, with presidential standard-bearers of their own in the form of Ron Paul and Rand Paul. But here again, what this differentiation suggests is that libertarian Republicans have a vision distinct from and to some degree incompatible with—unsubstitutable for—that of other conservative Republicans. When religious conservatives came to this awareness, the results proved ruinous as far as winning the GOP presidential nomination went, for themselves and for the older Goldwater-Reagan conservatives. Will libertarians avoid the same trap?
Conservatives of one faction or another may be tempted to see this sorry scene as a failure of team spirit. But that would be a mistake, and a counterproductive one. Christian conservatives are not being narcissistic when they field and flock to their own candidates rather than to some generic right-wing Republican—a Reagan-of-the-week of the Fred Thompson or Rick Perry variety, for example. They are being true to their beliefs, including their political beliefs—just as more pragmatic conservatives are being true to theirs in rejecting candidates like Huckabee and Santorum.
The proper way to address principled differences is not by disguising them. Once, before an entrenched conservative movement existed to assure the right that every GOP nominee was the gold standard in conservatism, the right had a few institutions that put a bit of daylight between themselves and the Republican Party, and these institutions—notably periodicals such as the ’50s and ’60s National Review and Modern Age—devoted themselves to working out a coherent yet capacious worldview, not by insisting on a politically convenient orthodoxy but by honestly confronting the differences between various schools of thought. Ironically, as intense as the intellectual battles were, and as inconclusive as the quest for an agreeable-to-all “fusionist” formulation proved to be, in practice traditionalists and libertarians voted together for Goldwater and Reagan. They did so for their own reasons, and that was quite enough.
The situation has been reversed ever since Reagan: every movement magazine, TV pundit, radio host, and think-tanker has come to insist upon a single, bland, homogenized ideology devised for maximum political convenience. The lively fights on the right used to be in the pages of its books and magazines; now they are at the ballot box, where the only winners turn out to be establishment Republicans—and ultimately liberal Democrats.
The right, not just the Republican Party, is deeply culturally and geographically divided—much as the country is. That can be a source of strength, if it leads to rigorous testing of premises and policies, to re-learning the arts of persuasion and principled coalition-building: that is, building coalitions not on the basis of fabricated principles but on honest differences openly engaged. But all this is more than a political task, and alas, the real dirty secret of the Republican establishment’s success has been getting the right to bet everything on partisanship.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
Rand Paul tells the Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel that Thursday’s Republican presidential debate will pit him against rivals who “want to blow up the world.” He has reason to use stark language. After weeks of negative press, single-digit poll numbers, and lackluster fundraising, Senator Paul needs a “Giuliani moment”—something that will do for his campaign what a showdown with “America’s mayor” did for his father’s effort after the first debate of 2007.
In fact, Rand Paul has the opportunity to do much more than his father ever could. But he’s missing it: Rand’s “Giuliani moment” is the Iran deal, and it calls for action, not words.
Rand’s support for the deal would transform the politics of the Republican race at a stroke. He would also risk losing rather than gaining support—when the deal was announced, 30 percent of Republicans supported it, and those votes could have been Rand’s. Polls since then have been mixed and most indicate Republicans oppose the diplomatic effort, even overwhelmingly so.
But that’s where the Giuliani example is relevant: no pollster or campaign professional would have told Ron Paul to stand up to Giuliani like that—on an issue, national security and terrorism, that Giuliani owned and where Republican voters overwhelmingly disagreed with the Texas congressman. But Ron Paul did it anyway, and in so doing he pulled off something political pros usually believe is impossible or irrelevant: he changed voters’ minds.
He didn’t change nearly enough to win a single primary, of course, either in 2008 or in 2012. But Rand Paul starts from a stronger position and higher profile than his father had before that debate. If Rand dared, instead of being yet another single-term senator vying for the nomination, he could overnight become the most important player in the GOP on the biggest foreign-policy issue of the day. He’d get invited to every talk show as the one Republican with the audacity to side with the president to make a deal for peace. He’d be denounced, too, by every neocon outlet. In other words, he’d get the full-spectrum attention that Donald Trump now commands, knocking him out of the headlines, if not off the top of the polls.
He’d also be a legislative leader, a man Democrats and Republicans alike would have to court ahead of the vote on Iran. The pressure would be extraordinary, but if he stood by his support for the deal, he would have a polarizing and rallying effect, bringing other Republicans around—however many could be brought around—and shattering the GOP pro-war consensus that the neoconservative media has worked so hard to create.
Rand would perhaps even be in a position to demand legislative concessions from the Democrats and Obama; leadership would also be leverage. That might not be enough to defund Planned Parenthood—but consider what the public would be presented with if Rand Paul clearly supported the president on issues like Iran and sentencing reform but clearly separated from Obama and the Democrats on abortion and taxes. He’d give all voters something to think about, cutting across the left-right divide that has only meant defeat for Republicans in the last two presidential elections.
Instead, the strategy Rand’s team have devised for him is much more cautious, and its dividend so far has been dwindling support. But it doesn’t matter if a candidate drops into the single digits in the pre-primary season, and even if Rand’s fundraising could be better—Bush, Cruz, and Rubio beat him easily last quarter—he’s still a top-tier candidate. His playbook is to win on bread-and-butter Republican issues, demonstrating his support for tax cuts by literally cutting through the tax code with a chainsaw, courting Christian conservatives by calling for an end to federal funds for Planned Parenthood, keeping his libertarian supporters on board by opposing the NSA’s domestic surveillance, and reaching out to several groups at once—including libertarians, Christians, and some liberals—with criminal-justice reform.
His approach to two thorny questions—immigration and foreign policy—has been in line with this bread-and-butter strategy. There’s a vocal and somewhat large bloc of voters who say they want to restrict immigration, and while they may not tend not to vote in such a way as to prove their commitment—Tom Tancredo would have been a force in 2008 if they did, and John McCain would not have been the GOP nominee—an appeal to restrict immigration certainly won’t lose Rand many primary votes. By contrast, explicit noninterventionist appeals won’t win many: there aren’t legions of foreign-policy voters to begin with, and what few there are in the Republican Party are mostly hawks.
The logic of this play-it-safe strategy is impeccable. But it’s a logic that works against Rand Paul: after all, if voters want a bread-and-butter Republican, they have better options. Ted Cruz is a better orator, Marco Rubio is more charismatic, Scott Walker has an executive record. Christian conservatives aren’t going to choose Rand Paul over spiritual kin like Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee just because Rand, like the rest of the field, is antiabortion. (For one thing, the religious right suspects that in his bones Rand Paul is just too libertarian to fight till he bleeds against same-sex marriage.) Paul’s foreign-policy maneuvering, meanwhile, has the curious effect of leaving him the candidate least liked by hawks but no longer much loved by doves. What his campaign team has devised is actually a winning strategy for Scott Walker—or even Jeb Bush.
The dilemma for Rand is that his core supporters are with him because they believe he really is different from the rest on foreign policy, but to reach beyond that core he has to downplay the difference. Rand can’t do well as just Mr. Small Government because more Republicans seem to want Walker for that role, and Cruz can also compete for it. Rand’s core supporters don’t have a reason to go to another candidate, but there aren’t enough of them to make him the nominee. And there are fewer of them the more he triangulates.
His most devoted supporters dismiss those who are abandoning ship as “purists.” But there’s a spectrum: at one end are those who won’t settle for less than another Ron Paul, which Rand was never going to be. At the other are those who will stick with Rand no matter where he stands—either out of personal loyalty or out of an undying hope that he doesn’t really mean it when he falls in with GOP orthodoxy. But most of his potential support lies between the extremes, and that middle ground is where he’s failing to make the sale.
Going into the race Rand Paul could seemingly count on two iron-clad advantages: he would have plenty of funding, whether from Silicon Valley or from an army of small donors like those who backed his father. And he would have a ready-made bloc of activists composed of the more pragmatic of his father’s supporters and additional battalions of grassroots conservatives brought into the liberty movement by the senator’s ecumenical outreach. Paul’s struggle to win support either from the Silicon Valley or from a volume of grassroots supporters comparable to his father’s indicates there’s something about his campaign that fails to persuade the very people who should be most easily persuaded.
Rand’s strategy, unlike his father’s, is all about winning. But what no campaign professional likes to admit is that not every client has a chance of winning. The way the party’s attitudes presently stand, Republicans are not ready for Rand Paul. He could try to change the party so it’s ready for someone like him in 2020 or 2024. But instead he’s changing himself to be like the party of today. And he’s losing.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to altering the nation’s political course. If you want a very different foreign policy from what Republicans (and indeed Democrats) are used to, you can’t sneak it in by winning a single presidential election—just as you can’t stop abortion or erase the tax code with one November victory. A great deal of persuasion is necessary before the elections will follow, and the relationship between elections and public persuasion has to be mutually reinforcing: persuade more, then win more, then use your higher profile to persuade still more and win still more. That’s how you build a movement. It’s the only way.
Rand’s father faced a party that was even less ready for anyone with his principles. But he shook up the GOP and changed the way voters thought about his issues, to the point that his son, without any elected experience, could beat a well-funded establishment candidate in a 2010 Senate primary. There’s no question that without Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign, there would have been no Senator Paul.
Now Rand is in danger of reversing the momentum not only of his own campaign but of the liberty movement whose leadership he inherited. Ron Paul’s efforts in 2008 and 2012 helped set the stage for liberty Republicans like Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, as well as Rand, to win in 2010 and 2012. No similarly libertarian Republican won in 2014 or has yet to appear in prospect for 2016. This isn’t Rand’s fault: the issues environment has been more difficult for liberty candidates these past two years. But a movement needs leadership most of all when it faces adversity—someone who will risk his neck to ensure there are more Thomas Massies and fewer Tom Cottons sent to Washington in the future.
