In Spring 2002, as the war in Afghanistan was entering what appeared to be its mopping-up phase, the political theorist Michael Walzer asked, “Can there be a decent Left?” The question, of course, was rhetorical. Although Walzer hoped that there could be a decent Left, he suggested that existing Left was indecent because of its opposition to preventive war in Central Asia. In order to recover its decency, Walzer argued, the Left would need to reconcile itself to a signature policy of the Right: the application of American military power not only to the Taliban, but also to an array of targets including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
How different things look now. After a decade of futile war, the question is not whether the Left should overcome its resistance to a militarized foreign policy and the national-security state that is inseparable from it. On the contrary, many of the criticisms that Walzer dismissed as indecent look awfully prescient. Instead, the question is whether resources for challenging them survive on the Right. Can there be a decent Right?
The wisdom and justice of particular alliances or operations is not the issue. Rather, it is the ideology of “American exceptionalism” according to which all that the United States does is good, and all the good that is done has its source in the United States. From the French Revolution through the Cold War, conservatives resisted the delusion that any nation, class, or individual is the unique representative and judge of the human race. That is the principle on which a decent Right depends.
But can there be a decent Right in the 21 Century? Do we have anything to learn from the classical conservatism that waged a long, losing struggle against egalitarianism, capitalism, and secularism? Is the Right only about reaction? Or is there a modern, perhaps a postpostmodern conservatism, suitable to this democratic age?
Those are the questions I’ll try to think through on State of the Union. I am grateful to The American Conservative for giving me the opportunity to do so in collaboration with such an impressive roster of bloggers. To paraphrase Walzer’s challenge to his comrades: the Right has an old and honorable history, and has gotten some (not all) important things right. But the failures of the last decade–on foreign policy, on the economy, on the fruitless culture war — suggest that it’s time to begin again.
Let’s start today.