This Giuliani moment is a test of Rand Paul’s courage. If he fights for realistic diplomatic initiatives like the Iran deal, he may yet lose the nomination, but he’ll make political success for those with his principles—including himself—more likely in the future. Conversely, it will prove to be a mistake as well as a disgrace if Rand Paul is running for president to be someone rather than to do something—all the more so if who he’s trying to be is not who he is but who the other Republicans are.
How worried should Republicans—and everyone else—be about Donald Trump, the man who’s turning the party’s presidential contest into a circus rodeo? Not very. What his popularity blip reveals is just how weak the right has become.
Herman Cain was polling as high as 26 percent between October and November 2011. Trump has a long way to go to match last cycle’s comic-relief candidate. The occasionally bankrupt billionaire’s best number so far has been 17 percent. His polling average, even after weeks of hype, is about 10 percent. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been routinely polling around 15 percent against Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a more popular figure than Donald Trump, but he obviously isn’t as good for television ratings—he’s never had his own reality program—so Ten-Percent Trump is the guy who’s treated as a threat to America’s political establishment.
How many of the Trump ten percent are actually, in any serious way, Donald Trump voters? Maybe half. Trump’s strength is less a sign that his demagoguery is catching on than that Republican voters haven’t been sold on any of the more sober alternatives to Jeb Bush. Trump is filling the generic anti-Bush, anti-establishment slot in the race. Whoever filled that slot would be getting double-digit support, and chances are any other candidate who had successfully secured this role would be polling higher than Trump is now. What the Trump phenomenon shows is not that the GOP is tilting in a radical direction but the opposite. Walker, Paul, Rubio, Cruz, and the rest aren’t appealing to the most excitable people in the party. That’s a sign that the GOP’s aspiring leadership is ultimately rather anodyne.
Trump has obvious advantages over the others in staking his claim to be the anti-Bush. Everyone knows his name, and he’s willing to speak vehemently about immigration, an issue on which Bush is vulnerable. But it’s doubtful that the hardline anti-immigration vote has boomed from the 2 percent support earned by Tom Tancredo in 2008 to something on the verge of taking over the party. And it’s most likely that Trump’s effect on the GOP’s immigration policies will be the opposite of what his supporters want: to undo the damage Trump is inflicting on the party’s Hispanic outreach efforts, the party leadership will further marginalize immigration restrictionists. Fringe candidates like Trump usually don’t succeed in prompting others to raise up their banner: Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign certainly did no wonders for opposition to trade deals, support for which has since become an article of faith for Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
Any other candidate who now tries to take on immigration will be tarred by association with Trump. And no other candidate is going to have the flamboyant appeal he has, so it looks as if anyone else who campaigns on this will reap few of the rewards Trump has reaped but draw all of the obloquy Trump has called forth. That’s even more of a losing proposition than Trump’s own bid.
The other candidates know this. They’re not worried about their standing in the polls in summer 2015, they’re worried about their cash flow and ad buys for Iowa and New Hampshire. Every indication so far is that Jeb Bush will annihilate his competition: his fundraising take is beyond anything his rivals can hope to match—even the next two combined—and the heir apparent has led almost every GOP poll since he first indicated he would run.
If the right could unite behind a single alternative, he might have a chance. The anti-Bush would be several things: in style, combative rather than mild; in ideology, hard right rather than pragmatic; on immigration, against it rather than for it. Immigration is the hot-button issue where Bush is most at variance with the party’s right wing, so it’s an effective wedge against him. But it’s not one other candidates are well-positioned to exploit. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have both, like Bush, made efforts to present themselves as kinder, gentler Republicans. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.)
Walker has been more outspoken on immigration, but he seems reluctant to cast himself as a hard-right candidate—he’s benefited from an ambiguous identity as both a hero to the right and someone who has yet to alarm centrists. Ted Cruz might be demagogic enough to aspire to be the next Donald Trump, but in taking up immigration he’s inconvenienced by the fact that he’s Canadian-born and was until very recently a subject of Her Majesty Elizabeth II.
Trump’s bubble tells us little about the 2016 race. What it says about Republican ideology, on the other hand, is that none of the factions—the libertarians, the religious right, the Tea Party—have much life in them. After all the sound and fury of the Obama years, no quarter of the right has generated ideas or leaders that compellingly appeal even to other Republicans, let alone to anyone outside the party. The Ron Paul revolution has become a Rand Paul Thermidor. There is no philosophical insurgency this year. Instead, there’s a sense that the right is becoming a prisoner to formalism: the religious right, the libertarians, and the Tea Party are all reduced to repurposing ideas minted decades ago. The various factions’ policies aren’t generating any excitement, which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention.
The field’s failure here isn’t about satisfying an appetite for novelty, it’s about the failure of new circumstances to generate fresh applications of principle from the leading figures of the different factions. From Rand Paul we should be hearing something we didn’t hear much from his father, namely how libertarianism and noninterventionism can be made politically viable—especially in the hard cases, not just the relatively popular and easy ones like surveillance reform. From Huckabee and Santorum and Carson we should be hearing about what it means to be a moral minority in a country that has already accepted same-sex marriage; they could even be talking about the Benedict Option and whether the religious right’s mode of political engagement remains an alternative to it. (Judging by the GOP race itself, Obergefell doesn’t seem to be lighting any populist fires.)
There are difficult questions today that Ronald Reagan and the Cold War right never had to address. But they aren’t questions that the factional candidates or their ideological proxies are answering. None of them represents a 21st-century conservatism. Nor, of course, does Donald Trump.
Tuesday’s Republican tide wasn’t surprising, but there’s more to be said about it than just the obvious. The obvious is that this class of Senate seats was last up in 2008, a presidential year that was the high-water mark for Democratic turnout going back a generation. There weren’t going to be nearly as many Democrats heading to the polls this year, but what should have alarmed Democrats all the more is that 2008 rather than 2012 remains their high-water mark: Obama is the first president since World War II to be re-elected by a margin smaller than that of his original victory. That can hardly be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the Democratic brand, even if two years ago voters found the Republicans’ “dog food” even more distasteful.
Have the Republicans overcome their 2012 problem? They picked up Senate seats in red states (Arkansas, North Carolina) and historically red purple states (Colorado, Iowa). They held onto the governorships of the two most important large swing states—Florida and Ohio—but lost an incumbent governor in Pennsylvania, which the GOP has dreamed of retaking in presidential contests for more than a decade. Republican governor Scott Walker handily won his third election in Wisconsin.
These are impressive results that probably do not change the 2016 map. Obama, after all, won Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 2012 with the same Republican governors in office, and in two years’ time voters in those states may be as tired of their governors as those nationwide are of the president today. Unfortunately for Democrats, voters are likely to be even more fatigued by their party’s presence in the White House after another two years of Obama, but in any case fatigue can work both ways.
The Republicans’ gains in purple America this year are what could be expected given the contrast of this electorate with 2008 and 2012 presidential turnouts: these states are purple because they are battlegrounds, and if Democrats are not out in force as heavily in midterms as in a presidential year, they stand to lose. (They came close to losing Mark Warner’s Senate seat in Virginia, too, after sweeping the Old Dominion’s statewide elections last year: Virginia is a state on the tipping point, and while it seems to be tipping the Democrats’ way, even a small shudder from voters could tip it back for a time. In this light, Governor McAuliffe won’t necessarily be an asset for Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
Republicans won important victories in several deep blue states’ gubernatorial races: Illinois, Massachusetts, and the surprise of the night, Maryland. These states have all had a penchant for electing Republicans to statewide office while remaining firmly blue in presidential elections, however, and none of these wins heralds the return of moderate “Northeastern” Republicanism to the national stage. Nor, of course, does Scott Brown’s defeat in New Hampshire’s Senate contest.
So is all this just business as usual, an uptick for the opposition party in the dying days of a two-term presidency, with a reversion of many states to their historic—and sometimes quite idiosyncratic—patterns? If that’s the case, then Republicans did very well on Tuesday without changing in the slightest, and facing a less favorable electorate in the future, or with worse luck in selecting candidates, they will be right back to the where they were in 2012: as the less popular of two troubled parties.
There’s a deep problem here. While movement conservatives have always chafed at the assumption that George W. Bush embodied their ideology, he most certainly did: as The Economist‘s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge noted in The Right Nation, Bush was the first Republican president who had come of age with the conservative movement—Nixon, Reagan, and the elder Bush were products of an earlier environment. Conservatism was an open-ended question in their time, but for the second Bush it was one that had been answered all his life by self-identified conservative institutions: think tanks, magazines, books, and blocs of politicians. Whatever Bush’s personal and opportunistic deviations, his administration’s defining policies—tax cuts, wars, and expansion of executive power in the name of national security—hewed to the movement’s playbook. Movement conservatism’s organs of opinion and policy were happy with Bush overall and eager to silence his critics.
But with Bush’s downfall came a need to redefine the Republican Party’s ideology and brand. After the country as a whole repudiated Bush by turning to Democrats in 2006 and 2008, the GOP also repudiated him by turning in 2010 to the Tea Party and a new brand of liberty-minded Republicans exemplified by Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash. These “liberty movement” Republicans were few in number but represented a qualitative change in tone and policy emphasis for the GOP, particularly on national security and foreign policy. One could easily imagine Republicans of this sort as the wave of the future, if the GOP were to have any future at all: these were the kind of Republicans who might represent a viable conservatism in an increasingly diverse country where marijuana is legal and same-sex marriage commands majority support. Their anti-authoritarianism and commitment to cultural federalism suggested a way forward for the party. Win or lose in years to come, they were certainly not the same Bush brand that voters had rejected in 2006, 2008, and indeed 2010.
Yet now Bush is ancient history, and the un-Bush of 2008, Barack Obama, has begun to exhibit distinctly shrublike characteristics—as Bruce Bartlett has shown, Obama is something between a moderate Republican of the old Rockefeller variety and a direct continuation of George W. Bush. The powerful but ill-defined anti-Bush “brand” that shaped both parties between 2006 and 2012 has given way to a Democratic Party that now defends the Bush-like policies it once defined itself against and a Republican Party that in opposing Obama does so for reasons unrelated to his resemblance to his predecessor. Republicans today can once again employ their familiar decades-old ideological armament against a militarily inept, big-spending, socially liberal Democrat. These weapons have done the trick for decades—until the Bush disaster deprived them of their effectiveness—so who needs new ideas?
The party does have new faces. Joni Ernst is 44, Cory Gardner is 40, Tom Cotton is 37, and many of the GOP’s other new officeholders are also in their 30s and 40s. They are old enough to have been ideologically shaped by movement conservatism as it existed in the ’80s and ’90s—when neoconservatism and the religious right were ascendant—but not young enough to have had Bush’s debacles as a formative childhood experience. They are the Alex P. Keaton generation.
Can these fortyish idols of a party philosophically defined by Fox News—whose median viewer age is 68—win over millennial voters and the electorate of the future? They will if there’s no one organized enough to compete against them. The well-oiled machinery of movement conservatism remains fully in the hands of people who think the only trouble with George W. Bush was that he did not go far enough. Heritage and AEI have lately tried to present softer images on a number of domestic issues—prison reform, policies to help the working class—but they are as single-mindedly hawkish as ever when it comes to foreign policy and just as dedicated as the Bush administration to expanding executive power. Young Republicans like Tom Cotton represent the worst aspects of the movement’s ideology, and none of the new faces appears to represent the best.
On these great issues of war and peace, legislative government or executive prerogative, Republican realists and libertarians have a much weaker infrastructure to begin with, and for most libertarian institutions and their benefactors gutting regulation remains a higher priority than stopping any war. Democrats, meanwhile, are once more terrified of seeming too dovish, as Obama’s botched policies—interventionist but reluctantly so—teach his party anew that McGovernite and Carter-esque weakness is fatal. (This is true: peace in strength is what America’s voters want.) So it’s back to the Democrats’ answer to Bush: Clinton, and the female of the species may soon prove deadlier than the male.
Still, the public does have some say in all this, and it has shown to have no appetite for the decades-long wars that Tom Cotton’s Republican Party appears to portend. The market for realism and non-authoritian politics remains. But can anyone organize the institutions and policy-making cadres to serve this demand? If not, there is little chance of a lone politician or small group of liberty-movement Republicans redirecting their party, much less their country, away from futile wars and executive consolidation: we will be back to the Bush and Clinton era, with Rand Paul as lonely a dissenter as ever his father was. At least, that is, until the Cottons and Clintons lose another, bigger war and plunge the country into something even worse than the Great Recession. Then we’ll get change without the hope.
America is badly governed. Congress has dismal approval ratings, sometimes as low as single digits. Presidential elections, settled by popular landslides in most postwar contests, now see margins of less than 5 percent separating winner from loser. Half or more of the country at any time disapproves of the president.
Politics is polarized. Yet activists left and right are frustrated that our politics also seems stuck in an unprincipled middle. Republicans and Democrats employ violent rhetoric against one another but are more similar than not in their behavior. Republican and Democratic presidents alike expand the welfare state; both parties endorse free trade; both are quick to use military force abroad. Even on divisive social issues, where popular passions are most irreconcilable, the conformity among the elite can be surprising. Only after Republicans like Ken Mehlman and Ted Olson had come out in support of same-sex marriage did the Clintons and Obama do so. Democrats are not necessarily as liberal, nor Republicans as conservative, as they seem.
Meanwhile, the troubles facing the country are grave. Wars, terrorism, and a sense of losing ground economically and strategically beset the national psyche. Politics seems inadequate to the crises.
These appear to be a variety of different and even paradoxical problems—how can our politics be both too extreme and too consensual? Yet one writer’s work pulls all this into focus. He was one of the key thinkers of the postwar conservative movement, though his thought is badly neglected on the right today. The man whose mind explains our politics today and suggests a diagnosis—if not a cure—for our condition is James Burnham. Once a Marxist, he became the American Machiavelli, master analyst of the oligarchic nature of power in his day and ours.
He was one of William F. Buckley Jr.’s first recruits for the masthead of National Review before the magazine’s launch in 1955. Burnham, born in 1905, had already had a distinguished career. He had worked with the CIA and its World War II-era precursor, the OSS. Before that, as a professor of philosophy at New York University, he had been a leading figure in the American Trotskyist movement, a co-founder of the socialist American Workers Party.
But he broke with Trotsky, and with socialism itself, in the 1940s, and he sought a new theory to explain what was happening in the world. In FDR’s era, as now, there was a paradox: America was a capitalist country, yet capitalism under the New Deal no longer resembled what it had been in the 19th century. And socialism in the Soviet Union looked nothing at all like the dictatorship of the proletariat: just “dictatorship” would be closer to the mark. (If not quite a bull’s-eye, in Burnham’s view.)
Real power in America did not rest with the great capitalists of old, just as real power in the USSR did not lie with the workers. Burnham analyzed this reality, as well as the fascist system of Nazi Germany, and devised a theory of what he called the “managerial revolution.” Economic control, thus inevitably political control, in all these states lay in the hands of a new class of professional managers in business and government alike—engineers, technocrats, and planners rather than workers or owners.
The Managerial Revolution, the 1941 book in which Burnham laid out his theory, was a bestseller and critical success. It strongly influenced George Orwell, who adapted several of its ideas for his own even more famous work, 1984. Burnham described World War II as the first in a series of conflicts between managerial powers for control over three great industrial regions of the world—North America, Europe, and East Asia. The geographic scheme and condition of perpetual war are reflected in Orwell’s novel by the ceaseless struggles between Oceania (America with its Atlantic and Pacific outposts), Eurasia (Russian-dominated Europe), and Eastasia (the Orient). The Managerial Revolution itself appears in 1984 as Emmanuel Goldstein’s forbidden book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.
Could freedom of any sort survive in the world of 1984 or the real world of the managerial revolution? Burnham provided an answer—one Orwell didn’t want to hear—in his next book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. Liberty’s only chance under any economic or political system at all was to be found in a school of political realism beginning with the author of The Prince.
Machiavelli poses yet another paradox. The Florentine political theorist seems to recommend a ruthless and manipulative ethos to monarchs in The Prince—the book is a veritable handbook of tyranny. Yet his other great work, the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, is as deeply republican as The Prince appears to be despotic. Whose side was Machiavelli on?
Scholars still argue, but Burnham anticipated what is today a widely accepted view: Machiavelli was fundamentally a republican, a man of the people, yet one who took a clear-eyed, even scientific view of power. And by discussing the true, brutal nature of politics openly, Machiavelli provided any of his countrymen who could learn a lesson about how freedom is won and lost. As Burnham writes:
If the political truths stated or approximated by Machiavelli were widely known by men, the success of tyranny and all the other bad forms of oppressive political rule would become much less likely. A deeper freedom would be possible in society than Machiavelli himself believed attainable. If men generally understood as much of the mechanism of rule and privilege as Machiavelli understood, they would no longer be deceived into accepting their rule and privilege, and they would know what steps to take to overcome them.
From his experience in government and reading of the classics Machiavelli distilled a number of lessons, which Burnham further refines. “Machiavelli insists,” he notes, that in a republic “no person and no magistrate may be permitted to be above the law; there must be legal means for any citizen to bring accusations against any other citizen or any official…” Freedom also requires a certain extent of territory, even if the means by which that territory is to be acquired are not as republican as one would wish: hence Machiavelli’s call for a prince to unify Italy. Machiavelli was a Florentine patriot, but he had seen his beloved city ruined by wars with other cities while mighty foreign kingdoms like France overawed them all. Cities like Florence and their citizens could be free only if Italy was.
Most importantly, within any polity “only out of the continuing clash of opposing groups can liberty flow,” writes Burnham:
the foundation of liberty is a balancing of forces, what Machiavelli calls a ‘mixed’ government. Since Machiavelli is neither a propagandist nor an apologist, since he is not the demagogue of any party or sect or group, he knows and says how hypocritical are the calls for a ‘unity’ that is a mask for the suppression of all opposition, how fatally lying or wrong are all beliefs that liberty is the peculiar attribute of any single individual or group—prince or democrat, nobles or people or ‘multitude.’
All well and good—but what has any of this to do with the perils of America in 1943, let alone those of seven decades later? The answer begins to emerge once later contributions to the Machiavellian tradition are taken into account. Burnham focuses on four late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers: Italian social theorists Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto; French syndicalist Georges Sorel; and German sociologist Robert Michels. Together, their work explains a great deal about 21st-century American oligarchy—and what can be done about it.
Mosca’s signal contribution was a categorical one: all societies are logically divided into two classes, rulers and ruled. This may seem like common sense, yet in fact Mosca’s taxonomy dispels two persistent myths, those of autocracy and democracy—of one-man rule and rule by everyone. For even the most absolute monarch depends on a class of advisers and magistrates to develop and enforce his policies, while in the most liberal modern democracy there is still a practical difference between the elected and appointed officials who make or execute laws and the ordinary citizen who does neither.
The rationale according to which a society justifies the division between rulers and ruled is what Mosca calls its “political formula.” In the U.S. today, representative democracy is the political formula. For early modern monarchies, it was a theory of divine right. Under communism, the political formula was the idea of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat—the class that according to Marx would inherit the earth. For the Nazis the formula was the identification of the party and its leader with the mystical essence of the Volk.
Just as Machiavelli does not entrust liberty to any one class—nobles, king, or people—Mosca does not believe freedom depends on any particular political formula. Such doctrines are myths, even if some historically correspond only to the most repressive regimes. The reality is that liberty comes from specific conditions, not abstract formulas—conditions that permit open competition among what Mosca calls “social forces.” Burnham explains: “By ‘social force’ Mosca means any human activity which has significant social and political influence,” including “war, religion, land, labor, money, education, technological skill,” all of which are represented by different factions and institutions in society.
The ruling class represents the strongest forces—but which ones are strongest changes over time. Practices that allow competition among social forces thus imply a ruling class of some permeability, as well as one tolerant of organized opposition and dissent.
A lesson here for America’s nation-building efforts in the Islamic world should be plain—democracy and a paper-based rule of law count for nothing; actual social forces are everything. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya we understand nothing about the forces of tribe, sect, and interest. As a result, trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives lost are not nearly enough to create order, let alone freedom. We let our own political formula blind us to foreign realities.
Not all myths are politically debilitating, however. Burnham finds in the work of Georges Sorel—a revolutionary syndicalist who early in the 20th century became a fellow traveler of Charles Maurras’s Action Française and the nationalist right—a theory of myth as constitutive of political identity and a driver of political action. “A myth that serves to weld together a social group—nation, people, or class—must be capable of arousing their most profound sentiments,” says Burnham, “and must at the same time direct energy toward the solution of the real problems which the group faces in is actual environment.”
For Sorel, the archetypal myth of this sort was the anarcho-syndicalist idea of the general strike, in which all workers cease their labor and bring down society, resulting in spontaneous creation of a new and more just order. A Sorelian myth is not a utopian vision—the utopia is what comes after the mythical action—but it is also not a thing that occurs in time and space. It is an aspiration that in theory could be fulfilled but in practice never will be, yet in working toward this impossible goal much real progress—in terms of organization, reform, and empowering one’s group—is achieved.
Myths of this sort are plentiful in American politics. On the right, they include the idea of ending all abortion or returning to a pristine interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. On the left, they include the goals of eliminating all discrimination and bringing about universal human equality—as if more equality in some things might not lead to more inequality in others.
“A myth cannot be refuted,” however, “since it is, at bottom, identical with the convictions of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, unanalyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions,” Sorel writes. Such myths “are not descriptions of things but expressions of determination to act.”
The key is the ability of myths to organize groups and mass movements. The effects of such mobilization, however, can be paradoxical. The election of a Tea Party senator like Ted Cruz, a Princeton and Harvard graduate whose wife is a Goldman Sachs executive, or a left-wing populist like Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor herself who is, if not a one-percenter, much closer to the top one percent than to the bottom 90, shows how the myths of the masses serve society’s winners.
Even organizations that come into being to rally the masses are themselves subject to the scientific laws of power, in particular the “iron law of oligarchy” described by Burnham’s third subject, the German-Italian sociologist Robert Michels. In works such as the book known in English as Political Parties, Michels shows that all organizations and movements have a leadership class whose interests and abilities are distinct from those of the membership. Democracy or equality—the idea that everyone participates on the same level—is antithetical to the very concept of organization, which necessarily involves different persons, different “organs,” serving different roles. And some roles are more powerful than others.
Not only do leaders corrupt organizations, Burnham observes, but the oligarchic nature of organization affects even the most selfless leader as well. “Individual saints, exempt in individual intention from the law of power, will nonetheless be always bound to it through the disciples, associates, and followers to whom they cannot, in organized social life, avoid being tied.” Many a grassroots true believer faults bad advisers for the mistakes of a Ronald Reagan or Ron Paul—but the problem is not bad advisers, it’s advisers, period. They are necessary, and they necessarily have their own motives and perspectives. Without them, however, there would be no organization. This is as true of grassroots groups, even purely volunteer ones, as of Beltway cliques.
Effective politics therefore means accepting the limits of human nature and organization and working within those limits, not expecting perfection. An organization as a whole must harmonize the interests of the leaders with those of the membership and direct them all toward political achievement.
The greatest of the modern Machiavellians considered by Burnham is the one he covers last: Vilfredo Pareto, whose accomplishments spanned the fields of economics and sociology. Pareto’s work on elitism sums up and extends the thinking of the others, though Mosca considered him a rival and copycat. Pareto examines not only social class but classes of social psychology: his magisterial Mind and Society reduces human motives to six fundamental classes of what Pareto terms “residues.” (They are residues in that they are what remains when everything less stable has been boiled away by analysis.)
Only the first two classes are important for Burnham’s investigation. Class I residues involve the “instinct for combinations”—manufacturing new ideas and tastes from the disassembling and reassembling of old ones; creating complex systems from simple materials; incorporating experiences of the world with ideas in novel ways. These are the instincts that drive the verbalist and theorist, the filmmaker, the philosopher, the magician. Class II residues, by contrast, involve “group persistences” and encourage the preservation of existing institutions and habits. These are the psychological forces of social inertia; they are also the forces of loyalty.
Burnham observes that Class I residues correspond to the character type Machiavelli describes as the fox, cunning and quick to use fraud to get his way. Class II residues correspond to Machiavelli’s lions, more comfortable with force than manipulation. A society needs both types. “If Class II residues prevail” in all strata of society, Burnham warns,
the nation develops no active culture, degenerates in a slough of brutality and stubborn prejudice, in the end is unable to overcome new forces in its environment, and meets disaster. Disaster, too, awaits the nation given over wholly to Class I residues, with no regard for the morrow, for discipline or tradition, with a blind confidence in clever tricks as the sufficient means for salvation.
After residues, the rock-bottom motives of men and women, come what Pareto calls “derivations.” These, writes Burnham, are “the verbal explanations, dogmas, doctrines, theories”—and ideologies—“with which man, with that passionate pretense of his that he is rational, clothes the non-logical bones of the residues.” Derivations may seem to be expressions of rational thinking, but they are not. “It is for this reason,” Burnham continues,
that the ‘logical’ refutation of theories used in politics never accomplishes anything so long as the residues remain intact. Scientists proved with the greatest ease that Nazi racial theories were altogether false, but that had no effect at all in getting Nazis to abandon those theories; and even if they had abandoned them, they would merely have substituted some new derivation to express the same residue.
Facts about voter fraud and the suppressive effects of voter ID requirements, for example, thus count for very little in today’s discussions of such laws—not because either side is consciously dishonest about its intentions but because such arguments are driven by emotional commitments that are not subject to proof or disproof. This is also why our cable news channels put little effort into persuading skeptics. The politics to which they cater is about group loyalty and its derivative mythologies. (To be sure, this costs Fox and MSNBC their credibility with people in whom Class I residues are stronger—not necessarily because such people are devoted to the truth but because they at least desire variety and complexity. Fox News is for lions, not foxes.)
No one is a slave of a single class of residues, however, and both within the individual mind and within society there are always competing currents. Elites in particular must cultivate a mixture of fox-like and lion-like qualities if they hope to retain power. An imbalance of these characteristics leads to social upheaval and what Pareto terms “the circulation of elites,” the fall of one ruling class and rise of another.
This happens especially when foxes, having outmaneuvered the lions in the struggle for power within society, are confronted by an external threat that cannot be overcome without violence. Foxes are inept in the use of force, apt to apply too much or too little, and always they prefer to secure their goals by deceit or diplomacy.
There is also internal danger from an imbalance of residues. Talented verbalists denied admittance to an elite whose ranks are closed will, instead of competing for power within the institutions of society, attempt to gain power by subverting those institutions—including through revolution, which they foment by sowing alienation and anger among the lions of the public.
Burnham feared that foxes were dangerously dominant in the America of his own time, which is why he followed The Machiavellians with a series of books arguing for a hard line in the Cold War: The Struggle for the World in 1947, The Coming Defeat of Communism in 1949, and Containment or Liberation? in 1953. His column in National Review, which he wrote from 1955 until ill health ended his career in 1978, was called first “The Third World War” and later, only a little mellowed, “The Protracted Conflict.”
He died in 1987, much honored by the conservative movement he had helped build. Yet he is poorly understood today, remembered only as a Cold Warrior rather than a brilliant social theorist of enduring urgency. Ironically, Burnham’s last original book, The Suicide of the West in 1964, may have contributed to misperceptions about his work. In it, Burnham describes liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide”—meaning not that it was the cause of the West’s loss of ground and nerve but that it was a rationale expressing a more fundamental mood of surrender. Burnham was assumed to be saying that the managerial revolution, having put in a place a new liberal ruling class since World War II, was leading America into weakness and withdrawal.
In fact, though Burnham hardly emphasized this for his free-market readership in National Review, liberalism was the ideology of Western capitalism’s suicide in the face of an assertively managerial Communist bloc. Burnham had, after all, argued in The Managerial Revolution that of the three great nations in the throes of the revolution—the U.S., Russia, and Nazi Germany—the U.S. was least far along the path and the most torn between its capitalist past and managerial future. Liberalism, even in its left-wing, statist iteration, is the characteristic ideology of capitalism, and it was the capitalist system as well as the West—Burnham identified both with the British Empire—that was committing suicide.
This might suggest Burnham’s social thought is even more antiquated than his Cold War strategizing. After all, the managerial Soviet Union is gone, and the capitalist U.S. has not only survived but thrived for decades in what is now a globalized free-market system. While the political theory of The Machiavellians doesn’t depend on The Managerial Revolution—it’s surprising, in fact, how little connected the two books are—his reputation must surely suffer for getting such a basic question wrong.
Only he didn’t get it wrong—for what is the political and economic system of China if not what Burnham described in The Managerial Revolution? Engineers, industrial planners, and managers have led China for decades, with unarguable results. Indeed, several East Asian economies, including those of American allies Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, are managerialist. As Burnham predicted, these economies have been highly successful at controlling unemployment and raising standards of living.
The American ruling class, by contrast, has pursued a largely anti-managerial policy, ridding the country of much strategic manufacturing. Such industry—including shipbuilding and semiconductor fabrication—is now overwhelmingly based in Asia. The U.S. hybrid system, transitioning from capitalism to managerialism, outperformed the Soviet Union. Whether it can outperform the next wave of managerial revolution is very much uncertain.
For the Machiavellians, freedom is not a thing to be won by popular revolt against the ruling class—for any revolt can only replace one ruling class with another. Instead, freedom requires that factions among the elite—representatives of different social forces or rival elements of the same one—should openly compete for power and seek to draw into their ranks the most talented foxes and lions of the people, to gain advantages in skill and strength over their rivals. In such a system, the people still do not rule directly, but they can influence the outcome of elite contests at the margin. This leads evenly matched elites constantly to seek popular support by looking out for the welfare of the common citizen, for perfectly self-interested reasons.
What has happened in America since the end of the Cold War, however, is that competition for popular favor has been reduced to a propaganda exercise—employing myths, symbols, and other “derivatives”—disconnected from policies of material interest to the ruling class. Thus monetary policy, foreign policy, and positions on trade and immigration vary little between Republican and Democratic presidents. This is a terrible situation—if you’re not part of the elite. If you are, all the gridlock and venom of our politics is simply irrelevant to the bottom line. For the non-elite, however, insecurity of all kinds continues to rise, as does a sense that the country is being sold out from under you.
America’s ruling class has bought itself time—for continuing capitalism in an age of worldwide managerial revolution—at the expense of America’s middle and working classes. Reform, alas, will not come from “throw the bums out” populism of either the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street varieties. It can only come from two directions: the best of the people must grow conscious of how oligarchy operates and why populist leadership is a paradox, and new factions among the elite must be willing to open competition on more serious fronts—campaigning not only on myths and formulas but on the very substance of the managerial revolution.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
A few people may be a little unclear about the argument of my last post on secession as a principle of liberty (or not, as I argue). Its inspiration was the fact that it seemed curious for Americans to long for Scottish secession when the Scots themselves had voted against it. Whatever was being expressed was not sympathy for the Scottish people, so what was it? The answer was a general case for secession as an inherently good thing, in radical libertarian theory, because it leads to smaller states, and maybe no states. I pointed out various problems with this notion, which seems to have greater emotional force than reasoning behind it.
Obviously there are cases in which secession or political breakup—we’ll get to the difference in a minute—can be good things. In the case of Czechoslovakia, division came peacefully and fulfilled a democratic-nationalistic wish on the part of the constituent peoples to govern their own affairs separately. The relationship between such democratic-nationalistic motives and the individual liberty that is dear to U.S. libertarians is complex, but it looks as if there are cases where the former doesn’t harm the latter and may even advance it. That does not mean the two things are always compatible, however, and nationalism—including of the Scottish variety—very often involves policies abhorrent to the advocates of free markets.
Ironically or not, criticizing a general enthusiasm for secessionism elicits a certain amount of patriotic ire from some individualists who play the American Revolution as their trump card. Is the argument that secessionism is generally good because the American Revolution was good, or is it that the American Revolution was good because secessionism generally is? There’s a difference here between constitutionalist libertarians, who take the former position, and radical libertarians, who take the latter. But in any case, both are wrong: questions of political union or breakup depend upon the particulars. The American Revolution didn’t derive its legitimacy from radical libertarian arguments about anti-statist secession, and the revolution doesn’t tell us anything about the merits of other breakaway movements.
The American Revolution itself is a very complicated thing and doesn’t in all senses belong in the category of secession. The Declaration of Independence, for example, decribes the break from Britain in terms of a revolution in which an already separate people deposes its monarch and severs its ties with his government in another country. This is framed rather as if the relationship between the American colonies and Britain were akin to the relationship between Scotland and England before the Act of Union. Before that, Scotland and England had a single monarch but separate parliaments and governments—they were, constitutionally speaking, separate countries with a joint head of state. The American colonies had sound grounds for considering themselves a parallel example: they too had their own legislatures, even though they shared a king with the United Kingdom.
Note that had Scottish secession succeeded, it would only have undone the Act of Union while retaining the Queen as head of state—in other words, it would have put Scotland after secession in much the same constitutional position as the American colonies were in before the War of Independence, which is another reason to think “secession” is not the right word for what the colonists were doing. They were already outside of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland and by their own lights were simply affiliated with it through a shared king. This, by the way, is why the Declaration of Independence is directed against the Crown rather than Parliament, even though by 1776 the latter made most policy decisions.
What the colonists had been demanding before they turned revolutionary was also something rather like what the Scottish got out of the Act of Union: representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The colonists were aggrieved because the king was allowing Parliament, in which Americans were not represented, to set policy for the colonies, over the objections of the colonists’ own legislatures. Self-government was very much the crux of the Americans’ concerns, and it applied not only to legislatures and governors (who were often royal appointments) but also to church governance: even American Anglicans were quite Protestant in character, and they feared that the precedent of the king allowing a Catholic bishop certain authority in Quebec—which Britain had taken in the French and Indian War—would ultimately translate into the king sending Church of England bishops to America to take control of American church governance.
But there was a foreign-policy angle to the revolution as well, one that should disquiet patriotic libertarians who think of America as a freedom-loving republic fighting to separate itself from an evil empire. For the American colonists, Britain was not imperial enough, at least where the Indians were concerned. Britain had provided for the colonists’ security against the French and Indians, and the taxes Britain wanted to impose to help pay for that war were one of things to which the Americans objected. But it wasn’t just the money: Americans were being taxed for an ongoing foreign policy that failed to do what many colonists dearly wanted to do—namely, seize more western land.
This is why the Declaration’s litany of grievances against the king ends with the claim that he “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The British did not want Americans taking it upon themselves to settle the west, and they were not much inclined to extend military protection to settlers whose disregard for the frontier provoked Indian attacks. The Declaration is naturally couched in defensive terms, but what many colonists wanted wasn’t defense but a foreign policy that would enable private land-grabs and colonization efforts. It’s no accident that the one really big piece of legislation the U.S. managed to pass under the Articles of Confederation was the Northwest Ordinance. Colonizing the west was an imperative of building the American nation.
Mercenary and strategic motives are hard to separate: the “vacuum” of Indian territory would have been filled by an organized state or states sooner or later—if not by the U.S. then by a European colonial power or by Americans like Aaron Burr (or Sam Houston) carving out republics of their own, or by the Indians themselves forming a lasting, state-like confederation. Any of these alternatives would have had security implications for the Americans whether they were independent or part of the British Empire. Needless to say, the Americans had more freedom to set their own policies for conquest and defense alike if they were out from under the thumb of the king and his Parliament. The independent U.S. itself tried to regulate expansion into Indian territory—one of many respects in which the newly established federal government picked up where the British had left off—and tensions between a restraining central government and eager-to-colonize states and individuals continued. But ultimately an American central government was going to be more sympathetic to expansion than London was.
The security logic of the American Revolution is hard to argue with, and Americans certainly considered what they were doing to be extending freedom—their own, at least. But a libertarian today who wants to take a universal view of things has to see all this as something murkier than a victory for self-governing good against imperial evil. Had America remained British,
the slavery trade might well have been abolished as soon and as peacefully as it was by the rest of the British Empire—the very fact that colonial slave-holders did not have formal representation in Parliament (the thing that Americans were clamoring for) was what allowed abolition to take place. Three wars might have been averted: the War of Independence; the unsuccessful U.S. war of conquest that followed in 1812; and the Civil War that arose from as a result of a Constitution that divided sovereignty and left the question of slavery open. On the other hand, America would have had some involvement in the Napoleonic Wars—assuming there had been a French Revolution and a Napoleon in the first place without the American Revolution.
Such counterfactuals are troubling, and they can hardly be waved away with talk about American freedoms, such as free speech, that are actually British in origin, if more strongly established here. What would have been lost is not individual liberty but a model of republicanism that is so tightly entwined with the American psyche that in a real sense we would not exist as a people without it. But for that reason—the fact that this deeply, originally Protestant commitment to self-government has defined who we are since long before the revolution—independence was perhaps inevitable and would always have set the world on an unpredictable course.
Ron Paul has stirred a media buzz by praising Scotland’s secession effort—an effort the Scots themselves rejected. Dr. Paul’s views are shared by many libertarians and conservatives, as well as a few folks on the left. Americans tend to think of secession only in the context of our own Civil War, but most acts of breaking away from a larger political unit have nothing to do with chattel slavery. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with individual liberty either.
“The growth of support for secession should cheer all supporters of freedom,” the former Texas congressman writes, “as devolving power to smaller units of government is one of the best ways to guarantee peace, property, liberty—and even cheap whiskey!” Alas, there’s reason to think otherwise, and not just because Diageo is a London-based multinational.
The specifically libertarian case for secessionism is manifold: in fact, it’s several cases for different things that may not add up to a coherent whole. First, there is the radical theory that secessionism in principle leads to free-market anarchism—that is, secessionist reduction of states to ever smaller units ends with reduction of the state to the individual. Second, there is the historical claim that smaller states tend to be freer and more prosperous. Third is the matter of self-determination, which is actually a democratic or nationalistic idea rather than a classically liberal one but historically has been admixed with liberalisms of various kinds. What it means is that “a people” has “a right” to exit a state along with its territory and create a new state.
A fourth consideration is that suppressing secession may require coercion. And finally there is the pragmatic idea that secession is the best way to dismantle the U.S. federal government, the summum malum for some libertarians. (As an addendum, one can mention the claim that the U.S. Constitution in particular tacitly approves secessionism, but that’s a separate argument from cheering for secession more generally.)
It should be obvious that the first and third claims negate one another, and in practice the third overrules the first: real-world secession never leads to individualist anarchism but only to the creation of two or more states where formerly there was one. The abstract claim that every minority within the newly formed states should then be allowed to secede doesn’t translate into anyone’s policy: instead, formerly united states that are now distinct security competitors tend to consider the residual minorities who belong to the other bloc to be internal security threats. These populations left behind by secessionism may or may not be disloyal, but they are readily used as pretexts for aggressive state actions: either for the stronger state to dismember or intimidate the weaker one in the name of protecting minorities or for either state to persecute minorities and build an internal security apparatus to suppress the (possibly imaginary) enemy within. Needless to say, none of this is particularly good for liberty.
The coercion point doesn’t stand without support from nationalistic or democratic claims. After all, “coercion” is a function of legitimacy—no libertarian thinks that using force on one’s own property against trespassers constitutes coercion. Yet radical individualists have no adequate theory of national self-determination. What gives the people in seceding territory X the right to shoot at people from integrated territory X+Y? “Coercion” is a question-begging argument: it says, on some unstated non-individualistic principle, that the South has the right to shoot at the Union but not vice versa.
Only the second argument for secession is not easily dismissed. It can be divided into two kinds of assertion: 1.) an abstract claim that smaller states are always better (freer, more prosperous, etc.) than larger states, and 2.) concrete historical claims that many in fact have been better.
I’ll offer a few summary remarks on this point. First, smaller states can indeed be freer and more prosperous, although there’s a hitch: circumstances in which this is true tend to be those in which small states are free riders on international security provided by large states. Hong Kong, Singapore, Monaco, San Marino, Belgium, and Switzerland are all cases in point. None of these micro-states are capable of defending themselves against large aggressors. Their security depends on great powers keeping the peace on a continental or oceanic scale. Hong Kong had first British, now Chinese protection–hardly an unmixed blessing, to be sure. Singapore had first British, now U.S. protection. Small states such as Monaco, San Marino, Belgium, and Switzerland have derived their security from a balance of power in Europe underwritten by Britain or the United States. None of them alone, or even in concert with one another, could prevail against a Revolutionary France or Nazi Germany (or indeed non-Nazi Germany).
A few radical libertarians seem to think that foreign conquest shouldn’t matter because it just trades one master, one state, for another. But of course, if that’s true, there’s no argument for secession since in practice it too merely trades one state for another. The question that has to be asked is a prudential one: is a particular state more or less free than the alternatives? There’s no abstract, dogmatic answer where secession is concerned.
To note that secession is not a “good idea” in principle is not to say there aren’t good examples of secessions in practice. Czechoslovakia peacefully separated. The decomposition of the Soviet Union was a positive development of world-historic proportions—though surprisingly large numbers of former Soviet citizens themselves disagree: Gallup found last December that “residents in seven out of 11 countries that were part of the union are more likely to believe its collapse harmed their countries than benefited them.”
The leaden lining to the silver cloud of Soviet secession comes in part from the security competition it has entailed: Russia and neighboring Soviet successor states have had difficult dealings with one another—including wars—and ethnic tensions are sometimes grave. Despite all that, the world is well rid of the Soviet Union. But even this sterling example of secession is not without its tarnish.
Closer to home, the case that most Americans think of when they hear the word “secession” runs entirely in the other direction from Soviet disintegration. Successful Southern secession would have entailed results even more illiberal than the outbreak of the Civil War, which is saying a lot. The Southern Confederacy would have maintained slavery and looked to extend it to new territory, including perhaps Western territory claimed by the United States. Instead of fighting a war with the powerful North, however, the Confederacy might have sought expansion to the south through Cuba and Latin America, as indeed some Confederates dreamed of doing. In the North, meanwhile, you would have had industrial “Hamiltonian” policies and a domestic political climate over time much closer to a European level of statism than has ever been possible with the South as part of the Union. A social-democratic North and a slave South, each ready for war with the other, and at least one looking to expand. What’s libertarian about this?
The case can be made that the threat of secession at least imposes a check on central government expansion—a Washington with the secessionist sword of Damocles hanging over its head would have to respect to states’ rights. But this neglects reasons why the Union was created in the first place: notably, in the competitive world of empires and nation-states, bigger is more secure—not always, but often enough. Keeping the British Empire at bay—fortified as it was in Canada and for many years on the Mississippi and even in U.S. territory—was best achieved with a federation more tightly knit than that provided for by the Articles of Confederation.
But hadn’t America beaten the British once before under the Articles? Yes—with the help of another predatory superpower, France. A country that has the choice of providing its own security or living at the pleasure of others tends to go for growth, unless, like Japan and Germany in the last century, it gets beaten down. And to say that a territory is too large for self-government begs an important question—how can there be self-government at all if a state is not large enough to be secure?
American independence from Great Britain was in the first place driven by concerns for civil and ecclesiastical self-government: the colonists gambled their security and won. The continental United States proved to be a defensible territory without need of larger imperial union with Britain or permanent alliance with France. America’s neighbors north and south were weak and underpopulated. (Mexico’s population boomed only in the 20th century.) Further wars with the British Empire after 1815 were precluded by a balance of power: the growing military, demographic, and economic power differential between Canada and the booming U.S. meant that Canada, far from being a British imperial threat to the U.S., became a hostage held by the U.S. to insist upon British good behavior. The British could not defend Canada; America did not want war with the Royal Navy. That was the balance. A weaker or fragmented U.S. would have been in less of a position to keep it.
Elsewhere in the world, union and secession are questions of ethnonationalism, but for the English-speaking peoples security has always been the crux. It accounts in large part for why Scotland and England united to begin with. Scotland for most of its history was too weak and poor to resist English power. An independent Scotland was a Scotland subject to English predation. But England’s own security was jeopardized by its weak neighbor, which was at times a near-failed state—quite capable of launching raids across the border, if not much more—and at others, even when it posed no direct military nuisance, was a strategic threat as a potential base for French influence.
Great Britain as an island is readily defensible. So the English solved a security problem, and the Scottish conceded the unchangeable reality that their neighbor to the south was more powerful and prosperous. Scotland could start wars with England; it could not win them. Better for both, then, to have no more. Prosperity may be unequally divided, but Scots would be no worse off as a minority within a union dominated by England than they were as a weaker people outside its borders and legal order. British security was perfected by the Act of Union, and it led to a century of British global preeminence—quite an attainment for a country much smaller than France or Spain.
Today, of course, Britain’s security is guaranteed not by British arms, which proved inadequate by themselves in two World Wars, but by an American alliance. Scotland could indeed act like Switzerland or San Marino in this secure, American-backed European order. But such an “independent” Scotland today would only be choosing a hoped-for union with Europe over union with the rest of the UK. Would America’s enthusiasts for Scottish secession want their own state to secede from the U.S. merely to join Mexico or Canada? Size still matters, and Scotland depends for its security and prosperity on someone else—the U.S. and UK or the U.S. and Europe—in any scenario.
Self-government is only possible within the context of security, and individual liberty arises from the rule of law that self-government makes possible. None of these things is synonymous with the others, but all are intimately related. Union and secession have to be considered, even at the theoretical level, in this setting.
The world is relatively peaceful today not because peace among states is natural but because the power differential between the top and almost everyone else is so great as to dissuade competition. Indeed, the world order is so top-heavy that the U.S. can engage in wars of choice, which have proved disastrous for almost everyone. A world consisting of more states more evenly matched, however, would almost certainly not be more peaceful. Libertarians and antistatist conservatives, of all people, should appreciate that all states are aggressive and seek to expand, if they can—the more of them, the more they fight, until big ones crush the smaller.
For America, as historically for Britain, secession and union are questions of security and power, which undergird prosperity, self-government, and individual freedom. For much of the rest of the world, poisoned by ethnic and sectarian hatreds, secession means nationalism and civil strife. In both cases, breaking up existing states to create new ones is a revolutionary and dangerous act, one more apt to imperil liberty than advance it.
Ron Paul and others who make the case for secession do us all a service, however: these are serious matters that deserve to be taken seriously, not taken for granted. Secession is a thing to be discussed—and finally, as in Scotland, rejected.
Two libertarians familiar to TAC readers—Robert Murphy and Sheldon Richman—have lately offered critiques of my “Why Liberalism Means Empire” essay. Libertarians consider themselves liberals, or at least heirs to classical liberalism, and have been among the most outspoken opponents of “empire” in contemporary American politics. So on the face of it, they have good reason to object to the connection I draw between their ideology and global power they abjure. The trouble is, the objections don’t stand up, and liberalism remains deeply implicated in the security conditions of empire.
Murphy attacks my argument at its strongest point, the case of World War II. “Look at what the Soviets did to Eastern Europe after the Americans provided them with all sorts of aid and attacked Germany from the west,” he writes. “If we dislike that outcome—and McCarthy and I do both dislike it—then to have achieved a more balanced outcome, surely the US should not have jumped in on the side that ended up winning.”
Soviet domination of half of Europe after the war is certainly an undesirable outcome. Can we imagine a worse one—or three? Easily.
Without the U.S., the outcomes available to Europe as a whole in World War II, West as well as East, were a.) Nazi control, b.) Soviet control, or c.) divided Nazi-Soviet control. Would any liberal prefer one of these outcomes to what occurred with U.S. intervention, namely d.) divided U.S./Western-Soviet control?
U.S. intervention certainly did strengthen the USSR. But strength in international affairs is a relative thing. A weaker USSR still strong enough to prevail against Nazi Germany without American help would have been more than strong enough to subdue war-torn Western as well as Eastern Europe. Stalin had fifth columns at the ready among resistance forces in France and elsewhere. As it happened, the USSR was in no position to claim France, Italy, West Germany, and Greece after World War II because the U.S. and the allies America rallied stood in the way. Without that check, little would have prevented Stalin from doing to Western Europe what he did to the East.
Alternatively, had a weaker USSR fallen to Hitler, the Nazis would have had an even easier time consolidating control of the Continent. What force could resist them? Franco and Salazar were not about to do so, whatever their differences with Hitler. Finally, had a USSR not supported by the United States fought the Germans to a standstill, the result might have been the worst of all worlds, with all of Europe unfree and the internal resistance to each totalitarian bloc being drawn toward the ideology of the other totalitarian bloc. A Cold War between the USSR and Nazi Germany would by any measure be worse than the one we had between the USSR and United States.
What of the hope that a draw might have brought anti-totalitarian revolution to Nazi Germany and the USSR? Murphy, Richman, and I all agree that war is bad for liberty and liberalism—but for that very reason, wars fought between totalitarian powers are unlikely to have a liberalizing effect on them. Quite the contrary: wars and crises tend to create conditions that allow totalitarianism to arise in the first place, and war is one environment in which the totalitarian ethos seems to thrive. The idea that the USSR and Nazi Germany, fighting one another, would each have collapsed, giving way to some tolerably liberal government, could only be believed by someone whose ideology insists that he believe it. It’s Lysenkoism applied to history.
Richman has better arguments, but they tend to be tangential to my points. He writes:
McCarthy has a rather liberal notion of liberalism—so liberal that it includes the illiberal corporate state, or what Albert Jay Nock called the “merchant-state,” that is, a powerful political-legal regime aimed first and foremost at fostering an economic system on behalf of masters, to use Adam Smith’s term. (The libertarian Thomas Hodgskin, not Marx, was the first to disparage “capitalists” for their use of the state to gain exploitative privileges.)
What Richman calls a loose, “rather liberal notion of liberalism” is intended to be a broadly accurate description of real-world, actually existing liberalism. A few years ago I commissioned Richman to write an essay on “free-market anti-capitalism,” a term that might sound like a contradiction to people who equate capitalism with free markets. What we have here is a parallel case: just as capitalism in practice is often antithetical to market freedom as understood in theory, so liberalism in practice—a state system involving capitalism, free trade, representative government, legal individualism, religious liberty, etc.—often falls short of the tenets of liberal theory. The problem is, practice comes first.
My essay claims that the security provided by the British Empire and later U.S. hegemony—or American Empire, if we want to be indelicate—has promoted liberal practice, and liberal practice, messy and imperfect though it might be, has promoted liberal theory. The claim here is not deterministic at the individual level: it’s plainly not the case no one can come up with liberal ideas amid an illiberal environment. Rather, a liberal environment is more conducive than an illiberal one to the extension and refinement of liberal thought among a populace.
This is why the largest concentration of classical liberals in 19th-century politics and the greatest volume of classical-liberal literature were to be found in Britain, and it’s why libertarianism today finds the most followers and is most strongly institutionalized—in think tanks, magazines, and a nascent political movement—in the United States. Liberalism is a luxury security affords, and hegemons have the security in the greatest abundance.
Security by itself is not enough, of course: a state that enjoyed tremendous international security, as Japan did for centuries, might or might not spontaneously develop broadly liberal ideas. Given the presence of liberal seeds, however, security seems to encourage their growth—this was true even in the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and in the USSR itself.
The extended Soviet Empire was distinctly illiberal in ideology but enjoyed supreme security: there was never much prospect that NATO would simply invade Eastern Europe. (Just as NATO deterred the Soviets themselves from doing any invading of the West.) What liberal ideas survived Soviet repression or otherwise made their way through black-market channels into Soviet-controlled domains often met with a welcoming audience, and over decades, under conditions of peace, those liberal ideas grew stronger while the totalitarian ideology of the USSR grew weaker, including in Russia itself. Ironically, the Soviet Union’s greatest success—its conquest of Eastern Europe and guarantee of Russia’s security—contributed to its undoing. It created conditions in which liberalism could grow.
(And note, alas, what is happening in Eastern Europe and on Russia’s periphery now that security competition has returned: nationalism and even fascism is gaining ground.)
Anyone as an individual may be able to hold almost any idea at any time. But of the many ideas to which our minds give rise, only a few find substantial political expression. “McCarthy is wrong in thinking that power, that is, force, rules the world,” Richman writes. “There is something stronger: ideas.” In fact, only some ideas rule the world—the ones that succeed in acquiring power.
But power is a protean thing; it doesn’t just mean state power but any kind of hold over human beings. This highlights one of the paradoxes of liberalism: the ideology gains more power in terms of popular appeal at the expense of the states that make it possible. This is a good thing to the extent that liberal attitudes check abusive government. It’s a bad thing to the extent that liberal attitudes deprive states and populations alike of the wherewithal to combat external threats when they do arise. Pacifism, as a cousin or acute manifestation of liberalism, is a case in point. It’s one of the ideological luxuries made possible by security, but if adopted generally there would soon be no security left to leave it a choice for anyone but martyrs.
What’s more, radical liberals may call for complete nonintervention, but most self-identified liberals, including a contingent of libertarians, favor humanitarian warfare and aggressive efforts to “liberalize” countries that are insufficiently liberal and democratic. This is another irony of liberalism: it was fostered by non-ideological empires—Britain obtained hers in a fit of absence of mind; America acquired hers with tremendous reluctance and a troubled conscience. But once non-ideological empire has promoted the growth of liberal ideology, that ideology takes on a more radical, demanding character: a liberal minority adopt the anarcho-pacifist position, calling for dismantling the empire today; while a larger number of liberals call for using the empire to promote liberal ideological ends. Reining in empire thus requires reining in the demands of liberalism—realism as an antidote to ideology.
Murphy and Richman both point to the ways in which war and empire have made the United States less liberal in practice. War’s illiberal effects are indeed a major part of my argument: war is the opposite of security, and conditions of war—i.e., the absence of security—are dreadful for liberty. The question is what minimizes conditions of war and maximizes conditions of security.
That’s not a question that can be answered in the abstract; it’s one that must be answered in the context of particular times. In the case of 19th-century Europe, a balance of power safeguarded by the British Empire as an “offshore balancer” seems to have done the trick. In the case of 20th-century Europe, a 45-year balance between the United States and a contained USSR kept the peace from the fall of Nazi Germany until the collapse of the Soviet Union. One thing I hope my essay will do is prompt libertarians to think more seriously about historical security conditions and what viable “libertarian” options there may have been in the foreign-policy crises of the past. If there were no viable libertarian options, that’s a problem for libertarianism.
It’s a practical problem being confronted by Rand Paul right now. What liberal or libertarian thinkers can he draw upon for practical foreign-policy advice? There are a few, but most radical libertarians are simply not interested in real-world foreign-policy choices. And once libertarians do engage with reality, they start to seem a lot less libertarian.
Richman compares the hazards of foreign policy to those of domestic economic planning. In the case of the economy, the libertarian alternative is the free market; no planning. In the case of foreign policy, is the libertarian alternative also no policy? How can a state in a world of states—all of which, as libertarians know, have a coercive character—have no foreign policy? It’s true that the less power foreign-policy planners have the less trouble they can get up to. This is something on which libertarians and realists who favor restraint can agree. But realists recognize that this tendency for too much power to lead to abuse must be weighed against the dangers of other states’ power. Libertarians seem to see no danger in that direction at all.
Any people that has ever been invaded might find that perverse—indeed, my libertarian friends are often confounded by how their fellow libertarians in Poland or Ukraine can be so hawkish. But the U.S. is in an exceptionally strong geostrategic position. Invasion is highly impractical, if not impossible. My essay, however, notes that world conditions can have a dangerous influence on the U.S. even without foreign boots on our soil. On the one hand, foreign ideologies exert a certain attraction to Americans; and on the other hand, Americans have historically been rather paranoid about foreign ideological influence. Threats both real and imagined attend insecurity, and both kinds lead to illiberal policies.
Luckily, there are at present only a handful of geostrategic positions around the planet that offer secure bases for power projection and ideological dominance. North America is one of them. The second is the European continent. And the third is East Asia, which of the three is by far the least island-like and defensible.
Preventing a hostile power from dominating Europe and keeping a balance in East Asia is “empire” enough. Beyond that, prosperity and industrial strength, along with our nuclear arsenal, are the keys to our security. This is a historically realistic vision, one that solves the great problems of the past—what to do about Nazi Germany or the USSR—and the otherwise insoluble problems of the present, such as what to do about the Middle East: namely, minimize our exposure to crises that we cannot fix and that do not affect the top-tier distribution of power. Today what is most ethical and what is politically and strategically realistic coincide reasonably well: we should not seek to enlarge our commitments; we should preserve our naval power; we should use diplomacy and economics to advance our interests and contain disruptive powers.
This is not a strategy of hard-heartedness toward the oppressed peoples of the world. A secure and prosperous U.S. is in a position to be an ideological counterweight to any illiberal state or insurgency, and it can act when necessary only because it does not act when not necessary. Morale is as limited as men, money, and materiel, and wasting any of these—on a strategic level, we wasted them all in Iraq, as the present crisis demonstrates—is bad for our prosperity, our security, and everyone else’s as well.
Realism and restraint are the watchwords. If libertarians have a stronger strategic argument, I’m eager to hear it.
You don’t win a war unless you win the peace. This ought to be clear enough—the situation in Iraq illustrates it perfectly. The U.S. won the war, both in terms of deposing Saddam Hussein and in withdrawing troops from a country nominally at peace in 2011. But that peace was lost from the start: the U.S. had not created institutions that could keep order and prevent the next war from happening.
It’s an old story, and it applies at home as well as abroad. Last year the antiwar movement thought it had won its own metaphorical war—by preventing Obama from launching a real one against Assad’s Syria—yet the subsequent peace was lost. No institution had arisen that could prevent another round of mass-media sensationalism from taking America to war again. No noninterventionist think tank or peace organization commanded the attention or imagination of policymakers, whose minds remained filled only with possibilities provided by interventionists. Neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists are still almost the only players at the table in Washington, despite their decades of failure.
If peace is to be a reality rather than a dream, its institutions must be built—not in the Middle East but here at home, above all in the precincts where foreign policy is actually made. Policymakers must have more on their menu than the dishes prepared for them by Bill Kristol and Samantha Power.
The American Conservative, in a small but steady way, has been trying to win the peace since 2002, when we were founded to oppose the impending war against Iraq. A decade ago the situation seemed hopeless, even if the fight was as noble as ever. In the 2004 presidential contest, Democrats rebuffed even the mildly antiwar Howard Dean in favor of a hawkish John Kerry, who went down to defeat in November at the hands of the president who had launched the Iraq War.
Movement conservatives closed ranks to silence critics even before the war began. On its eve, National Review published an attack on the most outspoken figures of the antiwar right. And while its author, David Frum, claimed “Unpatriotic Conservatives” was not aimed against all antiwar conservatives, the only one he typically exempted from his charges, Heather Mac Donald, kept her dissent almost entirely to herself. As Alexandra Wolfe noted in the New York Observer on March 10, 2003:
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, is that somewhat rare breed, an anti-war Republican. Among the “pro-war fanatics” she dines with regularly, she said, “you’re confident in your opinion, but why bother when it’s a futile gesture anyway?” So she mostly keeps quiet.
“I have a friend who works at The Wall Street Journal on the editorial side,” said Ms. Mac Donald, “and he’s anti-war and he won’t even mention it, because there the unanimity is so strong.”
Such unanimity prevailed across the conservative movement, and there was a price to pay for breaching it. Donald Devine elicited outrage when he merely failed to stand and applaud for Bush at an American Conservative Union banquet. For actually criticizing the Republican president and his policies, foreign-policy scholar John Hulsman was fired from the Heritage Foundation. And economist Bruce Bartlett happened to lose his job at the National Center for Policy Analysis just as his book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy was about to be published. No wonder the adminisration’s right-leaning critics kept their mouths shut.
Before 2006, The American Conservative stood alone in D.C. as a conservative institution that refused to surrender its principles to the Bush administration and its wars. Traditional conservatives who had minds of their own that they refused to yield up to any party or president came close to being deprived of a presence in the nation’s capital and conversation. But we wouldn’t go away, no matter the financial hardships we faced.
And then a remarkable thing happened: the public lost its patience. It threw the president’s party out of the House Speaker’s chair and the Senate Majority Leader’s office. Conservatives long disgusted not only by Bush’s policies but by the right-wing omerta that protected him began to speak out loudly and forcefully, even if it cost them their standing in the movement.
Ron Paul soon rallied a new antiwar base on the right. His son was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010. And today in the House of Representatives there is a liberty caucus with realist and noninterventionist leanings—Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, Mark Sanford, the stalwart Walter Jones. They reinforce Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee, the last of the Republicans who voted against the Iraq War over a decade ago.
What once looked like token resistance from a small institution like TAC helped keep alive a debate and a point of view that otherwise lacked expression. And once the political climate changed, that point of view became a force that could rapidly grow and gain further institutional footholds.
Consider the careers of some of the young people drawn to work at The American Conservative who have gone on to bring something of its sensibility to other outlets. Michael Brendan Dougherty is now at The Week. Jordan Bloom and James Antle are at the Daily Caller and Daily Caller News Foundation. An ocean away, former TAC literary editor Freddy Gray is managing editor of The Spectator in London. Former interns John Glaser and Matthew Feeney are at Cato. Lewis McCrary, now a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow of the Fund for American Studies, was before that managing editor of The National Interest.
The American Conservative has been happy to be an institutional force multiplier—a farm team for a new generation of conservative talent, and during the dark days of the last war fever both a shelter and a megaphone for traditional conservatives unwelcome in the pages of movement magazines and websites. What’s more, The American Conservative will be here even when a future Republican president demands “unanimity” for his wars and other follies. Keeping TAC alive and growing is vital institution-building work, and not just for TAC itself.
To build peace, you have to build institutions. Those institutions will have to be complex, durable, far-sighted, flexible—not ideological, brittle, and simplistic. They will have to confront the realities on the ground, hard political, economic, and strategic realities.
Based on the evidence of more than a decade, this is beyond the abilities of the United States in the Islamic world. So we might try building institutions of peace and civil balance here at home. Institutions that favor restraint. Institutions that encourage conservatism in its most basic sense, a defense of what we have and are in danger of losing: self-government, a strong middle class, national security not existentially jeopardized by even the bloodiest terrorists, and liberties hard won over many generations.
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Barack Obama has adopted Bill Clinton’s policy toward Iraq: bomb it until it gets better. Clinton—and before him, George H.W. Bush—bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to safeguard the Kurdish north, degrade Saddam’s military capabilities, and perhaps weaken his regime to the point of collapse. Twenty years later, Obama is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, while protecting the Kurdish north and what remains of the Iraqi state until recently ruled by Nouri al-Maliki.
We are well into the third decade of U.S. military operations against Iraq—dating back to 1991—but a free, stable, non-sectarian state has yet to emerge. Maybe a few more bombing sorties will do the trick.
George W. Bush got one thing right: he recognized that what his father and Bill Clinton had been doing in Iraq wasn’t working. Rather than continue indefinitely with airstrikes and sanctions that would never tame or remove Saddam, Bush II simply invaded the country and set up a new government. In the abstract, that was a solution: the problem was the regime, so change it. But change it into what?
Iraq is a patchwork of tribes and blocs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. A dictator like Saddam could keep order, but since the end of the Cold War America has found dictators distasteful, so Iraq would have to be democratic—which means, no matter how intricate the electoral system might be, one faction would dominate the others. So Iraq plunged into years of sectarian violence, and when it was over, the Shi’ite Maliki was in charge. Sunnis were never entirely happy about this, and they only became less so over time. Once ISIS surged across the border from neighboring Syria—experiencing its own (almost) post-dictatorial disintegration—many Sunnis welcomed them, and the bloodshed resumed.
Obama doesn’t want to answer the question that Bush I and Bill Clinton also avoided: namely, what kind of government could Iraq possibly have after Saddam that would satisfy the United States? Bush II had an answer, and it proved to be the wrong one. Obama knows it’s a trick question. There is no realistic outcome in Iraq that will not involve violence and repression. Either the country must have another dictator (unacceptable), or it must be dominated by one sect or the other (in which case it risks becoming the Islamic State or another Iran—also unacceptable), or else we have to pretend that it’s about to turn into an Arab Switzerland (entirely acceptable, and also impossible).
ISIS is an exceptionally violent revolutionary group, but it’s only a symptom of the more fundamental disease: the lack of a government strong enough to keep order but not so sectarian or tyrannical in temper as to persecute anyone. If Obama is successful against ISIS—as George W. Bush was successful against Saddam—how long before a new evil congeals? ISIS itself is a successor to another terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, that was beaten once before in Iraq. The rise of yet another terrorist or tyrannical force is a virtual given, a fact established by more than one cycle of history: as surely as AQIM followed Saddam and ISIS followed AQIM, something else awaits to follow ISIS.
Unable to break this cycle, Obama resorts to bombing because our pundits demand that he “do something.” Leaving Iraq to its own devices, to suffer, burn, and ultimately rebuild, is too cruel, and ISIS with its spectacular propaganda videos makes a great cable news bite and social-media campaign. It’s evil, it’s scary, it’s on YouTube, so what are we going to do about it? Obama would be weak and callous if he did nothing. That he can’t actually do much that matters in the long run is unimportant—our humanitarian urges and Islamophobic fears will be satisfied as long as we get some kind of action right now. So we bomb.
There’s no political risk in bombing, as there is in putting “boots on the ground.” There won’t be too many body bags shipped home to Dover AFB to trouble voters. What’s more, bombing can be of any intensity political conditions demand: if John McCain is howling louder than usual on “Meet the Press,” just drop a few more bombs. That shows you’re a real leader.
This may sound grotesque—not the reality of what Obama is doing and the politics that lead him to do it, but to my saying it out loud, when there are real human beings in Syria and Iraq for whom none of this is abstract. ISIS is a deadlier threat to their lives than American bombing is, and real men and women can make choices about violence and politics that anyone’s fulfill anyone’s grim projections. There may be no ideal “moderate resistance” to Assad or ISIS itself, but there many degrees of better and worse, and they are matters of life and death to the people of the region.
All of which is true, and opponents of our 23-year policy toward Iraq, such as myself, should not be complacent about far-away people’s lives. If this is something that war critics must keep in mind, however, supporters must be equally serious about political realities—not immutable realities, but probabilities so strong as to require that our hopes and ambitions take account of them. Peace and tolerance depend on order, and under these circumstances order depends on a strong state. It would be foolish for Obama or anyone else to name in advance what kind of state, under whose control, will emerge victorious, but whenever the Iraqis and Syrians themselves give rise to a leader or faction capable of maintaining order, America must be prepared to accept the result and demand only the most basic concessions to our own values and security.
During the Cold War, it was often enough that a state or faction be anti-Communist for it receive American approbation. Dictators and sectarians as well as democrats passed the test, sometimes to our regret. After 1989, with our own security unassailable, we raised our expectations of others: we could afford to moralize and cajole. This proved to be disastrous in many cases, as botched attempts at democratization and economic liberalization urged on by the U.S. led to unstable regimes and countervailing extremism. If the U.S. no longer wishes to apply as crude a test for regime acceptability as it did during the Cold War, it must nonetheless devise criteria more realistic than those that prevailed over the past 20 years.
Obama’s bombs and other measures may or may not lead to regime change in the territory now controlled by ISIS. He can’t control that, and he cannot even do much, given the way our media and politics work. But what he can do is begin the long process of clarifying America’s understanding of how much like or unlike us we really expect other regimes to be. If U.S. can arrive at non-utopian answer to that question, we can perhaps again have a strategy that matches means to ends—rather than one that falls back on air power as the ever-present means to impossible ends.